On paper, the Cowboys-Falcons matchup in Week 3 seemed one-sided in Atlanta's favor, with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant out with injuries. But the teams' respective backfields turned a battle of undefeated teams into something much more interesting.
Momentum is a fickle thing in the NFL, so it did not take long for the Cowboys' fortunes to change Sunday. The team started off with a bang in their Week 3 game against Atlanta, with the us-against-the-world mentality no doubt brought on by Tony Romo's injury serving them well on both sides of the ball.
The pendulum swung in a hurry. Atlanta answered Dallas' furious start with 25 unanswered points—22 of them coming in the second half.
This was the lone Week 3 game between two undefeated teams, and Atlanta emerged sporting a perfect mark, at 3–0, thanks to a come-from-behind 39–28 victory. Three thoughts on the outcome:
1. Brandon Weeden started hot, but then ... : Weeden entered the Cowboys record book about 5:30 into the second quarter Sunday when he completed his 21st consecutive pass, dating back to last season. His next toss was an ill-advised interception, perhaps an indication of what was to come.
Still, Romo's replacement finished the first half 14-of-15 passing, and Dallas took a 28–17 lead to the break.
Not surprisingly, though, as Atlanta adjusted to slow down Joseph Randle and the Dallas run game, Weeden cooled in a hurry. The majority of his completions were of the short-and-safe variety, which is a fine strategy when your team is ahead ... but far less usable when the scoreboard and the down/distance are working against you.
Bryant's absence alone limits what the Cowboys are capable of in terms of stretching the field—none of their remaining receivers have shown any consistency there and Jason Witten does not have the speed to threaten defenses that way. Add in Weeden's comfort level, and the Cowboys are rather limited.
Atlanta not only took away Randle in the third and fourth quarters, but they also managed to generate far more pressure on Weeden in the pocket, from the likes of Adrian Clayborn and emerging rookie Vic Beasley. And they often did so with just a four-man rush, leaving the remaining defenders to a) cover; and b) keep tabs on the Dallas running backs out of the backfield, which had been a problematic area for the Falcons' defense early this season.
Weeden's final line—22-of-26 for 232 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and two sacks—paints an accurate picture of his performance. It was solid but without anything in the way of a huge play, mixed with a mistake or two.
2. More praise for the Atlanta coaching staff: While the Dan Quinn-led Falcons defense was busy turning the clamps on Dallas after halftime, Kyle Shanahan pushed every right button for the offense. That breakthrough actually began in the first half, as RB Devonta Freeman (filling in for Tevin Coleman) came close to matching Randle's brilliant early work.
Freeman was able to get to the edge on the Dallas defense repeatedly—something Shanahan took full advantage of during Atlanta's second-half rally, firing up a variety of play-actions with Matt Ryan rolling against the grain. Of course, it helped that Freeman kept cooking, to the tune of 141 yards and three touchdowns.
However, beyond all that, Atlanta's offense really found its groove when it ratcheted up Julio Jones' involvement. On several occasions this season, coaches and coordinators across the league have credited opposing defensive schemes for taking away star receivers.
Frankly, that's inexcusable.
Dallas did manage to bracket Jones at times. Coupled with a shaky start from Ryan, who later responded with a lights-out second half, Jones needed a little help getting loose. Shanahan provided the best, shifting him around the Falcons' offensive formations and using motions to keep Jones free. The results: 12 catches, 164 yards and two touchdowns from Jones, both scores coming after halftime.
3. Randle vs. Freeman was thrilling to watch: When the NFL released its 2015 schedule, this game set up as a potential showdown between the combos of Ryan-Jones and Romo-Bryant. Obviously, only one half of that dream head-to-head made it to Sunday's matchup, and on paper, the absences of Romo and Bryant threatened to turn this contest into a one-sided affair.
Instead, Randle gave his team a huge boost early. On Dallas' first play from scrimmage, he ripped off a 28-yard run behind rookie left guard La'el Collins, starting in place of Ronald Leary. Two plays later, Randle shook a pair of tacklers in the backfield and took off for a 37-yard score. He had surpassed his previous career high rushing total of 69 yards by the midpoint of the first quarter.
Atlanta gave him almost nothing from there—Randle finished with 87 yards on 14 carries. Freeman then stole the spotlight, and all of his 141 yards were well earned. Freeman played the Falcons' desired one-cut running-back role to perfection, exploding through holes when they were there and patiently waiting for them to develop when they were not.
As a result of the backfield play, this game turned into a thriller.