Thursday, October 22, 2009

Analyze the Enemy - Atlanta Falcons

falconsTHURSDAYS: We catch you up on this week’s opponent with an overall portrait of their team. This is not breaking down this week’s match-up, because that happens on Friday. This is just to set the table in preparation for laying out the gameplan.

Some teams are not as good as you think they should be based on their level of talent. And other teams are actually better than you think they should be because they play well as a team. They are coached well. They seldom beat themselves, and they just play football the way it was meant to be played. I suggest to you that one of those teams could very well be the 2009 Atlanta Falcons.


In 2001, the Chargers held the #1 pick in the draft. The Falcons, who picked #5, rolled the dice and traded that pick (LaDanian Tomlinson), a 3rd '01 (Tay Cody), a 2nd '02 (Reche Caldwell), and Tim Dwight for the rights to get Michael Vick, the QB who would change the game, from Virginia Tech. At 22, he became the first visiting QB to ever win a playoff game at Lambeau Field. At 24, he led the Falcons to the 2004 NFC Championship Game before losing to the Philadelphia Eagles. And at 26, he finished his final season as the Falcons franchise, and was convicted of multiple felonies and reported to prison.

In 2007, Atlanta tried to carry on without Vick, with Joey Harrington and new coach Bobby Petrino. Petrino, left his post as the HC at Louisville, and was finally ready to chase his dream of being an NFL head man. 13 games later, the Falcons were a total mess, and Petrino pretty much assured that he would never be a head coach again in the pros by leaving the team to take the Arkansas job with 3 games left in the season. He reportedly told the team that he was leaving them by posting a note in the lockerroom. It was rock bottom for the Falcons franchise with their star QB in prison, and its Head Coach abandoning ship and taking a good-not-great job in the SEC.

Arthur Blank, the popular owner of the Falcons, then had to figure out how to restore the Falcons to relevant in 2008. This was not an easy task. First, he hired the Patriots' Director of College Scouting (Really) Thomas Dimitroff. This did not excite too many people. Then, he needed a head coach. But, nobody wanted the job (including our Jason Garrett). So he ended up hiring a man that most of us had never really heard of. He hired Jacksonville's Defensive Coordinator, Mike Smith . Hmmm. Nobody knew what to make of that, except that he took a job that nobody would take.
In hiring Smith, Falcons owner Arthur Blank ended a stretch of nearly six weeks without a full-time coach.

Outgoing GM Rich McKay, who was retained as team president, helped Blank interview many candidates. Some of the more notable names, former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, Southern Cal’s Pete Carroll, Dallas assistants Jason Garrett and Tony Sparano and Indianapolis assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, withdrew from consideration.

Bill Parcells considered taking charge in a non-coaching role that would oversee football operations before spurning Blank and joining Miami.

The only candidate, other than Smith, to interview twice was Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Leslie Frazier, Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, also met with the Falcons.

So, with largely anonymous duo of Dimitroff and Smith, the 2008 Falcons set off to rebuild this team that was thought of as a several year project. First, as soon as Free Agency opened in 2008, they threw a nice amount of cash in the direction of Tomlinson's back-up, Michael Turner:
Michael Turner, who has been the Chargers' insurance policy for LaDainian Tomlinson, agreed to join the Falcons on Sunday. A source told's Michael Smith that Turner agreed to a six-year contract believed to be worth $34.5 million, with approximately $15 million guaranteed. Turner (5-foot-10, 237 pounds) had 228 carries for 1,257 yards and six touchdowns in four seasons with San Diego.

In the 2008 NFL Draft , there was some concern as to why Matt Ryan threw 19 interceptions his senior year at Boston College. This led Miami (Jake Long) and St Louis (Chris Long) to look elsewhere and Atlanta ran to the podium to draft their franchise QB to be. A month later, he signed a crazy $72 million dollar deal (nearly $35 guaranteed) that made him the 4th highest paid player in the sport.

