Falcons Gameday: 5 things to watch against the Bills

FALCONS VS. BILLS, 1 p.m. SUNDAY (CBS, 92.9)

Five things to watch

1. Bills secondary is a bunch of thieves

Buffalo's defensive backfield will pick your pocket. It ranks first in the NFL with 26 interceptions.

However, two of their top players (cornerback Terrence McGee and rookie free safety Jarius Byrd) were placed on injured reserve last week.

McGee, the Bills top cover corner, suffered a shoulder injury against New England last week. Byrd, who is leading the league in interceptions with nine, will have surgery on Monday to repair a torn labrum in his hip. They were the 17th and 18th Buffalo players placed on injured reserve this season.

Strong safety George Wilson (four), linebacker Paul Posluszny (three) and free safety Donte Whitner (two) all have multiple interceptions.

"They've got some ball hawks and guys that can make plays," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "It's not only the corners. They have the safeties and different guys chipping in to make interceptions."

Among their primary skills, the Bills are masters at disguising their coverages.

"You have to be careful with it," Ryan said. "I think it's just they are in the right position a lot of the times. When they are in the right spot, they have guys who can make some plays."

2. Bills will travel by land

Don't expect an aerial circus from the Bills, especially if quarterback Brian Brohm is making his NFL debut.

The Bills lean heavily on running backs Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, who have combined for 1,258 yards rushing and four touchdowns this season.

"They have two great running backs so they want to get them into the game and get them going early," Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said.

Jackson (811 yards) has carried most of the load and is closing in on his first 1,000-yard season.

Lynch and DeCoud were college teammates at California.

"He runs hard and fast," DeCoud said. "He can make you miss in a phone booth and he can run through you as well."

The Falcons defense has only allowed one back, New England's Fred Taylor (105), to rush for more than 100 yards. The unit ranks 20th against the run and has held four of its last five opponents to less than 100 yards rushing.

3.  Ryan needs to be sharper

Even though Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan will likely have to close out the season without much practice time because of his turf toe injury, he must be more accurate than he was last week against the Jets.

The swirling winds at Giants Stadium were certainly a factor, but Ryan will have to complete more than 47.1 percent of his passes, as he did against the Jets. Ryan was 6 of 9 for 38 yards on the late game-winning touchdown drive.

The Bills will be without the injured defensive backs Jarius Byrd and Terence McGee, but right cornerback Drayton Florence and backup cornerback Reggie Corner have played well.

The Bills will also use safety Donte Whitner at corner in some nickel situations.

4. Secondary must contain Owens and Evans

Though they rely on the ground game, the Bills also have two top flight receivers in Terrell Owens and Lee Evans.

Their problems has been getting them the ball. Starting quarterback Trent Edwards has had an injury-marred season and his backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick (63.3 passer rating), has struggled at times.

That's why the Bills plucked Brian Brohm off of the Green Bay Packers practice squad on Nov. 19. Brohm, the former University of Louisville star and a former second-round draft pick, was beaten out in Green Bay by former LSU quarterback Matt Flynn, a seventh-round pick, as Aaron Rodgers' back-up.

Evans has averaged 15.4 yards or more per catch every season since entering the league from Wisconsin in 2004. He is the only NFL receiver to post an average of 15 yards or more per catch over the last five seasons.

Owens has 998 career catches. If he gets two grabs today, he will become the sixth player in NFL history to reach the mark. He could also become the seventh because Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is six catches away from 1,000. They both could reach the plateau in the same game.

5. The rushing attack should flourish

Running backs Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood should be able to find some room to run against the Bills, who are ranked last in the league in defending the run. They give up 165.6 yards rushing per game.

The Bills played the run well enough last week against New England, but that was out of character. They have allowed nine different backs to rush for more than 100 yards this season and three others reached at least 80 yards.

The Bills do better at containing stretch runs to the outside and have trouble when teams power-up and drive the ball directly at them. This would seem to be an invitation for Snelling to pound between the tackles but not not so much for Norwood around the edges.

The Falcons have not rushed for more than 100 yards since Michael Turner was injured five games ago against Carolina on Nov. 15. They have gone 2-3 while rushing for 90, 75, 61, 89 and 86 yards.

Key matchups

Falcons LB Curtis Lofton vs. Bills RB Fred Jackson: Lofton is second in the league with 128 tackles and has turned into the Falcons' enforcer. With Lofton patrolling the middle, only one running back has gained more than 100 yards. The Bills will try to lean heavily on Jackson, who has rushed for 811 yards and is aiming for 1,000.  Jackson's backup, Marshawn Lynch, is having a solid season with 447 additional yards.

Falcons C Todd McClure vs. Bills DT Marcus Stroud: McClure will be the double-team man with right guard Quinn Ojinnaka on most plays against the disruptive Stroud. The former Georgia standout lines up at left defensive tackle. Other top-shelf defensive tackles like Dallas' Jay Ratliff and New England's Will Witherspoon have caused the Falcons trouble. Atlanta coach Mike Smith is familiar with Stroud from their days together in Jacksonville. Stroud only has two sacks, but he could free up defensive end Aaron Schobel, who has seven sacks.

Falcons CBs Christopher Owens/Brent Grimes vs. Bills WRs Terrell Owens/Lee Evans: The Bills receivers are talented and can get open deep. It will be interesting to see if Brian Brohm, who's expected to make his first NFL start, can get them the ball. QBs Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick have struggled with that this season. Owens only has 47 receptions and Evans has 35. It will be interesting to watch how Christopher Owens, who was beaten last week for a 65-yard touchdown, holds up in man-to-man coverage.

The Falcons will win if . . .

They power the ball at the Bills weak run defense: The Falcons have not had a solid run-pass balance since running back Michael Turner went down on Nov. 15. They have run 340 plays and have rushed the ball just 127 times (37.3 percent). They should be able to establish better balance against the Bills and the 32nd-ranked run defense.

Win the field position battle: The Bills, under special teams coach Bobby April, annually have some of the best special team units in the league. Punters Michael Koenen and Brian Moorman will duel in a punt-off. Moorman is a superior bad weather kicker, so kicking indoors is like a day off for him. Also, Bills kicker Rian Lindell has range outside of 50-yards.

Keep Schobel under control: Buffalo defensive end Aaron Schobel, who has been to the last two Pro Bowls, is one of the best kept secrets in the league. He has seven sacks this season and is one of 15 defensive linemen with an interception. Among active NFL players, Schobel currently ranks 10th with 75 sacks. Left tackle Sam Baker will be charged with Schobel-duty most of the game.

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