The Half that Saved the Season


I apologize for having a review of the game against the Carolina Panthers this late in the week. Having a game Thursday makes it seem even later. But this was a game that had to be broken down.

This game was definately a story of two halves. If you watched the game, it was absolutely poor effort or poor execution in the first half, and absolute dominance in the second half. The second half of the game gave all Falcons fans and the league as a whole what this team can be when the offense and defense are both hitting on all cylinders. The other hand is a horrible reminder of what the team could be if nothing is working for it. Follow the jump and get more game analysis.

The first quarter stared off decently. The Falcons were not dominant on offense, but things were looking good after forcing the Panthers and their dangerous new quarterback to punt, and a touchdown pass from Ryan to White didn’t hurt either. From there, it went south fast. The Panthers drove right down the field with dominating style, and Cam Newton threw a touchdown pass to Jeremy Shockey. I’m not anti-Tim Tebow, but Cam Newton did his best impersonation of him when jumping up in the air to toss that pass. It brought back many painful reminders of his running roughshod over SEC defenses. That play was a beginning of the horrors that would follow.

The Falcons defense forced a Carolina punt, but that minor victory was short lived. Sam Baker was placed at right guard in place of Joe Hawley, and he gave up pressure up the middle allowing Antwan Applewhite to get the sack for a safety. Another horrible thing to happen. Its really sad that Baker could not block Applewhite, a guy who hasn’t even started all season and was playing mostly due to injuries to other players earlier in the season. It was an easy target to get after Baker when he was protecting the blind-side, but he can’t pass protect at guard either. After that play, Baker was replaced by Hawley, who was much better. Baker’s future with the Falcons is in serious doubt.

The series that followed do not need to be chronicled too thoroughly. A huge 74-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams (the longest run in franchise history is what the television broadcasters said) on a off-tackle play, and the 44-yard tight end screen for a touchdown were just one busted defense after another. It seemed the Falcons had given up. The Falcons went into the locker room down 23-7 against Carolina’s good offense. It looked like there would be no joy in Mudville.

Then, miraculously, the second half came around. Our defense forced a three and out. Then we posted a field goal. What came next truly changed the course of the game.

An interception of Cam Newton. Newton simply tried too hard to be superman, and ended up throwing an underhanded interception right to Mike Peterson that was intended for Jonathan Stewart. Credit Peterson for being in the right place at the right time, but this was all on Newton. Really foolish play.

As soon as that interception was thrown, the momentum change was huge. As my colleague Jamie Kelly tweeted during the game ‘Momentum is one hell of a thing.’ Boy, was that true. After the turnover, Rodgers ran for a four yard gain. That set up the pass, and allowed him to matchup against a linebacker, run a fantastic wheel route, and get a 31-yard TD reception. It was a teriffic throw by Matt Ryan to beat the linebacker and hit his receiver in stride, but it wasn’t the easiest catch in the world for a running back to make. Lots of props to Jacquizz for his first NFL touchdown, and all the dynamics he can now bring to the Falcons. Rodgers was one of the players who earned his wings this week, and I expect him to continue to do this for weeks to come.

The Falcons faithful know the rest. Another interception of Cam Newton on a pass that simply sailed on him sure helped. The Falcons only punted twice the rest of the game, and Julio Jones took over. Earlier in the game Ryan had gotten the ball to Jones, but he was unable to come up with the catch. Another huge credit to Ryan to continuing to have confidence in Jones and eventually finding him on the goal line, throwing the ball where only Jones can make the catch, and then allowing him to get the additional yard to cross the goal line. I think this was the most impressive reception Jones had on the day, as Ryan made a great throw, Jones boxed the corner out and then used his physical nature to get the ball into the endzone for 6 points. The 75-yard TD reception was another beautiful example of Julio using his physicality to make the catch, and then his athleticism to burn past all of the defenders for another score. I cannot wait to see the connection between Ryan and Jones for years to come. Its so very exciting for Falcons fans, its unbelievable.

Perhaps the most clutch play of the day was at the end of the game when the Falcons were trying to run the clock out. With a 3rd & 6 on their side of the field, the Falcons desperately needed a first down to absolutely prevent the Panthers from tying the game back up. A running play certainly did not seem in order, so a pass to White was drawn up. It was a tough catch, but a good enough throw and great concentration by White got a 1st down, and iced the game for the Falcons. It just illustrated the great rapport these two have with each other, and the possibilities for clutch performances that remain.

After all the good things I have to say about the Falcons, there are two things that I noticed that need to be fixed, or just need to be understood on offense and defense to make this team better.

First, lets start with offense. The biggest change that I noticed between the first half and the second half was that Atlanta’s interior offensive line was not giving up pressure on Matt Ryan when the Falcons were being successful. Its a subtle thing, but it is critically important. Having Hawley in the game rather than Baker seemed to make the difference once Hawley was used to the game.

Also on offense, the Falcons are really missing Ovie Mughelli. The Panthers run defense has been attrocious all season long, and teams have abused that to set up the pass, which the Panthers are still not great at defending. But the fact that Michael Turner was not really allowed to have a very loud day says alot about our offense, and I think not having Mughelli lead blocking and opening holes for Turner is definately affecting the offense. I don’t think its something that can be fixed until Mughelli is back, but for the Falcons it is something to be cognisant of.

On defense, overall we did a good job shutting down Carolina’s offense during the second half. However, one receiver kept beating us for big plays. That was Steve Smith. Normally, Brent Grimes would be the man lined up to defend Smith, but his absence has been felt. When Newton was allowed easy down the field completions to Smith, it was very hard to stop their offense. I doubt Grimes will play against Jacksonville, but his presence is necessary against the Saints. With him in the secondary, the entire complexion of our defense changes.

On the macro-level, it was a great game. Sure the first half stank to high heaven, but what is important is that the offense started hitting on nearly all cylinders, with Jones turning in a big game, Rodgers having a big touchdown catch, Matt Ryan throwing the ball with ACCURACY down the field. The defense hasn’t had many turnovers lately, and those surely helped give them some good positive feelings that they can use to carry them through the rest of the season. Hopefully the Falcons will carry this momentum against the Jaguars and then against the Saints. Without this win, the playoff race would have become much more difficult, but with it, the path is far easier. Cross your fingers for the playoffs, Falcons fans!