Falcons’ defense somehow getting most out of the least

Somewhere in the middle of this Falcons' gang tackle is Chicago running back Matt Forte. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Matt Forte experienced the Falcons' version of the red zone. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

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.

98 comments Add your comment

Paul H

October 19th, 2009
5:50 pm

Brian. Van. Gorder.

It was so nice watching a tough, physical defense last night. I remember the days…

Dawgs2009

October 19th, 2009
5:50 pm

First!!!! Maybe….

Dawgs2009

October 19th, 2009
5:50 pm

I was cheated!

Paul H

October 19th, 2009
5:53 pm

Sorry, Dawgs2009. I got lucky with that one.

Paul H

October 19th, 2009
5:55 pm

LOVE this Falcons team. They may not win ‘em all but they’ll never get outmanned and they’ll never stop playing tough.

Dawgs2009

October 19th, 2009
5:56 pm

Only by a few seconds. So close, yet so far away.

Sonny Clusters

October 19th, 2009
5:57 pm

“Somewhere in a luxury suite, owner Arthur Blank probably was sacrificing a chicken.” – JS

We doubt that he’d do that wearing those expensive suits. Arthur is pretty dapper and chicken blood would take away from that. As for defensive help, we could have a Clusters ready for next week for the right kind of money.

BugKiller

October 19th, 2009
6:05 pm

I agree with Paul H.

Brian Van Gorder doing with table scraps what Willie Martinez can’t do with top-5 Recruiting Classes.

FIRE MARK RICHT!!!

HIRE BRIAN VAN GORDER!!!

BULLDOG NATION DEMANDS PASSION AND CHANGE!!!

Felix the Cat

October 19th, 2009
6:09 pm

I expect Dimitroff to make a trade for a player (corner back) and Arthur to write the check..Trade deadline is tomorrow.

Mr. A

October 19th, 2009
6:10 pm

Sounds like the same the AJC gets out of some of their sports writers!

Paul H

October 19th, 2009
6:13 pm

It can’t be underestimated how this team has risen from the ashes of Vick/Mora/Petrino/Meangelo, etc into what they are now in such a short period. It’s an amazing thing to see.

Chris

October 19th, 2009
6:14 pm

“Defense isn’t about stopping a team from driving. It’s about stopping a team from scoring.”

Not true. When your offense keeps getting pinned inside the 20, that’s a defensive problem. “Bend but don’t break” might win a few games, but it’s a horrible defensive philosophy in the long run. It makes the offense look worse because they hardly ever start with good field position.

Kurdt Kobain

October 19th, 2009
6:27 pm

Well when you have an offense that is as good as the Falcons’ usually is, they weren’t terrific last night, you can overcome less that stellar field position.

F-105 Thunderchief

October 19th, 2009
6:30 pm

The Falcons have some good pieces on defense and some that are not very good at all. Smith uses the good pieces to help cover up some of the weaknesses. Hey folks, this team was a dead-in-the-water hot mess just two seasons ago. The process isn’t completed yet, but they’re getting there.

To the guy who wants Brian Van Gorder for head coach at Georgia, good luck with that. Ga. Southern still hasn’t recoverd from his one lousy season there. He destructed a great program in one freakin’ season. That said, I like what he’s doing with the Falcons. He’s just not head coach material.

Barkin'Dog

October 19th, 2009
6:32 pm

Can’t wait to see the cowpokes running for their lives in Jerry’s new castle. No matter where the Falcons start each series, the offense can move the ball and score. Dallas doesn’t scare anyone any more, even at home. Romo will be a nervous wreck starring down Abraham and Peterson. The Birds win at the end of the game when Romo fumbles away the ball on the last play.

ashman

October 19th, 2009
6:33 pm

Sounds a lot like the patriots mantra of not making excuses and playing with the hand that they are dealt.

Zach

October 19th, 2009
6:35 pm

Resiliency is the key. Defense has been very good in the red zone. It seems to me that our corners are good enough to cover for a few seconds, and that probably why we do well in the red zone compared to other places on the field. When wide receivers can run in open space we’re in trouble.

Additionally, I have been very impressed with how we hit people. Our defense has been laying some blows on opposing offense. D-Line just needs to get some more pressure to help out the secondary and we’ll be in good shape.

Who didn’t say torn ACL when William went down last night. I guess we’ll see what Tye Hill has.

