It's been a long time in the desert for NFL fans, but finally we get out of the doldrums and overreactions of preseason to see some meaningful football this weekend. On Sunday the Falcons head to Arrowhead Stadium for their first game of the year, and one that might be a harder than it seems on paper. Here are three things to watch this weekend.
1. How clean is Matt Ryan's pocket?
When given time and space Matt Ryan is as good as any quarterback in the NFL. He has the arm to make all the throws, makes smart decisions with the football, and knows when to play it safe without taking an unnecessary risk. Encroach on his comfort zone and things start to change. The key to beating Ryan is to ensure he can't get his feet set, and when he cadence is ruined Ryan doesn't have the best ability to turn a bad play around.
Atlanta are catching a huge break in this regard, as Tamba Hali, hands down the Chiefs' best pass rusher is missing the game due to violating the league's substance abuse policy. With Hali and his huge pass rush potential (12 sacks last season) gone, the Chiefs are really lacking a solid way to get to Ryan, even with a beleaguered Falcons offensive line. If Atlanta can keep Ryan clean, the Falcons should win the battle on offense.
2. Falcons run defense
Preseason can't tell us a lot, but when there's a new defensive coordinator in town we tend to take notice. Mike Nolan's unit struggled against the run on occasion, finishing preseason ranked 16th in yards per carry allowed. This weekend they see one of the best 1-2 punches in the league in Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis, both of whom have big play potential. Charles is one of the best running backs in the league when healthy, and while Hillis is a wild card, if he can contribute he gives the Chiefs an excellent short yardage and 3rd down option.
Matt Cassel is inconsistent at the best of times, and if he's forced to beat the Falcons with his arm then Atlanta are winning the battle. Stuff the run early, that's what you're looking for.
3. Michael Turner
I'm not on this 'Turner is done' bandwagon that seems to be picking up more momentum by the week. Yes, he has an inordinate amount of carries on his 30 year old body, but I don't think he's reached Shaun Alexander status... not yet. That being said, when he carried the ball 18 times in preseason for just 49 yards it starts to give credence to the naysayers.
Turner rarely gets the credit he deserves nationally, but he's a large part of what makes the Atlanta Falcons' offense tick. Allowing the pass to flow from the run is vital to their success, and Matt Ryan's comfort.This is a statement game for Turner to prove his critics wrong, and show that he isn't ready to sail off into the sunset, or have his role diminished. There is a lot to play for, and fans should see if he rises to the occasion.