The Atlanta Falcons are the only undefeated team in the NFL, so why do fans feel so nervous or unfulfilled? After roaring out of the gates to a 3-0 start and looking excellent in all phases of the game, the Birds have come back to Earth a bit and looking pedestrian in all areas of the game, especially on offense. On one hand, the team is showing mettle, heart, and determination in finding ways to win, even if very ugly. However, if it continues for several weeks, a disturbing trend begins to take shape and what once was a strength starts to become a weakness because the team is putting itself in positions to have to win at the last minute due to the overall poor play. The fact is that the Falcons are 6-0, even though they’ve not looked very good lately. But isn’t getting a win, however you attain it, better than losing? Many teams thought to be “dominant” by the media elite talking heads have suffered losses to teams believed to be at the bottom. That speaks to NFL’s parity and winning the first 6 games, however it’s done, is a testament to the Falcons, their coaches, and their players. Whether or not it will serve to benefit or harm in the future is yet to be determined, but the reality is that the Falcons are undefeated and 31 other teams are not. A look at the Raiders game……….
At first, it was a great strength showing determination, mettle, and finding a way to win at the last second. The Falcons didn’t play great against an inspired Panthers team coming off a bye week. They willed themselves to a win with less than a minute. Then came a Redskins game that was filled with major mistakes, slogging around, until they finally put together a TD drive and subsequent defensive stand to win the game. OK, it’s on the road and the Redskins have shown a lot of promise. A third week in a row of not playing good is a disturbing trend and is now becoming a weakness. Fact is, the Falcons are putting themselves in these situations where they must scratch and claw from behind to win the game. No other series identifies it better: Asante Samuel makes a beautiful pick six to seemingly put the game away. Then the Raiders offense commences to go right down the field to score with two minutes and not needing any of their 3 timeouts. Once a great strength of character and will is simply becoming a product a weak and sloppy play.
Let’s all hope it was just one of those days because it was a really bad one. Ryan threw 3 interceptions (all weren’t necessarily his fault), but some were. He seemed to have happy feet due to poor offensive line play. Not all was on him, but he had plenty of bad throws and misfires all on his own. He missed open receivers, threw the ball high, and generally had an awful day all around. Maybe it was just a bad day against a well-schemed defense. Perhaps the play-calling didn’t help any. The lack of running game surely isn’t helping and neither are the drops. Ryan’s had an excellent year to date, but he needs a game like he had vs. San Diego to erase the Raiders performance.
Thank goodness the Falcons found a way to keep John Abraham. The guy is a complete stud and is warming up his Ring of Honor flag as we speak. We as fans always mention Tony Gonzalez when discussing a Falcon that defies age. But Abraham deserves that praise too. He turned 34 this year and many (including this author) wondered how much he had left in the tank. Well, he’s proving once and for all just how awesome he is and by default how anemic our pass rush is without him. He notched 3 sacks, forced a fumble at a crucial time, and got several holding calls against him. In short, he was unblockable. Already, he has 6 sacks in 6 games. Abraham is the man.
No, it wasn’t the worst performance of the year (that would be Carolina with 7 sacks in one game), but this offensive line is causing heartburn for Falcons fans looking forward on the schedule when they play really good defensive lines. They weren’t outright terrible in pass blocking in the beginning of the season, but now they’re looking as bad as last year. And run blocking is another nightmare altogether. But really, how much should have been expected with the EXACT SAME starting offensive line as last year?
Baker is a little better, but not dominant. Blalock is the only rock on the team. Todd McClure is on the downside of 35. Garrett Reynolds is only slightly better than last year and that’s saying very little and many think he would be better at his natural position of tackle anyway. And then there’s Tyson Clabo. He has had an absolutely atrocious year. They’re just not getting it done and it shows. Sure, Michael Turner and the running backs aren’t making plays and the play-calling seems mediocre at best recently, but this is what most fans expected when literally no changes were made. Thomas Dimitroff deserves some criticism for the past of the this line, but he used his first two picks (2nd on Peter Konz, 3rd on Lamar Holmes) on offensive linemen. Why not try these guys out for a few series and see what happens? Why not mix it up some and move some of these guys around? Is one of the best overall linemen in the entire draft (Konz) really not good enough to start somewhere on this offensive line? Of all the issues that’s most maddening fans: Mike Smith and the coaching staff’s refusal to try anything different regarding the offensive line two years running.