Jeff, thanks for posting after class I got the pleasure to get called on today in civil procedure today. Luckily I was paying attention and didn’t make a complete fool of myself.

chalkdawg4

October 19th, 2009
6:37 pm

Jeff- Any ideas on cornerbacks who have fallen out of favor with their teams? We have got to have some help. Here’s to hoping we pull another Foxworth type deal to add to the Dimitroff legend. I was born in Atlanta in 1960 and have seen a lot of crappy football. GO FALCONS.

chalkdawg4

October 19th, 2009
6:48 pm

My comments may have sounded a little cold. My heart goes out to Williams. I appreciate his contributions and wish him a full recovery. I just know we need some help now and am sure that TD knows it too. We will add someone.

zino

October 19th, 2009
6:48 pm

Hey Chris, thanks for the expert analysis. I’m sure you have “NFL Head Coach” on your resume and know much more about D than Coach Smith.

Alan

October 19th, 2009
6:48 pm

I’ve been saying all along that we are in good hands, T.D., Coach Smith and his staff and a solid group of guys who want to learn and win. GO FALCONS-GO SOUTHERN RUSH

Uh Oh..............

October 19th, 2009
6:55 pm

Jerry (Done)

Moore (Done)

Williams (Done)

Norwood (Done)

Next?

Giants (Cowboys) vs Midgets (Falcons)

October 19th, 2009
6:58 pm

The Cowboy receivers average in height 6′6

The Falcons defensive backs average in height 5′11

Then you have to deal with the “3 HEADED MONSTER” Marion Barber, Felix Jones, Teshawd Choice.

Giants (Cowboys) vs Midgets (Falcons)

October 19th, 2009
6:59 pm

Correction: The Cowboys average in height 6′4 and their All Pro tightend Jason Whitten is 6′5.

Salary Cap

October 19th, 2009
7:00 pm

Sorry no more money available for any trades in 2009.

Ross

October 19th, 2009
7:01 pm

They’re going to need more points now – losing Williams was huge.

joe

October 19th, 2009
7:01 pm

isnt chris mcallister still a free agent?

MJM

October 19th, 2009
7:04 pm

Mike Smith’s defense is doing great. Who the heck is this Van Goober guy.

Fair and Balanced

October 19th, 2009
7:07 pm

Paul H……I’ve noticed that between the Falcons message boards, the AJC, the commentators during the game and the jersey sells in Atlanta, that Mike Vick still dictates the conversation, the attention and the interest. Thanks for participating to keep that going! LOL

Country Boy

October 19th, 2009
7:07 pm

We’re pretty good.

Volman

October 19th, 2009
7:09 pm

“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.”

That made me laugh, Mr. Schultz. Thank you.

Terrell

October 19th, 2009
7:14 pm

Giants (Cowboys) vs Midgets (Falcons),
If you’re going to spell somebody’s name spell it right please. T-A-S-H-A-R-D, but even though he’s one of my best friends Atl is going toprove why Dallas is overrated just like their 6′6 WRs

savannah dawg

October 19th, 2009
7:15 pm

From crappy to scrappy to happy! GO FALCONS!!!!!

Sautee

October 19th, 2009
7:16 pm

I haven’t seen anyone mention it, but BVG made a GREAT call having JA98 drop back into coverage on the last 4th down play. Cutler was surprised and tried to throw around JA and missed.

GREAT defensive call!

JASon

October 19th, 2009
7:24 pm

Basically our defense makes up for their general ineptness with great play in the red zone, which prevents scores. This continues to be a major victory for this team, (though I would argue they are not near as effective on the road at this). Don’t let Coach Smith fool you: techniques of hitting, stripping, and jarring the ball loose are taught and practiced constantly in teams like the Falcons and of course the Patriots.

Jason Elam's Brother

October 19th, 2009
7:25 pm

No one even mentioned that my brother nailed every one of his PATs.

Where is the love?

Zach

October 19th, 2009
7:27 pm

Giants(Cowboys)–

First, Height is not dispositive of anything.

Second, check your facts. Your top 5 receivers are:
Roy E. William 6-3
Patrick Crayton 6-0
Miles Austin 6-3
Jason Witten 6-5
Sam Hurd 6-2

I don’t what kind of analysis you’re doing, but according to second grade math but that doesn’t average 6′6″.

Third, you’re big time receiver Roy E. William has less catches than Tashard Choice (a stunning 5′10″).

