Tag Archive: Atlanta Falcons


NFL Weekly Picks: Week 3

Hey guys, sorry I didn’t have time to get my weekly picks post up last week. I just moved back to Minnesota so now that I am settling in hopefully I will be able to get into a groove with all of these weekly posts that I want to do. So, without further ado, here are my NFL Weekly Picks!

Eagles over Chiefs- I think the Eagles’ offense will be too much for the Chiefs to slow down, but it may come down to whether or not the Eagles defense can stop anyone. Thus far the answer to that question is no. Still, I’m going with Chip Kelly and the home team Eagles in this match-up, especially since the Chiefs have Dunta Robinson on their roster.

Packers over Bengals- The Bengals got a solid win against the Steelers last week but the Packers offense looked borderline unstoppable last week against the Redskins. The Bengals defense is a significantly better unit, but I think the Packers will be able to put up enough points to win this one. If Andy Dalton plays well he could make things interesting though, and I’m not sold on the Packers defense yet. Still, it’s tough to bet against Aaron Rodgers in this match-up even on the road.

Rams over Cowboys- This might surprise some people, but the Rams are a good football team and they gave my Falcons a run for their money last week. The Cowboys couldn’t quite figure out the Kansas City Chiefs, and while the ‘Boys have a lot of talent on offense the Rams are a talented defensive football team that I think has a chance to match-up with the Cowboys on offense. Of course, if Dez Bryant goes off for 180 yards and a touchdown like Julio Jones did last week then I would be completely wrong on that. Still, I have a feeling the Rams will play well in this game and I think they can beat Tony Romo and the Cowboys on the road.

Chargers over Titans- I’m realizing I’m picking a lot of road teams here so far, but I think the Chargers are the better football team in this match-up and it’s tough not to go with Philip Rivers over Jake Locker here. If Locker can pass accurately and use his legs effectively they could give the Chargers defense some problems, but most of us know the likelihood of both of those things happening consistently for four quarters is not likely.

Vikings over Browns- This would have been a more interesting game prior to the Trent Richardson trade, and there is something funny about the Browns making this trade with the Colts just days before they travel up to Minnesota to play the Vikings given that the Vikings are the team that traded down with Cleveland to allow them to move up to number three overall and select Richardson in the first place. The Browns offense has been struggling even with Richardson in the lineup, and it’s hard to imagine them being better without him even with Josh Gordon returning from suspension. The Browns do have a good defense though, so I expect both teams to score less than 20 points. The Vikings have the offensive advantage in this match-up though thanks to Adrian Peterson and a solid game from Christian Ponder, Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph and Jerome Simpson should be enough to win this one for the purple. However, it is worth mentioning that this is the kind of game the Vikings traditionally find a way to inexplicably lose.

Patriots over Buccaneers- The Buccaneers aren’t in great shape right now and while the Patriots have barely managed to defeat two rookie quarterbacks in consecutive weeks I don’t think Tom Brady and that offense are going to stay out of synch for more than a couple weeks. That should play to the Bucs advantage this week, but I don’t think it will be enough to get them a victory.

Saints over Cardinals- Originally I had the Cardinals winning this game, but it’s tough to travel into the Superdome and get a victory, particularly since the Saints defense looks significantly better through two weeks than it ever did last season. Carson Palmer has reinvigorated the Cardinals offense, and their defense is still respectable despite the loss of defensive coordinator Ray Horton, but I don’t think it will be enough to go into the Saints’ house and beat Drew Brees on his home turf.

Redskins over Lions- The Lions have shown plenty of flashes through the first two weeks, but I think they are going to come up short against a Redskins team that will likely be very motivated and focused after starting 0-2. It remains to be seen if the ‘Skins defense can get on track, but going up against the Eagles and the Packers in the first two weeks isn’t exactly a fair barometer for a defense, especially since they were essentially the NFL’s guinea pigs against Chip Kelly and his up-tempo offensive scheme. I think the Redskins will be motivated and hungry this week, so I’m giving them the edge over the Lions.

Giants over Panthers- I definitely didn’t expect the Giants to start the season out 0-2, but if Eli Manning can’t stop throwing interceptions they may be in for a long year. However, I am well aware that not all of those turnovers are his fault and I expect he and the Giants to get back on track against the Panthers. It would be really nice if David Wilson would get his act together and stop fumbling the ball, but the addition of Brandon Jacobs back into the fold should help provide at least a little stability in the running game. Maybe Cam Newton and the Panthers will surprise me, but I think the Giants are going to be motivated after starting 0-2 just like the Redskins are. I’m not sure if I can say the same thing about the Panthers yet or not.

Texans over Ravens- The Ravens offense has been ineffective thus far this season and I don’t anticipate them getting back on track against the talented Texans defense. If Andre Johnson can play the Ravens will get to see the Texans explosive combination of Arian Foster, Ben Tate, Andre Johnson AND DeAndre Hopkins who was one of my favorite wide receivers in last year’s loaded draft class. He caught the game-winning touchdown last week against the Titans, so I think the Texans are ready to beat the Ravens on the road this week.

Dolphins over Falcons- It pains me to do this, but the Falcons got way too banged up last week to go on the road and beat the Dolphins in my opinion. I think Ryan Tannehill is about to go off, and Lamar Miller may have a big day as well. Not only that, but Brent Grimes is a sure bet to pick off Matt Ryan in this game and I just don’t think the Falcons will be able to overcome Roddy White not being at 100%, Steven Jackson being out (though Jason Snelling will hopefully get a lot of touches), Kroy Biermann being out for the year, Bradie Ewing being out for the year, AND Sean Weatherspoon being out until Week 11. That’s a lot to replace and account for in one week, and while I think they will be able to survive those set-backs long term I’m not sure they can get away with it this week, so I give the advantage to the Dolphins at home.

Bills over Jets- In the battle of rookie quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Geno Smith I’ve got to give Manuel and the Bills the edge in this one. The Jets defense is still a quality unit despite the departure of Darrelle Revis, but Geno Smith made some questionable decisions and poorly executed throws in the elements against New England last week, and I have been shocked by how well EJ Manuel has been playing thus far. The Bills coaching staff has done a great job managing him thus far, and I trust Nathaniel Hackett to gameplan well more than I trust Marty Mornhinweg to do the same, so I am going with the Bills in this one. May the best rookie QB win. I must say, I was shocked and critical of the Manuel pick at 16 overall, but defeating Geno Smith (who I expected to come off the board first of all the quarterbacks) would be a pretty big vindication for EJ Manuel and the entire Bills organization. It would also make me look stupid, so that’s probably why it will happen.

49ers over Colts- This is an interesting one and it will be worth monitoring just how involved Trent Richardson will be in this game given that he is unfamiliar with the system and has no chemistry with the team at all, but the 49ers are the better squad and are likely very pissed off after the way they lost that game to division rival and offseason Cold War opponent Seattle on Sunday Night. The 49ers should come out firing and it will take a terrific performance from Andrew Luck to leave Candlestick with a victory.

Seahawks over Jaguars- #BecauseJaguars and #AllRussellWilsonEverything

Bears over Steelers- I thought Marc Trestman might give the Bears offense a tune-up and he appears to have done just that, and it makes me happy to see Jay Cutler playing well. The Steelers offense is completely devoid of playmaking at this point and I don’t anticipate they will be able to take advantage of the Bears defense enough to come away with a victory even at home.

Broncos over Raiders- The Broncos are playing some terrific football right now and they are looking especially sharp on the offensive side of the ball so far. They simply have more talent than the Raiders do at this point, though I think Terrelle Pryor and Darren McFadden may give the Broncos defense a few headaches. It would be a truly fantastic upset if the Raiders were able to come away with a victory against the Broncos on the road, I just don’t see it happening.

Thanks for reading, hopefully I do better this week than I did during the openers. Enjoy the games this weekend!

–Tom

Current 2013 Pick Record: 9-6

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NFL Quick Hits: Week 2

This post will have to be more brief than my original one, partially because I missed the majority of the late afternoon games as well as the 49ers-Seahawks game (despite the delay) because of my move. Still, I want to write up my thoughts on the games I was able to see this week, so here there are.

New Message: Missing You. Sender: Tom Brady. Recipients: Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez: The Patriots are 2-0, but barely. They eeked out a win week one against a rookie quarterback and the Buffalo Bills and needed three interceptions from their defense to hang on for a 13-10 win against Geno Smith and the New York Jets this past Thursday. Shane Vereen got hurt after a very productive opening week and Stevan Ridley has started slowly in the first two weeks. On top of that, Danny Amendola was hurt against the Jets, Gronkowski is still out, Hernandez is long gone and so is Wes Welker. Julian Edelman was the only receiver Brady could trust to catch the ball and he targeted him very frequently as a result, though Aaron Dobson had three solid catches for 56 yards and the Patriots’ only touchdown. However, he caught those three passes on a whopping 10 targets from Brady and had at least a couple drops from what I saw watching the game live. Brady let his frustration show throughout the game and it’s easy to understand why. He’s used to sure-handed receivers that are on the same page as him, but it was clear that everyone on the unit outside of Edelman was still working out the kinks with Brady. This was perfectly shown on one 3rd down play in the red zone where Dobson was running a corner route and as he got to the goal line Brady fired a pass expecting him to have read the coverage, recognize the hole in the zone and sit down for an easy touchdown. Instead, Dobson continued running his route and the pass fell incomplete and led to a field goal attempt which left Brady incensed as he came off the field and on the sideline. Hopefully Amendola won’t be out for longer than a couple weeks and Gronkowski should be back either this week or next, so Brady won’t have to put up with this indefinitely. As frustrating as this is for him right now it might pay some dividends later in the season if he gets on the same page with Dobson and rookie undrafted free agent receiver Kenbrell Thompkins early on. Once Amendola and Gronkowski are back (and if they stay healthy) having Dobson, Thompkins and Edelman as reliable complementary options could provide this offense with a significant spark, not to mention if the running game gets going and Vereen returns healthy after he is activated from the injured reserve. The silver lining for the Jets is that Geno Smith flashed some upside in this game despite his three interceptions (though some of the throws he made late in the game were awful and complete head scratchers) and Chris Ivory seems poised to take over as a potential bell cow as he comes back from injury. That would be great for the Jets because they need a running game to help take some of the pressure off of Smith’s shoulders, there’s no way he should be throwing the ball 35 times in poor conditions against Tom Brady and the Patriots in his second career start. As out of synch as the Patriots offense was at times, the Jets defense has been better than a lot of people assumed it would be after losing it’s best player in Darrelle Revis, further proving that Rex Ryan may not be a media darling but he is a very good defensive football coach. We’ll see if that continues, but I don’t expect the Patriots to continue to struggle on offense like this for more than two or three weeks, and hopefully Chris Ivory will stay healthy and help keep Smith from needing to attempt 30+ passes in a game for a while.

