FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons (4-4) will carry their three-game win streak into Cleveland for a matchup with the Browns (2-6-1) this weekend.
Despite the turmoil that has surrounded the Browns franchise in recent weeks, Cleveland is a talented football team that has played in many close games this season. The Falcons are trending upwards at the midway point of the season, and their one-game-at-a-time approach seems to be paying off, but they will be tested this weekend.
Here are the three key matchups that could shape how this game unfolds:
1. Turnover margin
Without a doubt, Cleveland's ability to force takeaways has been among the biggest talking points for Falcons coach Dan Quinn this week. And for good reason. The Browns currently lead the NFL with 23 takeaways and they've played only nine games, meaning they average over two forced turnovers per game. The Falcons, meanwhile, have taken care of the ball better than any team in the NFL thus far, turning it over just five times.
On the flip side, the Browns have a propensity to turn the ball over on offense. They have 11 turnovers on offense this season and have turned the ball over at least once in all but one game. One area Quinn wants his team to improve is in its ability to create turnovers. Currently, the Falcons have forced just eight takeaways, which is among the fewest in the league. Whichever team is able to protect the ball on Sunday should be in a good shape.
"What really jumps out about this team is the turnover margin," Quinn said. "So for them to be at that spot and have it that high and create the amount of takeaways that they have, that certainly has presented the biggest challenge for the ball so far this year in '18. That's where we train one another. Our offense has been excellent at it in terms of taking care of it, so it will be the battle for the ball. Their defense and [our] offense, and it's up to our defense and cover group to get a couple to get us into the plus. I think that'll be a real factor in this game."
2. Falcons' run defense vs. Nick Chubb
For all of the excitement rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield has garnered in his first season with the Browns, it's another rookie, running back Nick Chubb, who makes this offense go. Chubb is averaging 4 yards per carry since he became the Browns' starting running back in Week 7, and he's averaging close to 80 yards per game on the ground during that stretch.
"When you see him play, the physicality and what you would see watching him here is the yards he would get after contact," Quinn said. "The 3-yard run that ended as an 8-yard run. He was able to make that transition into the NFL and still apply the same kind of physicality. What he has, although he is a big back, when he gets on the edge he can get a burst to get the long one so he's not just a big back. He'll hit a hole but if there's a chance for him to pop it on the outside he does have the speed to go."
Chubb isn't the only running back who has been effective for the Browns, though, they also have Duke Johnson, who is an effective receiver out of the backfield. Johnson is currently third on the team in receptions with 29, and he is coming off a game against Kansas City in which he caught nine passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons were stout against the run in Washington, holding the Redskins to just 79 yards on the ground. Atlanta's run defense has been trending upwards recently and continuing that trend will go a long way on Sunday.
3. Falcons' pass protection vs. Browns' pass rush
Matt Ryan has been lights out this season, but he's been particularly sensational when he has a clean pocket and time to make downfield throws. Per Pro Football Focus, Ryan has 15 touchdowns, one interception and a 125.7 passer rating from a clean pocket this season.
The Browns have one of the league's best young pass rushers in Myles Garrett, who tied for third among all NFL players with nine sacks this season. Garrett is easily the best player along Cleveland's defensive line, but defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi also has four sacks and Gregg Williams' defenses are not afraid to bring a heavy blitz.
"You've heard me say this about pass rushers before, it's his ability to get off," Quinn said of Garrett. "So although he's a bigger guy, he has the speed of a smaller man. He can always long and got size, he can run like he's a Vic (Beasley) size or a Takk (McKinley) size where that kind of speed is there. His best attribute to me is his ability to create that speed into power due to his size. So the speed to get off the edge as a lighter guy and the power to finish the rush. When you put those two things together, that's hard to deal with."