Falcons Use Bye Week to Improve Secondary

Brian RobertsContributor IOctober 15, 2008

The Atlanta Falcons came into 2008 with arguably more issues than any other team in  the NFL. Unless you have been living under a rock you are aware of the Falcons woes, namely Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino.

Concerns for 2008 included a new coaching staff, a new quarterback, a young offensive line, and a mostly inexperienced secondary. To add insult to injury, we said goodbye to two-time Pro-Bowler and often outspoken DeAngelo Hall.

Enter Mike Smith, Thomas Dimitroff, and the "New Look" Falcons.

Smith and Dimitroff hit the free-agent market and made moves in the NFL draft to take on these issues bunches at a time. Adding the likes of Michael Turner, Matt Ryan, Curtis Lofton and re-signing Grady Jackson.

Fast forward and as we enter week seven of the 2008 season the Falcons are 4-2. Yes, you read that right.

The second youngest team in the NFL, the same team coming off a season full of turmoil, the same team that ended the 2007 campaign with four wins overall, has four wins in just six games. Don't ask how or why. The "New Looks" have bottom line just gotten it done.

The Falcons rank 20th in the league against the run, they are 24th against the pass, and 15th in scoring defense.

In week four, the secondary gave up 294 yards through the air to the Panthers' struggling quarterback, Jake Delhomme. Final score: 24-9, Panthers.

Then again in week five against the Packers, the Falcons gave up 313 yards to first-year starter Aaron Rodgers in a nail-biter. Final score: 27-24, Falcons.

Last week in the aptly named "Gone in 11 Seconds" against the Bears, Kyle Orton torched the secondary for 286 yards. Final score: 22-20, Falcons.

Unfortunately for Falcons fans, tickets apparently lack the appropriate "people who are pregnant or with back problems, motion sickness, or heart problems should not ride" warnings needed to watch these games.

Three of the Falcons' top four tacklers are defensive backs, with veteran Lawyer Malloy leading the way with 38 stops. The others are second-leading tackler, safety Erik Coleman with 36, cornerbacks Brent Grimes with 31 (fourth), and Chris Houston with 16 (ninth). Each has one interception apiece.

Malloy, a four-time Pro Bowler, is the only starter with significant starting time. In a secondary lacking experience, Malloy needs to bring some experience to the younger guys looking to make an impact.

The next few weeks will be a true test for this secondary.

After a bye week, Atlanta will host Philadelphia and Donovan McNabb, the league's fifth best passer and one of the most diverse offenses in the NFC.

DeSean Jackson has proven his ability to stretch the field.

Reggie Brown, who established himself as McNabb's go-to-guy prior to an injury that has kept him out much of the year, should be back and making plays.

If Chris Houston and Brent Grimes can keep Jackson and Hank Baskett in check, look for the Eagles to rely heavily on Brian Westbrook.

In week 10 the Falcons take on the Saints in a game that could determine who is in the driver's seat in the NFC South. This will prove to be the biggest test to date for the Falcons' secondary.

They take on the league's best passer in Drew Brees, who has completed 71 percent of his passes, while throwing for 1,993 yards and 12 touchdowns. The real test will be on keeping the Saints' big play-makers, Reggie Bush (41 catches, 361 yards, 3 TDs) and Devery Henderson (32.1 yards/rec, 385 yards, 2 TDs).

Reggie Bush's ability to stretch defenses could determine how the Atlanta secondary performs on play action favorite Henderson. Look for safeties Malloy and Coleman to have big games.

If that is not enough, Denver comes to town in week 11. The Broncos spread the ball around to a bevy of receivers. Leading this core of receivers is Brandon Marshall (43 catches, 521 yards, 3 TDs).

Three other receivers (Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokley, Tony Scheffler) have over 250 yards receiving with two touchdowns. The offense runs off the arm of Jay Cutler, who has been as good as any this season, throwing for 1,694 yards and 12 scores.

With the Broncos looking to multiple offensive targets, look for the Falcons to play much of the day in Nickel coverage. Look for Rookie Chavis Jackson or David Irons to step up.

In order for the Falcons to continue the success through the first six weeks of the season, the secondary has to be more effective against the pass.  With better competition on the table in the coming weeks, the Falcons must grow up fast and continue to bring respect back to Atlanta.