It’s A Good Thing the Falcons Played at Home Because They Know Where All the Hospitals Are: Steven Jackson is already hurt and may be out another two to four weeks with a thigh injury. Bradie Ewing is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Kroy Biermann is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Sean Weatherspoon is on IR and is eligible to return week 11 because of a Lisfranc injury. Roddy White is playing through his injury but was clearly limited in week two as he was targeted just three times for three receptions and 21 yards. Julio Jones was on the injury report but thankfully went off for 181 yards and one touchdown against the Rams. The Falcons can survive without Steven Jackson thanks to Jason Snelling (if they ever give him the ball) and Jacquizz Rodgers as a change of pace back, they can survive while Roddy White is largely a decoy if Harry Douglas keeps catching 80% of his targets like he did against the Rams (4/5), they can survive without Ewing at fullback like they did all last season, and they can find a way to replace Biermann’s production as a pass rusher and hopefully his versatility to drop into coverage as well as his terrific motor. However, it’s going to be hard to replace ‘Spoon’s value to the linebacking corp because the Falcons were already thin there and relied on rookie linebacker Joplo Bartu from Texas State to help solidify that unit already. Now they will be scrambling to either add a veteran or will be forced to call up one of the young linebackers who didn’t make the team such as Pat Schiller. The Falcons have been hit hard by injuries already this year, but it’s not time to hit the panic button yet. However, they really need to work on establishing the run game against the Dolphins this upcoming week because running the ball 16 times for 36 yards (2.3 ypc) is embarrassing, particularly when your most effective runner (Jason Snelling) only got 2 carries and managed 19 yards and a touchdown despite the coaching staff almost deliberately trying not to give him the ball. Ryan was brilliant despite the lack of even a semblance of a running game, but expecting him to be that brilliant without a running game consistently is asking for a let down. Feed Snelling and let him take some of the heat off Ryan by getting him in more favorable 2nd and 3rd down situations. I haven’t been able to go back and rewatch the game yet, but Sam Bradford finally seems to have some weapons around him to do some damage with. Chris Givens gives him a deep threat that the Rams have been missing for years, and despite not liking him out of Boise State Austin Pettis has stuck around and remained productive despite lacking any explosiveness what so ever. The Rams, too, need to establish a running game and Daryl Richardson is the man they expect to do it. Still, he only got 10 carries and mustered 35 yards, but I still hope the Rams will give Benny Cunningham a chance to show what he can do. He is my favorite running back on the Rams roster and I really think he and Isiah Pead could do some damage splitting carries. The Rams defense is definitely talented enough to contend, it all comes down to whether Sam Bradford and the offense can take that next step this year now that he has some weapons to throw to.

Aaron Rodgers Is Still A Robot: I watched almost the entirety of the Packers-Redskins game and it honestly scared me watching Rodgers play quarterback. He had 335 yards passing at HALFTIME and finished with 480 yards, tying the passing record set by Packers legend Matt Flynn. He also threw four touchdowns while completing an insane 34 of his 42 passing attempts. His “QBR” of 80.9 is proof that ESPN’s rating system for quarterbacks is a complete joke because Rodgers was nothing short of masterful against the Redskins. On top of that the Packers also got 132 yards and a touchdown out of James Starks who was forced into action after Eddie Lacy was knocked out of the game with a concussion. RGIII on the other hand had a tougher day and started much slower than Rodgers did (though Rodgers was under pressure frequently during the first couple series). He still managed to finish the game with 320 yards, three touchdowns and one interception on 26/40 passing, but only ran the ball four times for a total of one yard. The Redskins are clearly trying to limit the contact that RGIII is taking, but it’s hurting the offense’s effectiveness early on in games if you ask me. The ‘Skins are 0-2 now and RGIII and that offense will have to get things going earlier if they are going to turn things around. We’ll see when the Shanahans are comfortable turning him loose on his surgically repaired knee.

Rivers Gets Redemption, Steals Victory From Vick, Eagles: Philip Rivers bounced back from a disappointing loss to the Texans the week before by winning on a last second field goal against the Eagles this past week. Rivers completed 36/47 passes for 419 yards and three touchdowns, all of which went to his new favorite target Eddie Royal who now has five touchdowns in just two games. Who saw that coming? Not me. I wasn’t happy to see Malcolm Floyd sustain a neck injury when he got sandwiched by two Eagles defenders over the middle, but his injury gave Keenan Allen a chance to get on the field and he caught two of his three targets for 34 yards including a BEAUTIFUL route on a deep in for his first NFL reception. Allen was my #1 ranked wide receiver in the 2013 NFL Draft class so I am excited that he might be getting more playing time even if it is because Floyd went down with an unfortunate injury. Rivers’ performance also overshadowed a terrific game from Mike Vick who threw for a career best 428 yards on 23 of 36 passing and two touchdowns. He also added six rushes for 23 yards and another score on the ground. LeSean McCoy only got 11 carries for 53 yards but he and DeSean Jackson were lethal in the passing game as McCoy totaled 114 yards on just five receptions and Jackson reeled in nine passes good for 193 yards and a touchdown. Chip Kelly’s offense is certainly fun to watch, but I am not surprised that the Eagles’ defense is struggling to stop opposing offenses from gaining a lot of yards and putting up a lot of points. They’re giving up 30 points per game through the first two weeks and that isn’t going to cut it in a division with the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys all capable of putting up a lot of points on any given Sunday.

Texans “Nuke” Titans: For years Texans fans and NFL Draft analysts alike have been waiting and wondering when the Texans would get a legitimate wide receiver to play opposite Andre Johnson and 2013 was finally the year as the Texans added DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins was my #4 ranked wide receiver in an absolutely loaded class but I am a huge fan of his and was not surprised to see him help the Texans rally despite losing Andre Johnson to a possible concussion in the 4th quarter. He finished the game with seven receptions for for 117 yards and the game winning touchdown in overtime in just his second game during his rookie season. It’s clear “Nuk” Hopkins is living up to the hype so far, and it’s great to see such a talented player blossom under the tutelage of a longtime NFL star in Andre Johnson.

Bengals, Bernard Burst Past Steelers: This wasn’t as fun of a game as I was hoping it would be largely in part because the Steelers offense is in a very bad way right now. Outside of Antonio Brown and occasionally Emmanuel Sanders there are no playmakers (Markus Wheaton has barely gotten any snaps the first two weeks) and Heath Miller was out for this game as well. Big Ben will be happy once Le’Veon Bell and Miller return because Bell should help perk up the running game even though Maurkice Pouncey will be out the entire season. Ray Lewis seemed to think that this was a devastating blow to the Steelers, and contrary to what I have read from some media members I tend to side with Ray. It’s easy to overlook how critical a center is to the offensive line sometimes, but players like Pouncey (even if he hasn’t been at his best for the last year or so) don’t come around too often. Add to that the departure of Mike Wallace and Miller’s injury and it’s not hard to see why the Steelers are struggling out of the gate this year. The defense is still strong, but they struggled to match up with the quickness of Giovani Bernard out of the backfield as well as the athleticism of Jermaine Greshman and Tyler Eifert. The Bengals continue to look like a very good team at pretty much every position except quarterback where I still have my reservations about Andy Dalton despite the fact that he is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Bengals have done well to surround him with weapons to get the most out of him that they can, but I think he plateaued after his rookie season and I don’t think he will ever take the next step from being a solid quarterback to being a good or great one. He settled down in this game and helped steer the Bengals to victory, but he was missing some throws he has to make to Eifert and AJ Green, two players with massive catch radii, that he has to make if he wants to lead the Bengals to the playoffs consistently, much less on a deep playoff run. The Bengals don’t seem to be totally convinced that Dalton is “the guy” yet either or they probably would have signed him to a contract extension, so it will be interesting to see how the season plays out, if Dalton takes the next step, and what the Bengals elect to do with him prior to him becoming a free agent.

Well, it was slightly more brief than last week. Hopefully you all enjoyed my thoughts, let me know what you think and if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve written here.

Thanks for reading!

–Tom

NFL Quick Hits

This is a feature I’m going to try every week where I post some hopefully brief thoughts on the past weekend of NFL games. I don’t know if I’ll have time to do the same with College Football games, but I will post them if I have time to write them all up. Hopefully you guys enjoy this segment.

1- The Falcons Are Who We Thought They Were- I’m sure most of you guys know I’m a Falcons fan by now, and that loss to the Saints was tough. The Falcons scored on their opening drives in both halves, but otherwise were very inconsistent on offense. I’m wondering why they ran the ball so infrequently despite Steven Jackson having solid success on the ground, and I’m also wondering how they managed to hold Drew Brees and the Saints to 23 points despite a lackluster pass rush. I’m not too worried about the offensive line yet, I think they will gel and become a stronger unit, but the amount of pressure in Matt Ryan’s face and the inexplicable avoidance of the run game and quick-hitting pass game to try to counter the pressure was frustrating. Brees was on point as always and I was impressed with the Saints dramatic improvement on defense. Rob Ryan has done a great job with them up to this point, and the pressure they got on Ryan and the looks they were showing him pre-snap stuck out to me. The Falcons will be fine, but I don’t think they are a 13-3 team like they were a year ago. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I think they are in the 10-6/11-5 area. We shall see.

2- Peyton Manning Needs To Stop Playing On Rookie- The way Manning was playing on Thursday night it is evident to me he was just playing Madden on a rookie setting, and a veteran with his resume should be playing on All-Madden at least, and preferably with a number of the sliders raised manually beyond that. Manning was obviously masterful, and that was despite having no running backs with a yard per carry average over 3.8 and only gaining 65 total yards on the ground. Joe Flacco came down to Earth after his fantastic playoff performances and it’s clear to me that he is missing Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta right now. Torrey Smith is a stud, but he can only do so much without a significant threat to take some pressure off of him. Dallas Clark surprised me with 7 catches for 87 yards, and if he can keep that up the loss of Pitta shouldn’t be quite as significant. I am a huge Demaryius Thomas fan and had a top 20 grade on him out of Georgia Tech and he has completely lived up to my expectations for him. I definitely expected Decker to be the #2 guy and Welker to be the 3rd option, but if the first week is any indication then Welker is going to get a lot of love from Manning this year. I don’t think 2 catches for 32 yards will be a typical week for Decker by any means, but I think I definitely underrated Welker’s potential impact coming into the year. I was also blown away by how well Duke Ihenacho and Shaun Phillips played. I liked Ihenacho out of San Jose State but realized some of his athletic limitations, however he had 12 tackles (including ELEVEN solo stops), 1 tackle for loss and 3 pass deflections as well as some pretty nice hits in this game. Phillips had 2.5 sacks and 3 QB hits on the night and definitely helped make up for the absence of Von Miller for at least one night. The Broncos looked like they were in mid-season form, but I don’t think the Ravens are going to have that much trouble on offense or defense for the entire season. They have lots of new faces on their roster and they need time to gel, and Manning took full advantage. Don’t hit the panic button yet Ravens fans.

