|Matt Ryan will be looking to take the Falcons to 3-0 for the first time since 2004 when Atlanta faces San Diego on Sunday. (US Presswire)|
Falcons at Chargers -- Week 3
Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego (outdoors, grass)
When: Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)
Spread: Chargers by 3
Forecast: Sunny with a slight northwest breeze: Projected kickoff temperature: Low-80s
Records: Falcons (2-0 overall, 0-0 NFC South); Chargers (2-0 overall, 1-0 AFC West)
Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Nov. 30, 2008: Atlanta 22, San Diego 16; Oct. 17, 2004: Atlanta 21, San Diego 20. Series record: The Falcons hold a 7-1 series edge and have won the last five meetings.
What matters: The Falcons need to get their run game in order. Their passing game is elite, but coach Mike Smith has been adamant that the Falcons need to at least be capable of rushing the ball. Entering the Chargers game, Atlanta is 26th in the league, averaging 75 rushing yards per game. That’s a far cry from the 114 yards they averaged last season with the same personnel in the backfield. The majority of the rushing attack may fall to Jacquizz Rodgers, after starting RB Michael Turner was arrested on a DUI early Tuesday morning. The team hasn’t said how they’ll punish the veteran. It won’t be an easy task against the Chargers, whose defense is allowing an NFL-best 41.5 ypg on the ground.
Who matters: Going up against such a stout run defense, the Falcons’ receivers will need to be more reliable than they were Monday night against Denver. In particular, Julio Jones dropped at least three catchable passes vs. the Broncos, including a touchdown that popped out of his hands after he hit the ground. Jones was double-teamed last week but wideout Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez combined for 15 catches, 172 yards and two touchdowns. Both receivers displayed excellent hands in converting a number of catches that extended second-half drives. On defense, the Falcons’ secondary will be undermanned again after CB Chris Owens left last week’s game with a concussion. He's unlikely to play, leaving backup Dominique Franks as the likely replacement for nickel sets.
Key Matchups: Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas vs. Ryan Mathews. The Falcons’ two outside linebackers form one of the best combinations in the NFC. In just two games, they have 33 tackles, a sack and an interception. They’ll be tested against Mathews, who has practiced this week and is expected to play his first game of the season. He suffered a broken clavicle in preseason. The third-year back, rushed for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns last season. The Falcons may have inside knowledge on the former Fresno State Bulldog, as Pat Hill, Mathews’ college coach, is the offensive line coach for the Falcons. Atlanta’s linebackers will also be partially responsible for pass coverage against Antonio Gates, one of the league’s most athletic tight ends.
Injuries of note: Numerous players along the Falcons' defense were limited in practice during the week, but most of them rested as a precaution following Monday night’s marathon game vs. Denver. DE John Abraham and LBs Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas were restricted to a degree but are expected to play. CB Owens likely won’t play after entering the league’s concussion protocol this week. One other guy to keep an eye on is RT Tyson Clabo. He’s been part of an excellent O-line while playing with a hip injury and should play on Sunday.
Inside stuff: The Falcons are tied for second in the league with seven forced turnovers throughout the first two games. Atlanta intercepted Peyton Manning three times in the first quarter of Monday night’s game and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan deserves all the credit for those turnovers. The Falcons' defense disguised their sets by constantly rotating before every play started. Consequently, Manning wasn’t able to dissect his receivers’ matchups or the secondary’s coverages before the snap, as he’s been accustomed to throughout his career.
Connections: San Diego coach Norv Turner served as the 49ers' offensive coordinator under Mike Nolan, when the Falcons defensive coordinator was the head coach in San Francisco in 2006.
Stat you should know: 37. Since 2008, Falcons WR White has 37 touchdowns, ranking third in the NFL behind Calvin Johnson (45) and Larry Fitzgerald (39). White had eight touchdowns last year.
Stat No. 2 you should know: As a result of so many turnovers, the Falcons have the league’s best average starting position, their own 36.7 yard line.
Looking ahead: Atlanta will attempt to go 3-0 for the first time since 2004, when they went 11-4 in the regular season and eventually lost in the conference championship game to Philadelphia. The Falcons will finally take a break from their AFC West tour and face the division rival Carolina Panthers (1-2) in the Georgia Dome on Sept. 30.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Chargers 20
For more Falcons coverage, follow Mike Singer @CBSFalcons.