Sunday marked a big win for the Atlanta Falcons to start their 2014 season.
The team showed a level of toughness and resiliency that has been rarely seen by the team over the years. And by toughness, I’m not referring to their ability to win in the trenches, as was the common talking point this offseason. Instead, I’m referring to their ability to respond to adversity.
To use a boxing analogy, toughness is more akin to being able to withstand an opponents’ best punch and then counter. That was exactly what the Falcons did against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
When the Falcons were down 20-7 in the second quarter, I had almost no expectation that the team would win. I certainly thought the Falcons could come back and make it interesting, much like they had done against the New England Patriots a year ago. Then, the Falcons rallied back from a 17-point deficit in the final six minutes to put themselves in a position to tie that game, which they ultimately did not.
But soon after that point where I had given up on the Falcons, we saw that newfound resiliency. The Falcons got themselves into field goal range in the final 20 seconds of the first half to cut the Saints lead to 10 points rather than going down 13 points at halftime. And then for what seemed like the first time in a long time, the Falcons controlled much of the third quarter of the game, outscoring the Saints 14-0 in that quarter.
But the problem for the Falcons was that the Saints were a team that also showed that same level of resiliency. Every time the Falcons counter-punched, the Saints responded in kind.
When the Falcons scored their first touchdown of the game midway through the second quarter, the Saints went right down the field to go up seven more and push that lead to 20-7. And then when the Falcons closed out the third quarter and took their first lead of the game with a score of 24-20, the Saints marched right down the field and re-took the lead.
The Saints did that again with less than three minutes to go when the Falcons pushed ahead 31-27. And I’m sure everybody in the stadium and people like myself watching at home, felt that the defense was going to be tested in the final 2:50 to get a stop. That stop never came.
Granted, William Moore and the defense deserve credit for making a play in overtime to allow the Falcons to hit the game-winning field goal. The defense did make a couple of plays in the game, including Moore’s strip of Marques Colston in overtime and Robert McClain’s interception in the end zone which helped to cause a 14-point swing in the third quarter to give Atlanta their first lead.
But it seemed that the Falcons offense was the unit that was really showing resiliency, doing whatever it took to put points on the board in the final three quarters of the game. That was evident with their ability to convert several 3rd-and-longs throughout the game. And what was interesting was that guys like Devin Hester and Devonta Freeman, along with Julio Jones, were the guys that Matt Ryan dialed up to make those plays.
The Falcons offense seemed a lot more diverse than it has in the past, which has largely been “Julio and Roddy-centric” and focused on short passing. The Falcons dialed up plays for Hester, Freeman, Harry Douglas and of course, Antone Smith, who’s 54-yard touchdown catch was probably the turning point in the game.
The main thing we saw from the Falcons was an explosive offense, with the team generating eight plays of 20 or more yards. That total matches the most ever by the Falcons under Mike Smith. They have reached eight big plays three times before, once in consecutive weeks in 2011 against the Saints and Tennessee Titans, and then again against the Dallas Cowboys in 2012.
If the Falcons offense can maintain this level of explosiveness on a fairly consistent basis for the remainder of the season, then this team should be better able to reach their goal of playing in January.
But there are still questions about the defense, and as noted before, it seemed like every time that unit needed to step up on Sunday, they did not. And as the afterglow of the Falcons win fades, question marks about the defense begin to come into focus.
Chief among those question marks was the utter lack of pass rush. Brees and the Saints offense had no problem moving the ball and scoring points against the Falcons defense because he had all day to throw. And if not for players on the back-end like Moore and McClain making plays, it becomes easy to imagine that had Sunday’s result turned out differently, the Monday water-cooler talk about the Falcons would be focused on the defense and the utter lack of pass rush.
This is not a surprise as the pass rush was the defense’s most glaring weakness a year ago and the team did absolutely nothing in the offseason to seriously address it. Now, the Falcons are potentially in a position to fix that mistake. The trade deadline looms seven weeks from now, and you start to wonder if the Falcons will make a move in that timespan.
Now, it’s certainly possible that the Falcons pass rush decides to show up between now and then to make such a move unnecessary. But at this point I’m not going to hold my breath that happens, and neither should you.
It’s definitely going to be something worth watching in the coming weeks. A year ago, the Falcons incorrectly stood pat at wide receiver after Julio Jones went down with injury. Hopefully, they don’t make that same mistake in regards to the pass rush.
Another area of concern that emerged against the Saints was the team’s conservative play-calling in overtime. The Falcons decision to run the ball twice with Steven Jackson on their lone offensive series essentially was the team settling for a long field goal.