3- EJ Manuel Is Making Me Look Stupid- I was pretty clear that I was not a fan of EJ Manuel at FSU and while it is still very early in his career my analysis of him is looking quite foolish right now. I have been very impressed with how Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett have managed Manuel starting from his first pre-season snaps. They haven’t asked him to go out there and be Tom Brady, but much like Cam Newton his rookie season they will likely open up the playbook and let him attack more as he becomes more comfortable. I was happy to see Robert Woods get his first NFL catch and his first NFL touchdown, but Manuel got to see first hand that there’s almost nobody better than Tom Brady when the game is on the line. He may not have had a great day statistically, but when it counted he took the Pats down the field and got them in position to win the game. Danny Amendola predictably had a good game, I loved what Shane Vereen did and I was very sad to see that he is going to miss significant time due to a broken wrist (which he apparently suffered on the first play of the game!). I am hoping that Spiller was given limited touches because of his lost fumble, and not because he is inexplicably being mismanaged again in 2013. Regardless, Bills fans should be very encouraged by the early returns on EJ Manuel.

4- “Same Old Bungles”- That is for my good friend Ryan Koons who is now an active duty marine. He is a die hard Bengals fan and whenever they manage to lose a game like this that is what he would always say. I have to say I really thought those days were behind Cincinnati because on paper I thought they were ready to win the AFC North. However, Andy Dalton continues to make me wonder about just how far the Bengals can go with him as a quarterback even in spite of the absolutely fantastic play of AJ Green. The Bengals have tons of talent on defense, they’ve got weapons on offense, but if they are going to win close games and go deep in the playoffs they need Dalton to play better and limit his turnovers. The run game deserves some ire as well as the Bengals only averaged 3 yards per touch and totaled 63 yards on the ground. On the other side I thought Jay Cutler, overall, had a good game and Brandon Marshall was fantastic. The Bears running game was sluggish as well, and hopefully that offensive line will slowly gel and improve over the course of the season. I know that probably makes Bears fans nervous because they’ve been waiting for that offensive front to improve for years, but I’m hoping this is the year for their sake.

5- Reggie Bush Is Dangerous, Christian Ponder Is Not- The Lions put up 38 points on the Vikings defense and a lot of that is due to Reggie Bush totaling 90 yards on the ground (4.3 ypc) and 101 yards and one touchdown as a receiver (with a long of 77). That’s very impressive production, and it comes despite only hauling in four of his eight targets on the day. Matt Stafford had another high attempt, high yardage day and while it wasn’t the most efficient performance it certainly got the job done. I wouldn’t expect too many four catch, 37 yard days for Calvin Johnson, but Bush, Nate Burleson and Joique Bell took the pressure off of him this week. On the other side Christian Ponder continues to prove his doubters right as he threw 3 interceptions, got sacked three times and lost a fumble on the day. He also spoiled a fantastic game for Jerome Simpson who had 7 catches and 140 yards which I certainly didn’t expect from him. Adrian Peterson had a 78 yard touchdown run on his first carry but gained only 15 additional yards on his next 17 carries, but still managed 93 yards and two touchdowns rushing as well as 18 yards and another touchdown receiving. I will be the first to admit that I liked Ponder out of FSU (clearly I’m 0/2 on scouting Florida State quarterbacks right now) but he doesn’t have the same velocity he had prior to the injuries he sustained his senior year, he isn’t making good decisions and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matt Cassel start at some point this season for the Vikings. That’s not a good sign, and it likely means the Vikings will be looking to draft a quarterback early in the 2014 NFL Draft. I have been patient with Ponder and he occasionally shows signs of life, but unfortunately now that he’s in his 3rd year these kinds of struggles won’t be tolerated anymore. He’s got to step up his game and quick.

6- Pryor Makes Oakland Offense Almost Competent- I really feel like I am ruining any credibility I have as a quarterback scout but I liked Tyler Wilson a lot out of Arkansas and I didn’t like Terrelle Pryor out of Ohio State, but I am glad the Raiders elected to start Pryor over Matt Flynn. Pryor’s legs gave the Raiders life in this game and while I don’t think it will get them to the playoffs it should make them more competitive than they would have been with Flynn at the helm. I didn’t get to see as much of this game as I wanted to because the feed went out for it multiple times at the bar I was watching the games at (for some reason it was streaming online, not sure why), so outside of Pryor impressing me as a runner and Andrew Luck being a stud I don’t have too many thoughts on this game. Sorry guys.

7- Nolan Nawrocki Your Crow Is Ready- I know it’s early, and I know it’s only his first start, but it was fun to see Geno Smith rally the Jets to an unlikely win against Tampa Bay week one. I’m not going to say he made some unbelievable plays on that final drive to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, but if Sanchez was the QB on that final drive I don’t think the Jets would have won that game. Smith isn’t known for his scrambling, but his athleticism was obvious at the NFL combine and he gave the Jets a chance to get lucky thanks to his skill set. He wasn’t mind-blowingly efficient by any means, but it was definitely a solid first start based on what I was able to see. Unfortunately for Bucs fans Josh Freeman struggled (though the Jets do still have a good, well-coached defense) and despite 154 yards from Vincent Jackson he only managed 210 yards on 31 attempts, was sacked three times and threw one touchdown and one interception. I wasn’t a Freeman fan coming out and his first season it really looked like he might make me eat my words, but he seemed to plateau after that rookie season and hasn’t quite been the same since.

8- Kaepernick Is The Truth- I wasn’t wild about Kaepernick’s throwing motion or accuracy coming out of Nevada, but Jim Harbaugh has done a fantastic job with him and that offense is now tailor made for him. It certainly helps having weapons like Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis (even though Davis had a drop or two that he shouldn’t have) while Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham are injured, but his athleticism, pure arm strength and seemingly improving accuracy really stood out to me against the Packers. Green Bay had absolutely no answer for the Kaepernick-Boldin connection and while they managed to keep him bottled up as a runner he shredded them for 412 yards and three touchdowns as a passer. The Packers will have to go back to the drawing board now to try to figure out how to slow Kaepernick down if they meet again in the playoffs. I thought Aaron Rodgers was great as usual even if he did come up just short, I still love Randall Cobb, and I was happy Jermichael Finley bounced back from that drop that led to Rodgers only interception with some solid catches, good yards after the catch and that impressive touchdown. The Packers should be fine and I think they will be a playoff team, but I’m sure they and their fans are annoyed that another referee controversy led to a do-over for the 49ers that led to an Anquan Boldin touchdown. Maybe I’m alone here, but I think the NFL downgrading Bill Leavy for that mistake is ridiculous. Leavy is a veteran official and while he made a mistake this just reeks of an overreaction to me.

9- RGIII Was Rusty, The Eagles Offense Wasn’t- The Eagles defense made this interesting in the second half as RGIII and the Redskins started to knock some of the rust off, but in the first half RGIII had a lot of issues fading away from throws and not stepping into his passes. He still did some of that in the 2nd half, but he was definitely much more crisp and effective once his receivers stopped dropping passes and Kyle Shanahan adjusted to get him into a rhythm with quicker, easier throws. Michael Vick was impressive, though he’s still the same Michael Vick that will hold onto the ball too long and take unnecessary risks with his body at times. LeSean McCoy looks like an ideal fit for Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme and he should have a huge year. I was also happy to see that one of my favorites from a couple years ago Mychal Kendricks looked much better (based on what I saw live) and was pressuring RGIII pretty consistently. I’m not sure he’s great in coverage, but it was fun to see him rushing some of Griffin’s throws. Additionally, that interception Cary Williams made on that out route that Griffin threw was nothing short of fantastic. What a terrific play.

10- Oh Philip Rivers, You Poor Bastard- Rivers was absolutely fantastic in the 1st half and he started off the 2nd half in the same fashion. He had the Chargers up 28-7 and seemed poised for a statement victory in week one of the 2013 season. Unfortunately, much like he and the Bolts have in the past, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Rivers and the offense began to sputter, the Texans woke up on offense, and the rally was complete once Brian Cushing read Rivers’ eyes beautifully and made a diving interception that he then returned for a game-tying touchdown. The Texans would go on to move the ball down the field and position Randy Bullock for a game winning 41 yard field goal. Andre Johnson continued to show why he is one of the best in the game with a 12 reception, 146 yard performance, Owen Daniels chipped in 67 yards and two touchdowns, and Deandre Hopkins added five receptions and 66 yards. I thought Arian Foster seemed determined to make a big play all game and didn’t seem focused on doing the little things. He was palming the ball and holding it away from his body, he dropped multiple catchable balls, and almost seemed to be showing off and looking to make someone look foolish. Maybe that’s just me over-extrapolating, but he seemed off tonight. I’d be surprised if Gary Kubiak doesn’t talk to him about how he’s holding the ball after he and the other coaches watch film.

Alright, so that was a LOT less brief than I expected it to be. I guess I had more to say than I anticipated, though I shouldn’t really be surprised since I am so long winded anyway. Sorry that was such a long post, hopefully you enjoyed it anyway!

Thanks for reading,

–Tom

Conference Championship Predictions

Atlanta-San Francisco:

I want to pick the Falcons so bad for this game, but I have a feeling they are going to have issues bottling Kaepernick up and slowing down the 49ers run game. Hopefully it’s a good game, but I think the 49ers will come out with the win in a close one: 27-24

New England-Baltimore:

Ray Lewis has had a heck of a run and I’m sure there are a lot of people rooting for him to go to the Super Bowl, but I don’t think Tom Brady is going to be out-dueled by Joe Flacco in this game (even if it has technically happened before) and I think the balanced attack the Patriots are wielding this year will be too much for Baltimore to keep up with. I’m taking the Pats 31-21

Enjoy the games! Hopefully I don’t miss much of them as I am traveling to Mobile.

–Tom

Divisional Playoff Picks:

I’m going to be traveling on Sunday morning en route to the East-West Shrine Game so I am going to make all of my picks today. We’ve got four intriguing match-ups going on this weekend, so it will be interesting to see how they shake out.

Denver-Baltimore:

As much as I want to see Ray Lewis and Baltimore continue on this season I’m not convinced they are going to. It’s hard to bet against Peyton Manning and this Broncos team, especially since this Denver defense is much more complete than any defense Manning ever had in Indianapolis. They can really get after the passer but I think they’ll be able to slow down Ray Rice as well, and that’s what I’d be worried about most if I was a Ravens fan. The Broncos can match up with the Ravens on both sides of the ball, and I’m not sure they have the fire-power on offense or the talent on defense to take away Manning’s passing options. On top of that, I’m not a big Flacco fan and I’m not sure he’s going to be able to make the big throws the Ravens need to win this game. He made some last week, but this defense is a different animal. I’m hoping for a good game, but I think Denver is going to win by more than one score: 31-20.

