Flowery Branch – In preseason the Falcons yielded 281 yards to San Diego in a half. In Week 1 of the regular season they allowed 259 yards in two halves. And here, for all those hand-wringers — hey, I was among y’all — is a reaffirmation: The preseason doesn’t count.
“In preseason you’re pretty much working on your craft,” Mike Peterson said. “And I was getting used to playing outside linebacker again … A lot of older guys, we don’t care too much for preseason.”
Peterson stands as a case study: In August he looked like an older Keith Brooking; against the Dolphins he resembled the young Lawrence Taylor. Yeah, it was only one game. But this one game counted.
Peterson again: “I wasn’t worried. I know you media guys get tired of hearing it, but it’s a process. We don’t game-plan in preseason; I didn’t watch tape of the tight end or the running back I was playing against. You just go out there and roll.”
One more truth we need to reaffirm: Mike Smith wasn’t going to let this defense stink when the real games began. He’s too good at his job.
He’s a head coach now, but there’s enough of his system in place and enough of his influence being exerted — Brian VanGorder is the defensive coordinator, but Smitty drops the occasional hint — that the Falcons were always going to cobble together something. (Let’s note that the 2008 Falcons, with half a unit’s worth of disposable parts, ranked 24th in total defense but a respectable 11th in points against.)
“I know the system works,” said Peterson, who played under Smith in Jacksonville. “I’ve been in it six years. It’s the same system that won a Super Bowl back in Baltimore.”
Some will recall that Smitty wasn’t thrilled that night against San Diego — he even dressed down his D in full view of the Georgia Dome audience — but not being thrilled isn’t the same as being scared to death. The man’s a pro, and pros know full well exhibitions are different.
“It depends on what the installations are,” Smith said. “Say the other team decides one night to run a bunch of screens, and we’re working on a different phase. We’ve got a set pattern [in preseason games]. We’re not going to game-plan. We’re more interested in how guys handle certain techniques.”
So: Just because the Chargers were converting every third-and-long, the Falcons weren’t going to draw up a new alignment in the (figurative) dirt. Just because a guy like Peterson wasn’t making every play back then didn’t mean he wouldn’t make plays come the real thing.
Smith: “It’s really hard to put stock in preseason, and even more so with older guys.”
And now it’s Week 2 of the regular season and the Falcons are 1-0. There will still be moments when this reconstituted defense gets wrong-footed — “We’ve got a young group of guys; it’s not always going to be pretty,” Smith said — but the Miami game offered the strongest indication yet that this D won’t stay fooled.
“Coming in here, looking at it on paper, I wondered [about the youth],” Peterson said. “But I’ve seen they’re eager to learn, and they want to win … My job is to help get all the guys together, and when you get 53 guys on one page, you’re hard to beat.”
A week ago we weren’t sure the Falcon defenders had gotten beyond Page 1. (”Gentlemen, this is a football.”) Against Miami they seemed to have absorbed every footnote. Professor Smith has donned his teaching hat, and class is fully in session.