The Atlanta Falcons visit the Kansas City Chiefs to open the 2012 season with both teams looking to set the pace with a strong start. After opening last season with a rash of season-ending injuries, the Chiefs still managed to stay in the mix to win the AFC West, finishing one game off the eventual winners. As for Atlanta, they did manage to earn a playoff spot in 2011, but were swiftly removed from the postseason tournament with a sound Wild Card beating at the hands of the eventual champion New York Giants.
Aiming to take that next step forward, this offseason Kansas City brought in one of the league’s best offensive tackles, Eric Winston, and a powerful back, Peyton Hillis, to help lessen the load on quarterback Matt Cassel. Atlanta’s major move was on the other side of the ball–they lost a leader on defense when Curtis Lofton signed with the Saints, but added one by trading for Asante Samuel to strengthen their secondary. The bigger moves came off the field where the Falcons replaced both coordinators as they look to pick up the elusive playoff victory.
What does all of that mean for this matchup? We’ll be seeing a pair of talented rosters, each with big aspirations in this kick-off contest.
Falcons Receivers vs. Chiefs Defensive Backs
When the Falcons get Roddy White and Julio Jones on the field, they’re getting one of the league’s most dynamic receiver pairings. Even with their tendency to drop the ball (both of them landed in the bottom 10 of our Drop Rate Signature Stat), they’re very difficult to stop. The Chiefs have cornerbacks Brandon Flowers (+10.0 in coverage last season) and Stanford Routt (+6.7) to match with them; which brings an interesting question to the table: who covers whom? In this defensive system, each corner covers one side of the field, so Atlanta has the ability to dictate and exploit any match up they see as in their favor. That is likely to be in the form of the at times over aggressive Routt (17 penalties in 2011), and he’ll be hoping a scheme that provides him with more help than he received in Oakland won’t leave him quite as exposed.
The other big match-up in this area is Atlanta’s veteran star, Tony Gonzalez, against Kansas City’s returning young stand-out, Eric Berry. The Chiefs’ strong safety comes back from a torn ACL and couldn’t have a tougher start to the season: Gonzalez was 2011’s second-highest graded tight end overall (+18.3) and third-highest as a receiver (+18.4). It’s going to be a tremendous test for Berry who was found out at times as a rookie, and won’t have any time to ease himself back into things.
Breaking The (Matty) Ice
With Tamba Hali suspended for the game, someone must step up and do his part. If Justin Houston can maintain his level from the the second half of the season (+9.8 pass rushing grade from Week 10 onwards) then they have a hope; otherwise Ryan could have a clean pocket all game long. It won’t be easy for him however, as he’s set to go up against our 2nd highest ranked right tackle in pass protection from 2011, Tyson Clabo (+17.1). That could prove a choice encounter though the Chiefs scheme won’t keep Houston on one side all game, so he’s likely to see more of the much maligned Sam Baker who returns after an injury and poor form riddled 2011. He’s been able to operate in the shadow of Hali for his early career, but with Matt Ryan’s completion percentage dropping from 61.3% to 44.8% he’s going to need to step up.
Chiefs Rushing Game vs. Falcons Run Defense
“Back to 2010!” That has to be the motto for the Chiefs’ offense and especially for their two running backs. Jamaal Charles, who missed the 2011 season due to a torn ACL, graded out as the NFL’s best running back in 2010, while the man in second spot was Hillis. Things didn’t work out for the former Brown in 2011 as injury kept him off the field, but the early signs from preseason suggest both are near the top of their game.
It doesn’t hurt either man that the offensive line got a big boost with the addition of Eric Winston. The former Texan right tackle will provide a substantial upgrade on Barry Richardson and his league-worst -15.9 run blocking grade from last year. Being able to turn that weakness into a strength isn’t the only good news though, as Tony Moeaki is back from a torn ACL (another one) and Kevin Boss was signed in free agency; two big tight ends that know how to block. Moeaki graded +15.0 overall in his rookie season and, although Boss has struggled to match his 2009 form in the past two seasons, the talent is clearly there.
Despite some less than stellar play from some of the backup linemen, Atlanta proved a generally tough team to run on and will no doubt provide a stern test of the Chiefs ambitions of setting the tone with their running game. In the shape of Ray Edwards Atlanta has a prototypical defensive left end, while Jonathan Babineaux has the kind of explosive qualities that means he can get into the backfield quickly to make plays. Add in a playmaking linebacker like Sean Weatherspoon and it’s easy to see how the Falcons could force Kansas City into a situation where they’re passing, something that doesn’t play to their strengths. Of course they’ll have to contend (if preseason is anything to go with) a drop-off in play from the MLB as Akeem Dent takes over from Lofton, and they haven’t faced a one-two punch like Hillis and Charles before. So this match-up looks like being pivotal in deciding which team gets control of the game.