Green Bay-San Francisco:

This is a tough match-up to pick, but I’m going to go with San Francisco. I think they match up ok with Green Bay’s bevy of weapons on offense and they should be able to get after Rodgers without blitzing which is a big no-no against him. If you can generate pressure with four or five rushers (like the Vikings did in Week 17) then you can knock him around a bit and not give him a lot of options and force him to make unbelievable throws. The 49ers should be able to do that, and I think they’ll be able to take away the semblance of a running game that Green Bay has. On the other side of the ball I think the 49ers will be able to run the ball how they want against the Packers, and Kaepernick’s mobility outside of the pocket should extend a couple drives for the 49ers that could prove to be critical. It’s risky to pick a young QB like Kaepernick against a seasoned veteran like Rodgers, but Kaepernick isn’t one to wilt under pressure. I’m going with the 49ers but I think it’s going to be close: 27-21

Houston-New England:

I have to pick the Patriots here. I just don’t think the Texans defense will be able to match up with the weapons that the Patriots have on offense, and if the Pats can get the run game going I think the Texans will struggle to slow Brady and the Pats offense down. The Pats aren’t a great team on defense, but I think they’ll be able to do enough to slow down the Texans offense. If they can bottle Foster up and not allow Schaub to suck their linebackers in with play action fakes I think the Pats will be able to win this game. I think it’s going to be a close game, but I’m not going to be able to bet against Tom Brady in a playoff game at home: 31-24

Atlanta-Seattle:

This is a hard game for me to pick. I mentioned last week that I think the Seahawks match up very well with the Falcons on defense and I still believe that. This game is going to come down to who wins the match-ups between the Falcons WR’s and the Seahawks corners and whether or not the Falcons can find a way to get Tony Gonzalez involved without forcing him the ball. And if Michael Turner finds a way to have a productive game the Falcons can definitely win. But if the Seahawks make the Falcons one dimensional I will be very nervous with Ryan trying to carry the Falcons to victory against a very talented Seahawks secondary. They are missing their top pass rusher, but their secondary is good enough that I’d still be concerned. The Seahawks will look to run the ball early and often and I think the Falcons have the advantage on this side of the ball. Their defense has been very good at coming up with clutch turnovers this year and even if they let Wilson and Lynch move the ball I have a feeling Wilson is going to end up with an interception in this game and Lynch needs to make sure he covers up the ball because the Falcons will be looking to strip it. It’s never a good idea to bet against Russell Wilson (I did it last week and we all know how that worked out) but I think the Falcons have the defense to match up with him and even though I’m very nervous for this game I’m picking the Falcons to win a close one: 27-20

Those are my picks, hopefully I can improve over my 2-2 record last week. Enjoy all the football guys and look out for my coverage of the East-West Shrine game this next week. I’ll be posting notes here and on The Football Standard.

–Tom

It seems like ages ago that I and many other Falcons fans were beginning to have that sickening feeling deep down inside: Will Mike Vick be able to lead the Falcons to a Super Bowl? For so many years I had debated and rationalized why Vick could and would be the quarterback to get the Falcons to their first Super Bowl since 1998, but with every year that passed with little to no progression from Vick and the same disappointing losses in the playoffs after the magical win over Brett Favre and the Packers at Lambeau Field I began to wonder if Vick had what it took to win a Super Bowl. It sounds like revisionist history now, but the year before Bobby Petrino was hired I had given up almost all hope. I wasn’t convinced that Vick was going to put the time in to improve and without that I was convinced the Falcons would keep losing in the playoffs to teams with the athleticism to keep Vick in the pocket and force him to make accurate, on time throws (like the Eagles, for example). Petrino was hired and I was very, very skeptical. He had just signed a 10 year, $25.6 million extension with the Cardinals that suggested he was getting significant interest from other schools and Louisville wanted to make an obvious commitment to him to fend them off. He signed  that contract on July 13th, 2006. On January 7th, 2007, not even a full 6 months after he signed a 10 year extension, he became the new Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons. I thought he was a snake, but he had an impressive track record on the offensive side of the ball and Vick’s strong arm would seemingly be a great fit in his system. Then the entire team came crashing down after Vick was indicted on dog fighting charges and suddenly every Falcon fan was longing for the better days when Vick would drop his eyes before going through his progressions, scramble and somehow avoid a sack to extend a drive. As bad as that season was, I honestly thought it was a necessary cleanse. The Falcons never would have cut Vick with that contract unless something like that happened, and I was more than convinced the Falcons weren’t going to win a Super Bowl with Vick at the helm. If we wanted to win a Super Bowl, as hard as it was, we needed to get a new quarterback. I never really anticipated seeing Vick go that abruptly, but it opened the door to a bevy of possibilities. As we all know, Petrino confirmed my suspicions and ditched the Falcons and all of his players before the season was over (again, less than a year after he became the head coach) to accept the same position at Arkansas.

You might all be wondering what this has to do with this season’s Falcons. Vick hasn’t been on the roster for years, and most Falcon fans are glad they got rid of Petrino (myself included). But after so many years of wondering if we had a quarterback and a roster that could make a run at a Super Bowl, this year I truly believe that we can. The reason I’m writing this article, however, is because I believe that if we don’t win one this year we might not have another good chance for a few years.

Now you are probably really confused. “This team is 13-2 and they’re in the playoffs year in and year out with Mike Smith at the helm and Matt Ryan at quarterback. Who is this guy?” The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been advocating for the Falcons to draft a dynamic tight end to learn from Tony Gonzalez for three years to no avail. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has been begging the Falcons to draft a pass rusher who has the potential to replace John Abraham once he inevitably starts to slow down and become less effective. The answer to that question is I am a guy who has taken a look at the upcoming free agents the Falcons will have to try and re-sign this offseason, and it’s a significant list.

The Falcons team this year is a team that feels like a team that can win a Super Bowl to me though. They have gotten breaks when they’ve needed them, they have won close games without playing their best, and they have beaten teams that have given them issues in the past (most notably the New York Giants, but also the New Orleans Saints). Not only that, but they have evolved from a team that protects Matt Ryan with the running game to a team that throws the ball to compensate for Turner’s ineffectiveness that I hope will lead to his release this offseason. They have also evolved from a team that could barely stop anyone on defense to a team who forces a lot of turnovers and can win games with their defense. That is the biggest difference this year, and that is one reason why I think this is the year they need to win.

If the Falcons don’t win this year they are going to have some pieces to replace, some depth to replenish, and probably some front office personnel and coaches to replace. Mike Nolan has transformed this defense from a middle of the road defense into an aggressive, turnover forcing machine. I personally believe he has been one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL this year, if not the best. But now that he has done such a great job with the Falcons defense there are going to be teams that will consider giving him another shot at being a Head Coach, and he deserves those opportunities. But if the Falcons lose him their defense will not be the same. Their front office has done a great job drafting as of late as well, and that has led to David Caldwell reportedly garnering interest from teams that will need a new General Manager. Losing him would certainly be a significant blow to the Falcons front office.

On the field the Falcons have a lot of potential issues to manage as well. Brent Grimes is coming off of a serious Achilles injury that plenty of great athletes haven’t come all the way back from, and he is a free agent after the Falcons were unable to reach a long-term agreement with him on an extension that led to them using the franchise tag on him (and ultimately losing Curtis Lofton in free agency to the Saints). The Falcons likely won’t feel comfortable giving him a huge long term deal, and Grimes will want more than a one or two year trial contract. If they weren’t able to come to an agreement last year before his injury I don’t see any reason they will all of a sudden see eye to eye on his value this year. If you follow me on Twitter you are well aware that I am not a fan of Dunta Robinson and I would much rather have Grimes than Robinson, but Robinson already got a big contract and according to www.spotrac.com (@spotrac) he is due $8 million in 2013, $10 million in 2014 and $11.5 million in 2015. I would be very surprised if they paid him the final $21.5 million they owe him on that contract, but regardless of that they already have a lot of money tied up in him and probably aren’t ready to sign Grimes to a big contract after his injury even if he deserves to get paid much more than Robinson does.

Not only is Grimes a free agent, but Tony Gonzalez is a free agent and he is very likely going to retire. The Falcons are lucky to have had him for this long, and for some reason they wouldn’t draft a quality tight end prospect (I was pounding the table for Aaron Hernandez since I had a 1st round grade on him) to be his heir apparent. Well now they are faced with Gonzalez’ retirement and his back-up tight end is Michael Palmer. Palmer is not the long-term answer, and he’s certainly not going to replace Gonzalez’ impact on the passing game that Matt Ryan has gotten used to the last three years. On top of that, Sam Baker is an unrestricted free agent (UFA), his back-up Will Svitek is a UFA, old man river Todd McClure is a UFA, and William Moore is a UFA. Key reserves like Chris Hope and Mike Peterson are UFA’s as well. The Falcons don’t have a replacement on the roster for Grimes (though I have been very happy with how Robert McClain has played this year), Gonzalez, or William Moore, and McClure’s heir apparent Peter Konz has spent the majority of the year getting beat at right guard, including an embarrassing showing against Ndamukong Suh on Saturday night against the Lions.

There’s certainly nothing stopping the Falcons from retaining Baker, Svitek, Grimes, Moore, McClure, Hope and Peterson, but McClure and Peterson are getting very long in the tooth, Baker has been an average starter his entire career, Svitek isn’t the answer at left tackle, and I’ve already detailed some of the potential issues with locking Grimes up. These aren’t cornerstone players, but losing Grimes and Moore would be devastating long term for this secondary, and the Falcons’ offensive line isn’t good enough to deal with losing one or more starters without a significant upgrade. Not only that, but even though John Abraham is under contract through 2014 with a modest salary of $3.25 million for both 2013 and 2014 he is unlikely to continue to play at this high level for much longer and the Falcons have not secured a suitable replacement for him either. Lawrence Sidbury was drafted to hopefully develop into a quality pass rusher but he has been an absolute non-factor his entire career in Atlanta, and even though Jonathan Massaquoi has some upside he fell to the 6th round because his production dropped off considerably the year before he declared for the draft. Hopefully slimming back down to his sophomore weight will help him develop into a quality option, but I’m also not holding my breath for him to become the caliber of player that Abraham has been for the Falcons all these years. That means the Falcons will be facing some tough decisions this offseason, but luckily for them this draft class figures to have some high end tight end talent and has a bevy of pass rushing depth. The Falcons would be very wise to look at TE and DE in the first two rounds this year in my opinion.

I don’t mean to write a doom and gloom article, because it’s very conceivable that the Falcons retain the key free agents they need to sign and I would assume they will retain restricted free agents like Robert McClain, Vance Walker and Michael Palmer. But it’s also entirely possible that they balk at Grimes’ contract demands, lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement, and lose one or more of their quality free agents this upcoming offseason. The impact Gonzalez has can’t be understated, and if Abraham’s play starts to drop off the Falcons’ pass rush will be a serious problem that will only be rectified by daring blitz packages that will risk exposing the secondary in coverage.

So, long story short, the stars have aligned for the Falcons this year. The bounces are going their way, they have home field in the playoffs, Matt Ryan has plenty of weapons to throw to and the defense is the best it has been in years. Here’s hoping the Falcons go all the way this year, but if they don’t it could be a little while before they have a shot to go back.

