By Michael Cunningham
FLOWERY BRANCH–Phase one of coach Mike Smith’s plan to keep the Falcons rolling into the playoffs backfired badly.
The Falcons still can get the next part right.
The idea was that the Falcons would go all out to win against the Buccaneers on Sunday even though they already had the NFC’s No. 1 seed wrapped up. So the Falcons played their starters from start to finish and still suffered a 22-17 loss to NFC also-ran Tampa Bay in the Georgia Dome.
Instead of being buoyed by victory, the Falcons were cut down by a bad loss. Rather than maintain momentum, the Falcons saw it halted—and they couldn’t shrug it off to sending out their backups.
The Falcons won’t be able to do anything about it until opening the playoffs on Sunday, Jan. 13 against either Minnesota, Seattle or Washington at 1 p.m. at the Georgia Dome. But Smith has a plan to keep his players and coaches sharp until then.
The Falcons had a bye week in the 2010 playoffs before the Packers pounded them 48-21 on their way to the Super Bowl title. Smith said the lessons learned from the bye-week preparation that season prompted him to come up with a new plan this time.
“We are not going to do anything like we did last time,” Smith said.
The Falcons will practice more frequently — holding four practices — this week. They also will spend less time in practice emulating the schemes run by their potential playoff foes and do more “Falcons on Falcons” work.
The idea is that the different schedule and practice strategies will keep the Falcons primed when they have neither an opponent on which to focus nor a game to get ready for next weekend. Falcons players from the 2010 team said they relaxed back then.
“We probably thought back then like we arrived,” Falcons running back Michael Turner said. “We thought we were better than we were. We didn’t approach the week like we should have, looking back on it. Hopefully we learn from that mistake and will be ready to roll.”
It starts with more work days this time around.
After the Falcons defeated the Panthers in the final regular-season game of 2010, players didn’t have to report to Flowery Branch for practice until Thursday, four days after the game. They then then had the next weekend off.
“The work load is going to be different in terms of the number of days that we work and when we work,” Smith said on Monday. “We did not spend a whole lot of time on the field during our bye week (in 2010). We used it to rest. This year we’re going to spend more time out on the field. We’ll be out on the field four days this week. They won’t be long practices, but we’ll be out on the field.”
With the bye week after the sixth game, breaks after Thursday and Saturday games, Smith believes the team is well rested. With the extra work, Smith plans to sharpen up on the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, which he found lacking in the loss to Tampa Bay.
The Falcons will face the lowest seed to advance from the wild card run. They could see Minnesota if they upset Green Bay. If Green Bay wins, they’d face the winner of the Seattle at Washington game.
The coaches will start preparing for all three teams this week.
Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who wasn’t with the team in 2010, said it will be “weird” to practice without knowing the next opponent.
“I’ve never been in that situation before and I don’t care for it,” he said. “I like to focus on one team. It’s hard when you have as many as four teams you are preparing for. The flip side is there’s no pressure. I look at it as it’s bonus work.”
Ultimately it’s going to be up to the players to make sure they stay ready. The Falcons have said all season they are a different squad after recent playoff failures and this is another way to prove it.
“We just got kind of lax in that week off [in the 2010 playoffs],” Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We lost a little bit of our momentum in 2010. It’s something that we’ve learned from. Now we just have to be mature enough to do what you have to do in that week off to make sure you can be at 100 percent that following week.”