Covering elite wide receivers like Roddy White and Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons can sometimes seem like a thankless task for an NFL cornerback. Sometimes, however, the best coverage is a good pass rush.
That's why, although the Miami Dolphins secondary may seem outmatched against the Falcons, their defense as a whole can still get the job done.
It all starts up front. On one side, the Dolphins defensive line is deeper than anyone outside of Miami realizes. On the other side, the Falcons have managed to put up points despite an offensive line that's allowed pass-rushers to break through the trenches at will.
The Dolphins defense has created some form of pressure on 52 of 109 (47.7 percent) of its opponents' dropbacks in 2013. The Falcons have allowed pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan on 41.4 percent of his dropbacks, and they grade out as the fourth-worst offensive line in pass-blocking efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The most glaring weakness for Atlanta—and, conversely, the biggest strength for Miami—is on the edges.
Falcons offensive tackles Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes have combined to allow 16 hurries, eight hits and two sacks on Ryan this season.
We know defensive end Cameron Wake will be at one defensive end spot on nearly every snap, but no matter who lines up opposite Wake—whether it's defensive end Derrick Shelby, Olivier Vernon or even rookie Dion Jordan—they'll have a big opportunity to get after the quarterback.
St. Louis Rams defensive ends Chris Long (circled in yellow) and Robert Quinn (circled in red) teamed up for a sack of Ryan on 3rd-and-8 in the third quarter.
Interestingly enough, the two defensive linemen reached the quarterback using completely different techniques.
At left end, Long bull-rushed Holmes straight into Ryan's lap after the right tackle tripped backpedaling into one of his fellow linemates. Off the right edge, Quinn put a speed rush on Baker, dipping his shoulder to quickly work his way around the left tackle.
The two pass-rushers met at the quarterback for their sack party.
Against the New Orleans Saints, Ryan was under duress more than half the time he dropped back to throw. The Dolphins defensive line must be licking its chops.
Cameron Wake has already started hot this season, with three sacks and 12 combined pressures.
Wake's greatest asset is his explosive charge up the field. He bursts off the line of scrimmage and doesn't immediately veer in the direction of the quarterback. Instead, he takes a few long strides straight ahead, using his momentum off the line to blow by the offensive tackle. He then turns the edge once he's gained a step, or even a half-step, on the blocker.
He's traveled a full five yards with just three steps. He doesn't take an angle until his shoulder is already inside the blocker, at which point he dips and bends the corner.
Wake was quiet against the Indianapolis Colts, with just two hurries of quarterback Andrew Luck on the day, but up against offensive tackles that have clear flaws, we might see the beast come uncaged.
That's just on one side of the line, though. What about the rush off the other side?
At present, second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon has earned the majority of the workload, but he's been generally unimpressive as a pass-rusher. Derrick Shelby, on the other hand, has done more with fewer opportunities.
"He's very technically sound, a very good fundamental football player," Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said of Shelby. "He keeps his shoulders square. He has his hands where they are supposed to be. He's smart and instinctive. He's done a really nice job. I really like what he's done."
It would stand to reason we could begin seeing more of Shelby rushing the passer at right end opposite Wake.
The Dolphins also have a rookie defensive end/outside linebacker, No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan, who hasn't seen the field much yet.
The sample size is smaller for both Shelby and Jordan than it is for Vernon, but that's just the point: If Vernon's not getting the job done, it's time to see what the other players can do with the opportunity. They've flashed that ability already, and Shelby's strong performances go back to the preseason (three hurries, one hit, three sacks).
The Falcons offensive tackles are ripe for the feast, and the Dolphins defensive ends could cause havoc in the Falcons backfield on Sunday. That's their best bet to stopping the Falcons high-flying offensive attack.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.