FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Mike Smith stole a page out his brother-in-law’s coaching book back from his days as an assistant in Baltimore.
Smith, in a ploy to keep his team focused on short-term goals, breaks the season up in to quarters when discussing the outlook with the players, who had Monday and Tuesday off.
He admits to borrowing the approach from Brian Billick (the two are married to sisters), his old boss with the Ravens.
“Guys are going to look ahead. It’s just human nature to look ahead, but you want to have it where they don’t get too far ahead of themselves,” Smith said. “By breaking it up by quarters gives you emphasis points.”
The Falcons (4-0) went undefeated in the first quarter and are one of three undefeated teams remaining in the league with Houston and Arizona.
“We’ve started out fast, but it’s just a start,” Smith said. “The guys have worked hard. When we meet on Wednesday, the thing we’ll be talking about is the start of the second quarter of the season. The first quarter is behind us and we are moving on to the next mission.”
So far, so good. The Falcons have a four-game lead over the defending NFC South champion New Orleans Saints (0-4) and a three-game lead over Tampa Bay (1-3) and Carolina (1-3).
“I’m aware it, but I don’t pay attention to it,” Smith said. “This early in the season, you’ve got to concern yourself with your team. You don’t even think about what’s going on with the other teams until you’re getting ready to play them. So I’m familiar with what Washington did yesterday [a two-point win over Tampa Bay].”
The Falcons have opened the season 4-0 just twice before in franchise history, in 2004 and 1986. The Falcons have never opened a NFL season at 5-0 since opening play in 1966.
Before the start of the first quarter, the Falcons concentrated on the fact that they were facing three AFC West teams before closing it out with division foe Carolina.
Looking ahead to the second quarter, the Falcons will begin their tour of the NFC East (Washington on Sunday, at Philadelphia on Oct. 28 and Dallas on Nov. 4) and also play their last AFC West (Oakland on Oct. 14) team before getting into the meat of their division schedule in the second half of the season.
“You’ve got to have focus on the task at hand first and foremost,” Smith said. “That’s the next game, but it’s always important for you to have some vision down the road. I don’t want you to get too far down the road, but I think you can put an emphasis on it.”
The Falcons have some fabulous take-aways from the first quarter.
Both of the new coordinators have installed massive tweaks to schemes that are working.
Offensively, the team has been able to attack via the air while spreading the ball around. Also, the screen game has paid dividends under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
The pass protection had been stout until the Panthers romped around the Georgia Dome, amassing seven sacks and 12 quarterback hits on Sunday.
But Smith is not placing all of the blame on the offensive line.
Smith and wide receiver Roddy White pointed out that receivers were not breaking off routes in some blitz situations and that forced quarterback Matt Ryan to hold the ball longer than the play required. Also, Carolina appeared to sit on some of Ryan’s favorite routes.
“There are a lot of factors that go into protecting the quarterback,” Smith said. “We gave up way too many sacks in the game, but they weren’t all on the offensive line. I can assure you that. It was an effort that everybody was a part of. … We’ve got to shore up our pass protection.”
The Falcons have run the football better the last two games (240 yards in 45 attempts) after struggling against Kansas City and Denver.
“It was an impressive job with the run-blocking,” said Smith of the Carolina game. “The guys did a nice job. We got Michael [Turner] going north and south. He did a great job on yards after contact.”
Defensively, the Falcons have played an opportunistic brand of football that has led to an 12-to-2 turnover ratio.
The unit 29th against the run (146.2 yards per game), ninth against the pass (206.8 yards) and it has forced the opposing quarterbacks into a passer rating of 68.7, which is fifth lowest in the NFL.