The last time the Falcons faced the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Matt Ryan picked apart one of the NFL’s top secondaries, completing 30 of 41 passes for 361 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“The two games prior to that, I threw like nine interceptions against Arizona,” Ryan said. “It’s a week-to-week league. That’s the one thing I remember going against them. … You never know how games are going to shake out, but you have to anticipate that it’s going to be a tough 60-minute battle.”
Coming off the bye, the Falcons (6-4) get a chance to prove Sunday just how good the NFL’s highest scoring offense is against the Cardinals (4-5-1), the No. 1 defense in the league.
The Falcons welcome back running back Tevin Coleman — who missed the past three games with a hamstring injury — and get a boost to a rushing attack that ranks in the top half of the league. But the offense still will be most dependent on just what No. 2 can do through the air.
Ryan ranks second in the league in passing yards this season, just 30 behind Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. He also has the second highest passer rating, trailing only New England’s Tom Brady.
Ryan is on pace to post better numbers than in 2012, when he set career highs in yards and touchdowns. He is on track for his first 5,000-yard season, and his 9.38 yards per attempt are more than a yard better than any other year he has had.
One of the downsides to relying on the pass so much, though, is that it gives Ryan more chances to get hit. He has been sacked the ninth-most times of any quarterback this season, and Arizona ranks tied for seventh in the league in sacks. Ryan said the Cardinals are committed when it comes to attacking the quarterback and will bring five rushers often.
The Falcons offensive line and the Cardinals defensive line are slightly different than the last time these teams met, but one of the key pieces from that last contest, left tackle Jake Matthews, said he likes his group’s odds to have a good game. It would be big for the Falcons if they replicated the performance from two years ago when they only surrendered one sack.
“We’re confident,” Matthews said. “We feel like if we execute the way we know we can, we can compete with and beat anyone. … It’s going to be a challenge, but we feel up to it.”
Matthews added that Arizona’s size sticks out to him as a major key in their pass-rushing ability. Going against the Cardinals and their top-rated pass defense, Ryan will need every second possible to read the defense before putting the ball in the air.
Recognizing what Arizona is doing before the snap will play a big role in determining how much time Ryan gets in the pocket because of how well the Cardinals disguise their looks.
“What Arizona specifically does a great job of is showing one thing and then playing another pressure,” coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s when the next transition happens, the next progression happens. Fortunately for us, that’s one (Ryan) is very experienced at and works extremely hard to get the looks right in practice.”
Quinn also pointed out the physicality of Arizona’s defense as something that needs to be accounted for throughout the game. With cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson and Marcus Cooper, the Cardinals are big and strong all over the field, not just at the line of scrimmage.
Ryan said combating that size will come down to proper preparation this week and making sure he puts the ball where it needs to be. In the last meeting, Ryan leaned heavily on wide receiver Julio Jones (10 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown) to negate Peterson’s playmaking ability on the outside and prevent his length from disrupting the offense.
“You have to account for him, he’s a great player,” Ryan said of Peterson. “We have some great players as well. And so you got to trust them to go out there and make plays and try to put the ball in a position where they can do that.”
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