Week Four: Atlanta Falcons Take an Early Break
With the bye week here only four weeks into the season it's as good a time as any to reflect on what we have seen thus far. There is a lot of good, and bad to cover. The Birds are 2-1 after wins at home against both Carolina and Miami and the loss on the road against the New England Patriots.
One thing we can take from this is it appears the team from 2008 is still here. At home, one of the best teams in the NFL and on the road struggling to produce offense. I'm certain most Falcons fans will take the 2008 Falcons any day of the week. Now they just need to have the defense step up and take control of games.
Matt Ryan is the face of the franchise for many years to come. The birds follow the lead of this young prodigy. In the first three weeks, he's played extremely well. Going into the third week of the season, he was ranked the No. 4 QB in the NFL. Currently, he's the No. 6 rated QB in the league and No. 3 in the NFC.
His short to intermediate throws are very accurate. He reads defenses very well and locates his 1v1 matchups pre-snap. His brain is what makes him a good quarterback, but it's his accuracy that will make him great.
The one problem is after three weeks, we have little to show for his deep ball game. I don't know if it's his match-up choices on the line or the coaches desire to be conservative. Regardless, for Ryan to put this team into the playoffs the Falcons will need to take more shots down-field. That would really loosen things up some for our next subject.
Michael Turner came into the season the 2nd leading rusher in the 2008 season and runner-up for league MVP. Expectations were high this season. Thus far, it's been pretty pedestrian.
So far, teams have stacked the line with eight or nine man zone blitzing schemes making it tough to get through to the second level. Last season at this time, Turner was the NFL's leading rusher. This year, he's No. 11 and averages a poor 3.5 yards per carry.
Some believe Turner is out of shape. He does appear slower hitting the hole but the truth of the matter is, there are no holes. He doesn't have that 2008 burst yet, but he hasn't had a lot of help.
Jerious Norwood is a different story. Seems like every time he touches the ball he's either good for ten yards or minus four. When healthy, he's a spark plug for the offense. He has great hands and averages just under 10 yards a catch on five catches this season and for his career, averages six yards per carry.
He is used on special teams as a kickoff returner but with the emergence of Eric Weems, he may get more offensive reps and less special teams. He's just too fragile to risk at this point. The Falcons need his speed to keep defenses honest and him being on the sidelines injured doesn't accomplish that.
Jason Snelling has been a pleasant surprise. Last season he looked pretty good in the backup role but with Norwoods injuries he's had to step it up this year. He's one of the bright spots on the team currently. He averages 5.7 yards per carry on seven carries and 10.6 yards per reception on five catches.
Roddy White skipped camp to wait on his new contract which made him one of the highest paid receivers in the league. He's starting to show his rust. In three games, he's averaging under eight yards a reception and has only seen the end zone once. For the paycheck, the Falcons expected more.
He seems to have problems with keeping his footing. He falls on his face more than Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy. He's been targeted 26 times by Ryan this season and has 15 catches for 119 yards.
He has shown a problem turning the ball up field. Last season, he was elusive but this season he seems to welcome the hits. Hopefully, wideout coach Terry Robiske can whip White into shape soon.
Michael Jenkins has been the best receiver on the team after three weeks. He's caught pretty much every ball thrown in his direction. He is still one of the best third down options on the team. He always gets beyond the first down marker. At 6'4" he's a big target and the heir apparent for Brian Finneran.
Speaking of Brian Finneran, he should win the NFL comeback player of the year. He's blown out both knees but still manages to hang around and catch first down passes. He's been working the slot in place of injured Falcon Harry Douglas.
Marty Booker won the fourth receiver lottery over veteran Robert Ferguson in the pre-season. He's been a fairly reliable player for Ryan. He's kept the chains moving several times and has shown the ability to get down field. I expect to see more of him soon if White continues to show rust.
Eric Weems has become a staple on special teams. He won't see the field often as a receiver but currently he is the punt returner/ back-up kickoff return man. He's shown great burst and tackling ability.
