Brian Van Gorder and Coach Mike Smith both have very proud backgrounds in terms of running a defense. Van Gorder of course was an excellent defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia and helped engineer them to being a perennial contender and guided one of the best defenses in the country. Just ask Georgia fans how they feel about Van Gorder and how the program’s done since then and you quickly get a pretty strong response. Mike Smith turned the Jacksonville Jaguars defense into one of the best in the league, which of course led him to becoming the Falcons head coach. There’s no question that the defense has improved under Van Gorder’s tutelage, but the meltdown collapse witnessed on the biggest stage of the NFL was so painful that the fans are still smarting from the loss. The offense definitely played really awful themselves, but the feeling among most is that even if the offense had been clicking on all cylinders, the defense couldn’t stop a cold and Green Bay could’ve even put their punter in street clothes. It was one of the worst and most embarrassing performances probably in NFL playoff history.
The defense has been a work in progress and fans have been considerably patient. Thomas Dimitroff let 5 defensive starters walk after his first year as General Manager. He parted ways with Lawyer Milloy, Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, Grady Jackson, and Dominique Foxworth. Dimitroff also traded starting cornerback Chris Houston the following year. In fact, some of the only holdovers from the 2008 defense are John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux, and Curtis Lofton. That’s over a 70% turnover in just two years. So fans have understood that it definitely take some times and some bumps while injecting so much youth and so many new starters.
Dimitroff has added playmakers across the board. He has spent his last two number 1 draft picks on defense in Peria Jerry and Sean Weatherspoon. Unfortunately, both have had injury issues so their true potential may not be truly known (which leads to another question about Falcons rookies often getting injured and if there’s an issue with development, but that’s for another time). Dimitroff even spent most all of the 2009 draft on defense, adding William Moore, Chris Owens, Lawrence Sidbury, Spencer Adkins, and Vance Walker. He also added Corey Peters, Dominique Franks, and Shann Schillinger. Perhaps Dimitroff didn’t strike gold on every draft pick (the Jerry pick seems the most painfully obvious), but to argue that there’s a lack of talent is hard to buy. Even though Dunta Robinson didn’t have a spectacular year, he was roundly regarded as one of the best cornerback free agents on the market. Something has to give here, and the coaching gets most of the blame. By comparison, Dom Capers took a Green Bay defense that was ranked 21st in the league and moved them into the top 5 just in one year alone, not to mention the fact that he changed from a 4-3 to 3-4. They are now among the top 5 in every almost every single category and one win away from hoisting the Lombardi. Simply put, no more excuses.
They are good against the run, one of the best on limiting points on the boards, and have definitely improved on interceptions. But that’s about where it stops. While some areas have improved, they haven’t gotten better in proportion to the amount of money and effort that has gone to getting the defense as one of the best. Problems that have plagued this defense from the first year this regime took over are glaringly still issues. That includes: getting off the field on third down, getting a consistent pass rush, and an overall wretched secondary. Just as the offensive coaching is getting hammered for being entirely too conservative, the defense shares the exact same blame. Basic fundamentals are also a serious concern with weak tackling on all three levels. Aaron Rodgers just spun off another would be tackler. There were at least 4 or 5 3rd down plays where a Falcon defender had their chance to bring down Aaron Rodgers and he simply sidestepped them as if he were playing a video game. Those could have made an enormous difference in the game and at least made it more competitive.
Personnel can definitely be blamed for the defensive end position, where not one single player has been able to get any pass rush with one of the best defensive ends on the other side. Some thought Biermann might be that guy, but he doesn’t seem to be a frontline starter after only nabbing 3 sacks and 36 tackles. Chauncey Davis and Jamaal Anderson have proven to have great versatility, but certainly aren’t starters. Lawrence Sidbury didn’t see the field at all this year, which has to fall at the feet of the coaches and player development. But while most defenses are never perfect, the Falcons do have talent. While Van Gorder was known for his hard-hitting and aggressive defenses at Georgia, that has pretty much evaporated in Atlanta. Some believe that Coach Smith is heavily involved in the defense and that it mirrors his conservative, bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. Irregardless of who’s mainly to blame, the defense must improve or other coordinators may be in the future.
