NFL Preview - Atlanta (4-0) at Washington (2-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - They call him "Matty Ice" for a reason.
When the going gets tough, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan seems to overcome the pressure and bring his team out on top. Through the first four games of the season, Ryan has done that for the 4-0 Falcons.
The Falcons aim for the best start in franchise history Sunday against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field, and are coming off an exciting 30-28 finish versus the NFC South-rival Carolina Panthers.
Ryan lived up to his moniker by getting the Falcons into field position for placekicker Matt Bryant, who nailed a 40-yard field goal with five second left to put Atlanta ahead for good. Ryan, though, chucked a 59-yard pass to Roddy White from the one-yard line in the final drive to set up Bryant's kick.
"We made the plays when we needed to," Ryan said. "That's what you need to do week to week in this league."
Ryan threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns with an interception for Atlanta, which is off to a 4-0 start for the first time since reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2004. The Falcons also were 4-0 back in 1986. Ryan, who has thrown at least two TD passes in every game this season, had a 107.2 passer rating and has hit the century mark in that category in all four games this season. The Falcons are 27-0 when he has a rating of more than 100.
Sunday's performance marked Ryan's 11th career 300-yard game -- two shy of breaking Steve Bartkowski's all-time franchise mark of 12 set from 1975 to 1985. Ryan has an NFL-best 112.1 rating, is tied with Griffin in completion percentage at 69.4, is second with 11 touchdown passes and has been sacked 11 times.
Ryan was a sacked a season-high seven times versus Carolina.
"I don't want to get into all of the specifics, but there is more than just the five offensive linemen that are responsible for pass protection," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "When we don't protect the passer, the first group that gets scrutinized is the offensive line. The running backs, the tight ends, the wide receivers, and the quarterback are all part of the success that we have or the success that we don't have, in terms of protecting the quarterback. Every group was a part of us not having the protection that we needed."
Who knows if Ryan would be this successful so early without White? White caught eight passes for a season-high 169 yards and a pair of scores on Sunday, and owns a franchise-best 30 100-yard games. Julio Jones is another receiving threat, but had just one reception for 30 yards. Jones and White are a dynamic duo for the Falcons, who are third in points scored (31.0) and 11th in passing yards (267.5) this season.
Atlanta did the best it could to contain Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Newton connected on 15-of-24 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns, and also carried the ball nine times for 86 yards and a score. The Falcons have another stiff test ahead with RGIII and a high-octane Redskins offense.
Washington put the brakes on a two-game losing streak by squeezing out a 24-22 win at Tampa Bay on Sunday. One game after getting sacked six times and throwing for 221 yards with a touchdown in a 38-31 loss versus Cincinnati, Griffin threw for a career-high 323 yards and was sacked just twice.
RGIII ran for a score and Pierre Garcon came back from injury to recover a loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown, as the Redskins racked up 474 yards of offense, including 160 on the ground against the NFL's top-rated run defense, and blew an 18-point lead. The yards total was the most since 481 versus Jacksonville on Oct. 1, 2006.
Griffin's headset was not working on the final drive that set up Billy Cundiff's decisive 41-yard field goal with three seconds to go. Cundiff missed three other attempts.
"Every week, we always practice me calling the plays [as if] the headset has gone out," Griffin said. "The funny thing is, the headset did go out on that drive."
Griffin scrambled for 43 yards and was sacked just twice, one week after the Bengals got to him on nearly every play. Alfred Morris played a big role in Sunday's win with 113 yards and a score on 21 carries, and has been averaging 94 yards rushing in four games. RGIII, Morris and Arian Foster of the Texans lead the NFL with four rushing touchdowns.
The Redskins have the best ground attack in the NFL at 175.5 yards per game and will face an Atlanta defense that is 29th against the rush, giving up 146.2 ypg. Having left tackle Trent Williams at full strength was a plus after he was knocked out of the Cincinnati game.
Washington hopes to halt a seven-game home losing streak in its second game as the host this season. It suffered a 31-17 loss to Atlanta in the previous meeting in Week 9 back in 2009 and has dropped two straight and three of the past four meetings between the conference foes.
The Redskins are 15-6-1 in the all-time series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It will be interesting to see if Ryan can stay hot heading into a hostile FedEx Field. Defense used to be Washington's forte, but now the tables have turned and Griffin has the offense leading the way. The loss of Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker is huge for Washington, which will have to harass Ryan into making mistakes. Carolina registered seven sacks in last week's loss.
"Matt's done a very good job through the first four games," Smith said Monday.
Ryan has been intercepted in each of his last two games and faces a Redskins defense that is decent against the rush, allowing 89.0 ypg, but 27th in points allowed (30.8), 29th in total yards (415.2) and 31st in pass defense (326.2). The poor pass defense should get Ryan and White excited, as they have been a dangerous tandem through the first four weeks. The Falcons should be wary of Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who has 3 1/2 sacks on the season and at least half a sack in all four contests. Kerrigan is expected to carry the defensive load up front with Orakpo gone.
"Losing [Orakpo], you've got to try to take advantage of it," Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "(Kerrigan has) got some good pressure. We'll keep trying to get the right match-up for him and for the rest of the group and get him in a position where we can win."
Washington has manufactured a potent ground game in the first quarter of the season. Griffin and Morris deserve most of the credit for that. RGIII, who joined Newton (2011) and Ryan Tannehill (2012) as the only players to reach 1,000 passing yards in their first four games of their rookie seasons, keeps defenses honest and should have another productive day versus Atlanta's mediocre run defense that yielded 199 yards on the ground to the Panthers.
Newton is a tough customer and the Falcons did their best to contain him with three sacks, one by defensive end John Abraham that sealed the win. It could be deja-vu all over again in Week 5.
"When you're playing a running quarterback you have to account for him, and there were often times the guy that's accountable for him is a defensive end," Smith said in reference to Abraham.
Morris had his first 100-yard game for the Redskins, who have rushed for 150 yards or more in four straight games. RGIII and Morris are the first pair of rookie teammates in NFL history to each run for four touchdowns over their team's first four games.
The Falcons haven't been short on points this season and a showdown with a Washington stop unit rated 27th in scoring defense will help them to the best start in team history. Ryan has been recipient of all the hype for the "Dirty Birds" and is expected to pick apart the Redskins' secondary for at least another 300 yards. Falcons running back Michael Turner has been flying under the radar lately and is becoming more involved in the passing game. Atlanta has the blueprint in containing athletic quarterbacks and will face the second one in as many weeks. Griffin is too talented to be stopped completely and an improved ground game will keep the score respectable.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Redskins 20
10/04 14:55:06 ET