It’s preseason, and preseasons can mislead. The 2008 Detroit Lions were 4-0 when it didn’t count and 0-16 when it did. That said …
If the regular season is going to resemble Saturday’s first half, Mike Smith is going to have white hair soon.
Whoops. Too late.
You don’t often see a coach yelling at his men during an exhibition, but Mr. Smith held forth at some length after his team allowed the Chargers’ second touchdown of the first half. (There’d be another — touchdown, not tirade — to come.) What was especially galling to the old defensive coordinator was his team’s uncoordinated approach to third-and-long. You’re supposed to stop the other team on third-and-long. Indeed, the ability to stop the Cardinals on third-and-16 is one reason Keith Brooking now works for Dallas.
But Brooking had nothing to do with these defensive whiffs. This was the new D, the faster D, the one linebacker Curtis Lofton has called “upgraded at every [open] position.” I’m thinking Smith and Brian VanGorder might not hand out many A’s after this half. Maybe nary even a D-minus.
We stipulate by saying this: The Chargers are good. They can make an opponent look sorry. But the 2009 Falcons aren’t supposed to be just any opponent. They’re supposed to be a force themselves. And they’re going to be, at least on offense. The defense? Let’s call it a work in progress, and until Saturday we had no idea just how far it needs to progress.
The Falcons’ first two exhibition games were against Detroit and St. Louis, both of which were terrible last season and will be awful again. Detroit moved the ball against the Falcons’ reserves in the second half, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff dismissed it by saying, “Our subs were running around.”
This was first-team against first-team, and it was a mismatch. The Chargers gained 281 yards in two quarters, 255 of them passing, seemingly 250 of them over cornerback Chris Houston. (OK, I exaggerate. Slightly.) And here was the truly frightening stat: San Diego was 7-of-8 on third-down conversions, and each of those seven conversions was third-and-7 or longer.
On the series that set off Smith, the Falcons failed on third-and-13 (Houston beaten), third-and-18 (Houston again), third-and-17 (Houston yet again) and finally on a third-and-24 screen to Michael Bennett on which Lofton took the wrong angle and Mike Peterson missed a tackle. When the dizzying sequence finally subsided, Smith sought Houston first and then his whole defensive crew. And he spoke at length.
We knew when the Falcons dumped five starters that the early stages of 2009 might be bumpy. What we witnessed Saturday was a somersault down the Snake River Canyon. The offense is going to be splendid, but trying to win every game 42-40 is a hard way to go, for the simple reason that sometimes the other guy will get the ball last.
And we’re only two weeks from the opener against Miami, and after Miami comes Carolina, and after Carolina comes New England. If the Falcons can’t stop the Chargers on third down on a Saturday night in August, how might they fare come September?
A year ago Dimitroff assessed his defense in preseason and signed two defensive backs — Domonique Foxworth and Jamaal Fudge. Foxworth wound up starting. I’m thinking there might be a signing or two announced in Flowery Branch this week, and I’m thinking anybody who arrives won’t be told, “We see you as a nickel back.” I’m thinking there’s a real opportunity for some unemployed cornerback here.
What’s Bruce Pickens doing these days?