Playoff Prediction Post:

I realize I’m late on this, meant to post it earlier but lost track of time today. I had the Texans picked though, I swear!

Wild Card:

Texans over Bengals
Saints over Lions
Giants over Falcons
Pittsburgh over Denver

The Giants-Falcons game could be interesting depending on what Falcons team shows up. They have struggled against quality competition this year and have gotten to the playoffs largely because of a weak schedule (especially to finish the season). The Giants pass rush could give the Falcons offensive line fits, but if they can run the ball and keep Matt Ryan upright they could make things interesting. The Giants should be able to pass all over the Falcons if they want to, but may struggle to run the ball a bit. I’m picking the Giants because they know how to win in the playoffs and the Falcons haven’t proven that they can yet.

Divisional Round:

Ravens over Texans
Patriots over Pittsburgh
Saints over 49ers
Packers over Giants

The Texans have been an inspiring story winning without Matt Schaub and Mario Williams, but I don’t think T.J. Yates will be able to threaten downfield enough to keep the Ravens from working to take away Arian Foster. The Ravens offense is going against a quality defense but I think they will be able to move the ball. Joe Flacco may not have a ton of playoff experience, but he certainly has more than Yates. I’m not sold on Yates making critical plays in big games and I think the Ravens will expose his flaws for all to see.

The Patriots over Pittsburgh is a tough call for me. I think the Patriots are a good team but their secondary is a mess and I am not sold on their defense at all. Pittsburgh can move the ball and threaten teams vertically, so they could make New England pay if they bite on the run. It’s tough to bet against Tom Brady in the playoffs though, and even though the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game in a while I think they have a good chance to win one with Pittsburgh coming up to Foxboro.

The Saints over 49ers isn’t an automatic either, but I think the Saints might be the only team in the NFC that can beat the Packers. There’s just no way I can bet against Drew Brees, especially with Alex Smith starting opposite him.

The Giants are one of the few teams that is built to beat the Packers. The Packers can’t run the ball very well and rely on passing the ball quite a bit, and the Giants have shown that they have the blueprint to beat passing teams when they upset Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl in 2007. This is an interesting match-up, especially since Aaron Rodgers didn’t play in week 17, but I expect the Packers to end up winning despite some of their struggles on defense.

Conference Championship Games:

Ravens over Patriots
Saints over Packers

The Ravens have a great defense that I think can slow down the Patriots offense enough for their offense to win the game. I don’t think the Patriots can slow down the Ravens enough to win this game personally. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think much of the Patriots defense, especially their secondary, but I do love the Ravens defense. So I’m going with them to beat the Patriots!

Yes, I’m picking the Saints. I can’t stand the Saints for what they do to the Falcons every year, but I do respect them. Their defense certainly isn’t elite, but they will be able to pressure Rodgers a bit and won’t have to worry much about the running game I don’t think. The Packers defense has little chance of slowing down the Saints offense and I think this game will end up being a shoot-out, but despite it all I think the Saints can win. They are playing the best football in the NFC right now and as the Packers know it’s all about getting hot at the right time. The Saints are hot, the Packers are not.

Superbowl:

Ravens over Saints

I am a defense first guy even though I love slinging the ball around and scouting quarterbacks, so that has something to do with my pick here. The Saints are a great offense, but the Ravens defense can slow them down in my opinion. Do they match up perfectly? No, I don’t think so. But I think they can rattle Brees and knock him around enough to contain their offense when they need to. The Saints know how to manufacture pressure, but I think the Ravens can run the ball on them and extend drives that way. I am a closet Ravens fan so take that into consideration, but I believe defense wins championships so one of the few good defensive teams left has a great shot to win the title!

Thanks for reading, it’ll be interesting to see how I do!

–Tom

Before I start to discuss anything it’s important to know that I’m a huge Falcons fan, but I think it’s time to talk about the hype surrounding Matt Ryan. I have been pleased with Ryan since he became a Falcon but I don’t view the Falcons with rose colored glasses and I do what I can to not “drink the Kool-Aid” before each season. I have been a pretty consistent supporter of Ryan since he became a Falcon, especially because he played a significant role in turning the franchise around, bringing consecutive winning seasons to Atlanta for the first time in franchise history and getting us back to the playoffs for the first time since Michael Vick was our starting quarterback.

Matt Ryan is a good NFL starter, but I don't think there is a lot of evidence that he is "great" or that he will ever be "elite."

But at the same time it is not unfair to acknowledge some of Ryan’s faults of which there are a few. The most obvious of these faults is his relative lack of arm strength. It’s not awful like Chad Pennington’s in my opinion, but it is not good or great by any means. I would constitute it as above average personally, because I think he struggles to stretch the field well downfield, and doesn’t have great zip on passes in the 10-15 yard range like deep curls, deep outs and other difficult NFL throws. To his credit he makes up for his lack of arm strength with good accuracy and anticipation which he routinely uses when he throws the ball before his receivers make their breaks on these more difficult throws so that the defensive back still struggles to make plays on the ball even though the ball hangs in the air a bit longer than you would ideally prefer.

One thing that I have noticed Ryan has been doing over the last couple seasons is forcing passes to particular players and at times doing so instead of finding an open player. Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White are usually the players he forces the ball to when he does do it. I have seen Ryan throw the ball to Gonzalez in double coverage, once or twice with three players around him, and this does not traditionally end well for Ryan because he doesn’t quite have the zip on his throws to put the ball into tight windows without the defense having time to make a play on the ball. The most frustrating part of this is that he almost seemed to be regressing as far as making his progressions in these specific instances because he would ignore Turner open in the flat at times in favor of throwing to Gonzalez or White in double coverage.

The final thing that I personally consider a flaw is that I don’t think Ryan can will us to a victory. Not many quarterbacks can, but this is something the great ones are able to do and I don’t think Ryan can do it. I’m not saying he should be able to play by himself out there and win the game, but the correlation between Ryan having a below-average/poor game and our running game struggling to consistently churn out yardage is pretty staggering. Obviously a good running game makes life easier for any quarterback, but great quarterbacks are able to shoulder the load on offense and throw their teams into contention when they don’t have a running game. Brady, Manning and Aaron Rodgers are all players who have done this consistently for the last couple of years and their teams routinely appear in the playoffs. But when the Falcons (specifically Michael Turner) struggle to gain yardage on the ground on a consistent basis and Ryan is forced to throw to convert 2ndand 3rd and longs to sustain drives it usually results in a loss for Atlanta. That, in my opinion, is not the mark of a great quarterback. And believe me, this isn’t something that I just conjured up out some doom and gloom thought process because of the Falcons unexpected 2-3 start, I have had this opinion of Ryan since I re-watched the Falcons-Steelers game from week one of last year. My post on the subject was actually published on October 5th, 2010, just over a year ago.

Julio Jones has been an incredibly pleasant surprise this year. I thought highly of him as a prospect, but I didn't expect him to contribute so much explosiveness so quickly.

Now, one thing that the Falcons made a huge deal about was our lack of big plays last season. I would argue that the Falcons’ lack of big plays as well as their poor pass defense contributed to their problems last year, but their running game and run defense was solid. The Falcons decided that getting Matt Ryan another playmaker at receiver was the best course of action and sold the farm to move up and select Julio Jones. I was skeptical of the move, but I never doubted Jones’ upside. I just worried that the Falcons were putting too much pressure on him by anointing him the starter after watching him practice by releasing Michael Jenkins, a relatively reliable #2 receiver, before Jones had ever played a game. I have been very pleased with Jones and he has been everything I could have hoped for and more this year as a rookie, but we just haven’t been able to get him the ball consistently down-field. We wanted more explosive plays and I tend to believe that our issues with pass protection really inhibit our ability to challenge defenses down-field. Additionally, our wide receivers during Ryan’s first three seasons in the NFL weren’t exactly burners that created a lot of down-field separation so it wasn’t completely unrealistic to see limited down-field plays that can change games and grab momentum for the offense.

However, I think it is very clear that Ryan plays a role in our limited deep plays as well. You can’t blame it all on Mike Mularkey’s lack of down-field play-calling, you can’t blame it on a lack of receivers who can separate down-field, and you can’t blame it exclusively on the offensive line. At some point Ryan is responsible for his production on down-field throws, so I would like to highlight how he has done on throws that produce 20+ yard plays that the Falcons were so driven to create this year. These are statistics on any throw that is thrown 21+ yards from the line of scrimmage from the past four years:

2008: 21/55, 718 yards, 5 TD’s and 2 INT’s
2009: 9/35, 297 yards, 3 TD’s, 5 INT’s
2010: 10/38, 320 yards, 4 TD’s, 1 INT
2011: 2/14, 94 yards, 0 TD’s, 0 INT’s (through five games)

Even Aaron Rodgers, who I personally think is the best quarterback in the NFL right now, isn't automatic on 21+ yard passes.

Now, it’s easy to look at these statistics and say “Wow, that’s awful. Even in his best season he was only 21/55, that’s under 50% and good completion percentages for quarterbacks are typically 60%.” While that is true, deep passes that travel 21+ yards are difficult to complete even for great quarterbacks. Here are some stats for some other quarterbacks to help demonstrate this:

Aaron Rodgers:
2010: 24/65, 976 yards, 8 TD’s, 5 INT’s
2011: 7/13, 255 yards, 3 TD’s, 0 INT’s (thru five games)

Tom Brady:
2010: 14/36, 537 yards, 6 TD’s, 2 INT’s
2011: 6/18, 186 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT’s (thru five games)

Even Sam Bradford, a player I have never really liked, has been more efficient on 21+ yard passes than Ryan has this season.

Phillip Rivers:
2010: 22/57, 852 yards, 9 TD’s, 4 INT’s
2011: 4/14, 159 yards, 2 TD’s, 2 INT’s (thru five games)

Sam Bradford:
2010: 10/39, 345 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT’s
2011: 6/15, 213 yards, 2 TD’s, 0 INT’s (thru four games)

So as you can see, even some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL don’t complete a lot of down-field throws. They are low percentage plays a lot of the time and they are some of the most difficult throws to complete because they require better pass protection, they require a good route from the receiver as well as a more difficult down-field catch, plus they require a more difficult throw from the quarterback. But still, the best quarterbacks in the business complete more down-field passes for more yardage than Ryan does, and while some of that has to do with who they are throwing the ball to or who is blocking for them at the end of the day Ryan has to shoulder a portion of the blame for his limited down-field production. He’s not a great deep ball passer and these statistics help prove that to be true. You would like to see him take that positive rookie season in which he was able to threaten defenses down-field and progress, but instead he has regressed on his deep passes and become less and less efficient with each year of experience. That is a disturbing trend and it’s one that absolutely warrants mentioning because he is in his fourth season in the NFL and is surrounded with some legitimate weapons with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Harry Douglas (who has been a pleasant surprise now that he is healthy), Michael Turner, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers. Is this a team full of pro-bowlers and Hall of Famers? Perhaps not, but they are still legitimate weapons that are better than perhaps a majority of other teams in the NFL.