With requisite apologies where needed, the NFL jury has rendered its verdict on being conservative on defense and using the bend-but-don’t-break: IT DOESN’T WORK! Sure, it can help win some games assuming everything is going your way, but when you run into a high-powered offense like Green Bay sounds of a buzz saw come to mind. It was mentioned that Rodgers performance in Atlanta (at home in the Georgia Dome) was one of the best performances by a quarterback in NFL history. Embarrassing. Teams that win get pressure on the quarterback and the backfield win. Check the recent Super Bowl winners and ask yourselves if they let the offense dictate to them. Do the Steelers, Jets, and Packers run a bend-but-don’t broke defense? Why did the rival New Orleans Saints win the Lombardi Trophy last year? They always had a great offense, but they won the whole thing with an equally aggressive and opportunistic defense. Some thought that we’d finally seen the “true” Falcons defense when they were aggressive against New Orleans in the 15th game of the year, which still resulted in a loss. Similar to the offensive issues, the defense is pretty predictable and the blitzing schemes are stale and lack serious creativity. Simply sending your nickel back into blitz (unsuccessfully) when every single person watching knows what’s coming doesn’t count as a good blitz scheme. One point of strength in Smith’s philosophy of keeping the defensive linemen fresh may actually hinder them some. Perhaps they need the same continuity and rhythm that quarterbacks and running backs do. Who knows.
Another point that has to be mentioned is the failure of players to be developed on the defensive side of the ball. Maybe Dimitroff has been that bad in terms of drafting cornerbacks since 3 of them are no longer even with the team (Chevis Jackson, William Middleton, and Wilrey Fontenot), but its hard to imagine that every single cornerback drafted didn’t have potential. There seems to be a hesitancy on this coaching staff to keep players out until they believe they’re completely ready, but its hard to explain how Lawrence Sidbury played as a rookie, notched a sack and a touchdown and then goes completely missing this year. Dominique Franks is in the same category. He was roundly considered a huge steal by all analysts and even showed promise in preseason only to get no snaps during the year. Spencer Adkins was supposedly raw talent and had speed to burn coupled with a ferocity in hitting and hasn’t glimpsed the field except for special teams. Thomas DeCoud had an amazing first year as a starter and followed that up with a very sub-par year this year with seemingly much more help at cornerback and at strong safety.
Even though the defense is disciplined in certain aspects, they lack the basic fundamentals many times. They have an issue with tackling. How many times did the Falcons get a hand or a shoulder on an opposing player, only to see them break free for another 10+ yards? How often were defenders an inch away from making a big sack, only to see the quarterback or running back push off and make a play? Sometimes the defensive players go for a kill shot and miss the player altogether. Better tackling alone could make a large improvement. Maybe the easier practices have something to do with that. They also have a major problem with blitzing. Many times they were in a great position to make a big sack, but were out of control when they got there, allowing the opposing player to produce a play of their own. This could be due to the fact that they weren’t used to blitzing and just need more practice or this might be due to more fundamentals. Regardless of the reasons, the fundamentals have to improve.
Detailed analysis of positions will be topic of next post.
-How would you rate this defense as it currently stands?
-What immediate improvements are needed?
-Who gets the lion’s share of the blame: Van Gorder, Smith, or Both?
-Has Dimitroff drafted poorly on defense?
-Is the problem a lack of personnel or simply coaching?
-Do you like or hate the bend-but-don’t-break defense?
-Is the defense entirely too conservative?
-Has the defense improved enough giving the time and turnover?
-Should a major philosophy change be in order or was it just one bad game?
-Is it OK to give up tons of yards as long as few points are scored?
-Are the defensive coaches just doing the best with what they have?
-Do the Falcons have a player development problem?
-Are the Falcons really weak in basic fundamentals?
-Has the secondary really progressed since 2008?
-How would you fix the defense?