Todd McClure said when sitting down to study a new opponent, as a lineman, the first thing he looks at is how many sacks an opponent has.
In his head when he heard about this Sunday's opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, he might have inflated the actual number because of the presence of DeMarcus Ware at outside linebacker, a terrifyingly dangerous pass rusher. Ware has 33 sacks in the last 26 games and since 2006 his 99 sacks is the most in the NFL. In his past five games, the linebacker has 5.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. On the season he has 7.5 sacks.
Those are impressive numbers, but as a unit, the Dallas defense has 13 sacks on the season, tied for 21st in the league. Stopping Ware is job No. 1 for McClure and his fellow linemen, specifically tackles Tyson Clabo and Sam Baker. If they can accomplish that, quarterback Matt Ryan will have the time he needs to be effective and against the third-best pass defense in the NFL, he's going need to need that time.
"You always want to keep your guy clean because we know the weapons we have," McClure said. "If we can keep him clean, keep him upright in the pocket and let him distribute the ball, there are not many teams we can't play. That's always a big goal of ours."
The Falcons O-line has given up a league-average 15 sacks this season, but has played well when it's mattered most and against the Eagles, a team with more than a few "name" pass rushers, they appear to have gotten things on track, after a few weeks of shaky play.
They gave up two sacks to the Eagles, but one of them was a play when Ryan had no options and fell into the sack to end the play with no additional loss. Beyond that, Ryan wasn't bothered much at all in last Sunday's win. He was hurried in eight of his 34 dropbacks and while he suffered the two sacks, he was no hit at all otherwise. That's called keeping your quarterback clean and that means a good day for the Falcons offensive line and ultimately the Falcons.
Atlanta will use a variety of techniques to slow Ware, but if they can, it's possible Ryan will have the time to find the exploited matchup on the field with all of his weapons in play. The Cowboys feature two above-average corners on the outside, but their linebacker play has been inconsistent and they've lost their key inside linebacker for the season.