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3 things the Falcons must do to beat the Broncos and join the NFL’s elite

On Sunday, Atlanta has its work cut out for it against a dominant Denver defense.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

When the top offense in the NFL faces off against one of the best defenses in the league, that game is always going to get everyone attention. This week, when the Falcons take on the Broncos in Denver, it’s a little more compelling coming on the heels of the historic game from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones against last season’s Super Bowl runner-up, the Carolina Panthers. Now the Falcons will get a chance to see how they stack up against the Super Bowl 50 champions.

It’s easy to doubt the Falcons, especially after they started the 2015 season 6-1 and then hit a six-game skid, finishing the season 8-8. They’re off to a 3-1 start this season, and hoping not to hit the wall again.

Right now, no offense in the NFL has looked better. Through four games, the Falcons lead the league in scoring (38 points per game), passing yards (354.3), and total yards (478.8). Although the Denver defense doesn’t sit at No. 1 in any of those categories, it does rank in the top five in each — all while making life miserable for quarterbacks Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, and Jameis Winston this season.

No one is questioning the Broncos’ bona fides; they haven’t lost a game since last December. For the Falcons, though, this is their chance to prove they’re for real, and it all starts with their offense.

This is the best secondary the Falcons have faced

The Broncos have faced some dynamic receivers so far this season. The secondary, also known as the No Fly Zone, has held Kelvin Benjamin, T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green and Mike Evans each to under 100 receiving yards through the first four weeks of the season.

Julio Jones is coming off of a nearly superhuman 300-yard game against the Panthers, but that kind of production hasn’t been characteristic of Jones this season. While the Panthers chose to leave him in man coverage for much of the game, the Broncos certainly won’t. Denver has cornerbacks who match up well with Jones in terms of size, (Aqib Talib) and speed (Bradley Roby).

Against the Saints and the Bucs, Jones dealt with double and sometimes triple coverage. While the Broncos do tend to play a lot of man coverage, Denver should send some help over to whichever cornerback is tasked with covering Jones. Dan Quinn believes the secondary, and the defense as a whole, presents a real challenge.

“The way they utilize the guys, I think Wade and the guys have done a terrific job there. The linebackers can all run,” Quinn said. “They’ve got a really stout, solid secondary at different spots. The safeties are tough as could be. They use their size and speed outside at corner.”

If Denver’s defense manages to minimize the impact of Jones, it may not be a problem for the Falcons. Part of Atlanta’s success has come from Matt Ryan spreading the ball around. Ryan has been able to hit eight or nine different receivers with passes in each game so far this season. If the Broncos have to dedicate extra resources to limiting Jones, it opens up opportunities for other players to contribute.

The No Fly Zone isn’t preparing any differently for Jones than they have for any of the other top-flight receivers they’ve faced this season, according to Von Miller.

“I mean, it’s the same No Fly Zone that I see each and every week,” Miller said. “Still confident — still confident in what we’re doing … not much is going to change. They’re just going to go out there and do what they do.”

Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said that Jones is “the ultimate challenge,” but the Broncos just need all 11 guys on defense to play their best ball against Atlanta.

“In this league, there’s one challenge after another, and you just try to get your guys to stay focused on what we do and how we do things, so that’s what we really try to do as a group,” Kubiak said. “Defensively, all 11 of us will have to play well. It’s not about one guy. So we really try to stay focused on our football team and what we feel like we need to do to be successful.”

Miller credits that secondary with making the Broncos’ dynamic pass rush possible.

“That’s where it starts. That’s where the concept comes from,” Miller said. “These guys, they walk around, they know it’s not a receiving corps that can go against them, and that’s where the confidence comes from, and when you’ve got that type of confidence behind you, it’s easy for a pass rusher. We just line up and we rush.”

Matt Ryan needs to get the ball out quickly

Part of Ryan’s success against the Panthers, a team with a formidable front seven, was that he was able to get the ball out of his hands and to his receivers quickly, not allowing Carolina’s pass rush to get home. This will be even more important against a team with a formidable pass rush like Denver’s.

When the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, it was due in large part to Miller’s effort. Since October of last year, Miller has 20 sacks, which is one more than the entire Falcons defense has landed during that timeframe.

It’s not just Miller, either. The Broncos are currently second in the NFL for sacks with 17 over four games, just behind the Cardinals, a team that sacked San Francisco 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert a whopping seven times Thursday night to give the Cardinals 18 sacks over five games.

Quinn has the utmost respect for Miller and the way he rushes the passer.

“For sure, the guys that can ruin the game, you’d better give them special attention, and Von’s somebody that has just produced at a really high rate,” Quinn said. “So we definitely have our work cut out for [us], and each team has unique guys, and he certainly is one of the unique players for them. No doubt, earned our respect just by watching him play.”

The Falcons are going to have to get the ball out quickly against the Broncos, and Ryan says that’s a combination of pass protection and his receivers getting open.

“It certainly helps when they’ve got a good pass rush and are solid in the front seven when you can get the ball out and not give them as much time to rush, but in order to do that, you have to have guys open and you have to have guys doing their job on the outside,” Ryan said. “So we’ve had a really good combination of our offensive line being solid up front, our guys winning their one-on-one matchups on the outside to allow me to get the ball out quick.”

Atlanta has to establish the run

One of the best ways to keep a ferocious pass rush at bay is to establish the ground game. On paper, the Falcons have a solid rushing attack. Both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are backs who are capable of game-changing plays. Game-by-game performance, though, shows that Atlanta’s run game has actually been inconsistent.

The Falcons had 52 yards on the ground against the Buccaneers in Week 1 and just 90 yards last week in Atlanta’s win over the Panthers. Atlanta managed a respectable 139 rushing yards against the Raiders, and the team’s 217-yard performance against the New Orleans Saints skews the overall numbers quite a bit.

It’s necessary to keep things moving on the ground against a defense like the Broncos. If Denver has a weakness, it’s the run defense, and the Falcons know they have to capitalize on that.

Miller is particularly impressed with what Freeman brings to the table for Atlanta.

“Devonta, he’s just legendary,” Miller said. “He can make all the cuts, and he’s good out the backfield. He’s good in the backfield. He’s just an all-around runner. He’s solid.”

Kubiak said that the versatility and balance Atlanta’s run game brings to the offense makes the Falcons difficult to defend.

“It’s extremely difficult, like I said, because Kyle does move people all over the place, and I just think you’ve got to do that to get guys the ball,” Kubiak said. “They’re running the ball extremely well, and they’re making a lot of explosive football plays, and there’s a lot of guys making those plays for them. So I think they’re extremely balanced in what they’re doing, and that’s a credit to Kyle and the staff.”

Quinn said that running the ball is a key part of Atlanta’s offensive identity, and it’s going to fundamentally important against a defense like Denver’s.

“The front they have, if you just go into a drop back all the time, that’s a hard-sledding team, and they’ll get after you,” Quinn said. “So we know the importance, not just in this game, but every game for us ... They’ve got a unique group of guys, so we’ve got to work it out, but we understand in our world, too, in terms of the matchups we have in the run game, that’s a real important part of what we do.”

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After Atlanta’s hot start quickly fizzled last season, it’s no wonder people question whether the current offensive production is sustainable.

The Broncos, with a productive pass rush and a strong secondary, present a huge challenge for the Falcons, and if Atlanta rises to the occasion, it will show the entire league that this Falcons offense — and this team — is legitimate this season.