Tony Gonzalez is just what the doctor ordered for Matt Ryan. He's the safety blanket needed to keep the chains moving. When he joined the team in the offseason he made it clear his intentions were to win a championship. He's matched that attitude with his play on the field.
One day Gonzalez will be a Hall of Famer. All Falcons fans hope he will someday hoist that Lombardi trophy he covets while wearing the red and black. He's been one of the hardest working players the Falcons have had in their history.
The hogs up front have done a really good job keeping Matt Ryans jersey clean but have found a much more difficult time opening lanes for the running backs. The right side, Tyson Clabo and Harvey Dahl have played with their usual intensity garnering a couple of personal foul penalties.
As soft as the line has been in the past, it's refreshing to see the guys mixing it up with defenses. Had Chicago faced those two in the playoffs of 2006, they would not have said the Falcons had a soft line. So it's an upgraded line and playing pretty well.
The main concern at present is the center position currently held by veteran Todd McClure. He's the only leftover from the true zone blocking scheme incorporated by Alex Gibbs and current Raiders coach Tom Cable. He struggles to move the middle and often gets pushed into the backfield on passing plays.
Both tackle Sam Baker and guard Justin Blalock have a lot of potential and have played well in spurts. They will need a few years under their belts to be considered All-Pro but they have a great teacher in Paul Boudreau.
Everyone knows left end John Abraham is a stud. When healthy, he's as fierce as they come. Last week against the Patriots, word had it that he was limping was limited more than usual in his snaps. That's not good news for Falcon fans.
On the right side, defensive end Jamaal Anderson continues to struggle. He has fewer sacks than seasons played. That's a pretty sad stat for a guy that has started every game since being drafted No. 8 overall 2007.
The Falcons passed on both DT Omobi Okoye and MLB Patrick Willis to select him. He is being pressured for that job by veteran Chauncey Davis. Davis hasn't exactly lit up the scene when on the field but is a very capable run stopper.
The speed rusher back-ups are 2nd year player Kroy Biermann of Montana and rookie Lawrence Sidbury. Both are very quick and have great motors. With a mentor like John Abraham, they should both become very good players. Biermann is currently tied with Abraham for the team lead in sacks.
The biggest issue on the line is the injury to rookie first round pick Peria Jerry. Once he left the Carolina game with an injury the Falcons rush defense quickly fell apart. Undrafted veteran Thomas Johnson stepped in to fill the void left by Jerry and rookie Vance Walker was activated to give the line much needed depth.
The under tackle position is secured by veteran Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux has played well but lining up between future bust Jamaal Anderson and journeyman Johnson doesn't give him much help. It all but assures he will face double teams every snap.
This may be the most upgraded spot on the Falcons roster. They have a lot of team speed and strength at this position. A far cry from the unit they have had in past seasons.
Second year middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, or as I like to refer to him, Thumper, is playing lights out. He's second in the NFL in tackles and first in solo tackles. Not since the days of Jessie Tuggle have the Falcons had a true seek and destroy linebacker manning the middle of the defense. He, like Ryan, will be a staple on this team for many years to come.
Free Agent acquisition Mike Peterson, who came from Jacksonville, has been the most noticeable change. He brings an intensity unmatched on the team. In his first three games he's forced three fumbles, intercepted a pass and recovered a blocked punt. He's playing like a man on a mission and is a great mentor for the young linebackers Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas.
Speaking of Stephen Nicholas, he has been a pleasant surprise. He was inactive most of last season due to family reasons but came into this season penciled in as the starter. He hasn't disappointed. The way these three backers fly around the field you can certainly tell this is one of the strengths of the team.
Of the defense, the management has shown the most concern with this unit. GM Thomas Dimitroff went out and traded for former first round pick Tye Hill and picked up CB Brian Williams from Jacksonville.
Expectations are that these two will be starting when the Falcons come off their bye week to play the San Francisco 49ers. Which leaves many questions.
What will happen to starting corner Chris Houston? He's shown a knack for blanketing his opponent but doesn't put himself in good position to make the play. Until Hill was signed, most expected Houston to hold his spot uncontested.Will Hill eventually take his job or move to the nickel position?
