The 3-3 Falcons took on the 5-1 Lions in Detroit on Sunday and remarkably came away with a victory. This was not exactly what I expected, but the result could not have been more desirable from the perspective of a Falcon’s fan.
For the second consecutive week, the strongest side of the ball was the defense. Going into this season the offense was expected to control the clock, be explosive, and win the ball games. It seems like the defense has been the stronger unit. This was extremely apparent throughout the day. I was impressed overall.
One thing that needs to be in the back of the mind of every Falcons fan was that the Lions were without their main running back, Jahvid Best. He is the one back on their roster that brings balance to their offense. Without him, they became significantly more one dimensional. This is what many experts and other writers alike predicted would happen with Best out for this game. While there were other backs who did have some gains for chunks of yardage, none was as shifty or a game changer quite the way Best would have been. This allowed the Falcons to commit fewer men to defending the run, and getting more pass rushers after Stafford.
By allowing the Falcons to put more men in coverage, or blitz additional men instead of assigning them to playing the run, heavy pressure was applied to Stafford. The Falcons sacked him five times on the day, including two huge sacks after a horrible turnover by the Falcons. The key isn’t just the sack numbers, but that the Falcons put enough pressure on Stafford to get him uncomfortable, or force him out of the pocket and into bad throws. Stafford is best in the pocket. He isn’t extremely mobile, or accurate on the move, and under pressure while being hit, few quarterbacks are. By forcing him to get rid of the ball before he really wanted to, the Falcons were able to capitalize, get him into third-and-long situations and blitz the snot out of him.
The pass coverage by all players was outstanding on the day. We have become accustomed to Grimes making good defensive plays every week, but normally these are against lesser receivers. Calvin Johnson is known the world over for being able to go up, get the ball at its highest point, and make the reception. There was a crucial play where Stafford threw the ball up to Megatron. The Falcon’s faithful held their collective breaths. This was the matchup that I feared the most coming into the game, and I was afraid Optimus Grimes would be abused all day long. However, he rose to the occasion and made a brilliant pass deflection. And when I say rose up, he got way up. Despite the huge difference in height, Grimes batted down the pass, and seemed to have not jumped as high as he possibly could have. It was truly a marvelous play. It shows me to doubt a player with truly awesome athletic ability. But he wasn’t the only one. Corey Peters played brilliantly in run defense, as well as getting a sack, and deflecting a pass. Sean Weatherspoon also had a sack and a terrific pass breakup with a hard hit on Brandon Pettigrew. Everyone on the Falcons defense seemed to be flying around to the ball and making big plays. Everything came together, and made me believe that this was truly a defense that had shown growth by holding a defense that was averaging 29 points per game to only 16.
The only play that wasn’t great for the Falcons was the 57-yard touchdown catch by Calvin Johnson. But you know what? I think that if you hold him to 115 yards and a touchdown, a defense basically shut him down as completely as is realistic.
Many teams in the NFL have realized that the league is moving more and more to a pass happy game. Those teams have adjusted their personnel and schemes to increase the pressure on passing situations, or in nearly every situation (as teams like the Packers, Saints, Pats throw the ball nearly every snap). Defenses like the Wide-Nine are built to rush only four down linemen, drop seven in coverage, and still get major pressure on the quarterback. This is accomplished by sliding both defensive ends on the outside extremities of the offensive line, and asking the defensive tackles to generate a good push up front. The Eagles used this against the Falcons with a lot of success early on, especially with Trent Cole manhandling Sam Baker all day long. However, using a strong running game can neutralize this and allow passes to be thrown. Some downs, Detroit used this Wide-Nine against the Falcons in hopes of generating a lot of pressure on Matt Ryan when he dropped back. The Falcons successfully exploited this by pounding the ball with Michael Turner up the middle, where the defense is weakest. Even though the Lions have great players on the defensive line like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Ndamukong Suh, the use of trap plays and other runs with the fullback got enough blocks to open holes, get good yardage on the ground, and set up the pass just enough. I am glad the Falcons haven’t decided to start using the Wide-Nine. It doesn’t seem to be working out well for much of anyone.
By using Michael Turner, and continually pounding the line of scrimmage with him, the Falcons kept some semblance of balance. He may have had a great many one or two yard runs, and it does get frustrating to see him pummel the backsides of his own offensive linemen when they are unable to open the hole that he is trying to hit, but in this respect he is similar to Adrian Peterson and Barry Sanders. Small gains wear down the defense, and eventually opens up bigger holes. It forces more men to commit to the run, and truly opens up the passing game. It was a successful formula, as the Falcons got the 100+ yards they desire from Turner that is the formula for a Falcons victory.
Matt Ryan continued to struggle this week. I for one am extremely tired of seeing one-touchdown-two-interception performances. The one-touchdown is fine with me, as long as we win, but the two interceptions are getting really old really, really fast. The first interception was just terrible, thrown into coverage with two men right around the intended receiver, Roddy White. If you look at the play, it is all receivers running ten yard curl routes. White and Douglas are in the slot to the right, Weems is on the outside with the other receivers, and Gonzalez is playing wide on the left. It appears as if Gonzalez is well covered, and Weems quickly becomes a non option. White and Douglas are running the exact same route, ten yard curl. Eric Wright drops into coverage right in between the two, reads the quarterback’s eyes, and drives on the ball. If Ryan throws the ball to Douglas, it would have been picked, if Ryan throws to White, it also would have been picked. The kicker is that there was so much space underneath for someone to work at receiver. The amount of respect the defense gave to the threat of White going deep over the middle guaranteed that there would be space in the short area underneath, without an interception. This just goes down to horrible play calling by Mularkey. There were only curl routes, and they were taken away easily by the defense. I simply don’t like the play design my Mularkey. It shows a complete lack of creativity. Granted, the Lions were held to a field goal by the defense, but it could have been a horrific start and the game got out of hand from there. I really didn’t like this play.
The second interception was extremely well played by the Lions. I don’t have access to the game tape, but I can tell you want I saw on television. The passing game is built on timing, and when a receiver is at a certain spot, the quarterback will let the ball go, and expect the receiver to have proper depth. The man covering Tony Gonzalez got a good press on him at the line of scrimmage, and kept that physical play up until he had to release him. By that time, Ryan was feeling some pressure, and needed to get rid of the throw. Because of the press on Gonzalez, he didn’t get proper depth down the field on his crossing route. If Gonzalez is where he is supposed to be, it is a fairly easy catch. Unfortunately, it is delivered where the play was supposed to be, is high relative to where Gonzalez actually is, and the safety over the top is there for the easy interception. Part of it is Ryan’s fault for not adjusting to the press that Gonzalez got, but it is partially Gonzalez’ fault for not getting off the press as quickly as he needed to. It is hard to blame a future hall of famer, but even they make errors sometimes.
Overall this was a good victory. The passing game needs a little work, especially on the designed route combinations, protections, and execution. The running game is a tool that rarely fails the Falcons and it was used with great success again. The defense really stepped up, and it is terrific to see many of the really young draft picks from the past couple years come together, gel as a unit or collective defense, and play up to or for some above their projected ability. Going into the bye week, there is a lot to feel good about, and a two game winning streak is one of them. Keeping pace in the division race is essential. The most important part of this win is that it is against a conference opponent that will challenge for a playoff spot. If these two teams finish with the same record at the end of the season, it could become an important tie-breaker for a spot in the playoffs.