It was the NBA that originally hooked me on sports, way back when I was in the third grade. If you want more info on my introduction to competitive athletics, check out my first ever B/R article for a positively heart-warming yarn...
But summarizing it is not the point of this article. Just think a little reflection on the macro of sports is necessary before I delve right in.
The NBA is, undoubtedly, a league of superstars. Basketball is a team sport, but overall lends itself to shining individual performances. The actions of off-ball defenders and teammates of the ballhandler are nuances that only educated observers would critique. This is definitely not so in football.
So as I broaden (note that's present tense; it's certainly still an ongoing process) my knowledge, I must adjust my thought processes. Football is not like basketball; there are stars, and one man can change a game, but doing so alone is much more rare. When it comes to the gridiron, what I would consider "nuances" in a basketball game (action away from the ballcarrier) might actually be the most crucial part of the play.
That means in the NFL, you're not going to see duels like Russell versus Chamberlain, Magic versus Bird, or Kobe versus LeBron, nearly as often. Every play is affected by every man on the field.
If this all seems a little simplistic to you, the football aficionado, pardon me. I'm mostly doing it for myself, but also to set up what I'm about to analyze here: player-to-player matchups to watch for my Falcons' upcoming season.
I guess what I want to do is simply preface this list with this statement: I know these matchups will not necessarily be game-long individual battles. But if you take each one both for its potential as a man-to-man fight and the embodiment of a larger struggle in the game, you might just be entertained.
Enough with the explanation! Let's talk pigskin (in chronological order):
Panthers RBs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams v. Falcons DT Peria Jerry
See it Sept. 20, Week Two, when Carolina comes to the Dome.
The Dirty Birds will be facing plenty of quality running backs this coming season. No offense to Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook, Matt Forte, or any of the other guys we'll see (hey, this is the NFL; everyone's a star), but when the Panthers come to town for just the second game of the season, the Atlanta rush D, 25th in the league last season, will have its hands full.
Carolina ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards per game last season. Yes, we averaged more, but that's on the other side of the ball. Maybe we can outrun them in this contest, maybe we can't. What's definite is that the more we limit the two-headed monster that is DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the more likely we are to win this game.
Obviously, it's the whole defense's job to stop the run. DTs Jonathan Babineaux and Trey Lewis and LBs Mike Peterson and Curtis Lofton shoulder just as much of the responsibility as the man mentioned in the subheadline.
I'm singling you out, though, Mr. First-Round Draft Pick, because of the widely-held preconceived notion that you don't handle strong rushing attacks particularly well.
It'll be early in the season, so Peria will not have the benefit of several serious games of experience. We'll have to see what he's picked up in camp, what D-line coach Ray Hamilton and D-coordinator Brian VanGorder have taught him, and what he's personally worked on since he was taken in April.
Welcome to the big league, "little" fella.
See it Sept. 27, Week Three, when Atlanta goes to Foxboro
When the Pats are on your schedule, it's hard not to be intimidated. While Tom Brady is back, healthy, and as good-looking as ever, I think I'm most afraid of this receiving corps, to tell you the truth.
In all honesty, I didn't watch a lot of Moss and Welker last season with their interaction with Matt Cassel, but I heard through the grapevine it went alright. I don't think for a second they're going to have any trouble readjusting to old Tom, though; I'm personally just crossing my fingers they're not as good as 2007.
The Atlanta secondary has caught plenty of flak for its flakiness. Individual talent has not been the same since DeAngelo Hall was sent packing, but as I've stated before, I'm largely pleased that he was. I have confidence that Houston will continue to develop into a reliable man defender.
But can he, at this exact moment in time, do much to stop Randy Moss? Can anyone? Let's just say I'd rather us rely upon rushing Brady into making bad throws, and that's much, much, easier said than done.
Once again, this is an early-season game. Chevis and Chris will be tested all season long, but there is no other pass-catching corps like this one in the league (sorry, Cardinals). Whether it's the craftiness and shiftiness of Welker or the foot speed and hand magnetism of Moss, our boys must be on their toes at all times.
