Fans are still savoring the sweet comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sometimes the best wins aren’t where the teams executes flawlessly for 60 minutes and are clicking on all cylinders, but rather when all hope looks lost and the team simply finds a way to win. It’s a worn out adage, but for good reason. The Falcons continue to just find ways to win by any means necessary. The fans and team alike must find a way to come back to Earth and focus solely on the task at hand, which is traveling up Interstate 85 to face the 1-11 Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
What a surprising turn of events that has taken place with the Panthers. Only two short years ago, they were 12-4 in the NFC and owned the #2 overall see with the first round bye. Looking good with the Arizona Cardinals coming to town, they were shellacked 33-13 on their own field and have never really seemed to recover since then. They then went 8-8 last year and it seemed as though John Fox would be on the hottest of seats. The bottom has fallen out and Fox is as good as gone when Black Monday rolls around, but they did manage to beat the Falcons last year with arguably an inferior team. It’s probably a little late in the year to be talking of a trap game, but the Falcons absolutely hold their own destiny in their hands. Even excluding the Saints game at home, if the Birds win out against the Panthers twice and beat the Seattle Seahawks, then they clinch the #1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. All of that starts on Sunday in Charlotte. Six searing questions as the Falcons travel up I-85…..
Sure they’ve helped the Falcons get to a 10-2 record, but even the most ardent supporter will be hard pressed to say the Falcons defense has looked stellar, particularly against the pass. This question has been beaten, stamped, combed over, dissected, and pulled apart a thousand times over, so no need to analyze it anymore regarding what type of defense the Falcons have and why. Truth is, whatever they are doing, its gotten them to a 10-2 record. The run defense has been stout all year long, but evidently just had a bad day. The secondary really is not that bad, just on third down (and specifically on 3rd and long) when they have serious lapses. They are a mixed bag in terms of where they rank statistically: 8th against the run, 26th against the pass, 19th in yards per game, 28th in sacks and 7th in scoring. Yards per game don’t tell the whole story, because guess who’s dead last in the NFL in yards given up? The New England Patriots, who are also 10-2 and completely dismantled the New York Jets on Monday Night Football. The biggest thing is that they are keeping their opponents out of the endzone many more times than not, which has led to a 10-2 record. If they could improve their 3rd and long efficiency, this defense probably would get a lot less criticism.
One would certainly think not since the Falcons are in the very thick of possibly earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the #1 seed in the NFC, and a first round bye. The Falcons have been very fortunate this season (knock on wood) of keeping starters on the field and healthy, but a few players are getting a touch banged up. Even though he is in excellent shape and could go if necessary, will Tony Gonzalez be suiting up this week? Coach Mike Smith elected to give John Abraham the day off against the Rams, who were much more of a threat than the Panthers (at least record wise). Jason Snelling got the day off against Tampa Bay and you could tell he was missed because Turner seemed to wear down quicker, even though he ran extremely well. Sean Weatherspoon is only playing on third down and just hasn’t looked the same since his injury. It’s probably not going to happen, but should Coach Smith consider sitting a few guys as they ready for the final drive and playoffs?
One of the most frustrating things for Falcons fans since the arrival of Coach Mike Smith and DC Brian Van Gorder has been the awfulness on third and long. They struggled in their first year getting off the field on 3rd and long (3rd and 16 in Arizona ring a bell?) and definitely had a serious problem getting off the field on 3rd down with the transition to 5 new starters last year. The bane of fans existence is not the defense as a whole because they do a great job on 1st and 2nd downs, and even many 3rd and shorts, but the 3rd and longs in which it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel (actually as easy as just looking at a barrel). A predictable 3 man rush and dropping 8 guys back to prevent the first down in which allows good QBs like Rodgers, Freeman, Flacco, Brees, and even Bradford to buy time and find their man. Although they don’t have much help from the D-Ends, they have the players to get after the QB in Lofton, Nicholas, Weatherspoon, Peterson, Williams, Owens, Jerry, Moore, DeCoud and Peters. Will they get it together on 3rd and long?
