1. Houston has one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL. What's the key to slowing it down?
Andrew Hirsh: I think creativity is important here—especially with Jacob Tamme going through the concussion protocol. J.J. Watt might be the best defender in league history; stopping him, Jadeveon Clowney and Vince Wilfork (among others) will likely require some tweaks to Kyle Shanahan's scheme. Last week we saw Patrick DiMarco line up in the tight end spot. Given how good he's been at blocking, doing the same against Houston may be effective. Shanahan likes to use multiple tight ends in unique ways, and with the addition of Mickey Shuler, he can put together some imaginative protection calls for that position. Jay Adams:Using the Falcons' speed can neutralize what Houston offers up front defensively. I could see the Falcons relying on quick outside runs and quick passes to try to take the defensive line out of the game completely. I'm sure the Falcons will run up the middle at times, but with Vince Wilfork clogging up the middle, it could be tough sledding.
Kelsey Conway: In order to stop J.J. Watt and Co., continuing with the balanced attack will be vital to success. Balance between the run and pass game will keep the Texans' defensive front from being able to get in a rhythm and create momentum. Efficiency on third down will be key in this game. Houston's previous opponents have converted just 21.05 percent of their third down conversions, the second-best in the NFL. Atlanta's offense ranks second in the NFL in third down conversion, at 53.33 percent.
2. How does Atlanta's defense get off to a fast start against Ryan Mallett, DeAndre Hopkins and Arian Foster (if healthy)?
AH:It begins and ends with tackling. The Falcons did a great job improving on that front as the Cowboys game wore on, and if they can cut down on their misses in the first half, it'll go a long way towards frustrating Mallet and his skill position players.
JA: Mallett is a big quarterback with a strong arm and, judging from Hard Knocks, he's hungry. If the Falcons get after him early, it could get him rattled. For me, the bigger concern is Alfred Blue. The running back had a big game with almost 150 yards on the ground last week, so he's clearly feeling comfortable and steady in the offense.
KC: Sunday marks Mallett's fifth career start and if the Falcons can get to the quarterback early, he could be rattled. Mallett seems to be progressing as his snaps increase, so it will be key to get to him early, and get the Texans offense off the field. DeAndre Hopkins stats in his last five games against NFC teams: 31 catches for 448 yards and two touchdowns. If the Falcons' secondary can limit his production, it could make things even more challenging for Mallett.
3. Ricardo Allen, Devonta Freeman and Tamme have already enjoyed breakout performances this year. Who do you think can do the same this week?
AH: I could see Robert Alford answering the call this week. He's getting a ton of throws his way because quarterbacks are flat-out scared to test Desmond Trufant, so by default, Alford is getting targeted. He's a good, young cornerback who's taken some lumps in the past and learned on the job. I think he's starting to put it together and could make a big play or two Sunday.
JA: I think Jonathan Babineaux is due for a big game. He's a great fit in Quinn's 4-3 defense and, even though he hasn't registered a sack yet, has eaten up a lot of space against the rush. Houston has a solid running game even without Foster, and this Sunday will be a great opportunity for Babineaux to slow down another talented ground attack.
KC: I think O'Brien Schofield will get his first sack of the season and fans will get to see the "Dirty Bird" dance. Atlanta's ability to disrupt Mallett and create turnovers will play a huge role in the outcome of this game. Schofield has played well so far this season, and I think this game he we will shine.