And yet, in spite of this improved supporting cast Ryan hasn’t been able to be as efficient on deep passes as Sam Bradford, a player I have never been a fan of and continue to be skeptical of in the NFL. But he has almost matched his previous totals in completions, yardage and has already thrown one more touchdown pass on 21+ yard throws than he did as a rookie. He is trending upwards in spite of his pathetic supporting cast of wide receivers who are regularly lambasted for dropping passes. Ryan’s supporting cast drops passes too, sure, but it would be outlandish to suggest that his supporting cast is not significantly superior to Bradford’s. Yet, in spite of this assertion, Bradford has been more efficient on deep passes and has a comparable QB rating to Ryan (Ryan has a 79.9 QB rating this year, Bradford a 70.8).

Tom Brady has been and continues to be one of the top three quarterbacks in the NFL, but he makes his money on passes within 20 yards, not on 21+ yard bombs.

Now, this is not an attempt to say that Bradford is going to be the next great QB, far from it. I am also not trying to suggest that Ryan is a poor quarterback. I am simply trying to demonstrate that he isn’t a very good deep ball passer. The games I have watched of him (over three years of games at this point) as well as the statistics he has accumulated are pretty clear evidence of this, and it’s arguable that even with better pass protection and upgraded skill position weapons that he won’t ever be a good or great deep ball passer. That’s just not what his skill set is. This season on passes within 20 yards (excluding passes behind the line of scrimmage) Ryan has a QB rating of 91.54, a good number. Rodgers has an insane rating of over 120, as does Tom Brady. Both are having incredible seasons statistically thus far, and it shows on their bread and butter passes of under 20 yards. Ryan is good in this area too, and to force him to throw deep passes that he struggles to consistently complete seems counter-intuitive. On one hand, you obviously can’t keep throwing passes that are under 10 yards while attempting to run the ball or the defense will crowd the line of scrimmage and put a stranglehold on the offense’s ability to sustain successful drives. But that hasn’t been Ryan’s problem. He is actually most efficient statistically on throws that are 11-20 yards downfield, completing 24/43 attempts for 402 yards, 4 TD’s and 2 INT’s (a rating of 99.2). That is statistically superior to Phillip Rivers, but significantly below the outrageous QB ratings that Rodgers and Brady have (142.1 and 130.8, respectively).

So, my argument is that the Falcons need to acknowledge that Matt Ryan isn’t the next Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. He doesn’t have the same skill set. He has been effective on passes that are under 20 yards and while we still need to take the occasional deep shot, passes in that 11-20 yard range will help keep defenses honest and can turn into longer gains if the pass is completed to a player like Julio Jones who can gain quality yards after the catch once he has the ball in his hands. So while everyone loves to see the 30 or 40+ yard deep ball that the receiver hauls in and scores on that just isn’t what Ryan is good at doing. Mularkey and the rest of the staff should acknowledge this and continue to work to his strengths: Passes with-in twenty yards, play-action passing, and passes on three and five step drops. He is good at making pre-snap reads and gets the ball out quickly when he identifies a blitz, and if we can sustain drives and get some yards after the catch to make bigger plays without just lobbing the ball up and praying for it to be completed I think our offense will be better off.

This isn’t me arguing against 20+ yard plays, it’s simply me questioning how we are going about getting them. Ryan’s track record is pretty solid evidence that throwing the ball 21+ yards downfield isn’t the most efficient way for him to accumulate yards, so why would we continue to force him to do it? He’s not an elite quarterback and this is something he struggles with, so let’s continue to play to his strengths as much as possible. He can’t just throw us into games when we are behind or when the running game is ineffective. Accepting that and moving forward seems like a more logical step to take rather than pretending he is going to be the next elite NFL quarterback, because after over three years of watching him I’m just not convinced that he is going to be.

As a Falcons fan this was a tough game to watch and it was a tough way to lose. Obviously all of the mistakes that were made will be ignored as Corey Peters jumped offsides on 4th and one inside of the two minute warning, giving the Buccaneers a free first down and they were able to run off the rest of the clock for the victory. That doesn’t mean the Falcons deserved to win though, because they played a pretty poor first half.

Matt Ryan had a tough day today, but he saved his best for last in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, dropped passes and poor pass protection prevented a comeback.

I personally think that the Bucs are a similar team to the Falcons last year. They have won some very close games already this year (week two with a comeback against the woeful Vikings, now week three against their division rival Atlanta) and while they definitely have things to work on, they have still impressed me. Their defensive line could be one of the best in the NFL soon if Bowers pans out (despite my worries about Clayborn, he has erased my concerns thanks to how he has played so far. I was worried he was throttling his motor down last year at Iowa, but there hasn’t been a lot of that so far this year. Especially when he blew by Sam Baker and forced a huge turnover by sacking Matt Ryan in this game). McCoy has been good, Brian Price showed some ability with a couple big plays (a tackle for loss in the run game and a sack of Matt Ryan to force a 2nd and goal from the 15), Bowers is the only question mark for me. They are going to be impossible to run the ball against soon, especially with Mason Foster stepping in as the Mike linebacker and making all the calls as a rookie against an offense with a lot of talent like the Falcons. Ronde Barber will retire one day, perhaps before he’s 50, but Aqib Talib and E.J. Biggers looked pretty good today. Not great, but they were pretty good. Biggers may have given up yardage to Roddy White, but a lot of corners do. He got his hands on a pass over the middle to force an incompletion and nearly had two interceptions in the red zone late in the game, he just caught them and landed out of bounds. The safety position is a question mark, but they seem to like Cody Grimm there and Corey Lynch made a couple plays after he went down with a knee injury. This defense is going to be a very good one, especially in their front seven. If Biggers continues to step up and they don’t need a cornerback to replace Barber that badly, then this defense could take off very quickly in the next two years as long as their front four continues to produce pressure.

On offense, they have a lot of the problems the Falcons have had before: A lack of big plays. Josh Freeman is a good quarterback, he has a very strong arm, he’s very athletic for his size, he’s tough to bring down and he can put the ball wherever he wants to. He is going to make the Bucs very competitive for the next 10 years, and with that defense they are going to be in the playoffs more often than not as they continue to fill holes and build continuity from year to year. Plus, they have one of my favorite players in the past couple drafts in Mike Williams, a WR from Syracuse. I had him graded as a top 20 player, a first round draft pick, but noted that he had serious character concerns. He’s had his head on straight since he got to Tampa, and I said that whoever drafted him would get a huge steal if they could keep him on the right track. Well, it’s safe to say he has been on and still is on the right track as he had 11 touchdowns as a rookie last year. That didn’t surprise me in the least, but it did surprise me that he lasted until the 4th round. However, he gives the Bucs a receiving threat comparable to Roddy White. They also have a couple pretty good TE’s in Kellen Winslow and Luke Stocker (though honestly I prefer Stocker to Winslow, a better blocker and has reliable hands) and a power back that I love to watch run in LeGarrette Blount. His leg drive is fantastic, and despite his relatively upright running style he is extremely tough to bring down, and just runs through arm tackles like it’s nothing.

Josh Freeman and the Bucs offense struggled in the red zone today, and Freeman missed some throws and finished with two interceptions, but he's still a quality quarterback with a bright future in Tampa Bay.

So, after describing all of that, don’t they sound a bit like the Falcons from last year, just with a much better defensive line? I think they do. Their defense likes to bend but not break, and their offense can put together long drives, eat up a lot of clock, and score points late in games when their backs are against the wall. But often times during the first three quarters their long drives that eat up a lot of clock will stall in the red zone and result in field goals. The Bucs are just one year behind the Falcons in development, so that problem will be fixed in time I believe, but for now it will be something the Bucs struggle with the rest of the year. Today against the Falcons they had three possessions I was pretty convinced were going to be touchdowns, but the Falcons defense stepped up and stopped them and they were forced to settle for field goals which kept the Falcons in the game despite a very inept offensive performance.

Now, on to the Falcons. I think the responsibility for this game going the way it did is on the offense. They struggled mightily in the first half and really the only glimpse we had of what our offense could be was on a two play drive that involved a huge deep ball to Julio Jones (that had a ton of air under it from Ryan, but it was still completed) and then a perfect pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. They drove the ball down and got a field goal on the next drive, but again they stalled in the red zone. First, Roddy White had two huge drops on that drive, one on a deep ball down the sideline that hit him right in the hands against pretty good coverage from Biggers (meaning that he forced him closer to the sideline, making it a tighter window to throw into) but Ryan still dropped it in there and Roddy let it bounce off his hands incomplete. Then, Ryan stepped up into the pocket against a pretty good pass rush and as the pocket was collapsing found Roddy wide open inside the 10 on 1st and 10 from the 15 or 20 yard line. He threw it to him and Roddy let it hit right off his hands as he turned his head to run upfield and the ball dropped to the turf. Had he caught it there is no reason we wouldn’t have been inside the five, and he may have even been able to fight his way into the end zone. Regardless, it was a monumental drop on a pass he should catch 100/100 times. Then Gonzalez dropped a pass over the middle, but we were bailed out by a penalty on Gerald McCoy hitting Ryan in the head after the ball was thrown. Ticky tacky penalty if you ask me (especially when they didn’t throw a flag on William Moore for hitting Freeman above the head on his scramble on Tampa Bay’s final drive to end the game) but it gave the Falcons possession of the ball on the five yard line. Instead of running the ball like we normally might, we went to the air and Brian Price beat Blalock (despite a holding penalty called on Blalock) to sack Ryan at the 15 yard line. Now, isntead of 2nd and goal on the 3 or 4 yard line (assuming Michael Turner had managed to run straight into a pile of defenders for a yard or two like he had all game) we were in an obvious passing situation on the 15 yard line. That comes back to play-calling, and even though we hadn’t been running effectively at all we still have to at least pretend that we can run the ball in that situation. Run a toss with Jacquizz Rodgers, run off tackle with Turner, but don’t handcuff yourself as a play-caller in that situation by forcing yourself to become one dimensional, especially with the game being 16-10 where we only needed a touchdown to tie and take the lead with a successful PAT.

Roddy White is one of our best players, but he dropped two critical passes on our final scoring drive that a pro-bowl WR just can't drop.

Regardless, Ryan threw a relatively nice ball on 2nd and goal to Roddy but Biggers made a nice pass deflection to prevent him from having a chance to catch it. At first I thought it went off Roddy’s hands, but it was tipped just before it got to them for a nice pass break up. We failed to score on 3rd and goal and wisely kicked the field goal and gave our defense a chance to come up big again, though we had already asked too much of them already. With 4 minutes left and three timeouts we definitely had a chance to come up with a stop, but we just couldn’t do it.

