This week was a must win game for the Falcons. Coming into week six with a record of 2-3, slumping off a poor showing against the Packers in the Dome, this was simply a game where the Birds HAD to get it done. If they were to fall to 2-4, that would be a nearly insurmountable deficit at this point in the season. But the call was answered, and the Falcons pulled to .500 on the season. The loss by the Saints at the hands of the Bucs meant that the division didn’t get too far out of grasp, and really gave new life to the Falcons. Here’s the weekly breakdown of what happened in the game.
The Falcons played poor defense between the 20s, but where it really counted, they got it done. In past weeks, especially against the Packers and in previous weeks altogether, the big play was given up resulting in a long Touchdown, like the 70-yard TD pass from Rodgers to Jones. Giving up the huge play like that never gives you a chance to make a good play and be successful. Nobody wants to give up points at all, but in today’s NFL, that just is not realistic. The Falcons were unsuccessful in the 20’s but they continually forced conversion after conversion. The more plays another team runs, the higher probability there is that the team will make an error, whether it be mental or in execution of the play. This is exactly what we saw the Falcons force the Panthers into. Get them into the redzone, and make plays. One drive ended in a Panthers field goal. Holding the other team to three points is nearly as good as a victory.
Jonathan Stewart’s touchdown run is all about will of the defensive line and linebackers, and willingness to get dirty to make a defensive stop. If you watch the play, there is great penetration by Jonathan Babineaux from the gap Stewart was supposed to hit. It forced him to bounce the ball out to the next hole, but another tackler was there. The problem on this play was tackling. If there was successful tackling the man goes down, bringing up another chance to stop the play. I teach my little league team to wrap up, every practice. These are professional athletes, and I know how to coach them on this play: tackle low, and wrap up. Proper tackling technique is all that is necessary.
Another example of what can happen when you play only in the redzone was exemplified in the Newton touchdown run. The Falcons dropped into coverage to play the pass from the 14-yard line. All men were covered well, or at least well enough that a rookie quarterback chose not to throw the ball. Here is the catch-the depth of the drop by the linebackers and secondary in pass coverage was too deep to prevent the quarterback scramble. Most quarterbacks in the league can scramble for a few yards and bring up the next down, but few have the running ability of Cam Newton. The Falcons did well holding up in coverage, but the defensive line is hard presses to contain that style of quarterback, and it is left to the coverage men (linebackers and defensive backs who dropped in coverage to play the pass). In that situation, Newton is too fast for linebackers, and too big for defensive backs. That was Cam’s best play of the day, and that (and throwing to wide open pre-determined receivers) are his specialty.
The best thing that can happen is a turnover, and in this game it took place in the form of interceptions, and a lot of them. The redzone interception by Grimes was a result of a tipped ball from William Moore. Here is where we see a defense capitalizing on the play of a rookie quarterback. Newton locked onto his #1 target, Steve Smith, and tried to throw it into a tiny window. He obviously at this stage doesn’t have great field vision, or didn’t see Moore in his zone, and tried to rifle it past Grimes for the TD. Had it been cover zero (an all out blitz with only man coverage on the receivers) it is entirely possible that it is completed for a TD. But here is exactly what defensive coordinators want: to confuse quarterbacks. Brian Van Gorder had William Moore play a shallow zone (robber zone) that appeared as man coverage on the tight end. As a result Newton read man, when it was really a zone, the pass got tipped and an interception resulted. Simple design, but by disguising your coverage, it can easily confuse a quarterback and force errors.
The offensive line play was all the difference in the world. Granted, the Panthers defense is missing its defensive tackles, so it is not extremely difficult to run on them, but this is still the NFL. Nobody hands you anything.
The running game set up by Michael Turner is the bread and butter of this offense, and has been since 2008. The offensive line really opened holes, allowed Michael Turner to hit wide open holes, and get to the second level against smaller players, and make plays. This is highlighted by the 27 carries, 139 yards, and 2 touchdowns on the day. Being able to run the ball makes a huge difference in the balance of the play calling. By keeping the Carolina defense on its toes, it allows the passing game to be increasingly efficient. Michael Turner’s brutal punishing running allowed Matt Ryan to throw the ball effectively, take very few hits, and only have to attempt 22 passes on the day. With an offensive line that is suspect in pass protection, it is critical to have balance offensively, and the Falcons accomplished that.
The explosive plays still aren’t there in the passing game and the reason is still the offensive line. However, the play calling lately has been tailored to allow shorter completions, without maximum protection sets. The best example of this play calling was the 34-yard completion to Harry Douglas. Out of a four receiver set, Douglas was asked to run a smash-route from the slot. The pass rush got to Ryan fairly quickly (a result of that poor pass protection that I mentioned previously). However, Ryan stood tall in the pocket, got rid of the ball to Douglas, and took the huge hit. There wasn’t enough time for the route to develop fully, but Douglas flattened his route out (took a path closer to parallel to the line of scrimmage) and allowed the completion. He caught the ball only 12-yards down the field, but ran for 22-yards after the catch. This route combination took advantage of the chemistry between Douglas and Ryan, showcased the fearlessness on the part of Ryan to stay strong in the pocket, and HDs ability to run after the catch which is part of the ‘explosiveness’ that everyone is calling for. It also showed the willingness on the part of the coaching staff to call route combinations that don’t take an eternity to develop and don’t ask the offensive line to hold up in pass protection too long.
A disturbing theme seems to be developing for the Falcons. Roddy White seems to not be able to catch the ball. There was a perfect example of this towards the end of the first quarter. The ball is at the Carolina 38-yard line, and Ryan drops back to throw the ball deep down the middle of the field, into the endzone for Roddy. Everything about the play smelled of the downfield chemistry that Ryan and White developed at the end of last season. Roddy had his man beaten, and Ryan put the ball where it needed to be. As a matter of fact, Ryan really could not have placed the ball better. White was pushed by the corner and ended up further than he needed to be for the throw, and the ball was placed on a dime at the hips of Roddy White to make the play. Even with the pass interference from the corner, the ball was almost in the gut of White, and he only needed to trap the ball against his body for a long touchdown catch. I have no idea how, but it went through his hands for an incompletion. Good thing there was pass interference, or I would have been very upset by the no-catch. In the end, the Falcons did score, but it is the principle of the thing. Even with the interference, the catch was far from impossible; it was not a very challenging one at all. This game was a solid win, but at some point those no-catches are going to come back and bite us. It makes the quarterback look bad, and it makes the team suffer.
This was a good positive win for the Falcons. Allowing the offensive line to go out and manhandle someone was exactly what was necessary for the offensive line to gel and get their confidence up. It is exactly the type of performance that will be necessary against the D-line of Detroit. The defense looked the best it has in a while, and got to force some turnovers and bolster its confidence. These are all positives and things that the Falcons will do well to build on before their game in Detriot.