Granted, Matt Bryant has been exceptionally effective from long distance as a Falcons kicker, especially inside the Georgia Dome. Bryant has made seven of eight kicks from beyond 50 yards at home, and has hit from 55 yards twice. So the Falcons coaching staff certainly had good reason to believe that they only needed a handful of yards to put Bryant in a position where he could win the game.
But it’s one of those decisions that was still questionable regardless of the result. Bryant could have easily missed that kick regardless of his past success kicking from that distance. It’s a good example of why you can’t always judge whether a decision is the right one based purely off the result.
The analogy I often use to illustrate that point involves drunk driving. If you get behind the wheel of a car inebriated and make it home, does that mean that driving drunk was a good decision? No, because that decision to get behind the wheel impaired dramatically increases the chances that your own or somebody else’s life is now in peril. Obviously, drunk driving and kicking field goals in a football game differ in terms of real-life stakes, but the point is that the ends don’t always justify the means.
Decisions are better judged by the process in which they are determined. And in the Falcons process on Sunday, they seemed prepared to settle for a long field goal as opposed to really trying to put Bryant in a position to make an easier kick, let alone trying to go for a touchdown.
I won’t label it the wrong decision, but it certainly was a questionable decision and whether or not Bryant made or missed the field goal wouldn’t have changed that. But questionable decisions have loomed large throughout head coach Mike Smith’s tenure in Atlanta, and I certainly don’t expect Sunday’s to be the last time I’m speaking of them in a Monday takeaways column this year.
Elsewhere Around the NFL…
Including the Falcons-Saints game, I didn’t get many of my Week 1 picks correct. As I said in my picks column, it never fails that the first few weeks of every NFL season catch you a bit off guard with the teams that emerge and those that disappoint.
While in the back of my mind, I had a feeling that the Tennessee Titans might fare better than expected against the Kansas City Chiefs, I couldn’t pick the Titans. The Titans had a lot of things I liked about their team: good offensive line, good receivers, Ken Whisenhunt and Ray Horton. But it basically came down to the idea that if I had picked the Titans and the Chiefs won, I would have been kicking myself a lot more than I am since the opposite has occurred. There is obvious concern if you’re a Chiefs fan, as the team lost both linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike Devito for the year with Achilles tears within a short span on Sunday. The stabilizing force of the Chiefs last year was their rock-solid defense. It looked anything but that against the Titans, and if they don’t find a way to step up, this might be a long season for the Chiefs.
Another surprise was the Miami Dolphins defeating the New England Patriots with a second-half surge. Tom Brady and the Patriots are now 6-7 when playing in Miami. Given how the Patriots seemed to run out of gas in the second half against the Dolphins on Sunday, I’m starting to suspect the night life in South Beach might be getting the better of the Patriots on these road trips to Miami.
The fact that the Philadelphia Eagles got down 17-0 to the Jacksonville Jaguars was a major surprise. The fact that the Eagles managed to outscore the Jaguars 34-0 in the second half was not. Apparently, the Eagles did not realize they had a 1:00 p.m. kickoff and showed up late to the stadium.
While it certainly wasn’t a shock that the Minnesota Vikings beat the St. Louis Rams, the way in which they handled them so thoroughly was. Rams quarterback Shaun Hill was sidelined in the second half with a thigh injury after a poor first half, and apparently the Rams quarterback situation might be very problematic for the remainder of the year. Based off his play in one half, it doesn’t seem like Hill was the big upgrade to Kellen Clemens that the Rams were expecting.
But of all the games on Sunday, the Buffalo Bills beating the Chicago Bears was probably the biggest surprise. The Bills were able to use their run game to slow down the Bears offense, rushing for a combined 193 yards on the ground. The Bears run defense is again the early frontrunners to be the worst in the league in 2014.
The lack of run-pass balance on offense seemed out of whack for the Bears, dropping back to pass 51 times versus 18 total runs. That’s 74 percent of plays being passes. Remember, the Falcons set the NFL record a year ago with 68.7 percent of their offensive plays being passes. And what was most peculiar was that the Bears weren’t throwing because they were trying to overcome a huge deficit. They were down 10 points in the middle of the game, but that only lasted for about 11 minutes of the game. That wasn’t enough to justify the lack of balance in their offense. Jay Cutler is not the type of quarterback you want dropping back 50 times on a regular basis. The Bears will have to correct that if they want to live up to my expectations of winning the NFC North.