Published September 30, 2015
The Atlanta Falcons feature arguably the hottest quarterback-wide receiver duo in the NFL. Now they're hoping they've complemented it with a prolific rushing attack.
The surprising Falcons seek their second 4-0 start in 11 seasons Sunday when they host perhaps their toughest challenge yet in the Houston Texas, who could get Arian Foster back.
Matt Ryan threw a pair of second-half touchdown passes to Julio Jones last Sunday as Atlanta rallied from a 14-point deficit for a 39-28 win at Dallas. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback is averaging an NFC-best 315.3 yards.
Jones, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, has been Ryan's favorite target with NFL highs of 34 catches and 440 yards. After finishing with 12 receptions for 164 yards against the Cowboys, he's looking to put up four consecutive 100-yard efforts for the first time in his career.
''Matt has all the faith in the world in me and I have the same in him,'' Jones said.
The Texans (1-2) also have to be concerned with Atlanta's running game after Devonta Freeman broke out with 141 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries last Sunday. The Falcons had run for a combined 161 yards in the first two games when rookie Tevin Coleman started.
Even if Coleman isn't ruled out again because of injured ribs, Freeman is likely to get a chance to build on his performance with another 20 or more touches.
''He's one of the guys that really set it off for us," coach Dan Quinn said. "He's such a competitor. When guys get that look about them, he had it.''
Atlanta, averaging a conference-best 411.7 yards, won its first eight games in 2012. That's the only time it's started 4-0 since 2004.
After allowing 269 rushing yards in losses to Kansas City and Carolina, the Texans limited Tampa Bay to 57 on 2.9 per carry in last Sunday's 19-9 victory. Veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who could see time on Jones, tied a career high with five passes defensed.
J.J. Watt leads the squad with three sacks, but Jadeveon Clowney is still seeking his first.
"We're working to find our brand and get back to playing our brand of football,'' Watt said. ''I still wouldn't say we're a hundred percent there yet, but I think (last Sunday) was a great step in the right direction toward where we want to be.''
Making his third start since Brian Hoyer was benched following a poor showing in the opener, Ryan Mallet hopes to keep making strides under center. He completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 228 yards with a touchdown and an interception last week after he had connected on 46.6 percent with a score and a pick against the Panthers.
DeAndre Hopkins has been the top target with 22 receptions for 252 yards and three scores.
The offense could receive a big boost if Foster can make his debut following groin surgery. The two-time NFL rushing leader is expected to be a game-time decision.
"I think we listen a lot to that player," coach Bill O'Brien told the league's official website. "Basically how do you feel? We'll go on that a little bit and we'll go on what our doctors say and we'll go from there."
If Foster can't return, Alfred Blue will get another start after he rushed for a season-high 139 yards and a touchdown on 31 attempts against the Buccaneers. Tackle Duane Brown (thumb) and guard Brandon Brooks (ankle) are also hopeful to play.
The Atlanta defense hopes to play more like it did in the second half against the Cowboys than it did in the first 30 minutes. The Falcons gave up 295 yards and four touchdowns in the opening half before limiting Dallas to 52 yards and no points in the final two quarters.
"I think we found out about who we were in the second half, how tight we were and how hard we wanted to play for one another - the effort it takes to play really good football," said Quinn, whose club has trailed in the fourth quarter in all three games.
Starting tight end Jacob Tamme likely won't play after he was placed in the league's concussion protocol after getting hurt against the Cowboys.
Houston is going with former San Diego kicker Nick Novak after releasing Randy Bullock, who missed an extra point and a field-goal attempt last Sunday.
The Texans have won two of the three all-time meetings, losing 26-16 in their only trip to Atlanta on Sept. 30, 2007.