Forth, You have Tony Romo at the helm throwing these balls to you’re “giant” receivers.

Fifth, You have Wade Phillips coaching this team.

Finally, something that is actually dispositive, (any falcons fan will tell you this) having Keith Brooking on your team guarantees disaster.

FalconDawg

October 19th, 2009
7:40 pm

It hasn’t been that long ago when we would have lost games like last night. We don’t seem to be that good on defense and yet we keep teams out of the end zone.

Chris

October 19th, 2009
7:42 pm

Hey Zino, what’s with the sarcasm? All I’m saying is that field position is an important part of the game and that it’s frustrating to watch an offense getting pinned deep so often. That’s a no-brainer, and it’s hardly claiming to know more about D than coach Smith. He knows the importance of field position better than anybody, and I’m sure he would agree that there are a lot of things that need to be fixed on defense — things that can only take time. He’s done a fantastic job with it in two short years, and I’m sure he’ll continue to get it to the point where defense not only prevents scoring but also prevents drives. It’s a process, and Smith and TD have given every indication that they know exactly what they’re doing. All I’m saying is that contrary to the article in question, “points allowed” isn’t the only defensive stat that matters.

DamntheButcher

October 19th, 2009
7:42 pm

I heard that Brian Van Gorder has been calling Willie Martinez for his defensive strategy.

wxwax

October 19th, 2009
7:47 pm

Good point, FalconDawg. The Falcons are doing it with passion and intensity. They won’t win the Super Bowl without talent, but they’ll win games they shouldn’t. And they’ll break the winning-season jinx, too. There, I said it.

Uh Oh

October 19th, 2009
7:50 pm

Terrell

October 19th, 2009
7:14 pm
Giants (Cowboys) vs Midgets (Falcons),
If you’re going to spell somebody’s name spell it right please. T-A-S-H-A-R-D, but even though he’s one of my best friends Atl is going toprove why Dallas is overrated just like their 6′6 WRs

Like anybody believes Mr. Choice would associate with you….Good one :)

Greg

October 19th, 2009
7:51 pm

Not even Van Gorder is going to be able to scheme his way around the loss of Williams. Drew Brees is drooling over our loss of this very fine CB. We’ll need supernatural intervention here, guys…so if you are a Believer (I am not), please pray to your preferred god to not let Brees to slice and dice us as he has everyone else. This could be 400+ yards throwing against us.

Uh Oh

October 19th, 2009
7:51 pm

Terrell

October 19th, 2009
7:14 pm
Giants (Cowboys) vs Midgets (Falcons),
If you’re going to spell somebody’s name spell it right please. T-A-S-H-A-R-D, but even though he’s one of my best friends Atl is going toprove why Dallas is overrated just like their 6′6 WRs

“Also, if you are going to reference a city, it is spelled A-T-L-A-N-T-A, not Atl” :)

Arno

October 19th, 2009
7:52 pm

Except for the Cutler scramble, the Falcons D cancelled the Bears’ running game. The pass alone couldn’t do it for the Bears – they fell apart in the red zone. So what’s Dallas going to try?

Keith Brooking

October 19th, 2009
7:55 pm

Matty Ice, better watch your blind side. I’m going to break your freakin legs buddy, legal or illegal!

Uh Oh

October 19th, 2009
7:57 pm

Greg

October 19th, 2009
7:51 pm
Not even Van Gorder is going to be able to scheme his way around the loss of Williams. Drew Brees is drooling over our loss of this very fine CB. We’ll need supernatural intervention here, guys…so if you are a Believer (I am not), please pray to your preferred god to not let Brees to slice and dice us as he has everyone else. This could be 400+ yards throwing against us.

GREAT POST!!!!!

The Injury List Is Growing..............

October 19th, 2009
7:59 pm

Uh Oh…………..

October 19th, 2009
6:55 pm
Jerry (Done)

Moore (Done)

Williams (Done)

Norwood (Done)

Next?

Zach

October 19th, 2009
8:00 pm

Keith Brooking reminds me of Jon Favreau (Crazy Danny cop middle linebacker) except I think Brooking may be less talented. Although he does that GaTech education to save face.

Eman

October 19th, 2009
8:00 pm

I can’t wait to see da saints vs. birds. Its going to be a shoot out, but guess what. We have da fire power need to control the clock and win the game. I feel that the falcons will hit them in their mouth and they will not know what happen to them!!!