We will never know what the Falcons would have done if Ryan was gone at #3. Only one other QB went in that 1st Round (Joe Flacco at #18), and they didn't need the other marquee rookie in the draft at that point (Darren McFadden) since they just signed Turner. They didn't need a player. They needed someone to help them get back into the hearts of their fans. Ryan was almost too perfect to believe.

At first, the idea in 2008 was to let Chris Redman start until Matt Ryan was ready. Ryan was ready for Game #1 against Detroit. And, as the fairy tale continued, his first professional throw was a 56 yard TD to Michael Jenkins. The team would have phenomenal success and one year after hitting rock bottom, they finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.

Then, the big move of the off-season '09 was made by the Falcons two days before the draft. They added the most prolific Tight End in the history of Pro Football:
The Atlanta Falcons boosted their hopes for another trip to the playoffs by acquiring tight end Tony Gonzalez from the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday for a draft pick next year.

The Falcons will send a second-round pick in 2010 to Kansas City in exchange for Gonzalez, the only tight end in NFL history selected to 10 Pro Bowls.

Gonzalez caught 96 passes for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008. He owns NFL career records for tight ends with 916 receptions, 10,940 yards receiving, 76 TDs receiving and 26 100-yard receiving games.

That's right. They added him without giving up anything from their 2009 assets. A pick in 2010. What a steal. Of course, Gonzalez was ranked by NFP as one of the "Blue" players on Atlanta :
BLUE CHIP: RB, Turner; TE, Gonzalez; WR, R. White; DE, Abraham.

As you can see, their best players are at all the right spots. QB, RB, WR, TE, and a pass rushing DE. You might want a LT, too, but those are pretty close to the 5 spots you would want "Blue" players. And, Rick Gosselin wrote about their 1st Round pick at Left Tackle , Sam Baker from USC.

Another key addition in the spring was LB Mike Peterson. Peterson was there solution when Keith Brooking went to Dallas . Both Dallas and Atlanta are happy with this new addition to their LB Groups.
Peterson 32, will sign a two-year contract worth approximately $6.5 million, league sources confirmed. Peterson visited with team officials and coaches on Monday and Tuesday.

The contract reunites Peterson, a 10-year veteran, with Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who served as Peterson's defensive coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars. It also provides the Falcons a versatile veteran, who should compete for one of the outside linebacker spots.

"I had the pleasure of coaching Mike for five seasons in Jacksonville," Smith said. "He is a passionate player who brings a great deal of intensity to the game."

I guess I am saying that they have built this team about as well as you could in this amount of time. I think most people around the league look at the Falcons as a team that is now built to be good for quite a while. A remarkable story of a franchise turnaround that should inspire any forlorn organization around the league.


The Falcons roll in here at 4-1, and amongst the most impressive of the teams that have suffered defeats in 2009.

They aren't perfect, in fact we must all be careful not to over-rate their offense. Despite the quality of the names at the key spots, and an offensive line that has not allowed a QB Sack since Week #1, that unit has frustrated its fan base with 3 games of less than 300 yards total offense. That is really a shocking number as the Dolphins, Patriots, and Bears had no trouble slowing down the Falcons attack.

Their attack is dependent on the running game, and the running game is dependent on a nameless offensive line establishing their dominance:
If we can put the Matt Ryan-swoon-over-the-NFL tour aside for just a moment: Football is still about knocking people down. That’s never going to change. You know what the Falcons are doing, even if it’s seldom noticed? Knocking people down. They owned the San Francisco game on both lines of scrimmage. If you own the line, you own the game.

The Falcons have gifts at every key offensive position: quarterback (Ryan), wide receiver (Roddy White), running back (Michael Turner), tight end (Tony Gonzalez). But every gift will tell you it doesn’t work if someone on the other team isn’t getting bruised up front. This team’s success will be dictated the same way as every team: by how many opponents get smacked in the mouth.

