FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons (4-4) return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium after a three-game road trip for a big NFC clash with the Dallas Cowboys.
With five divisional games left on their schedule, the Falcons remain very much in the hunt to repeat as NFC South champions. However, the next two games against the Cowboys (5-3) and the Seahawks (5-3) could prove important for potential playoff seeding.
Let's dive into this week's key matchup.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' run defense vs. Cowboys' run game
This one should be fairly obvious. Dallas possesses one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, ranking second in rushing yards per game and first in rushing yards per play with 148.1 and 4.82 yards, respectively.
Atlanta, meanwhile, is 12th and 25th in those same categories, allowing 101.3 rushing yards per game and 4.4 rushing yards per play.
The Falcons have worked to improve their gap discipline and clean up the missed tackles that plagued them earlier in the season. While they put together a strong effort against the Jets, allowing only 43 yards on the ground, the Panthers gained 201 rushing yards in last week's loss.
In their losses, the Falcons have struggled with time of possession, watching their opponents bleed the clock with long, extended drives. The Cowboys are ninth in the NFL in time of possession, averaging 30 minutes and 46 seconds with the ball per game. Getting Dallas' offense off the field begins with containing the run game and making plays on third down.
"Make sure you're owning your gap, whether you're a defensive lineman, a safety [or] a linebacker," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "In so many of our eight-man fronts, one man is responsible this gap and make sure you don't over-try, and 'OK the play may have started one direction, I'm going to see if I can jump out and make [a play] and then it cuts back to go into that gap.' So, having that accountability to do right longer and stay where you're supposed to be."
Five more things to know about Falcons-Cowboys 1. Ezekiel Elliott's suspension reinstated
On Thursday afternoon, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied running back Ezekiel Elliott's motion for an injunction in regard to his six-game suspension by the NFL. The denial means Elliott's suspension is immediately reinstated, and he is very likely to miss Sunday's game. There are a few options that Elliott can pursue to hold off the suspension, but there isn't a good chance he will gain traction in those avenues. For more on this situation, click here. 2. Falcons remain an elite offense on a per-play basis
Quinn has been hammering home the point that his team needs to find a way to generate more plays on offense. Whether that is through turnovers on defense, better play on third downs both offensively and defensively or a combination of the two, Quinn wants his offense to have more opportunities with the ball.
There's a good reason why Quinn wants to get more plays on offense, and it's because the Falcons remain an elite offensive unit on a per-play basis. Atlanta is second in yards per play (6.17), fourth in rushing yards per play (4.63) and fourth in passing yards per play (7.25). The numbers indicate that this offense can move the ball, but lapses in execution at critical times have lessened the impact of that movement. More possessions will give the Falcons a greater chance to capitalize. 3. The Cowboys have found a pass rush
For years, the Cowboys have been looking to increase the pressure they generate on the quarterback, and after taking a small step forward in that area last season, they've emerged as one of the top pass-rushing defenses in the league.
Dallas is currently third behind Jacksonville and Carolina with 27 sacks. The Cowboys have recorded a sack in every game this season, including 15 over the last four games. Demarcus Lawrence, now in his fourth year in the league, leads the team and is second in the NFL with 10.5 sacks this season. 4. Year-2 defenders standing out for Atlanta
After earning extensive playing time as rookies, Brian Poole, Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Keanu Neal have continued to establish themselves in 2017. The four defenders currently lead the Falcons in tackles, with Jones' 71 combined stops setting the pace, and they've become impact players in their second seasons.
Here is a breakdown of their stats this season:
- Deion Jones: 71 tackles, 4 passes defended, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interception
- Keanu Neal: 59 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 passes defended, 1 fumble recovery, 1 tackle for loss
- De'Vondre Campbell: 46 tackles, 4 passes defended, 2 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble
- Brian Poole: 39 tackles, 4 passes defended, 3 quarterback hits, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack 5. Cowboys ahead in all-time series, but Falcons better in recent games
Sunday will mark the 27th time the Falcons and Cowboys have played each other, with Dallas holding a 16-10 all-time record against Atlanta. Although the Cowboys have the better head-to-head record, the Falcons have been the better team in the new millennium. Since 2001, Atlanta is 4-2 against Dallas. The games have been fairly tight, however, with the average margin of victory being about 10 points. The Falcons have won the last two matchups between these two teams, including their 39-28 comeback victory in 2015.