Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan talks with the media about facing an Oakland Raiders team coming off a bye week. Ryan also comments on Tony Gonzalez and his team’s well balanced offense. FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons coach Mike Smith has sounded the five-alarm fire siren. His team’s run defense needs to step it up real fast.
“That’s something that we have to do,” safety William Moore said. “It’s not even an option.”
Everything from the scheme to the personnel is being re-evaluated by the coaching staff.
The defense has given up 142.8 yards per game, which ranks 27th in the NFL. Denver’s Willis McGahee (113) and Washington’s Alfred Morris (115) rushed for more than 100 yards against the Falcons.
Despite a 5-0 record, the best record in the NFC, there is a sense of urgency about improving the run defense.
“To me personally, it’s embarrassing to be ranked where we are ranked because I know the type of guys that we have,” Moore said. “We have some tough running backs that we are going to be facing. It’s not being physical that’s the problem. …
“We have to figure it out, and it’s got to happen fast.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has three tenets to stopping the run: 1) Set the edge, 2) Create a wall and 3) Secure the cutback lane.
At different times, the defense hasn’t been able to accomplish those goals. Morris had success getting to the edge because the wall wasn’t created. There haven’t been many big cutback runs.
Nolan notes that the Falcons have played against five talented quarterbacks in Matt Cassel, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III and focused on stopping them, perhaps in lieu of their team’s rushing attacks.
“I think just the difference of the guys and putting our emphasis on the quarterback, less on the run,” Nolan said. “At the same time, there is really no excuse. There are certain things we have done where we haven’t even fit right, [which are] the things we do in practice. … We have just got to shore that up because at some point that can cost you a game.”
Nolan expects the Raiders, who rank last in the NFL in rushing at 60.8 yards per game, to give it a hardy try against the Falcons.
“Run defense is an area we have to do a better job,” Nolan said. “Running the ball would be the obvious thing for them to do because, to this point, we need to do a better job on being consistent stopping it, and we haven’t been. I would think that’s what they would do.”
Safety Thomas DeCoud believes the defense simply needs to execute Nolan’s three rules much better.
“We just have to tune into that and make sure that we stay gap-sound up front,” DeCoud said. “In the secondary we have to come up and fill in where needed.”
The drop in production from last season is shocking.
With Curtis Lofton patrolling the middle, the defense finished ranked sixth in the NFL against the run (97 yards per game) last season. He was signed by New Orleans in free agency and has been replaced by second-year player Akeem Dent, but the team has used the nickel formation on a majority of their snaps.
The only other new starters on defense are cornerback Asante Samuel, who’s been strong in run support, and defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who’s starting in place of Corey Peters.
So, the issue may indeed be related to the schemes that Nolan has used to combat the top quarterbacks the Falcons have faced.
“There are certain plays that we haven’t been able to stop,” weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We just have got to keep watching the tape and focus on the run game. We know what we have to do.”
The Falcons see stopping Oakland’s Darren McFadden as a major challenge, despite his average of only 3.4 yards per carry.
“We know what type of back that we have,” Weatherspoon said. “He’s an explosive back. He’s a guy that likes to get downhill on you; he’ll make one cut, and he’s a sprinter. We have our hands full this week.”
McFadden has 57 carries for 201 yards and one touchdown, a 64-yard scamper against Pittsburgh.
“He’s probably the best back that we’ve seen,” DeCoud said. “The most dynamic back because he can run the ball very well, hit the holes and get upfield. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s pretty much the most dynamic back that we’ve seen so far.”