By George Henry
The Associated Press
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The unbeaten Atlanta Falcons and quarterback Matt Ryan are playing at an elite level.
It’s hard to say anything similar about the Dallas Cowboys, whose offense can pile up yards, but struggles to hold onto the football.
“When you lose, it eats away at you,” Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said. “You stay up all night thinking about it.”
Ryan has one of the NFL’s best receiving corps in receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez, the league’s No. 2 career receiver.
But Ryan, despite leading scoring drives on Atlanta’s first six possessions last week, knows the Falcons (7-0) must do a better job at scoring touchdowns — not just field goals — if and when they get into the red zone against Dallas (3-4) at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
“We had opportunities on those last three that if we execute better you can put up touchdowns,” Ryan said of last week’s 30-17 victory at Philadelphia. “That’s the key. When you get down there and you have opportunities to put six on the board you have to do it. I think when you look at our entire year up until this point that’s something we haven’t done a great job of. We need to be better.”
The Falcons and Cowboys both have significant holes in the middle of their defense.
Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is sidelined by a low right ankle sprain and will not play. The Cowboys lost linebacker Sean Lee, their leading tackler, to a season-ending toe injury two weeks ago.
Stephen Nicholas will likely assume Weatherspoon’s role as the every-down linebacker, while second-year veteran Akeem Dent will slide into Nicholas’ spot in base and sub-packages.
Weatherspoon, who had played every snap this season before getting hurt in the fourth quarter at Philadelphia, will be tough to replace with 44 solo tackles, two passes defended, three sacks, four tackles for lost yardage, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Dan Connor has taken over for Lee, but a neck injury sidelined him from the first Dallas practices this week. Next man up on the depth chart is oft-injured Ernie Sims.
The Cowboys are hoping running back DeMarco Murray returns this week after missing the Giants game with a sprained right foot.
Atlanta is likely to start rookie Peter Konz for the second straight week at right guard with Garrett Reynolds nursing a lower back injury.
Konz has yet to face a talent like four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who has a sack, a forced fumble, three quarterback pressures and six tackles since returning from an ankle injury and making his season debut two weeks ago.
Regardless who’s in or who’s out, Dallas’ offense has a long way to go before matching the efficiency of Atlanta’s.
The Cowboys rank second worst with 19 giveaways, including an NFL-high 13 interceptions by Romo, and fifth worst with 54 penalties.
For local news and more, subscribe to The Norman Transcript Smart Edition, or our print edition.