While I would love to sit here and say that this game is evidence that Matt Ryan can throw us into games and give us a chance, I just can’t say that. If the defense hadn’t held up despite short drives by the offense and being on the field a lot against a pretty good Bucs offense that can really work the clock thanks to Blount’s power running game, then Ryan would have been throwing from a deficit of perhaps 20 or 27 points instead of 13, which would have changed the game completely. It was great to see us strike so quickly to give ourselves a chance to win, and Ryan looked great on the ensuing drive after a 3 and out, but dropped passes and problems in pass protection doomed us again. Sam Baker needs to be upgraded as soon as possible, because he has been an absolutely failed experiment at this point. Blalock played well overall, McClure had a bad snap but overall was solid as usual (better than Hawley I’ll say), and Clabo is arguably our best offensive lineman along with Blalock. Garrett Reynolds is struggling at RG in my opinion. I think he’s too big to play inside given his skill set. He is better in the running game, but in the passing game he lets shorter defensive tackles get under his pads and that means he is very susceptible to the bull rush, which has been a problem the first three weeks. At times, Ryan has stepped up to avoid an outside rush given up by Baker only to be faced with a bull rush from the C or RG position.

I thought Ryan played great in the fourth quarter, and if Roddy had caught that pass and we had scored either on that play or on an ensuing play this might be a totally different post. He threw for 330 yards on 26/47 passing, had one TD and one INT (nearly threw one or two more to Ronde Barber and E.J. Biggers though) and lost two fumbles, resulting in a total of three turnovers. Not his best game by any means, but it’s hard to pin each turnover on him. There were too many dropped passes today though, and again we have proven that when Ryan is asked to throw 30 or 40+ times that we are not going to win. Our team is built to run the ball and stop the run. We aren’t a wide open passing team and we don’t defend the pass well either, but when we are forced to throw like this it’s nice to know that Ryan can run the no huddle about as well as any QB’s in the league. However, he needs to play better than he did through the first three quarters. But if Roddy had caught that pass and managed to score would we be saying Ryan had a bad game? I might say he struggled but found a way to win, but I don’t think we’d be saying he had a bad game. So some of that blame has to be on Roddy and the other guys who dropped passes today.

Unfortunately for Falcons fans, this picture of clear holding on the part of Sam Baker has become far too common. If he's not holding, it usually means he has been beaten without being able to hold.

My real problem is with the offensive line though. Their pass protection has been very problematic through the first three weeks of the season and it’s not going to get any better. This has been a problem since Ryan was drafted in 2008 and it still hasn’t gotten much better. We have two offensive linemen who should not be eligible for replacement, Blalock and Clabo (and even Blalock give up critical pressure to Brian Price on that 1st and goal pass play). Baker needs to be replaced ASAP, McClure needs to be replaced soon simply because of age, and we need to get Mike Johnson in at RG and see what he can do, because Reynolds is not getting the job done as of now. The worst thing is, because of the Julio trade we won’t be able to draft a quality LT to compete with Baker and perhaps take his job as a rookie. We will be stuck with Baker not only the rest of this year, but the rest of 2012 as well. That is more problematic than anything else for our roster, at least in my opinion.

We are still a few players away from being a contender. If Hawley and Johnson can step up at C and RG (no guarantees there at all though), then that leaves LT as the only huge hole on the offensive line. TE is going to be a big need once Gonzalez retires, and we really need to get one that can block but also catch passes effectively in traffic because Gonzalez has done that very well for us since coming here, and it’s something Ryan has grown accustomed to. Turner is going to wear down in the next year or two in my opinion, so RB could be a need sooner than people think. I like Snelling, but I’m not sure he’s a feature back kind of player.

John Abraham has been such a constant force at RE for the Falcons over the years that I think a lot of Falcons fans take him for granted. But we don't have his replacement on our roster, so replacing him will be difficult in the wake of the Julio Jones trade.

On defense RE is going to be an insanely huge need unless Sidbury steps up in a very big and unexpected way, and even if he does I’m not sure that he will create even half of the pressure Abe is able to create when he isn’t held consistently. LT and RE are two of the most critical positions in football, and the Falcons have a huge hole at one and are about to have a huge hole at the other once Abe either retires or isn’t brought back once his contract runs out. That should terrify Falcons fans, because we don’t have a replacement for either one and we don’t have the draft picks in 2012 to pick one up either thanks to the huge trade for Julio. That might seem like a devastating blow right now, but it will be over in a year and we saw exactly why Thomas Dimitroff moved up for him today. He was getting yards after the catch (YAC) every time we threw the ball to him, and he produced the critical deep ball that resulted in our only offensive touchdown of the game. Still, our pass protection and our pass defense are such areas of concern that it is frustrating that we won’t be able to address them like I would want to in the next draft. LT and RE aren’t positions you can sign in free agency, they will cost you a boatload and more times than not they don’t even hit the free agent market because of how hard it is to find good or great players at both positions. That puts us in a tough spot, especially since Baker likely won’t ever be much better than he is right now and because Abe is getting older and isn’t under contract much longer either.

So while this was a tough loss for the Falcons today, it also highlights problems that won’t be easily resolved in the near or short term future thanks to our lack of draft picks and eventually losing one of our best play-makers over the past five or six years in John Abraham.

Michael Turner has been a focal point of Atlanta's recent resurgence, but he is wearing down slowly but surely and when he is ineffective the Falcons struggle mightily on the offensive side of the ball.

The good news is, Julio Jones is playing better than I could have imagined him playing, and hopefully he will be able to open the offense up more and keep defenses from taking Roddy away. They combined for 255 yards receiving on 15 receptions today against a pretty good Buccaneers defense, and it could have been even more if Roddy hadn’t dropped two or three passes in this game. He was targeted 17 times and only had 9 receptions. I’d say two or three of those incompletions were a result of Roddy dropping it, and nothing else.

But when Michael Turner and our running game is slowed down (Turner had 11 carries for 20 yards, as a team we had 15 carries for 30 yards. Our long run of the day? Matt Ryan scrambling for 12 yards) it makes it hard for us to win. That’s why we need to make sure we have a replacement lined up for Turner. If he wears down or gets hurt and is no longer effective it will spell disaster for our team, we just aren’t built to throw the ball 35+ times a week.

Sorry for the long rant, but I think all of this had to be said. The Falcons have a lot of talent, but pass protection and pass defense are still significant issues. And when Ryan has to throw the ball for us to win games, we still can’t win games. That’s tough to acknowledge, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the truth.

Hopefully you enjoyed the read, but if you’re a Falcons fan it was probably a little depressing. If so, hopefully you at least thought it was well stated.

–Tom

Here is my write-up on the Falcons-Bears game from Sunday, September 11th. For those of you who read my blog consistently you may know that I am a Falcons fan. I feel that I was relatively objective when writing this post, but knowing a team as well as I know the Falcons is sure to create some bias. Hopefully you enjoy the post in spite of this, as I took pages of notes on this game as I watched it live. Enjoy!

Falcons Offense:

The Falcons offense was ineffective at best today. Matt Ryan passed for 319 yards but had to do it with 31 completions on 47 attempts, which is never a good sign for an offense that prides itself on ball control and effectively running the ball. The Falcons only ran the ball 14 times today and while it was for 110 yards they got 53 of them on a huge run by Turner up the middle where he was largely untouched before he was caught from behind. Ryan averaged 6.8 YPA, which is not bad but not great either, and threw an interception on a forced pass to Tony Gonzalez that Brian Urlacher made a terrific play on to bring in the pass. There were a number of dropped balls in this game additionally. Roddy dropped at least two, I believe Harry Douglas had at least one, perhaps two drops, and Turner and Snelling each had a drop if I remember correctly.

The Falcons offensive line was also clearly overwhelmed by the Bears pass rush and it showed as they tallied 5 sacks, 14 QB hits, 9 hurries and forced two turnovers courtesy of Ryan (one INT and one fumble recovery). Early in the game Ryan was willingly taking shots to deliver catchable passes, but he was getting pressured and hit so consistently that he gradually became more and more uncomfortable in the pocket and started fading away from his throws which led to less precise ball placement, more air under his passes and therefore became less effective passing the ball.

When he had time the Bears were usually only rushing four (though they regularly applied significant pressure with four down linemen rushing) which meant Ryan was looking to pass against seven defenders dropping into coverage. That led to a lot of check downs which was frustrating to watch considering how much emphasis the Falcons front office and coaching staff placed on creating more explosive plays downfield. Julio Jones flashed the ability to help in this department by showing the ability to get vertical and make catches in traffic as well as taking shorter passes and getting yards after the catch which is something the Falcons have been sorely lacking.

However, despite spreading the ball around fairly well, Ryan still checked down a lot to his running backs and at times forced the ball to Tony Gonzalez which is something he really needs to stop doing. At times he will key on one receiver (frequently Gonzalez) and throw the ball to him despite the coverage keying on his eyes, which is how Urlacher was able to make that interception on a pass intended for Gonzalez. But I also recognize that he was checking down because of the lack of separation the Falcons’ wide receivers were creating downfield, which is equally as frustrating. The Bears were playing quality coverage on all of our receivers, our offensive line couldn’t slow down their pass rush, and Ryan was forced to dink and dunk all day. That meant we needed to string a lot of plays together with no mistakes to get a potential scoring drive, but we had so many penalties (9 penalties for 65 yards) on the offensive side of the ball such as false starts and holds that a number of promising drives were killed as a result of them. It seemed every time the Falcons fought their way into Bears territory they had an unnecessary penalty such as a false start, hold or penalty after the play ended that either led to a field goal attempt or to a punt looking to pin the Bears back in their own territory.

The Falcons have a lot to clean up before next week on the offensive side of the ball. Most notably they have to find a way to keep Ryan upright because if they can’t give him time and room to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside pass rush (which was a problem today with Joe Hawley and Garrett Reynolds making their first career starts at Center and Right Guard respectively) it is going to be a very long season and there won’t be time to stretch the field as those routes take longer to develop. As a result of their defense’s poor play and their inability to score a single offensive touchdown against the Bears the Falcons’ run game was abandoned which is never a good sign for Atlanta, and re-establishing that despite Michael Turner’s clear lack of explosiveness and burst is going to be critical.

Overall I thought the offense struggled mightily today, only managing six total points. We didn’t see more explosive plays thanks to limited pass protection for Ryan and limited separation downfield from the receivers, and the offense overall was inconsistent at best. When they did finally seem to have something going a penalty or sack would derail the promising drive, leading either to a punt or a field goal.

Falcons Defense:

The Falcons defense was very underwhelming to me. I was hoping to see a much improved pass rush and hopefully some better pass coverage, but I was not impressed with either. John Abraham provided the majority of our pressure as usual, but I did not hear Ray Edwards’ name called once. I was hoping that he, along with Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, would create more consistent pressure. I think the pass rush was better than last year for the most part, however the Bears offensive line is a group we should have handled pretty easily, and far too often I thought deep completions downfield were a result of Cutler having plenty of time to survey the field and plenty of space to step up and deliver a catchable ball. So, while Abe impressed me (and drew a number of uncalled holding penalties as usual) I was underwhelmed by our defensive tackles and outside of some pressure from Biermann, Edwards and even some flashes from Sidbury I was not impressed by the defensive line from a pass rushing standpoint.