Cowboys LB DeMarcus Ware v. Falcons LT Sam Baker
See it Oct. 25, Week Seven, when Atlanta goes to Cowboys Stadium
I'm sounding like a broken record, but it's important to state this: Football is a team sport. It's the entire O-line's job to stop the blitz. And yes, they must at least try, even when that blitz is coming from...gulp...DeMarcus Ware.
Baker came to us in last season's draft short of the hype of such "franchise cornerstones" as Jake Long and Jason Smith, but he imparted plenty of excitement to the fan base and did fine, in the games he was healthy enough to appear in.
I will not fault a man for getting hurt, but the left tackle slot is meant for a guy built like a rock. Well, a rock with really good hands, the ability to pull and maul, and some solid athleticism and reflexes. Is that what you are, Sam?
As you well know, Ware is surrounded by a great supporting cast that kicks ass against the run. That frees him up to come headhunting for your quarterback. It's not that I fear for Matt Ryan's life, it's just that, well, you better be damn well prepared, Baker.
He's a young fella and has time to improve. But this game and the matchup against this defense will make up a lot of people's minds about his ability to stay at OLT for years to come.
Giants DE Osi Umenyiora v. Falcons LT Sam Baker
See it Nov. 22, Week 11, when Atlanta goes to Giants Stadium
"Aw, man. Why's it always me?"
Sorry, Sam. Once again I must call you out. Please just go ahead and have a great performance against another terrifyingly great NFC East defense, OK?
I chose Osi because he'll line up opposite Baker, but in reality, the Giants' defense is even more well-rounded than Dallas'. But you didn't need to be told that, now did you? I'd put money down that you watched 2008's big game.
So you know that Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka are also on this line and Antonio Pierce is behind them. Umenyiora is coming off that injury, so I guess that's...um, "good news?"
Baker must match the incredible energy of NY's pass rush, specifically that of the wild-and-crazy Osi. Sam might want to drink a couple (dozen) Red Bulls before the game to make sure he can keep up with the quick hands of the D-ends that are going to be coming at him.
But I'm not trying to be too negative, here. Baker will have already seen the worst of it (the Panthers twice, the Cowboys, and the Patriots) at this point, and as long as he's healthy for the majority of the season, we can look at him as a "vet" by Week 11. Plus, he's got technique, Harvey Dahl, and Tyson Clabo on his side.
Eagles QB Michael Vick AND Falcons Fans
See it Dec. 5, Week 13, when Philly comes to the Dome
Do you see what's in bold, italics, and CAPS in the above subheadline? The word "and."
Not "versus" or any abbreviation thereof.
Yep, I said "and," and I'm finally talking about Michael Vick in one of my articles. Weird, no?
Very quickly: It makes me sick to my stomach to think of a person, let alone a grown man who's a role model for millions, torturing a being that can't defend itself. Literally, nauseous.
But for just a moment, I'm going to deal with the discomfort. I'm going to see a man who's been in prison for nearly two years (that makes me pretty queasy, too), seems genuinely remorseful, has immense talent, and meant the world to my city not five years ago.
I'm really hoping this will be "and" more than "versus." It doesn't need (nor should it be) a five-minute standing ovation, but I know my fellow ATLiens will at least politely cheer, and I hope even local PETA members will hold their tongues for a moment when Mike comes back to town.
It was disgusting, what Vick did. But the way he played (and better still play) football was awesome, and I just want to see it, at least in part, again.
How he's received everywhere will be a big deal; it doesn't really matter where the Eagles are playing. I am crossing my fingers, though, that Atlanta makes him feel the most welcome of all the NFL cities.
Oh, what, you wanted some football analysis?
I have no idea how Vick fits into the Philadelphia offense, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear Donovan McNabb himself say that he lobbied to get Mike in town. Obviously, Kevin Kolb going down to injury leaves a spot for him at backup QB, but I could very much see him stepping in for a tired Westbrook here and there.
Don't forget, but forgive. At least enough to enjoy the man's play on the field.