It’s finally here Ladies and Gents…the big matchup we’ve been waiting for since the 2010 schedule was announced to air as the first Thursday Night Football Game on NFL Network. Take your pick of the story lines. Of course the Matt Ryan vs. Joe Flacco debate will be analyzed ad nauseum. The two teams have identical records at 6-2 and are tied for their respective division leads. Can the Falcons pass a test against one of the “big boys” of the NFL? Could this really be considered a Super Bowl preview? And of course Mike Smith won his only Super Bowl ring with the Ravens in 2000 as an assistant coach. Assuming this game plays out like many think it will, it’s hard to imagine NFL Network matching this one the rest of the year. Six searing questions as the Big Bad Ravens come to town………….
This will finally give a good barometer of what the 2010 Atlanta Falcons truly represent. They of course had their signature win of the season when they beat the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints in their house in New Orleans, but they’ve also had problems when running up against some of the elite teams in the NFL. They missed a big opportunity to steal a game from the franchise with the most Super Bowl Titles in Pittsburgh and they were flat out embarrassed by Philadelphia minus their best player. They’ve missed opportunities against New England, Dallas, and Philadelphia in recent years. They have them at home and an enormous chance to prove they’re for real and quiet some of the whispers that they’re close, but definitely not an elite team just yet. They won’t get a much bigger audience than this one. A nice road schedule could set up after this one with games at St. Louis, Seattle, and Carolina coming up soon if they could win.
The stats are well-known and documented. The Falcons, and specifically Coaches Mike Smith and Mike Mularkey, have a very difficult time against the 3-4 defense. Going back to 2008, the Falcons have had little success on the 3-4. Whether it be the Patriots, 49ers, Browns, or Steelers, the Birds simply struggle to run the ball, set the tone, and open up the passing game. The lineman struggle to block, the backs can’t get over 2-3 yards, the receivers can’t get open, Matt Ryan is off rhythm, and Mularkey gets stuck in cement. The Falcons only entertain one of the best 3-4 defenses in the league for the last decade on Thursday night. Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, shall we continue? This much is true, the Falcons coaching staff better get this enigma solved because over half the teams in the NFL have converted to the 3-4 defense.
Wait…don’t answer that question. As has been mentioned before over and over, the Falcons special teams is guaranteed to have at least one or two special teams breakdowns during the game. They can and have come from anywhere: kickoff coverage, paltry kick and punt returns, punt coverage, blocked punts, blocked field goals, and the list goes on and on. It’s really hard for fans to understand this because special teams have been a hallmark under Coach Mike Smith and specifically under Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong. For whatever reason, whether it be the players, the coaching, or the schemes, the bottom appears to have just fallen out. Mistakes can surely happen any time, but this has been a running plane crash this season. It could be argued that special teams already cost the Falcons one game (missed FG, clipping on return in OT, and shanked punt against Steelers). And they have certainly led to some close calls and near giveaways in other games (49ers, Browns, Saints), and very nearly cost them a game all by themselves (Bucs).
Problems often happen and no fans will begrudge a few errors, but this is ridiculous. The special teams unit completely allowed the Bucs to climb right back in the game TWICE. Once up 14-0 and a huge kick return leads to 14-7 and then the Falcons pulling away 27-14 and another one brings them right back in it again, 27-21. On the other end, the Falcons strike absolutely no fear whatsoever in anyone with their return units. Perhaps Eric Weems gets too much blame, but he simply adds very little element of production in those areas. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but Harry Douglas absolutely did. Blocking surely isn’t up to par, but the front office deserves a lion’s share of the blame for creating zero competition at that position. They could have had Jerious Norwood in their plans for that area, but we’ll never know. Straight forward, the special teams unit will cost the Birds a game or two if this continues. Or at least make everything entirely much harder than it needs to be. Take a look at how young Tampa Bay’s special teams unit is and compare.
The stat is insanely impressive: the Falcons are 17-1 at home when Matt Ryan starts at quarterback. And truth be told, the only loss could have easily been a victory if Roddy White catches the touchdown pass against the Broncos or our defensive back stops a 3rd and long bomb to Brandon Marshall at the end of the game, but now we’re nitpicking. That will be put to the test against the Ravens on many fronts, but none other than the offensive line’s ability to not only open holes for the running backs but also protect Matt Ryan from what’s surely to be a heavy amount of blitzing. They have mammoth Haloti Ngata at LDE, Ray Lewis at MLB, Terrell Suggs at OLB, and two of the best safeties in the league in Ed Reed and Dawan Landry. The offensive line will absolutely have to be on their A Game to win this one. The running backs and tight ends will have to help out extremely well on this talented and aggressive defense. It’s fairly safe to say that Matt Ryan flourishes when he gets into rhythm and struggles when he doesn’t. If the OL can’t provide him time, than it could be a long night.
One of the key matchups will be if the Falcons defense can contain (not stop) the ultra-talented and versatile running back Ray Rice. Rice burst onto the scene last year and hasn’t looked back since. He is tough, fast, and a superb back in the passing game. He is averaging 4.0 yards on the ground and a whopping 7.6 through the air. The Falcons have shown they can shut down the running game, but without rookie Sean Weatherspoon’s coverage skills, Rice may go wild in the short passing attack. Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson are tough, gritty, and fast but they have their issues in coverage. Fans already know about Curtis Lofton’s struggles in coverage. As ChopBuster mentioned the other night, why not try and mix it up and be creative on defense. Drop William Moore or Chris Owens down to OLB while leaving Erik Coleman in the game. Mix it up, because if Rice has a field day it won’t be a pretty ending.
Where are the Falcons wide receivers not named Roddy White or Tony Gonzalez? White goes over 200 yards with ease and beats double teams all day and Gonzalez gets double and brackets and still manages to get open. Jenkins has had a few good catches since returning, but nothing to write home about. Finneran has had a few as well (mainly red zone looks), but definitely not a consistent part of the passing game. The big players missing in action are the speedy slots. Harry Douglas was off to a good start and really stretching the field even if not making the TD and has been noticeably absent recently. Eric Weems obviously has talent, but never has an impact on the aerial game. Perhaps it’s not the players but the scheme. The Falcons won’t be confused with Eagles in terms of WR depth, but they certainly have playmakers and little to show for it. Is it Jenkins/Douglas/Finneran/Weems, Matt Ryan, Mike Mularkey, or all of the above. Please help explain.
-Straight out……who wins?
-Will Falcons be Contenders or Pretenders?
-Too much emphasis on a non-conference game?
-Are you worried about Thursday Night in The Dome?
-Will you cover your eyes with our secondary?
-What’s the deal with our secondary: players, coaching, DL, or scheme?
-How much does Flacco, Rice, Boldin, Mason, and Houshmanzadeh scare you?
-Will we succumb to the 3-4 curse yet again?
-Why do we struggle with the 3-4?
-Can special teams get any worse?
-Where did this Spec Teams collapse come from?
-Will the O-Line show up against the tough Ravens D?
-Can Falcons contain Ray Rice?
-What’s up with the Falcons wide receivers?