Last week, I was wrong to single out Owen Daniels as the one who would benefit most in the Ravens passing attack. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had trouble covering everyone, and the Atlanta Falcons are kind of in the same boat. The Falcons rank 29th in pass defense with 277.7 passing yards allowed per game, and they don't get the type of pass rush that has thrown Flacco and the Ravens off this year.
Flacco played well last time the Ravens were at home, against the Carolina Panthers, and it's been a mixed bag in the two ensuing road games. But a good game against Atlanta, which at least has the semblance of being a good team despite its 2-4 record, could be something of a coronation for Flacco and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's attack.
Flacco is on pace for 4,256 yards and 32 touchdowns, both of which would be career highs by a wide margin. Add in the 310 yards and two scores that will earn him the first star of the game, and that pace will be raised to 4,356 yards and 34 scores. And he'll be able to do that because new passing options emerge for the Ravens each week, and even against strong cornerback Desmond Trufant, Flacco will have little trouble finding an open receiver against this secondary.
The second-year defensive tackle has played an increasingly large role beside Haloti Ngata in the center of the Ravens defense this year, and against a former Pro Bowl guard in Logan Mankins and a well-paid free-agent center in Evan Dietrich-Smith, Williams was unstoppable last week. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees said recently that teams have learned they can't block Williams with just one player, a boon for the rest of the defense, and especially the outside pass rushers.
Luckily for Williams, at least one of the men charged with keeping him out of the backfield and away from the multipronged Falcons rushing attack and quarterback Matt Ryan is a reserve. Center Peter Konz performed poorly as the starter in his first two seasons in Atlanta before being replaced by Joe Hawley, but Hawley went on injured reserve last month and Konz is back in the starting lineup. Reserve guard Harland Gunn, signed off the street in late September, has started in place of Justin Blalock at left guard, though Blalock is listed as probable.
Given what Williams did to Mankins and has done to everyone else he's lined up against, I'll need to see it happen before expecting a quiet game from Williams. This game will be anything but quiet, with three tackles for loss and a forced fumble swinging the game in the Ravens' favor.
3. Atlanta running back Antone Smith
It's incredibly rare for a team to wait five seasons before letting one of its special teamers become a playmaker, but that's been the case with Smith and the Falcons this year. Smith saw a slightly increased role last year through injury and ineffectiveness from the rest of Atlanta's backfield, and has been making up for years of exclusively special teams play this season.
Smith averages just 10 plays a game for the Falcons on offense, but he makes them count and could get more against the Ravens. Smith has rushing touchdowns of 38 and 48 yards, plus receiving touchdowns of 54, 74 and 41 yards this season — good for a league-high 255 total yards on his touchdowns. Only the Ravens' division rival Cincinnati Bengals kept him from breaking a big play.
Many of his touchdowns have been the type that sound defensive technique can limit. Basic tackling can prevent a flat route or screen route out of the backfield from ending up in the end zone. Same goes for when Smith bounces an inside run outside — the Ravens outside linebackers are good enough at containing to limit those. But all it takes is one slip, and a player with the open-field speed of Smith only requires a sliver of space to break free. Most of it will come on one play, but pencil Smith down for 110 yards and a score.