The secondary was our biggest problem area in my opinion, and that really hasn’t changed much since last year. I think it should be pretty clear to everyone that Dunta Robinson got vastly overpaid and really is not a #1 corner type of player. At times I wonder why he is even a starter. I thought he might just be best in a man coverage type scheme, but routinely he struggles whether in zone, man, press or off coverage. He opens his hips the wrong way, he doesn’t recover well once he’s made a mistake, he doesn’t close on the ball well, he lets running backs break contain when his only job is to force them inside to the pursuing defenders, and he misses tackles in the open field far too often. What exactly is the upside to playing him? I have to ask, because I don’t know. He’s better than the other corners we would start, which explains why Cutler was picking us apart (especially in the first half), but I think he is definitely upgradable and I don’t think he should be on our team in another two years. Thankfully, Brent Grimes makes up for some of his inadequacy with great plays on the ball, great instincts, better tackling, and amazing athleticism to recover, close and make plays on passes. He was one of the bright spots for the Falcons yesterday.

One problem I saw yesterday was not that the defense wasn’t getting any opportunities for turnovers, but rather that they weren’t capitalizing on them. I counted three dropped interceptions yesterday (Two by Thomas DeCoud and one by Sean Weatherspoon) and if DeCoud had brought in both interceptions it would have prevented a field goal and Matt Forte’s touchdown on a screen pass, which occurred just two plays after DeCoud dropped an interception if my memory serves. That is a serious problem, because if the pass rush rattles Cutler enough to make a mistake (which they did at times, even if it wasn’t as consistent as Chicago’s pressure) then the pass coverage needs to take advantage of it. Because they didn’t, 10 points went up on the board that could have been avoided, and instead of being down 30-12 late in the game it could have theoretically been a 20-12 game with only one possession necessary to tie the game. That is a huge difference, and it was one of the main reasons why the Falcons were unable to keep this game close.

One positive on the defensive side of the ball was the Falcons run defense. I thought it looked quite good for the majority of the game. I still think that the Falcons have issues tackling, as evidenced by Sean Weatherspoon when he attempted to shove Matt Forte when he was running down the sideline for an eventual touchdown instead of even attempting to wrap him up, but they were swarming to the ball, gang tackling at times, and they played fundamentally sound run defense for the majority of the game. That was great to see, because at least the front seven was doing its job and taking Matt Forte out of the game from a running perspective. Forte had a solid game running the ball accounting for 68 yards on 16 carries (4.3 yard average) with 27 yards coming on a single carry. Excluding that for curiosities sake, the Falcons only allowed him to run for 41 yards on his other 15 carries (an average of only 2.73 per carry) which is definitely good. The Falcons only gave up 88 yards on the ground (a 3.3 yard per carry average) and allowed no touchdowns on the ground which was good to see. However, Matt Forte shredded the defense catching passes out of the backfield with 5 catches, 90 yards and a touchdown. So while they slowed him down as a runner he showed his value as a pass catcher.

Long story short, the Falcons have a lot to work on. Their pass coverage was largely atrocious and there were plenty of big holes for receivers to take advantage of in zone coverage, and rarely were many Falcons in position in man coverage. The Falcons like to run zone, and that really proved to be problematic for Dunta Robinson and Chris Owens from what I was able to see. The pass coverage is going to have to come a long way, and an improvement in the pass rush will help that. But the pass rush isn’t going to be collapsing the pocket on every play, and I think it was better than it was last year even if it was less consistent than I would have liked in the first half. The secondary needs to hold up their end of the bargain, especially when it comes to capitalizing on turnovers. That didn’t happen, and it resulted in a pretty pathetic defensive display and an eventual loss.

Chicago Bears Offense:

The Bears offense looked like a juggernaut in the first half as Jay Cutler was carving up the Falcons secondary for significant chunks of yardage, he regularly had plenty of time to throw and this was all happening without much of a running game from Matt Forte and the offensive line. I thought Roy Williams looked great as he was making tough catches away from his body and providing Jay Cutler with a nice, big target that only needed the ball in his general area for the pass to be completed. A lot of people were skeptical about Williams and whether or not his addition would be significant, but I think he had a good game even if his stat line (4 catches for 55 yards and no touchdowns) wasn’t earth shattering. He did his job and each of the four times the ball was thrown to him he caught it. That’s all you can ask of a wide receiver.

I thought the Bears used Devin Hester more effectively yesterday. I don’t think you need to throw to him 5-10 times a game (they targeted him 5 times) but using him on bubble screens, a reverse and maybe a fade and post route would be how I would deploy him. He’s just so dangerous that if he can make a guy miss and get into the open field you never know what will happen, which is exactly what he did on a screen against the Falcons. He made a guy miss, got into the open field and just kept working back across the field, using his blockers and avoiding tacklers until he was pushed out at the one (though I personally thought he scored) which led to an easy 1 yard touchdown pass on play action from Cutler to Matt Spaeth in the back of the end zone. 53 of his 60 yards came on that one screen play, but that is what Hester brings to the table. He might get tackled four times for a total gain of seven yards, but he only needs one touch to change the landscape of the game.

Matt Forte continued to impress me which is nothing new. I’ve loved watching him play since he was at Tulane and I thought he was going to be a great back. I actually wanted the Falcons to draft him in the 2nd round instead of signing a free agent running back (like Michael Turner). That’s not to say that Michael Turner hasn’t been an effective back for the Falcons, but I thought Forte’s game would have been a great compliment to a quarterback like Ryan who is very smart and usually knows when to check down to his running back. I also thought his value was significant because even on a day when he was bottled up as a runner (save one 27 yard run) he was able to dramatically change the game as a pass catcher. Add it all up and he had 158 total yards rushing and receiving plus a touchdown, which is production you would take any day of the week from your running back. I really love watching him play and I think he is really the guy that makes this offense go.

Jay Cutler may have gotten a lot of grief for how he handled his injury in the conference championship game, but regardless of that he is still a quality NFL quarterback. Maybe he is lacking in toughness, and I am still personally bewildered by his footwork at times, but the guys arm is special. He has great arm strength, zip and there are times when he throws an off balance pass down the seam in perfect stride with his receiver and you just can’t help but marvel at how he made that throw. I personally think he could be one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league without much debate if he improved his footwork and his mechanics from that standpoint, but even still he is very effective especially when he gets in a rhythm which the Falcons allowed him to do in the first half. He was very efficient as he completed 22 of his 32 pass attempts for 312 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception that was returned for Atlanta’s only touchdown of the game. It was a bit of a fluke interception, but I still think it was on Cutler for throwing it instead of taking a sack, etc. I have always been a supporter of Cutler because he was the guy I thought would turn out the best of the trio of QB’s in his draft class. It’s hard to say he didn’t end up the best of the trio he was compared with considering the problems Vince Young and Matt Leinart have had in the NFL, but he could still be much better. But he didn’t have a very consistent rushing attack to take pressure off of him in this game and he was still efficient and effective which warrants mentioning in my opinion.

The Bears offensive line was better than I expected it to be, but considering the seemingly random assortment of parts that make up their offensive line that still isn’t saying a lot. It’s a definite testament to Mike Tice’s ability to coach up offensive linemen that the group played so well as a unit, only surrendering four sacks and 6 additional QB hits according to the stat sheet I’m looking at. In contrast, the Falcons offensive line allowed 5 sacks and 14 QB hits, plus 9 hurries and it is widely considered the better unit. They didn’t provide a lot of running room for Forte and Bell to run through, but I think that is something that might improve as the season progresses if the offensive line can stay healthy and mesh together as a unit. It will never be a good or a great unit in my opinion, but I think it can be solid.

Chicago Bears Defense:

The Bears defense continues to be the staple of their team. For years the defense has been responsible for dismantling powerful offenses to keep their lackluster offense in the game as long and often as possible. Now, with a potentially more dangerous passing attack and a running back who can threaten defenses just as well with the run as he can with the pass, the defense doesn’t have to win games by themselves. Their pass rush yesterday was as terrifying as ever, and Rod Marinelli continues to prove just how good of a defensive line guru he really is. The Bears cut Tommie Harris and brought in Amobi Okoye to replace him as he had not been effective for the Texans and no longer fit their scheme, and he provided some pressure along with Henry Melton at defensive tackle to collapse the pocket, and even ended up with a sack. Melton had an astronomical 5 tackles, 2 sacks and an almost unbelievable SEVEN hits on the quarterback. While they obviously played well from a statistical standpoint, I think part of the reason they were creating so much pressure was because Peppers was causing so many problems off the edge for Sam Baker and the Falcons offensive line. He forced Ryan to step up a number of times and a few times there just wasn’t any room to step up because the defensive tackles got such good penetration. The Bears defensive line was fantastic in this game, and that is a testament to their front office, their scheme, their personnel and definitely to Rod Marinelli.

The Bears run defense was more problematic than their pass defense was, but their team is built to stop the pass (especially deep passes) more than it is built to stop the run in my opinion. This was demonstrated by giving up 110 yards on only 14 carries to the Falcons. 53 of those yards came on one huge run by Michael Turner, but even still they gave up 57 yards on only 13 carries (an average of 4.38 per carry). So, their run defense could use some improvement, but they weren’t terrible in my opinion.

The real strength of the Bears defense was their pass defense. Their defensive line was nasty, but their secondary was also quite good. I think they look better than they actually are when you consider the personnel they are employing (I’m not a huge fan of Tim Jennings or Major Wright), but with that pass rush and some corners who can play man to man coverage (especially if they do it as well as Charles Tillman does) or zone coverage then they can be very effective. They caused a lot of problems for Matt Ryan because the pass rush applied pressure so quickly that the secondary was still covering the Falcons receivers effectively, meaning he had to either check down, take a sack or force a throw against good coverage. Being a pretty smart player, Ryan regularly elected to check down or take a sack. The Bears are very good at taking away big plays, but a big test for them will be seeing how well they do when they are forced to take away big plays from a team like the Packers. They have so many weapons in their passing game (Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones, to name a few) that I think it will be hard to eliminate all of the big plays like the Bears did with the Falcons. The Falcons have Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas, but unlike the Packers they don’t get vertical nearly as well as the Packers’ offensive weapons do. That was one reason the Bears were able to take away so many vertical plays: there just weren’t that many legitimate deep threats beyond Roddy and Julio.

Overall I was impressed with the Bears. A lot of people thought that they were going to finish in 3rd in their division and that there was no way they would see the playoffs having to go against the defending Superbowl Champion Packers twice a year plus deal with the up-and-coming Detroit Lions team in their same division. But they showed that while their offense is still a work in progress at times they can still play defense effectively. I don’t know exactly how their season will play out, especially since I don’t know if their pass rush will always be as consistently effective as it was against the Falcons yesterday, but I do think that they have a great shot at 8-9 wins which is more than a lot of people expected them to get based on what I read.

Sorry this post was so long, I had pages and pages of notes on this game. Hopefully you enjoyed the read, and thank you for reading! I’ll have my Missouri-Arizona State post up next.

–Tom