The offense did what they had to do to win the game, but if not for Eric Weems heroics who knows how the offense would have responded. They got the victory, plain and simple, but the offense looked very much out of sync for the first time in a long while, especially for the first 3 quarters. The Birds found some major success on the ground early on, but the Bucs began creeping down in the box and snuffing out most of the intermediate passing attack, almost daring the Falcons to go deep. That’s when the Falcons struggled. It has been a minor issue much of the season, where the Falcons have issues going vertical and spreading out the defense. Fans were begging for Mularkey to open up the playbook and go down the field, but the Bucs continued to jump the short and intermediate routes. When they tried to go down the seam, Ryan was picked off right before halftime which changed the entire dynamic of the game. Ryan is so good at the intermediate game that defenses can’t help but to cheat up. As many have pointed out, this is a wonderful time to pull a pump fake or some double moves to get loose. Ryan and Harry Douglas have still yet to find the deep ball rhythm. If that can finally connect, maybe the deep ball will open with it.
John Abraham hasn’t produced his magnificent 2008 season with 16.5 sacks, but he does have 9 on the season and definitely is the only defensive end that’s getting consistent pressure on the quarterback and the backfield. The defensive tackle position seems to be set for quite some time with Jonathan Babineaux leading the way alongside a great rotation of Corey Peters, Peria Jerry, Vance Walker, and Jamaal Anderson. There does seem to be pressure coming from the inside, but the other defensive end position is a ghost town. Kroy Biermann is a great team player and outworks anyone, but he certainly hasn’t had the year that many thought he might (author included), only registering 1 sack. Chauncey Davis seems to have settled into a good rotation with Biermann and is good against the run and even give good pressure, but can’t close the deal. Jamaal Anderson has gotten some looks on the outside, but has the same issue as Biermann and Davis. Lawrence Sidbury was thought to see a major role this year after flashes as a rookie, but usually winds up on the inactive list. It is true that sacks don’t define a good defense alone, but the vacancy at defensive end with Abraham climbing up in age and there seeming to be no real replacement in the works or much production from the other D-End spot leaves many a little worried. What should the Birds do at D-End?
They are 1-11, but as they say on “Any Given Sunday” anyone can be beat, especially with the parity in the NFL. The Falcons have certainly had their struggles against the Panthers in Charlotte and two of their best players still remain in Jonathan Stewart and the biggest Falcon killer of all, Steve Smith. Both have battled injuries throughout the year and have had a trainwreck at quarterback (are the Cam Newton whispers starting yet?), but they both played a role in last year’s upset against the Falcons. Smith has always seemed to have the Falcons number, even in losses and Jonathan Stewart helped put the game away for good with his 50+ yard jaunt last year late in the game. They’re getting some help from David Gettis at wideout and Mike Goodson at running back. LeGarrette Blount posted a 100 yard game against the Falcons and Jonathan Stewart is exactly in the mold of the big, bruising running back. And the travails of the secondary are well documented. No, this is not the offense of the 2008 Panthers, but they still have some players.
-Will Ryan and HD ever connect on the deep ball this year?
-Did the Bucs give the blueprint to stop the Falcons offense (stop run and intermediate pass)?
-Can Gartrell Johnson take advantage of a big opportunity?
-Could Peele and Palmer pick up Gonzo’s slack if needed?
-Will Grimes the Great and Wonder Weems show out again?
-Can Falcons actually put an opponent away for a change?
-Will Roddy continue his trash-talking ways?
-Simply put….how does this game play out?
-Is the defense getting undue criticism: why – why not?
-Will/Should any of the starters sit?
-Can Van Gorder get the 3rd and long albatross solved?
-3 man rush or time to attack?
-Will offense get back to well-oiled machine?
-One bad day for Ryan or a little concerned?
-Give your answer at D-End?
-Should Anderson or Sidbury get another shot?
-What position SHOULD we draft in 1st round next year?
-What position WILL we draft in 1st round next year?
-Little worried about a trap game?