This may just be an excuse in trying to make up reasons why the offense has been doing so poorly, but here goes: the Falcons need more speed in the backfield. It’s been well documented here in The Cage about Michael Turner and his slowing down or not fitting in this new offense among many other things. The Falcons coaching staff decided to go with Turner as their feature back this year and, even though a few times he’s done OK, mostly he’s looked completely out of sorts with this new offense. Gone are the days of one of the best lead blocking (and highest paid) fullbacks in the league clearing holes, the days of a power-run first offense, and offensive line opening “garage-sized holes” as Cage member SOMEBODY said. The best running backs in the league simply slow down as they approach 30 years old and especially with Turner having so many carries in such a short amount of time.
The issues go beyond Turner, however. Jacquizz Rodgers was thought to be somewhat of an answer and may even contend for close to 40-50% of Turner’s touches, but that surely has not been the case. Maybe it’s play-calling or just lack of playing time, but Rodgers has not turned into the player many fans expected. On the 3rd and 1 toss play to Rodgers, he had room to get the first down, but was easily caught and dropped for a loss. Even his specialty of catching the ball in space had issues when he bobbled a well-timed screen that could have gone for many yards. The odd man out has definitely been Jason Snelling. Many ream the call to give Snelling the ball on 3rd and short, but many times he tends to run just as hard as Turner and does a better job of hitting the hole. The cold truth is that the Falcon simply don’t have speed at running back and haven’t for quite some time. Antone Smith has shown some serious speed in pre-season only to never get touches in a game. What could it hurt? Look no further than Alfred Morris of the Redskins and Andre Brown of the Giants (filling in for Ahmad Bradshaw) tearing it up this year alone. Like the OL issue, that’s a major thorn for fans as well, a refusal to mix it up and give some guys a few chances. From where it stands now, running back surely could be a candidate for a 1st or 2nd round pick in 2013.
Peria Jerry, Jonathan Babineaux, and Vance Walker have done a good job getting penetration in the backfield so far this season. Thought to be a possible weakness, they’ve done an admirable job overall. But they sure could use a boost, especially in the run game from a guy by the name of Corey Peters. Believed to be the best overall defensive tackle for the Falcons by many fans, Peters has been out the entire season going all the way back to training camp. He may not be ready for the Eagles game, but getting him back on a defense that could tighten up will be a nice shot in the arm.
Not having Stephen Nicholas at full strength really has shown just how fragile the Falcons linebacking corps is. Akeem Dent and Mike Peterson were on the field at the same time many times throughout the game, with Dent playing the entire game. Dent occasionally shows some promise as a very young player in the run game, but he’s just as lost as Curtis Lofton was in pass coverage. As the season wears on, the decision to not sign a linebacker for backup purposes may end up biting the Birds at some point.
Is it the anemic run game? Is it the offensive line? Is Matt Ryan simply coming off his hot start? Are defenses figuring out what the Falcons want to do? Is it just execution, or is it bad play-calling? Who knows exactly why the Falcons have continued to devolve on offense the last three weeks, but this much is certain: it definitely has. The Falcons looked unstoppable against a pretty good San Diego defense, but has hit a wall of sorts since. They left many points on the board vs. Carolina and gave up 7 sacks. They played 3 quarters of weak offensive football in DC before finally getting it together. And they looked as bad as they ever have against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. Whatever the reason, the coaching staff and offense better get some things figured out before a tough part of the schedule starts coming up.