Undrafted free agent Brent Grimes has been called the most athletic player on the Falcons team but his size is a real problem. Randy Moss really exposed that difference which leads me to believe Coach Smith is ready for a change.
Last seasons starting nickel corner Chevis Jackson has disappeared. After helping lead LSU to a National Championship he came to Atlanta and won the starting nickel job. Since then, he's gradually faded off into the background leaving many to wonder what's going on with him. What caused him to fall out of favor with management?
The safety position is another mystery as well. The Falcons secondary is anchored by these two but so far production has been limited.
Veteran Erik Coleman moved from free safety to the strong safety spot to make room for up and comer Thomas DeCoud. For what it's worth, it's pronounced "Day-Koo" and not "Duh Cowd." Write that down please FOX.
Coleman has done pretty well considering his work load. He's expected to back up the run defense which has been pretty badly exposed. He's very physical and loves to mix it up against opposing running backs. His weakness is down-field coverage. The Falcons often times look lost once the ball is in the air.
DeCoud is playing better than most expected thus far. He's found himself in position for the play many times but he hasn't made any big plays. Last weekend, against New England, he dropped two Tom Brady passes that could have changed the momentum of the game. Being in position is great, but you must make the play.
If you research all the greatest defenses in the NFL they all have solid safeties. Look no further than the transition Denver has made this season with their new acquisition Brian Dawkins. The Falcons haven't had a true All-Pro safety since Eugene Robinson who caused drama in their Super Bowl run and prior to that, Scott Case. That should be a focus going into next season.
One of the strengths for the Falcons in their 2008 campaign is playing pretty poor this season.
Kicker Jason Elam has had a less than stellar season thus far. He missed two field goals and an extra point in his first game against Miami. He was listed with a leg injury so hopefully the bye week will be enough time to get him back to 100 percent.
Punter Michael Koenan was a silent MVP last season. He was a main reason the Falcons broke the NFL record for least amount of yards given up on returns. This season, he's really hurt the Falcons with the field position he's leaving the opposition. That said, he's fantastic on kickoffs leaving the opponent to take a knee in the end zone.
Return specialist Eric Weems is a pleasant surprise. After stepping in for injured punt returner Harry Douglas, he's looked fantastic. He caught double duty last week after kickoff return ace Jerious Norwood left the game.
He made the best of it by giving the Falcons excellent field position. The return game has been a huge question mark and Weems has solidified himself in that role.
A lot of mixed reviews here. The Falcons are 2-1 but their two wins came from current 0-3 teams. A win is a win but sometimes you have to consider the source. If the Falcons are to keep the win total up they will need to step outside their comfort zone.
Coach Mike Smith has been the king of challenges so far. Each game that flag has the turf, or official as was the case in one instance. He's won more than he's lost but with the officiating done this season expect more of those weekly.
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey let Matt Ryan loose last season allowing him to run the no-huddle offense and call his own plays at the line of scrimmage. This season, Ryan almost seems handcuffed by conservatism.
The lack of no-huddle and down-field passing makes one wonder why we aren't seeing more of what made the Falcons special last season.The running game is suffering as a result since defenses do not have to respect the Falcons ability to go for the big play down-field.
Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder is running a cover 2 defense with little to no blitzing. Without the line getting pressure on the opposing quarterback one has to wonder what's going on there. The front four can't pressure the QB alone and without blitzing the linebackers can't get better at it. Practice makes perfect, but why practice something you rarely to never utilize?
It's still very early in the season but there are several things we need to see from the Falcons this season to call them a contender.
1. More no-huddle offense.
2. More pressure on the quarterback.
3. Open holes in the running game.
4. Capitalize on opportunities such as interceptions, mismatches, etc.
5. Determine who they want at corner and stick with it.
And most important, stop the run. That above all will determine how the rest of the season plays out. The schedule doesn't get any easier with the NFC East coming up. All but the Philadelphia game will be on the road and most coming after that weeks opponent has a bye week to prepare.
How will the Falcons stack up this season? Only time will tell. The first step would be to remove the stigma of never having back to back winning seasons.
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