How will the Falcons pass rush fare against the Texans? (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
By Nick O’Malley |

After narrowly escaping a battle between undefeated teams last week, the 4-0 Atlanta Falcons will go up against one of the NFL’s 0-4 squads that have faceplanted to start the season — the Houston Texans.

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This game, to put it lightly, projects to fall much more heavily in the Falcons’ favor than last week’s tight win.

When asked earlier this week what the team’s plan at quarterback was Sunday, Texans coach Jay Gruden said, “We don’t have one right now.” By Friday, he had an answer, giving the nod to longtime backup Colt McCoy over established starter Case Keenum and rookie Dwayne Haskins.

The Falcons may be favored by over two touchdowns, but weirder things have happened. Here’s a look at the weather, key matchups and the betting line for Sunday’s game.

This is the same key we opened with last week since, honestly, not much changed. The Falcons didn’t have a great outing offensively in Buffalo. A big part of that was a result of receivers struggling to break open against a talented Falcons secondary.

Fortunately for New England, there won’t be quite as big a challenge Sunday. The Texans have fallen to an 0-4 start for a reason and lack the talent (and depth) on the backend that Buffalo had. If Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett can get open, they should be good.

The Falcons’ struggles in the passing game and rushing attack in Buffalo last week was largely related to a lackluster performance by the offensive line. The unit is still working with two fill-ins, but will have another week of cohesiveness (and health for tackles Marcus Cannon and Marshall Newhouse).

The Falcons have yet to really force their will in the run game this year. But they have kept Brady well-protected at times. If they can keep that up, they should be in the clear.

Falcons DEFENSE VS. Texans OFFENSE

– Can the Falcons force Colt McCoy into mistakes

The Texans have scuffled so far in 2019 thanks to some rough play out of the quarterback position. With Case Keenum as the starter, Washington has been in the middle of the pack in yards per game, but ranks 25th in passer rating this year. The Texans have also tied for the most interceptions in the NFL with seven.

The Falcons? They have 10 picks on defense, more than double any other team in the NFL.

That may change Sunday with longtime backup Colt McCoy getting the start. McCoy is a veteran who comes in with four years of experience in Washington. He’s well-established — much more than the mistake-prone Josh Allen from a week ago.

So far, the Falcons have preyed on mistakes by young QBs. Will they eat up the veteran?

– The Falcons should swallow the run game

As bad as the running game has been in New England, it’s been worse in Washington. The Texans rank 29th in the NFL in yards per carry (2.9 a pop) and yards per game (49.8 a game).

This projects as a great matchup for the Falcons, who have the fifth-best run defense in the NFL, holding opponents to 3.5 yards a pop.

Breakdown: Despite Bill Belichick’s reputation for special teams, the Falcons are actually underdogs in the special teams department, via DVOA.

That’s before you even get to the fact that they’ll be breaking in a new kicker this week with Mike Nugent, who hasn’t kicked since the 2018 season.

Fortunately, the coverage units are coming off a game where they dominated the punting came — including a blocked punt TD.

With Gostkowski out of the picture, the Falcons will have to learn quickly what they have in the form of their new 37-year-old kicker. Nugent isn’t quite as effective from 50-plus yards as Gostkowski has been over his career. However, Nugent has been effective from closer distances.

All eyes will be on the field goal unit Sunday to see if the field goal unit has any hiccups with a new kicker in the works.

2. RT Marcus Cannon vs. LB Ryan Kerrigan

The Falcons had some trouble keeping Brady well protected against the Falcons pass rush last week. While the Texans defense is quite up to the same level, they do still have some threats. The biggest problem the O-line has to deal with is certainly linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who will try to come screaming down on Brady’s right side all game.

Sunday will be a big test for Marcus Cannon. With the left tackle and center spots in flux, the Falcons need their established starters to hold their own. Cannon has been dealing with a shoulder injury he suffered in the season opener and hasn’t been perfect this season. If he plays below expectations Sunday, Kerrigan could be a problem.

3. Thuney/Karras/Mason vs. Allen/Payne

The Falcons have struggled to run the ball early on this season, with Sony Michel off to a frustrating start (2.8 yards per carry). The Texans, meanwhile, have let up 4.7 yards per carry, ranking them 22nd in the league.

If the offense is going to take any pressure off of Brady and the receivers, they’ll need to get Michel going, particularly up the middle. On Sunday, that task will fall heavily on the shoulders of the interior offense line: Joe Thuney, Ted Karras and Shaq Mason.

On the other side, the Texans boast a pair of former Alabama teammates that have been disruptive in the run game so far in their career, Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. If the Falcons can win that matchup inside, we could see some improvement in run game — and the offense as a whole.

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