Falcons vs. Bengals preview

Paul Brown Stadium, or "The Jungle" as it's been nicknamed in Cincinnati, has been a place of horrors for opposing offenses in recent seasons.

Since December 2012, when the Cincinnati Bengals started a nine-game regular-season home winning streak, only once has an opposing offense scored 30 or more points. One, the New England Patriots' offense, couldn't even score a touchdown.

So far this very young season, scoring appears to be exactly what the Atlanta Falcons do best. At home against New Orleans last week they scored 37 points in an overtime thriller that was decided when Matt Bryant drove in a game-winning 52-yard field goal. Quarterback Matt Ryan emerged as one of the top offensive players in the NFL's first week, passing for 448 yards and three touchdowns.

When the Bengals and Falcons meet Sunday in Cincinnati, something will have to give. Will the Bengals finally relent and get outscored at home for the first time in a regular-season game in three seasons? Or will the Falcons' offense fail to take off after last week's explosion?

ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure (Atlanta Falcons reporter) and Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) are here to help you preview the matchup:

Harvey: Let's start with you, Vaughn. Ryan’s right arm was the story for the Falcons against New Orleans last weekend. What kind of message do you think his performance sent the league?

McClure: I think the message here is that Ryan is definitely among the league’s elite quarterbacks, when he has time to throw. Last year, he was the most pressured quarterback in the league and didn’t have time to step up in the pocket and go deep. Against the Saints, I think we saw how beneficial it was for Ryan to have a big, strong right guard protecting him in offseason acquisition Jon Asamoah. Ryan didn’t have pressure in his face like he did last year when the Saints came to the Georgia Dome. And Ryan showed off some surprising mobility, that he says he’s always had inside of him, to extend plays. A large part of that was him, but he also had noticeable space to work with due to better protection. Ryan was sacked just once against the Saints. If he continues to stay upright, and his primary weapons in Julio Jones, Roddy White, Devin Hester and Harry Douglas stay healthy, he should put up astronomical numbers this year.

Speaking of quarterbacks, I've had my doubts about Andy Dalton, and then he gets rewarded with a contract extension. What makes you believe he was a worthwhile investment and where does he need to improve the most this season?

Harvey: Two words: Hue Jackson. Not long after the Bengals promoted Jackson to offensive coordinator, and not long after he began telling reporters here what his offensive approach would be, I became sold on the fact it would be wise for the Bengals to invest in Dalton before this season. Why? Because I believe Jackson's scheme and tough-as-nails coaching is going to put Dalton in more favorable positions than he's been in at any point of his career. I'm serious when I say this. We'll see if Jackson's in Cincinnati this time next year. This offense has the potential to be that good. Already we've seen Dalton play relatively clean football. He didn't have a turnover in the preseason against the Chiefs', Jets' and Cardinals' first-team defenses, and he didn't have one against the Ravens last Sunday. He's starting to showcase some of his old college mobility with the read option, and he's giving defenses looks he hadn't previously shown. He also came into the season passing better, following instructions from quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and off-team throwing instructor Tom House. Dalton still has to show his decision-making has improved, and he needs to clean up his read-option play. Otherwise, he's in line for a big year.

Atlanta’s offense has gotten most of the headlines the past couple of seasons. Having a combination like Ryan, Jones, White and Tony Gonzalez will do that. What does the Falcons’ defense have to do in this game to prove that last week's 34 points allowed was an aberration, and that it can have an impact, too?

McClure: The Falcons won’t boast a top-10 defense this season, probably not even a top-15 defense. But they don’t have to if the offense continues to put points on the board. What the defense needs to do is come up with timely turnovers, as it did with William Moore's forced fumble in overtime of the opener, which set up Bryant’s game-winning field goal. The defense needs to be much better on third down, and a big part of that will be avoiding penalties in third-down situations. The Falcons also have to surrender fewer explosive plays, which really was a regular occurrence last year. There’s a tremendous concern about the lack of pressure up front, particularly after no sacks were recorded against the Saints. But they were up against Drew Brees, arguably the best in the business with his footwork and getting the ball out quickly. If the Falcons can just generate adequate pressure despite not having an elite pass-rusher, life will be much easier.

I know a couple of key players on defense exited the last game early. Is Geno Atkins ready to go and is Vontaze Burfict going to be cleared off a concussion? How will it change the dynamic of the defense if Burfict's not ready?

Harvey: As I'm typing this, there appears to be a greater deal of uncertainty over Atkins than we originally thought. After reporters saw Atkins get carted into the locker room after Sunday’s game, head coach Marvin Lewis said he believed the defensive tackle was just dehydrated. Lo and behold, Atkins didn’t practice Wednesday and was listed as having a “feet” injury. It’s possible Devon Still’s activation this week had something to do with Atkins possibly being unable to go this week. As for Burfict, it depends in part on whether he's able to practice Friday. But even then, that's not necessarily the best barometer of showing whether he'll play Sunday. Offensive tackle Andre Smith took two weeks at the end of the preseason to pass the concussion protocol and be allowed to practice. He didn't play in a single preseason game, though, per doctor's orders. If Burfict isn't able to play, you'll see a lot of Vincent Rey. The backup can play any linebacker position and became a fan favorite last year after performing well in relief of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Without Burfict, the Bengals may have to adjust their pass rush and send pressure from other areas of the secondary. Last week, safety Reggie Nelson blitzed a lot after Burfict's departure.

Steven Jackson had a decent showing last week with his 12 carries for 52 yards. How confident are people around the team in him after last year’s injury struggles and comparative lack of production?

McClure: Some folks are going to lobby for other players such as Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman to take carries away from Jackson. Of course, Jackson is the aging veteran at 31. But what people sometimes underestimate is the value he brings as a punishing tone-setter at the start of games. And if playing a four-back committee works as well as it did in the opener, Jackson will simply be fresher to pick up the tough yards in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He doesn’t need to gain 100 yards per game. That’s the old Jackson. But picking up a handful of first downs, breaking off a long run here and there and helping the Falcons achieve their 75 percent conversion target in short-yardage situations means Jackson’s doing his job. He just needs to stay healthy and hope hamstring issues don’t resurface.

I fully expect the Falcons to give added defensive attention to A.J. Green. If that occurs, which player do you expect to take advantage the most in one-on-one situations?

Harvey: I probably would have said tight end Tyler Eifert. But with Eifert now out with an elbow injury, I'm going to go with a combination of Mohamed Sanu and running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Sanu is the Bengals' No. 2 receiver right now with Marvin Jones still out with a foot injury, and he has been impressive since training camp. He's a player who can take advantage of mismatches, and one who can be used in a variety of ways. Not only will he catch passes but he'll run the ball some, too. He might even pass the ball if the situation presents itself. He has a pretty spiral when he throws. Along with Sanu, Bernard and Hill could be key in the screen and short-yardage passing game. Last week Bernard had the most targets of any Bengals pass-catcher with 10.