KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural Grass
TV: FOX, Chris Myers, Charles Davis
PREDICTION: Falcons 33-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Browns are evolving into an offense reminiscent of Atlanta's with a power ground game setting up the pass. The problem is they lack a downfield playmaker in the mold of Falcons WR Roddy White and a dominant red zone threat like TE Tony Gonzalez to keep defenses honest. For the fourth consecutive week, the Browns are playing a waiting game with QB Jake Delhomme's right ankle. But whether it's Delhomme or Seneca Wallace under center, RB Peyton Hillis' consecutive 100-yard games has provided an identity for the offense. Hillis has to move the chains because the Browns' secondary is vulnerable and Falcons QB Matt Ryan could get WR Michael Jenkins back opposite White.
FAST FACTS: The Falcons haven't won in Cleveland since 1971. ... Hillis has a rushing touchdown in all four games this season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Falcons spent a great deal of training camp working on blocking against 3-4 defensive schemes.
In their fifth game of the season, they will play their fourth game against a 3-4 front.
The Falcons rushed for 221 yards against Arizona's 3-4 defense and 202 against New Orleans' 4-3. Last week, San Francisco's 3-4 held them to 98 yards on 29 carries. They also struggled in the opener against Pittsburgh's 3-4.
The Falcons average 144.8 yards rushing per game, which ranks fourth in the NFL.
"We've been able to run the ball effectively and throw the ball fairly effectively as well," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I think it's great when you can do it."
The Browns' 3-4, which is run by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, will present different issues.
"I think the front seven is the strength of their defense," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "It's a very experienced group."
The Browns like to stunt and blitz, which leaves their secondary vulnerable at times.
While the Browns held Cincinnati to 67 yards rushing last week, their defense has been vulnerable to the pass. Last week, Cincinnati's Terrell Owens had 222 yards receiving against them, and the week, before Baltimore's Anquan Boldin had 142 yards and three touchdowns.
"The key to a good offense is being able to do whatever you need to do to win, whether if that's running the football or throwing the football," Ryan said. "We've done a pretty good job of that so far."
The Browns, after finishing 31st in the NFL defensively last season, are becoming more physical game by game, and they want the rest of the league to know it, starting with the Falcons, their opponent Sunday in Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Coach Eric Mangini emphasized his players must play within the rules, but he likes the attitude of his defensive players.
"You don't want to get bullied," Mangini said. "At some point you get tired of getting your lunch money taken away. You either fight or go hungry.
"I love that. You want as much of that as you can possibly get. You want to make them go the long, hard way. There's a price to pay for each completion and each run. We're making steps toward that."
Ward isn't the Browns' only big hitter. Linebacker Matt Roth, rookie cornerback Joe Haden, cornerback Sheldon Brown and defensive linemen Robaire Smith, Ahtyba Rubin and Kenyon Coleman are on the list, too.
Roth joined the Browns last December after the Dolphins waived him. By then the Browns were 1-10, so this is like a new beginning for the outside linebacker and former Illinois state high school wrestling champ.
Roth does most of his hitting on tight ends or running backs near the line of scrimmage. As a linebacker, he doesn't get open-field opportunities like Ward and the other defensive backs.
Roth sometimes has to cover the tight end. If he draws that assignment Sunday, it means covering Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time greats. Gonzalez's 1,018 catches, most of them with the Chiefs, are an NFL record for tight ends.
"My whole philosophy is if I knock them on the ground, I don't have to cover them," Roth said.
Gonzalez is familiar with Roth. They met in 2005, '06 and 2008 when Gonzalez was in Kansas City and Roth played for the Dolphins.
"He doesn't have too many moves," Gonzalez said in a conference call from Atlanta. "Just bull-rushin', and a guy that likes to get after it. He has a high motor. He's one of those guys you better be prepared for or he'll embarrass you."
Gonzalez said he has not seen a clip of Ward hitting Shipley, but he said it doesn't matter to him.
"Hard hits are part of the game," he said.
Ward learned an expensive lesson, but he said as his reputation grows, receivers might short-arm the ball or cut their routes short when they are in his area.
"My M.O. is to be a big hitter, but I've never been called a cheap shot in my four years in college," Ward said. "To be labeled as a cheap player or dirty player is kind of surprising.
"I'm not going to change the way I play. It's instinct. You can't stop doing what comes natural. But I can't lay those kinds of hits. I'm worried about repercussions from the league."
Ward could be suspended if he takes down another player the way he leveled Shipley.
--WR Mike Jenkins (shoulder) has been limited in practice and will be a game-time decision.
--LB Sean Weatherspoon (ankle) fully participated in practice Thursday, and it appears he will be ready for the Browns on Sunday.
--LB Curtis Lofton, who leads the Falcons in tackles with 34, has a minor knee injury, but he fully participated in practice Thursday.
--QB Matt Ryan has completed 93 of 149 pass attempts for 978 yards and a 62.4 completion percentage. Ryan has also thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his past three games.
--C Alex Mack missed practice Thursday for the second straight day with a shoulder injury, but coach Eric Mangini expects Mack to play Sunday.
--A calf injury kept special teams ace Nick Sorensen out of practice.
--QB Jake Delhomme (ankle) was limited again, but he moved well and is planning on starting against the Falcons.
--RB Peyton Hillis is an addition to the injury report. He was limited with a thigh injury.
--DL Shaun Rogers practiced on a limited basis. It was the first time he has practiced on a Thursday this season.
--DB DeAngelo Smith was re-signed to the Browns' practice squad. Smith, who played seven games with Detroit last year, was released from Cleveland's practice squad last month.
--DT Boo Robinson was dropped from Cleveland's practice squad.