Taking a small break from examining the Falcons potential free agents and whether to sign ‘em or send ‘em, thought it might be intriguing to take a look at the teams playing in the conference championships and what the Birds can learn from their successful runs this year, and overall franchise. Obviously, these teams are probably built differently and asking the Falcons to throw the ball like the Colts might be a stretch, or playing the 3-4 defense like the Jets would likely be out of reach as well. The idea is to examine some certain philosophies, schemes, and systems that might benefit the Falcons as they attempt to build a long-run winner that can not just make the playoffs, but reach the ultimate game as the Saints, Colts, Vikings, and Jets have this Sunday.
The Falcons were the last team to beat the Jets and they have gone on an amazing run since then, going into both Cincinnati and San Diego after being underdogs in each contest and pulling out improbable wins. The Jets success is well-documented, run the ball and play aggressively tough defense. Probably the biggest asset of the Jets is their outstanding offensive line, allowing both running backs, veteran Thomas Jones and rookie Shonn Greene to run wild, and play ball-control offense. It’s a tried and true success for all of football, especially the NFL playoffs. As a franchise, you have to admire the Jets ability to take risks and make bold moves that might help them. They signed several free agents that weren’t cheap Alan Faneca (LG) and Bart Scott (ILB), and brought in other guys that would help them with Rex Ryan’s new defense in Jim Leonhard (SS). The Jets rolled the dice and moved up to take Mark Sanchez in the first round and also moved to take Shonn Greene in the second round. They weren’t yet done either. They made a move to trade for then beleaguered wide receiver Braylon Edwards. Fortune sometimes favors the bold and its paying off now. Add that to the swagger that Ryan has brought to the team, and you see why they’re one game away from the Super Bowl. The Tony Gonzalez deal and Michael Turner acquisition ranks up there as bold, but will the Falcons pay top dollar for an offensive tackle, cornerback, or defensive end?
Everyone knows about the Saints high-flying offense, but one of their greatest strengths is their depth, particularly on offense. They took a no-brainer in selecting Reggie Bush as the #2 overall pick in 2006, but they have been at their best when they added tough running backs Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Lynell Hamilton. They didn’t hesitate to sign Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister when their cornerbacks were hurt during the year. The Saints have hit on some big-time draft picks in Sean Payton’s era as well: Marques Colston (7th), Tracy Porter (2nd), Roman Harper (2nd), and Carl Nicks (5th). Like the Jets, they went big and bold when they felt it necessary as well. The Saints signed Drew Brees, and made trades for Jonathan Vilma and Jeremy Shockey. Besides the Saints good personnel decisions, Payton does an amazing job of spreading the ball around. The coach makes sure to get Devery Henderson, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, Jeremy Shockey, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell, and Heath Evans before he was injured. TD will be on his third draft so that ones still up on the air. But when you compare Payton’s ability to spread the ball to many threats to Mularkey and the Falcons zeroing in Roddy White, Michael Turner, and Tony Gonzalez most of the time, its easy to see an area for improvement.
The Vikings have put an emphasis on the being big, strong, and aggressive on both lines of the football. It starts with their two defensive tackles and goes on from there. Both Pat Williams and Kevin Williams are well over 300 pounds and absolutely clog the middle. Not being satisfied with just those two, the Vikings went out and added Jared Allen to the line through a trade with Kansas City and he has absolutely flourished. After putting an emphasis on the defensive line and their players drawing double teams, opposite DE Ray Edwards has completed the line and is a force to reckon with. Throw in some tough and speedy linebackers and aggressive cornerbacks and you have the makings for one of the leagues best defenses. They don’t fall short on the offensive line either. After having bookend Bryant McKinnie, the Vikings signed Steve Hutchison, the highest paid guard at the time, and even added mammoth Phil Loadholt (6’8, 343) at right tackle in this year’s draft. They have drafted receivers, given them due time and they have thrived. Sidney Rice caught 3 TDs in the playoff win over the Cowboys and Percy Harvin won Offensive Rookie of the Year, even after many were scared away due to his failed drug test. They didn’t give up on Brett Favre, took the PR hit, and are so very close to a date in Miami. Have the Falcons taken many risks? Do they need to? By comparison, the Falcons offensive and defensive lines are minor lightweights compared to the goliaths in Minnesota.
What else can be said of the Colts organization? They have a superior scouting department and are unbelievably good at mining talent and knowing when to part ways with aging veterans. They know to build their team around Peyton Manning and it has obviously paid huge dividends. The Colts knew they had to protect their investment on the OL and either drafted or signed some great ones in Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem, and Ryan Lilja. They have done a particularly good job of drafting receivers. Reggie Wayne goes without saying, but losing Anthony Gonzalez didn’t have them miss a beat. It helped when they mined excellent talent in Austin Collie (5th round) and Pierre Garcon (6th round). They knew when to let Edgerrin James walk; enter Joseph Addai, and as Addai started to slide, enter Donald Brown. They have one of the best abilities to reload instead of rebuilding. That’s not even considering they have a rookie coach. Stability has been an amazingly positive force for the Colts. The defense has many no-name players, other than Dwight Freeney and Kelvin Hayden, but they are tough and aggressive and love to fly under the radar. Dimitroff and Coach Smith have added stability, but will they protect Ryan as Manning has done? And will they provide him with a multitude of weapons as they’ve done for Peyton in Indianapolis?