FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After a one-week hiatus, the Falcons are back in action. In the midst of a four-game stretch against the AFC East, Atlanta will face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff.
The Falcons (3-1) have taken on some good defenses so far this season, and the Dolphins (2-2) certainly belong in that category. Miami is No. 4 in scoring defense and No. 8 in total defense, boasting one of the best units against the run.
Let's dive into this week's key matchup, which will take place down in the trenches.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' offensive line vs. Dolphins' front seven
We dug way deep into what makes Miami's run defense so stout in this week's After Further Review, but we'll touch on the main points here.
The Dolphins play very sound, fundamental football in their front seven. The defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, is exceptional in making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage and has a combined 11 tackles for a loss through four games.
Behind the defensive line, the Dolphins added a pair of veteran linebackers this offseason in Rey Maualuga and Lawrence Timmons. The big-name player in the linebacker corps, however, is Kiko Alonso, who leads the team with 28 tackles. Miami's linebackers are aggressive, downhill players who a good at reacting as the play develops.
"When you have linebackers that get downhill and fill gaps quickly, you have a much harder time double-teaming linemen," Falcons center Alex Mack said. "You can't be on the D-line as long and can't really commit to establishing those blocks. You've got to keep an eye on the linebackers, you've got to get off (the initial block) and get on those linebackers, because you can't just let the linebackers go free. And then you're leaving the D-line one-on-one."
Atlanta averages 4.7 yards per carry, which is the fourth-best mark in the NFL. The offensive line will also get a boost with the return of right tackle Ryan Schraeder to the starting five. Mack is really the key figure of this group, however, and is rated the No. 1 center in the league by Pro Football Focus with a grade of 93.9. PFF also notes that the Falcons have run 54 outside zone plays this year, averaging 1.98 yards before contact, tied for the sixth-most in the league.
Winning on the line of scrimmage and making good blocks when climbing to the second level will go a long way in neutralizing one of the few true strengths of this Dolphins team.
Five more things to know about Falcons-Dolphins 1. Miami's offense has struggled out of the gate
While the Dolphins' defense has impressed to this point in the season, the opposite is true of the offense. Quarterback Jay Cutler, who was brought out of retirement after Ryan Tannehill suffered an injury in the preseason, hasn't looked comfortable in the pocket and has drawn a lot of criticism from the fan base in recent weeks.
Miami's offense is dead last in the following seven offensive categories:
- Yards per game (231.3)
- Yards per play (3.90)
- Passing yards per game (156.5)
- Passing yards per play (4.35)
- First downs per game (15)
- Third down percentage (25%)
- Points per game (10.3) 2. The status of several key Falcons players remains up in the air
Atlanta is in better shape injury-wise than it was entering the bye week with Ricardo Allen and Ryan Schraeder returning to the starting lineup after progressing through the league's concussion protocol. There are still a few main contributors whose status could be unknown right up until kickoff, however.
Julio Jones and Vic Beasley have been limited in practice this week, while Mohamed Sanu, Matt Bryant and Courtney Upshaw did not participate on Wednesday or Thursday. The Falcons would certainly like to get those guys back in the fold, but will remain prepared for any situation.
"I just think you're very specific in stuff that you know you'd like to have them in on, if they're playing in the game," Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said of preparing for a game while the status of players is unknown. "And then you've got to make sure you have the majority of your call sheet as something that no matter who's in the game, we can go out and operate and execute." 3. Reshad Jones is a player to watch for Miami
While Suh might have the most name recognition among the Dolphins' defenders, strong safety Reshad Jones has been one of the best players at his position for several years. He is second on the team with 26 tackles and has a pair of fumble recoveries.
Pro Football Focus rates him as the No. 1 safety against the run and Sarkisian referred to him as a "complete player."
"I think he's a complete player," Sarkisian said. "And that's probably the best compliment I can give him, because he can do a lot of things. He can play man-to-man coverage, which he does a lot of on wide receivers. He can blitz the quarterback, which they do a lot with him. He fills the run really well, and he can play deep safety. So, he's a very versatile guy, he's complete at what he does."
And then the last piece to his game, in my opinion, is he's got a really high football IQ. He's aware of the things that are going on around him; he's aware of schemes as they start to develop. He's a heck of a player, he's definitely the leader in their back end." 4. Freeman and Coleman have been critical so far
If the Falcons enter Sunday's game without their top two receivers, they should feel comfortable in relying on Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Atlanta's versatile running back duo is among the very best in the league, and they've been a major part of the offense this season.
The Falcons have had one running back gain over 100 total yards in each of their past three games. Freeman gained 100 yards against the Packers and 138 yards against the Lions, while Coleman gained 142 yards against the Bills. All told, Freeman and Coleman have combined for 689 yards and six touchdowns. 5. Rare trip to Atlanta for the DolphinsSunday will mark just the third game in Atlanta for the Dolphins since 1980. The Falcons beat Miami at home in both 1998 and 2009, winning 38-16 and 19-7 in those games, respectively. Despite the recent success at home for the Falcons, Miami is 8-4 all-time against Atlanta.