Falcons must focus on stopping the run

Each week, John Lynch breaks down a dynamic NFL offensive playmaker, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Lynch examines how the Atlanta Falcons defense should attack Houston Texans rookie QB T.J. Yates.

I get it — at first glance, Sunday’s game between Atlanta and Houston might look a lot like a zoo trainer throwing a fresh piece of meat to a bunch of hungry lions.

After all, the tough-luck Texans are about to start their third quarterback in three weeks because of injuries. This week it’s rookie T.J. Yates — who, by the way, has never started an NFL game. That’s a really tough spot for that young man to be thrown into. Can’t you just see the lions now circling their prey? But if I were the Falcons, I wouldn’t get the tenderizer ready just yet.

Houston has overcome all manner of injuries this season; it’s not just the quarterbacks who have gone down. At one time or another, key players Arian Foster, Mario Williams, Andrew Johnson and Danieal Manning all missed games, along with Matt Schaub and now Matt Leinart. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team hit with so many injuries to key players in one season. And amazingly, the Texans are 8-3 and leading the AFC South.

That’s a credit to Gary Kubiak, his coaching staff and the team. I’m very fond of Kubiak and the way he deals with quarterbacks. He had a big impact as the offensive coordinator for the Broncos when I played there, specifically with Jake Plummer. Kubiak played the position, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’s got a very good way of communicating and he gives quarterbacks a great deal of confidence. I don’t think Denver was ever the same after he left.

Which leads me to this: Houston not only has a great running game with Foster, Ben Tate and Derrick Ward, but the Texans also have the NFL’s top-ranked defense. So I would say if anybody is well designed to handle this situation, it’s the Texans. With the defense they have, that could be all the offense they need. You have to take your hat off to Wade Phillips and the job he’s done with that defense. It has been phenomenal after being awful last year.

So what’s my game plan for the Falcons’ defense?

Obviously a defense is going to add some things to take advantage of a rookie QB who’s never started a game. But I’ve been in this situation and I’d caution the Falcons not to overthink this. Sometimes you’re trying so hard to trick them, you end up tricking yourself. The Falcons have been playing good football, winning five of their past six to pull within one game of New Orleans in the NFC South.

Atlanta’s defense also has been improving, ranked ninth overall and second against the run. That’s where I start. I would emphasize to my defense that we stop the Texans’ running game at all costs. And I’d make the kid (Yates) beat us. But just because I’m going to load up the box to do that, it doesn’t mean the Texans will go away from the running game. That never deters coaches like Mike Shanahan and Kubiak, who is a Shanahan disciple.

And while some teams facing a defense that loads the box might shy away from running the ball, these guys don’t. They are proficient, and patient, with their zone running scheme. So in keeping with the box, that’s going to leave Houston’s Andre Johnson in one-on-one coverage. So I take my free safety, who is playing centerfield, and I tell him that he’s leaning to whatever side Johnson is on. Then I take my best cornerback, in this case, Dunta Robinson, and I put him on wide receiver Jacoby Jones.

What about blitzing? I’ve been watching Atlanta and I like the way the Falcons have employed the blitz. They don’t do it all the time, but when they do, it’s been very effective. I’d probably use the blitz a little more in this situation, knowing who the quarterback is. What you don’t want to do is make it simple for him, where all he has to do is hand off the ball.

The goal for my defense is to show Yates some different looks and to force the Texans into as many third-and-long situations as possible.

That’s when my defense gets hungry … and when Yates would look like a fresh piece of meat.