NFL Playoff Preview: Falcons defense must rise to occasion

Entering their playoff game with the Arizona Cardinals this Saturday, all of the talk – and for good reason – for Atlanta seems to surround rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, head coach Mike Smith and the Falcons’ impressive turnaround from a dysfunctional 4-12 team to an 11-5 Super Bowl contender.

But while it’s fun to shine the light on Ryan and the Falcons’ feel good story, more attention should be paid to Atlanta’s defense. Because it’ll be the play of Keith Brooking, John Abraham, Lawyer Milloy and the rest of the Falcons’ defensive unit that determines if Atlanta will move beyond Arizona this weekend.

The Falcons will score, this much we know. Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and Jerious Norwood lead an offense that has averaged close to 25 points per game and are playing against a defense that at times, has resembled a revolving door to the end zone this season.

But how will Atlanta’s defense matchup against a veteran quarterback in Kurt Warner that has a trio of 1,000-yard receivers at his disposal in Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston? Can the Falcons’ secondary of Foxworth, Coleman, Milloy and youngster Chris Houston contain the Cardinals’ explosive offense or will they be another victim to Arizona’s impressive passing attack?

The key might be whether or not Milloy is healthy. He hurt his back in the team’s playoff-clinching win over the Vikings in Week 16 and sat out the Falcons’ Week 17 win over the Rams. If he’s ready to go, he’ll play a huge role in taking away an Arizona running game that averages just over 70 yards per game. And if Atlanta’s front seven can contain the run on its own, Milloy can better help in coverage and hopefully limit the Cards’ big-strike potential.

Not many defensive backfields can line up and take on Boldin, Fitzgerald and Breaston in man-to-man coverage, and the Falcons are no-exception. While Dominique Foxworth has been solid since an early-season trade with Denver, Chris Houston is still learning the position and has been known to give up the big play at times. The Falcons will have to commit their safeties to help in coverage, which means Atlanta’s front seven must take away the run on its own.

Another huge factor is whether or not the Falcons can generate a pass rush without having to commit extra defenders. The team has done an outstanding job rotating its defensive linemen this season and it’s led to Abraham having his best season as a pro. He and Babineaux have been fantastic at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks all year, but it would go a long way in helping Atlanta’s success if second-year end Jamaal Anderson could give them anything in terms of a pass rush.

If the Falcons are to beat the Cardinals on Saturday, it’ll be vital that Ryan and the offense get an early lead by pounding Michael Turner on the ground. This will keep the Cardinals’ offense on the sidelines and hopefully force Arizona to be one-dimensional. If Atlanta can build a double-digit lead, then Abraham and the rest of the Falcon defensive line can think pass first and get pressure on Warner. If they can force a turnover or two, they can put the game away in the second half and bleed the clock with their outstanding running game.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

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