FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons (4-3) face the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts (0-8) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Here are the five keys to the game:
1. Keep the running game rolling: The Falcons leaned on running back Michael Turner in their past two games, and he delivered with two rushing efforts of more than 100 yards. This season he has rushed 138 times for 621 yards and six touchdowns. He’s on pace for 315 carries, 1,419 yards and 14 touchdowns. There should be some running opportunities against the Colts. They have allowed 144 yards per game, which ranks 31st in the league.
2. Don’t let Freeney and Mathis get loose: Indianapolis still has one of the better defensive end tandems — Dwight Freeney and Atlanta native Robert Mathis — in the NFL. (Psst: Word on the street is that Mathis would like to end his career with the Falcons.) Freeney has 4.5 sacks and Mathis has 3.5 this season. Over their careers, Freeney has 98.5 and Mathis 77.5. “They are a pair that we obviously have to be aware of,” Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. “They [were] talked about a lot in our meetings. We have to be on top of our game with everything we do, run and pass, to handle those two guys. That’s how disruptive they are.” Falcons tackles Will Svitek (Freeney) and Tyson Clabo (Mathis) will get the main assignments. The Falcons likely will chip block or slide toward Freeney’s direction in obvious passing situations.
3. Win on third downs: The defense held Detroit to 1 of 12 on third downs in the Falcons 23-16 victory. The unit must continue to improve its third down numbers. The opposition has converted on 40 of 91 third downs (44 percent), which ranks 26th in the league. Indianapolis has converted on 37 of 104 third downs ( 36 percent), which ranks 18th in the league.
4. Get off to a fast start: The Falcons got after Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford with some early blitzes and that knocked him off track. With Stafford shook, the Falcons took control of the game and built a 17-6 halftime lead. They’ll need to send some heat to quarterback Curtis Painter, who’ll be making just his seventh start in the NFL.
5. Get a hat on Pat Angerer: The Colts’ middle linebacker leads the league in tackles with 89. “He was a tackling machine in college (at Iowa) and he’s doing the same thing in the NFL,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “He’s an undersized guy. He’s a 5-10, 5-11 guy that runs and hits. He’s really playing well for them.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog