FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — For the second straight week, Atlanta’s dynamic offense will be tested by one of the NFL’s top defenses. The Bills (2-1) currently have the league’s No. 1 scoring defense, and they are among the leaders in nearly every major defensive statistical category.
The Falcons (3-0) moved the ball well against a Lions defense that was regarded as a strong unit, but three turnovers helped Detroit stay in the game until the very end. Against this staunch Buffalo defense, Atlanta will need to execute at a high level and limit its mistakes.
That execution will become even more important for the Falcons near the goal line, and their performance inside of the 20-yard line may decide the outcome on Sunday afternoon.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons’ red zone offense vs. Bills’ red zone defense
Contrary to what some may think, the Falcons’ offense has started out at a similar pace to their historic 2016 season. Last year, Atlanta averaged 34.7 points and 448 yards per game over the first three weeks. Through three games this season, the Falcons average 29 points and 388 yards per contest.
A couple of factors skew those numbers slightly. The Falcons have played some tougher defenses to start the season this year, and the improvement of their own defense has meant fewer shootouts. Without three interceptions against the Lions, including one inside of the 20-yard line, Atlanta’s point total this season would be even higher.
The Falcons’ performance in the red zone is one aspect that has carried over from last year. Converting 60 percent of its red zone trips into touchdowns, Atlanta is currently tied for 14th in that category among NFL teams. In 2016, the Falcons scored a touchdown on 61.9 percent of their red zone trips, which was ninth in the league.
Against Green Bay, the Falcons were a perfect three-for-three in the red zone and showed just how effective they can be when near the goal line. Atlanta continues to emphasize that aspect of the offense, and quarterback
“I think it’s always a critical area,” Ryan said this week. “When you get your opportunities down there as an offense, you’ve got to come away with touchdowns. That’s something we’ve done a pretty good job of throughout the first three weeks of the season, but, for sure, that will be important on Sunday. If and when we get our (opportunities) down there, we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
The Falcons’ offense will have to execute at a high level in the red zone on Sunday, as the Bills’ defense is currently ranked second at preventing touchdowns inside of the 20. Offenses have scored a touchdown against Buffalo just 28.57 percent of the time they reach the red zone.
Five more things to know about Falcons-Bills
1. The Bills’ secondary is off to a strong start
Buffalo retooled its defensive backfield over the offseason, and it appears to be paying off thus far. Every starter in the secondary is in his first year with the team. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde were free-agent additions; E.J. Gaines was acquired during training camp in a trade that sent receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams and fellow cornerback Tre’Davious White was the 27th overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft.
The Bills are allowing 203 passing yards to opposing offenses this season, which ranks ninth in the NFL, and they are the only team that has not allowed a passing touchdown. Each member of the secondary has an interception and they have a defended a combined 19 passes.
“Really, they’re playing well as a group,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Buffalo’s secondary. “It’s not that uncommon when guys who come together in a scheme for the first time (play well), because they’re all on the same level. I’ve been impressed, and it’s not a surprise that with Sean (McDermott) and Leslie (Frazier) there that two really qualified and really good DB-background guys are really putting them into some good training.”
Pro Football Focus currently has Poyer graded as the No. 1 safety in the NFL, while White and Gaines are the No’s 10 and 15 cornerbacks in the league, respectively.
2. Falcons have gotten the run game going
After finding little running room in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, the Falcons have had success establishing the run. In the win over Green Bay, Atlanta ran the ball 27 times for 141 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Those numbers continued to improve against the Lions, against whom the Falcons gained 151 yards on 28 carries, averaging 5.4 yards per attempt.
Of course, both
“It’s really cool to see the support that they have for one another,” Quinn said. “There was a great saying that Coleman had. Freeman had a long run, and he really had a terrific finish on the play – and this kind of speaks of their brotherhood – and one of the guys said ‘You better be ready to go get Free,’ and he looked back at him and said, ‘not when he’s running like that.’”
3. Buffalo’s defense might look familiar to Falcons fans
Sean McDermott, the defensive coordinator behind the Carolina Panthers’ dominant defense in recent years, is in his first season as the Bills’ head coach. His aggressive 4-3 scheme has worked very well up in Buffalo so far, and he will get an opportunity to face a Falcons team that he is extremely familiar with this weekend.
Although the Falcons’ offense executed at a very high level against the Panthers’ defense last season, McDermott’s units were very competitive against Atlanta in his seven years in Carolina. For an in-depth look at the defense McDermott has brought to Buffalo, check out this week’s After Further Review.
4. LeSean McCoy may be off to a slow start, but the Bills can still run the ball
Star running back LeSean McCoy has been largely bottled up to start the season, gaining just 140 yards and averaging 2.92 yards per carry. Despite his early struggles, Buffalo has still found ways to gain yards on the ground. The Bills average 111.3 yards per game, which is 12th in the league, and they are tied for the third-most rush attempts this season.
It helps having a mobile quarterback like Tyrod Taylor behind center, who has gained 106 yards and is averaging 4.42 yards per carry, but Buffalo has a few other notable players in its backfield as well. Former Panthers running back Mike Tolbert has reunited with McDermott in Buffalo, and the Bills also signed former Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco this offseason.
5. The Falcons are 7-4 all-time against the BillsAtlanta and Buffalo have played each other 11 times throughout the years, and the Falcons hold a 7-4 lead in the series. The Falcons have won four straight games against the Bills, the most recent victory being a 34-31 overtime victory at Buffalo in 2013. In their wins, the Falcons averaged 30.4 points against the Bills. In their four losses, the Falcons averaged 9.25 points.