When Atlanta head coach Mike Smith talks about the Detroit Lions defense he begins with the play of the front four, the defensive linemen up front. He speaks of admiration for not only how talented the starters are but how deep the rotation goes.
From last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh to the veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions are built to compete with the four players they man up front. Much of the team's defensive success this season has occured because the other seven players on the defense can defend the field.
The front four can rush the passer on their own and blitzes are rarely needed to provide the pressure their defensive scheme demands. In Smith's words, what the Lions can do up front makes them one of the best in the league at what they do.
"Their front four is one of the best in the league, if not the best; not only their starting four defensive lineman but their backups," Smith said. "I think that they have done a really good job with the rotation and I don't see a whole lot of drop-off between their backups and their starters.
"(Ndamukong) Suh is a very explosive player that can play both the run and the pass. He's penetrating. He can knock the line of scrimmage back and he's fast enough to run around a block and make a play. He's definitely a game-wrecker. You don't want to let him get going. (Kyle) Vanden Bosch, the defensive end, is one of the hardest playing guys in the League. You're going to get a full-day's work from that guy every time he goes out and plays. I really enjoy watching him play on tape because he has one of the best motors in the league."
One of the keys for Atlanta in facing this defense is they've seen something similar this season. The Lions deploy a "wide-nine technique" scheme with their defensive line, allowing the defensive ends to spread out wide of the tackles. This allows better angles for speed rushes off the edge, but can make the Lions succeptible to the run.
The large gaps along the line need to be read and filled by the defensive tackles and linebackers and at times the Lions have failed to do so. Against the 49ers last week, they allowed over 200 yards on the ground.
Week 2's opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles run a very similar scheme and the Falcons were able to exploit their running game to the tune of 138 yards, 114 from Devonta Freeman.
Exposure to the existing scheme is nothing less than helpful for the Falcons.
"There are some similarities for sure," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "There are some similarities between what Philly does with their wide-nine technique and what Detroit is doing, so I think that certainly helps. We know some of the things that we do well against it, so I think it's a benefit for us."
In Turner's film study he's seen a better run defense than what they've been given credit for, yet he also sees they are prone to giving up big gains. The big gains is what he's got his eye on and he believes if Atlanta can get the running game consistently on Sunday, they'll have a good chance if they can stay patient.
"They'll stop you for one yard or get a negative gain and then all of a sudden a big play will happen," Turner said. "I know on that side they're trying to play more consistent football. We've got to make sure we hit the plays when they're presented to us."
What the wide-9 technique does generate is turnovers, something the Lions excel at. The pressure the front four generate allows the secondary to make plays, despite their perceived average talent. What the Falcons know they'll have to do is follow a gameplan not unlike last week's against Carolina: run the ball physically and wait for things to open up, not unlike what they did against the Eagles as well.
"We did a really good job against Philly running the ball," wide receiver Julio Jones said. "We've got to go out there and kind of do the same thing, get our backs in the secondary. Just make those guys go to work. We've got to make some plays down the field with play action passes. Get some explsovive plays and set ourselves up to score touchdowns in the redzone."
The gameplan appears to be a familiar one: beat the opponent with the run game before finishing them with the pass.
Familiar Face:Roddy White can expect some double-teams on Sunday, but one of his defenders may at times be someone he's highly familiar with.
Former Falcons cornerback Chris Houston is a starter in Detroit these days and a pretty good one.
Drafted in the second round in 2007, Houston spent three seasons with the Falcons, starting 37 games. In 2010 he was traded to the Lions as they sought to upgrade their secondary with veteran experience. In a more man-coverage system, Houston has played well, snagging three interceptions this season, one of which he returned 56 yards for a touchdown.
White became good friends with Houston during his time in Atlanta and the two stay in touch. He spent three seasons battling the corner every day in practice and a mutual respect grew from there. They're so close that they vacation together in the offseason, but things will be different when they line up against each other for the first time in a real game on Sunday.
"No vacation," White said. "We'll be friends in the offseason, but on Sunday it'll be totally different."
The Lions are tied for fourth in the league this year with eight interceptions. Their entire secondary has the respect of Atlanta's talented wide receivers.
"We're looking forward to going up against their secondary," White said. "They've been doing a good job, especially getting interceptions. We've got to go out there and be physical with those guys. They play a lot of man coverage, a lot of one-on-one opportunities. We've got to go out there and beat those guys one on one and just catch the ball. Get the ball out as quick as we can and get it in the play makers hands and then go to work."
Defining Harry:Few players on the Falcons squad are liked as much as Matt Ryan.
With the knee injury of his sophomore season well behind him now Douglas was expected to be a difference maker out of the slot this season for the Falcons. His numbers haven't reflected what he expected for sure, but Douglas' effort has been there every Sunday.
With rookie wideout Julio Jones out last week, Douglas stepped into the starting role as the No. 2 receiver to No.1 Roddy White. Without Jones in the lineup to take the pressure off White, Douglas would be expected to step up. He finished Sunday as the Falcons leading receiver, catching two passes for 57 yards.
"Harry did a good job of stepping in and making plays, big third-down conversions," White said. "Harry's doing a good job. He's just got to continue to do what he does and get open. We missed him a couple of times on plays we should have hit him on. We'll get better with those situations and improve from there."
The big third-down conversion White speaks of is a key third-and-12 situation where Douglas truly made a difference. In the fourth quarter with the Falcons driving for the go-ahead score, Douglas turned a third-down pass into a 34-yard gain. Four plays later the Falcons were in the endzone.
The third-down conversion was one of the key plays in the game, according to Matt Ryan.
"Harry made some big plays for us last week, specifically that third and 12," Ryan said. "That was a great route and great catch by him and one of the differences in that football game. I was really happy for him. He stepped up and played really well for us last week. I think he's capable of doing that every week. Harry's a talented guy and gets some good matchups and I think he's been doing a great job for us and I think he'll do a great job this week."
The maturation of Douglas comes at a vital time with the health of Jones in question and as teams roll double coverage to White's sound to wash him out of games. The young receiver's ability to step in and make plays when necessary for the offense is a key ingredient to Atlanta's passing game more dangerous.
"There's going to be times throughout the grind of the NFL season that there's going to be guys down and you need some of those other guys to come in and step up," Ryan said. "Harry, he's been that guy around here for a while. He's come in and quietly done a great job for us so it was big of him to step up last week."
Injury Report:There was little difference on Thursday's injury report for Atlanta. Sam Baker, Julio Jones, and Chris Owens did not participate for the second straight day.
Vic Beasley Jr., Todd McClure, James Sanders and Garrett Reynolds were limited participants and Tony Gonzalez, Jonathan Babineaux and Roddy White fully participated.
Of note from Detroit's injury report is the second-straight did not practice listings from running back Jahvid Best, wide receiver Rashied Davis and running back Jerome Harrison.