This is nothing new and it has nothing to do with that spectacular off-the-helmet catch he made on the ground, but Harry Douglas should get not only more snaps on offense, but more touches as well. The idea is that it’s impossible to cover all of the Falcons aerial weapons, but despite only a few occurrences, Douglas just doesn’t get that many looks. Either that or Dirk Koetter doesn’t know how to use him correctly. Seemingly, it would be a coordinators dream to have such an explosive slot man (and to his credit, he’s giving him more looks than Mularkey did), but he never seems to get chances to do what he does best which is to catch and run in space. Perhaps this is more of a critique on formations (3 receiver, 1 TE, single back) sets than anything else, but if you’re going to be an explosive passing team, you have to maximize all your weapons and the slot doesn’t seem to be getting enough snaps or targets. No disrespect intended, but do we really want to see Mike Johnson / Joe Hawley as a 3rd TE, Lousaka Polite, or Tommy Gallarda get on the field instead of HD?
This is really more about going forward than this year, but Sunday’s game brought to light just how bare the tight end cupboard will be when Gonzalez does finally hang up his cleats. Michael Palmer is hurt and there’s a belief that he can at least bridge a gap until a new tight end is developed, but after that, there’s not much. Tommy Gallarda is about exactly what he was coming out of college: an undrafted free agent. And this is really more on Dimitroff than anyone. He’s not invested any consequential draft picks on tight ends since 2008. In fact, the only tight end he’s ever drafted was Keith Zinger in the 7th round. Palmer may can get it done, but the position as a whole looks to be getting a huge hit when Gonzalez leaves.
As mentioned above, thank goodness for John Abraham, because without him, the Falcons wouldn’t have much of any pass rush from the DE spot. As with tight end, the Falcons have failed to develop any significant production or player from the defensive end spot not named John Abraham. This is year 5 of the Mike Smith / Thomas Dimitroff regime and despite all the supposed talent at DE, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of promise. Ray Edwards appears to be looking more and more like a weak free agent move (as many fans, including this author admit through gritted teeth). Kroy Biermann should move permanently to linebacker, his natural position, most fans believe and is too light to make an impact at DE. Then there’s Lawrence Sidbury who some thought may see an increased role under Mike Nolan, only to continue his disappearing act in 2012. Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews may hold some talent, but they’re always ending up on the inactive list every Sunday. The Falcons signed Abraham to a 3 year contract, so theoretically they have a few more years, but they’ve already had 5.
Here in The Cage, it appears to be pretty evenly split among fans and their beliefs / opinions. Some feel that the NFL is the most parity-driven sport in the entire world and that “Any Given Sunday” is a true reality in that each win is special in the National Football League. Hard to argue when you see teams like the Patriots, Packers, 49ers, and Steelers losing games many think they shouldn’t. The Falcons may not be flawless, but they’re finding ways to win and are, so far, the only undefeated team in the NFL. It’s hard to argue against that belief.
On the other hand, fans rightly point to similarities to 2010 when the Falcons were “finding ways to win” as they are now, while not playing great football, went 13-3, and got downright embarrassed in the Debacle in the Dome. In other words, not only losing in back-to-back playoff appearances, but getting blown out and humiliated has corroded the idea of “getting the benefit of the doubt.” There’s nothing the Falcons can do about the postseason right now but win and get there, but those 2010 Falcons seemed to be getting worse as the postseason approached, not better. It’s also hard to argue that point as well.
1) Simple Kickoff – where’s your confidence level after week 6?
2) Are the come-from-behind wins still a strength or are they now a weakness?
3) What was up with Matt Ryan’s bad day: one awful game or disturbing trend?
4) Is John Abraham nearing potential Ring of Honor status soon? Can he keep up this pace all season?
5) Is the Falcons offensive line finally due for a shakeup? What would your starting 5 be at Philly?
6) What should the Birds do @ RB? Is more speed desperately needed?
7) What’s your thoughts on the DT play?
8.) Are the LB issues keeping you up at night? Thoughts on Dent?
9) It’s an impossible question, but why is the offense digressing so bad?
10) Should Harry Douglas or others get more touches?
11) What should the Falcons do about TE after Gonzalez retires?
12) What is the deal with the Falcons failure to develop ANY OTHER defensive end?
13) What side do you fall on: happy to 6-0 and plenty of time to correct problems or seriously worried about what the future holds?