The offense is coordinated by Mike Mularkey, who is best known as the OC for Pittsburgh and a rather forgettable effort as HC at Buffalo in '04-'05. From all I have seen this season, there offense looks as well coordinated as just about any team in the NFL. They run a ton of various bootleg and play action fakes that give pause to the LBs all game long. They also stress the safeties with Tony Gonzalez all game long. He is a match-up nightmare, and the Falcons run a scheme that makes you make choices. Sometimes, they deploy Gonzalez in the slot alongside Roddy White. This puts 2 of them against either 2 CBs and a S, or a LB, CB, and S. Either way, without fail, whoever gets the double team is a decoy, and whoever is left in single coverage gets the ball. This is done all day long. And both White and Gonzalez seem to easily defeat single coverage.

The other thing they do is line Gonzalez up tight to the tackle. In this scenario, he either stays in to help run block with reasonable effectiveness, or he clears out a LB and Safety by running either to the sideline or down the seam. Again, if only 1 goes with him, he gets the ball, if 2 go, they dump it off behind him to the back. The entire offense is based on how you choose to defend Gonzalez. We will go over the Cowboys options more tomorrow.

One quick glance at the Atlanta schedule says that now is where we find out what they are going to be all about. At 4-1, four of the next 5 are on the road:

@ Dallas
@ New Orleans
@ Carolina
@ New York Giants

After that, a pretty easy home stretch. Home and home with the Bucs, a road game at the Jets, and 3 more home dates with the Eagles, Saints, and Bills. Right now, it is tough to see the Saints backing up, but to me it is equally tough to see the Falcons not grabbing one of the two NFC Wildcards.

The defense of the Falcons is where most teams think they can do some damage. Jake Delhomme, Tom Brady, and Jay Cutler all passed for over 275 yards against Atlanta. They have a few players you must account for, John Abraham is a edge pass rusher who can get around the corner on tackles if left in 1-on-1. Otherwise, the DL has Jonathan Babineaux, and 3rd down pass rush specialist Kroy Biermann who jump off the screen from time to time. Peterson and young Curtis Lofton fly around the defense and make plays, and they have one solid corner in former 2nd Rounder Chris Houston, although he frustrates his fan base with the occasional poor play.

Two injuries have bothered this defense, with Peria Jerry, their 1st round DT from Mississippi, was lost for the year after week 2, and Brian Williams, the veteran CB, blew his knee on Sunday Night versus the Bears and is gone for the year, too.

This should stress the CB depth significantly, and with 2 games with the Saints left, that is not a good piece of news. Brent Grimes, Houston, Tye Hill, and Chevis Jackson will try to hold the fort.


Todd Archer on "getting to Matt Ryan"
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan just does not take sacks. So far this year he has been sacked only twice in 156 pass attempts.

After watching the Falcons-Bears game again, the reason is simple: he does not do many seven-step drops, he will not hold on to the ball, coordinator Mike Mularkey does a good job of getting him outside the pocket.

By my unofficial count, Ryan took only four seven-step drops against Chicago and his interception came on the last one. They like to work him out of the shotgun too (12 times). I was interested to see an NBC stat that had Ryan with a 129.8 passer rating when defenses bring five or more rushers, but the Bears had success bringing five-, six- and seven-man pressure on him.

"The main thing with him he he doesn't get sacked," linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "He doesn't hold the ball. We have to get pressure on him because he will throw the ball away. That's one thing he'll do. He'll throw it out of bounds. We're not looking at how many sacks we get but how much pressure we can get on him so he throws it away."

Falcons Defense Gets Most out of Least :
Which brings us to the Falcons’ defense. On Monday, the team announced what most feared Sunday night: Cornerback Brian Williams is out for the season with a knee injury. That makes two starters lost in five games — rookie defensive tackle Peria Jerry being the other — from a defense that wasn’t all that great to begin with.

No problem. The Falcons should be able to find somebody else in that box of hubcaps and Lego blocks in the corner.

Hasn’t that kind of been the story for the past year and a half? Even if the defense isn’t comprised solely of spare parts, it’s not a depth chart that instills fear in opposing offenses. But consider these incongruent results:

♦ The defense ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed (359.2 per game) but third in points (15.4) and touchdowns (eight) allowed.

