FLOWERY BRANCH — When he was 23 years old, immediately following his brief career as a scrappy defender for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Mike Smith worked as a part-time assistant coach for San Diego State.
“Made $600 a month,” he said Monday. “I’d leave there and go work from 10 to 2 as a security guard at a construction site.”
How much did he make?
“A lot more than the stipend I got for coaching,” he said.
If there is a lesson here, it’s that Smith learned early how to make things work with very few resources. Which brings us to the Falcons’ defense. On Monday, the team announced what most feared Sunday night: Cornerback Brian Williams is out for the season with a knee injury. That makes two starters lost in five games — rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry being the other — from a defense that wasn’t all that great to begin with.
No problem. The Falcons should be able to find somebody else in that box of hubcaps and Lego blocks in the corner.
Hasn’t that kind of been the story for the past year and a half? Even if the defense isn’t comprised solely of spare parts, it’s not a depth chart that instills fear in opposing offenses. But consider these incongruent results:
♦ The defense ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed (359.2 per game) but third in points (15.4) and touchdowns (eight) allowed.
♦ The defense has totaled only 10 sacks, which also ranks 23rd. Pressure creates mayhem. No pressure, no mayhem, no sacks. But how does one explain five interceptions (10th in the NFL), 10 forced fumbles (second only to New England’s 11), seven fumble recoveries (fourth) and 12 total takeaways (tied for fourth)?
The overwhelming perception is that Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are doing this with smoke and mirrors. Smith smiled when asked about that. But he didn’t exactly dismiss the notion.
“We’re doing it with players,” he said Monday. “You know, every roster has strengths and weaknesses. The thing I say about our guys is they play passionate football. They play hard.”
And then this: “We’re very resilient.”
Defense isn’t about stopping a team from driving. It’s about stopping a team from scoring. The Falcons have done that. What’s more important: aesthetics or the bottom line? Ask the Chicago Bears. They had seven offensive plays of 21 or more yards Sunday night. But they came away empty — not even a field goal — on three red zone possessions to the Falcons’ 12- (interception), one- (fumble) and the 10-yard line (downs).
It’s not how defensive coaches design it. There is luck involved. Somewhere in a luxury suite, owner Arthur Blank probably was sacrificing a chicken. But it’s working.
Smith discounts the significance of the Falcons’ skinny sack total, saying: “You’ve got to get the quarterback moving. That’s the one thing we’ve done, especially the last two games, is get the quarterback out from where he feels comfortable. Sacks sometimes is an overrated statistic. It’s a matter of affecting the quarterback. That leads to ball-disruptions — a tipped pass or something. We had seven or eight of those [Sunday] night.”
Thomas DeCoud had two interceptions Sunday. Jonathan Babineaux and Curtis Lofton each forced fumbles. Mike Peterson: two tackles for losses and a pass breakup. Defensive end Jamaal Anderson, generally considered a draft bust, sometimes drops into coverage now.
A lot of this is happening near the red zone. Babineaux knocked the ball loose from Chicago’s Matt Forte at the Falcons’ 1 in the third quarter.
“Teams will make plays,” Smith said. “We’re just trying to keep them out of the end zone.”
Somehow, they’re making it work. Asked about Williams going down, Smith said what you would expect: “One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.”
Pass the Lego blocks.