ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons’ defense has one primary goal entering Sunday’s game against Dallas: Slow down Ezekiel Elliott and make Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott try to beat them with his arm.
The Falcons will need all their resources to corral Elliott, who leads the NFL with 93 runs of 10 or more yards over the last three years.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn says his defense, which gave up 211 yards rushing in last week’s loss at Cleveland, must maintain gap control against a patient, powerful running back.
“He can wait to set up a block and stick his foot in the ground and really explode,” Quinn said. “Oftentimes, you can see him take a handoff and see a read about to happen, then he can change the direction and really explode. I would say the second piece of that is he’s really effective as a pass catcher, too.”
Atlanta’s struggling defense should get a boost from the return of middle linebacker Deion Jones, who hasn’t played since breaking his right foot in the season opener. When healthy, Jones is the Falcons’ best defender. He calls the plays, is stout against the run and is fast enough to cover running backs and receivers in coverage.
Jones’ injury and season-ending surgeries for starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen have been too much for the Falcons to overcome. They rank third-worst in average yards allowed and fourth-worst in scoring average.
Elliott is coming off a dazzling performance — 19 runs and six catches for 187 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns — in a win at Philadelphia. But the Cowboys had to stay the course early when Elliott had just seven yards through the team’s first two possessions.
“Honestly, at the beginning, it was a little bit tough sledding,” Elliott said. “We made some good adjustments. We have to have the same mentality going into this game.”
Dallas’ defense faces a tough challenge in matching up against Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and star wideout Julio Jones, who has reached 10,000 yards receiving quicker than any player in NFL history.
So, there isn’t much wiggle room for either team. Both are 4-5 and trying to stay in the playoff hunt.
Here are things to know about the Cowboys-Falcons matchup:
The Cowboys started practice this week with five defensive linemen sidelined by injuries: David Irving (ankle), Taco Charlton (shoulder), Maliek Collins (knee), Daniel Ross (calf) and Antwaun Woods (concussion).
Collins and Woods both played more than 60 percent of the snaps against Philadelphia. If either can’t play against the Falcons, the depth on the interior line will be tested.
Dallas might not be able to use Tyrone Crawford outside as much to ease the load on DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Lawrence, who has battled shoulder issues this season and has a history of back trouble, played a season-high 90 percent of the snaps against the Eagles.
FIGHTING FOR RESPECT
Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant is enduring his toughest year as a pro with five dropped interceptions, the worst coming on Cincinnati’s game-winning drive in Week 4.
Trufant, a first-round pick in 2013, takes the blame for not playing consistently sound fundamentals.
“I’m judging myself harder than anybody else can,” he said. “So it is what it is. It’s the league. I’m in the spotlight. I’m earning what I’m earning. It just comes with it. That’s just how it goes. I’m in that position. I’ll just keep working, attack the issues, stay humble. I’ve been here before. I’ll just keep working.”
The Cowboys were high on Calvin Ridley going into the draft, having spent plenty of time with the former Alabama receiver and needing a replacement after releasing Dez Bryant, the franchise’s career leader in touchdown catches, in a cost-cutting move in the offseason. Instead, Dallas went with Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch at No. 19. The Falcons chose Ridley seven picks later.
Both teams are pleased.
Vander Esch set a rookie franchise record with 19 tackles against the Eagles, according to the coaches’ count. Ridley leads all rookies with 500 yards receiving and has been a strong complement to Julio Jones.
Prescott was steady in leading 75-yard drives for touchdowns in the fourth quarter last week, each of which answered a TD from the Eagles. It has been an inconsistent season for the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie the Year as he ranks 33rd in average yards passing, but Dallas coach Jason Garrett says the team ignores outside criticism.
“Well, we don’t spend much on that,” Garrett said. “We spend most of our time on ourselves and what we need to do to be better. That’s every one of us. Every coach. Every player. And we love Dak. Dak has done some really great things for our team in the 2 ½ years that he’s been our starting quarterback. He’s continuing to grow as a player.”
Ryan needs the threat of play-action, but that’s hard to maintain when the Falcons’ running game starts strong and fades. It’s been a frustrating trend all season.
“We just need to stick with it,” he said. “Last week, we just played from behind most of the third and fourth quarter, which makes it difficult to run the football. I thought that we had our opportunities. We did some nice things in the run game last week, so staying in front of the chains and staying ahead and the score is key to keeping our run game rolling.”
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon in Dallas contributed.