That’s the big question as today’s game looms. It’s a very tough call in many regards. Do the Falcons keep their starters in for most of the game in hoping to keep the momentum going that they’ve built up the past few games as they head into an almost two week wait for the playoffs? Or do they pull their starters early on to prevent injuries and let many of the players completely heal? It’s a tough catch-22, but this much is known: Head Coach Mike Smith has got to find some way to have this team better prepared than the last time he achieved a first round bye. The Debacle in the Dome is still fairly fresh in fans mind and it all starts with Smith to have this team more prepared, more focused, and ready to play on a much higher level than 2010.
As fellow Cage Member Arno said, if you say that you’re going to play to win, than you better be prepared to play lights out. To be fair, it was an extremely difficult game to manage. The Falcons had already locked up home-field advantage and the game literally meant nothing. Normal thought would have said to rest the starters, put the backups in, and try to win the game. But at the same time, perhaps remembering the Debacle from 2 years ago, Smith wanted to keep the momentum that had been built up the past two weeks blowing out the defending champs and beating the Lions pretty soundly on the road.
However, it became painfully apparent that the players weren’t focused and gameplan was pitifully weak. Add to that the fact that on consecutive plays, two of the Falcons defensive starters suffered injuries, both Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel, and it didn’t seem to make sense why the starters were still in the game well into the 4th quarter. Matt Ryan was taking shots left and right and even John Abraham got injured and had to be carted off the field. Using 20/20 hindsight vision, it’s a little unfair to say that Smith had the wrong strategy all along, but it seemed as though Smith wanted the best of both worlds: get momentum while also not putting in 100% effort and focus. It also seems that Smith really didn’t have a backup plan in case things didn’t go as planned (see injuries to key starters). Hopefully, the injuries aren’t serious and the Falcons can use this as motivation to remember how well they need to prepare to get this first playoff win.
First of all, the normal complaint about Turner getting way more carries than any other running back doesn’t hold weight. Turner got 6 carries, Rodgers got 5 carries, and Snelling got 3 carries. That breaks down very good percentage wise in terms of what most fans hope to see: Turner (43%), Rodgers (36%), and Snelling (21%). Both Turner and Rodgers had long runs of almost exactly the same, with Turner netting a 17 yard run and Rodgers getting a 16 yard run. Both of the long runs heavily inflated both players yards per carry: Rodgers – 5.6 and Turner – 3. If you dig down a little further, however, the production is still out of whack.
If you take out each of their long runs, Rodgers ypc goes down to 3 yards per carry, but Turner’s goes down to 0.2 yards per carry. Yes, 2 tenths, not 2 yards. It’s hard to use this game as a good indicator, but it’s a microcosm of the entire season. Rodgers, and it could be argued even Snelling, simply fit better and are more productive in the Falcons new offense. What should make fans think that anything will change once the playoffs hit when over a 16 game span not much has really changed at all. The fear is that the coaches, namely Mike Smith, will over rely on Turner yet again and it will cost the Falcons at the very worst time.
Hopefully, none of the injuries are too serious, but fans wanted to scream when they started seeing not one, not two, but three defensive starters go down with injuries. First it was Dunta Robinson being taken to the locker room. Then it was Asante Samuel re-injuring his shoulder that’s been popping up all year. And to top it off, arguably the most important cog to the defense, John Abraham, goes down with an ankle injury and has to be carted off the field.
If for some reason these injuries play a role in the playoffs, Smith will get plenty of criticism in a meaningless game. Even though he wasn’t injured, Matt Ryan took his fair share of brutal hits when the OL decided to mentally stay at home on the couch. If nothing else, the two weeks should allow time for the Falcons to be the healthiest they’ve had all year. Hopefully, the players nicked up in the Bucs game will be back to good and William Moore, who’s missed the last 4 games, will be ready to go as well.
The coaching staff has to be busy at work getting as much game-planning and research on the three teams they know they’ll face between the Seahawks, Vikings, and Redskins. The coaching staff and players basically have a bye week and they need to use it accordingly. It may be tough to do extensive research on 3 teams, but they can be doing some. The biggest thing that this playoff game boils down to is whether or not Head Coach Mike Smith has learned the lessons from his first 3 trips to the playoffs, all ending in losses. Ironically enough, the Falcons best outing was the first one where he and Matt Ryan were rookies.
He’s had every experience imaginable including two wild card games on the road and one home-field advantage #1 seed with a bye week. There was a thought among many fans that Smith played it way too lackadaisical and even soft. There were clips of the players with shorts and t-shirts and laughing and having a good time at practice. Maybe that’s unfair using 20/20 hindsight form the Debacle in the Dome, but it surely didn’t help.
The Falcons are set to play either the Vikings, Seahawks, or Redskins in less than 2 weeks. All of them have excellent running backs and a playmaker at quarterback who is extremely mobile. In fact, all of the teams remaining in the playoffs have mobile QBs and all except the Packers also have a good running game to complement as well. They have bowed their necks when they’ve needed to, shutting down Doug Martin the first time, holding Alred Morris to no touchdowns, holding Ryan Matthews and Lesean McCoy in check.
However, they’ve also seen times where they’ve given up a ton of yards as well, namely Cam Newton, the Panthers, the Saints first game, among several others. They actually did a good job of shutting down Robert Griffin III the first time, but he’s had a lot more seasoning since then. Then of course there’s the best running back in the game in Adrian Peterson and Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch. Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, and Christian Ponder are all out there as well. Ironically, the Falcons are one of the worst remaining rushing teams left in the NFC. The defensive line, linebackers, and all the secondary better be working hard on tackling and stopping the run, because otherwise, it will be another short off-season.