The Atlanta Falcons kick off their extensive road trip, including four-straight games away from the Georgia Dome, beginning Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. The two teams have met four times, splitting the all-time series. Falcons head coach Mike Smith spent four seasons on the Ravens coaching staff, serving as defensive assistant/defensive line coach from 1999-01 and linebackers coach in 2002. He owns a 1-0 record against his former club as the Falcons topped the Ravens in their last meeting, 26-21, at the Georgia Dome in 2010.
Top Matchup: Falcons OL vs Ravens D
All week, the Falcons have praised the tough Ravens team, including its hard-nosed defense, headlined by DT Haioti Ngata, OLB Terrell Suggs and OLB Elvis Dumervil, who has five sacks in 2014. One week after allowing Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to be sacked four times by the Chicago Bears, the guys up front took it personally and plan to help give their signal-caller time to make sound decisions, while also ideally opening pathways for the Falcons running back committee.
Under the Radar Player to Watch: Falcons WR Devin Hester
Hester was kept off the radar for the most part in Week 6, logging special teams returns and one reception for 23 yards against his former Bears team. The Falcons all-world returner and wide receiver was back at practice this week, focused on maximizing any opportunities that come his way against the Ravens. With his team needing a boost, there's no better guy than Hester to provide it, in the return game, on offense or both.
On the Radar Player to Watch: Falcons QB Matt Ryan
The quarterbacks in Sunday's game, Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, entered the NFL as part of the same 2008 NFL Draft Class, each experiencing phenomenal success, since their rookie campaigns. Ryan is looking to lead his team to its first road win of the year, facing Flacco and the Ravens for the second time in his career. In 2010, "Matty Ice" completed 32-of-50 throws (64-percent) for 316 yards and three touchdowns, topping the Ravens, 26-21. A similar performance by Ryan on Sunday will give his team its best chance to seize the road win.
**Number of the Game: 9
The Falcons lead the league with nine touchdowns of 20-or-more yards in 2014. Ryan leads the NFL with six touchdown passes of 20-plus yards and Atlanta's 28 total big-gain passes are tied for tops in the league. If such jaw-dropping plays by the Falcons continue on Sunday, they could very well leave Baltimore with a win.
*Three Keys to Victory: *
1. Containing the Smiths: Last week, the Falcons defense allowed eight explosive plays in the Week 7 loss to the Chicago Bears. Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan addressed the plays with his defense, emphasizing a need for better communication. If the Falcons can limit the amount of explosive plays against a Ravens team that is fueled by playmaking wide receivers, including Steve and Torrey Smith (seven combined touchdowns in 2014), they may be more likely to enjoy a victorious plane ride to London.
2. The Use of Antone Smith: The big-play ability of Falcons RB Antone Smith will be a huge aid to the Falcons in Week 7. Smith leads the NFL with 255 yards on his five touchdowns this season. More important than Smith's stats is his team-first attitude that will fuel efforts in achieving the win on Sunday. "It's the will to win," Smith said. "I want to win. Whatever I can to do to help this team win, that's what I try to do."
3. Get Ahead of the Chains: Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has said all year that for his guys to play the way they like, up-tempo, they have to win on first and second downs, limiting third-and-long situations. The more opportunities the team's offense has, without being handcuffed to long-conversion attempts, the more creative ways Ryan can get the ball to his playmakers, including wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Hester.