If the Dallas Cowboys pass rush, a vaunted machine last season, wishes to use week six in order to return to form, they'll have to do so in the face of one of the league's best (statistically) offensive lines. The Falcons made sure of it by bringing in a fiery line coach last season, and it's no small reason for their recent success.
Atlanta has surrendered two sacks this season, good enough to tie the Giants and the Colts in this regard.
Of course, Dallas' pass rush has made strides of late. Jay Ratliff is (probably) on his way to another Pro Bowl; DeMarcus Ware sacked Matt Cassell twice a week after beginning work with former Cowboys QB-killer Charles Haley; even Marcus Spears, who is by definition, as an end in a 3-4, no sack machine, got one against Kansas City.
But four of Dallas's ten sacks came against the hodgepodge Kansas City offensive line, which might be slightly worse than that of the University of Florida; that is, this was no true test, nothing like what Dallas's defenders will be up against when Atlanta comes to town.
Line coach Paul Boudreau came to Atlanta last season from St. Louis, and reduced the amount of sacks surrendered by 30. That Ryan immediately excelled in the NFL might be a wonder; but the fact that he was kept on his feet--a luxury not afforded Troy Aikman, or, say, David Carr--can explain a lot of it.
The seemingly overnight turnaround of the franchise (Vick who?), in fact, seems to emphasize the effect of a solid front. This is illustrated by the unit's two most egregious failures last season, as chronicled by Rick Gosselin today in the Dallas Morning News: "The Buccaneers sacked Ryan a career-high four times last season and whipped the Falcons, 24-9. The Cardinals sacked him three times in the playoffs and eliminated the Falcons, 30-24. Ryan committed five turnovers in those two losses."
This season, the Falcons have turned the ball over only seven times, on their way to a 4-1 record coming into Dallas. Needless to say, the Cowboys defense, a unit expected to come close to, if not match their effort in 2008, regardless of opposition--has their work cut out for them; for the fans, it's time to see if--in the words of a flustered Dennis Green--they are who we thought they were.