♦ The defense has totaled only 10 sacks, which also ranks 23rd. Pressure creates mayhem. No pressure, no mayhem, no sacks. But how does one explain five interceptions (10th in the NFL), 10 forced fumbles (second only to New England’s 11), seven fumble recoveries (fourth) and 12 total takeaways (tied for fourth)?

The overwhelming perception is that Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are doing this with smoke and mirrors. Smith smiled when asked about that. But he didn’t exactly dismiss the notion.

“We’re doing it with players,” he said Monday. “You know, every roster has strengths and weaknesses. The thing I say about our guys is they play passionate football. They play hard.”

And then this: “We’re very resilient.”

Defense isn’t about stopping a team from driving. It’s about stopping a team from scoring. The Falcons have done that. What’s more important: aesthetics or the bottom line? Ask the Chicago Bears. They had seven offensive plays of 21 or more yards Sunday night. But they came away empty — not even a field goal — on three red zone possessions to the Falcons’ 12- (interception), one- (fumble) and the 10-yard line (downs).

It’s not how defensive coaches design it. There is luck involved. Somewhere in a luxury suite, owner Arthur Blank probably was sacrificing a chicken. But it’s working.

Smith discounts the significance of the Falcons’ skinny sack total, saying: “You’ve got to get the quarterback moving. That’s the one thing we’ve done, especially the last two games, is get the quarterback out from where he feels comfortable. Sacks sometimes is an overrated statistic. It’s a matter of affecting the quarterback. That leads to ball-disruptions — a tipped pass or something. We had seven or eight of those [Sunday] night.”

Thomas DeCoud had two interceptions Sunday. Jonathan Babineaux and Curtis Lofton each forced fumbles. Mike Peterson: two tackles for losses and a pass breakup. Defensive end Jamaal Anderson, generally considered a draft bust, sometimes drops into coverage now.

2008 Draft Class looks great from Dimitroff/Smith :
Here’s another feather in the cap for Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

Second-year safety Thomas DeCoud has been named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week after making his first two career interceptions against Chicago on Sunday night. That’s further proof that Dimitroff’s 2008 draft class (his first) continues to shape up as a great one.

DeCoud didn’t do much as a rookie, but he claimed a starting role over William Moore, who the Falcons drafted this year, during training camp. DeCoud has shown steady improvement each week and now has a solid lock on the job.

He’s joined fellow 2008 picks Matt Ryan, Sam Baker and Curtis Lofton in the starting lineup. Defensive end Kroy Biermann also has taken on an increased role this season after showing some promise as a rookie as the Falcons have moved defensive end Jamaal Anderson to defensive tackle. Cornerback Chevis Jackson also showed some flashes last season, but has been quiet so far this year. That could change soon with cornerback Brian Williams going out for the season with an injury. Jackson might step into the lineup as a starter or nickel back.

The Falcons also got good production from receiver/return man Harry Douglas as a rookie, but he’s sidelined with an injury this season.

Jerious Norwood is not likely to join his team Sunday
Running back Jerious Norwood, who suffered a right hip flexor against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, said on Wednesday he doesn't expect to play this week against the Dallas Cowboys.

He could be out "more than a couple weeks," Norwood said.

Norwood is the Falcons' backup running back behind Michael Turner. With the running game stuck in first gear against Chicago, Norwood came off the bench to give them a little spark before going down.

He doesn't remember the play that he was hurt on and has never had a hip flexor injury before.

It's been a rough season for Norwood, who's in a contract year. He's also suffered two concussions and a knee injury.

"It hasn't been my year," Norwood said.

The Falcons are thin at the running back position with Norwood's injury and fullback Ovie Mughelli's calf injury. Mughelli didn't play last week against Chicago.

With the team down to three healthy running backs -- Turner, Jason Snelling and Verron Haynes -- former Florida State running back Antone Smith was signed to the practice squad.

TOMORROW: Game Plan for the Cowboys vs the Falcons.

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