Allen and I are joined by another Falcoholic contributor, the ever-optimistic Jeanna Thomas, to discuss the Atlanta Falcons last two games of the year against the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers in Weeks 16 and 17. Topics we hit include the battle between Steven Jackson and Donte Whitner, the problems that plague the offensive line, the refusal to play Antone Smith, and the outlook of some young players: Peter Konz, Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford. We also discuss how injury will affect the future of Corey Peters, as well as the possibility that the team’s good intentions sabotaged Tony Gonzalez’s final game. We end the show discussing some of the things we saw around the league in Week 17, as I gloat over Allen about the Eagles win over the Cowboys. We each give our predictions about which teams could emerge in the first round of the playoffs to make a legit run at the Super Bowl in February.
The Atlanta Falcons announced yesterday that three assistant coaches will not return in 2014: offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn, and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton.
Hill was hired by the team in 2012 after the team dismissed offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. Prior to his arrival in Atlanta, Hill was last an offensive line coach when he served as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens in 1996. Between 1997-2011, he was a successful head coach at Fresno State, where he compiled a 112-80 record with 11 bowl appearances.
Dunn was hired by the team in 2008 as an assistant offensive line coach, and promoted to share duties with Hill in 2012 after the Boudreau’s departure. Before his hiring in Atlanta, Dunn served as an assistant coach for 15 years on the college ranks.
Hamilton was also a 2008 hire, brought over by Smith from Jacksonville where he served five years as the defensive line coach of the Jaguars. Hamilton, a former NFL player that played nine seasons as a nose tackle with the New England Patriots from 1973-81, followed up his playing career in 1985 as an assistant coach with the Patriots. He spent the remaining years mostly as a defensive line coach with multiple teams having coached a number of top defensive linemen over the years including John Abraham, Hugh Douglas, Shaun Ellis, John Henderson, Howie Long, Willie McGinest, Eric Swann, and Greg Townsend.
The Falcons are expected to hire their replacements in the coming weeks.
Nolan is a well-respected defensive mind coming off his second season serving as the defensive coordinator of the Falcons. However, he has yet to achieve great success here in Atlanta. The Falcons defense finished 27th in both total and scoring defense in 2013. That follows a year in which the team managed to finish fifth in scoring defense based off points allowed, but 24th in total defense based off yards allowed. The Falcons have struggled to stop the run under Nolan, ranking 31st this past year in rushing yards allowed, after a 2012 season that saw the team ranked 24th.
Respect for Nolan stems from his stints prior to his arrival in Atlanta. The last time he coached a defense that finished in the top 10 in both scoring and total defense was in 2004 when he was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. He was able to catapult that success to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. There, he compiled an 18-37 record over four seasons thanks in part to defenses that were typically ranked near the bottom of league. In 2009, he became the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, helping that team rank seventh and 12th in total and scoring defense, respectively. In 2010, he joined the Miami Dolphins staff as defensive coordinator where they finished in the top 15 in both categories in each season. Prior to his promotion to the Ravens defensive coordinator in 2002, Nolan had served as a defensive coordinator with three teams over eight seasons: New York Jets (2000), Washington Redskins (1997-99), and New York Giants (1993-96).
The 2013 season is over for the Atlanta Falcons and what a disappointing season it was.
The Falcons finish the year with a 4-12 record, when most (including myself) were expected a record that was closer to 12-4 after their trip to the NFC Championship Game in 2012. What is the narrative for the year that was 2013 in Atlanta?
First off, injuries were a factor, particularly the two injuries to wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. White suffered a high-ankle sprain at the end of the preseason, and rather than rest him for the start of the season the Falcons and White himself pushed to play. Hindsight tells us that was a mistake. Because after the fifth game of the year, Jones went down with a season-ending foot injury. Had White been rested, it’s likely he would have been able to suit up and pick up the slack by then. Instead, White would miss the next three games with a hamstring injury and would be largely ineffective for three more following that.
Essentially, the Falcons got only five games worth of solid production from each wideout this year: Jones for the first five, and White for the final five. In the first five games, the Falcons averaged 24.4 points per game, while they averaged 25.2 in the final five. During the six in between, they averaged 17.5 points per game. It’s not a coincidence that the Falcons offensive production dropped by a touchdown when they lacked a comparable playmaker at wide receiver.
And while he had led the team with a career-high 85 catches and 1,067 yards, Harry Douglas proved he was not that playmaker. The stat that is most-telling about Douglas’ 2013 season is his two touchdowns despite playing the entire season. Prior to this year, there were only five receivers that exceeded 80 catches, 1,000 yards, and did not exceed a pair of touchdowns in a season.
Wide Receiver an Underrated Need for Falcons
The lack of a reliable wideout is one those subjects I’ve harped on throughout this season, mainly because most will focus on the play of the Falcons in the trenches as the root cause of their woes this year. And while those people aren’t necessarily wrong in thinking that upgrading those areas should be the top priorities for the Falcons this offseason, I believe it was really the diminishing returns from the passing game that doomed the Falcons season.
Matt Ryan got off to a good start and finished the game completing 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Steven Jackson led rushers with 41 yards on 13 carries, and also added five receptions for 53 yards. Roddy White led receivers with eight grabs for 91 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown. Jason Snelling snagged Ryan’s other touchdown pass on a nine-yard score, and finished the game with a pair of catches for 15 yards. Gonzalez finished with four catches for 56 yards, while Harry Douglas added seven catches for 58 yards. Matt Bryant connected on both of his field goal tries from 42 and 37 yards. Matt Bosher punted five times for an average of 48.4 yards, placing two of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Robert McClain had a trio of punt returns for 34 yards, while none of the Panthers kickoffs were returned thanks to four touchbacks. The Falcons was able to generate 307 total yards, but were limited by nine sacks allowed. It marked the largest sack allowance since December 2001. Ryan’s interception also gifted Carolina seven points due to an eight-yard return on a pick-six by Panthers cornerback Melvin White. The Falcons were unable to score touchdowns on two of their three red zone trips, but did manage to convert 44 percent of 16 third-down conversion tries.
Defensively, the Falcons were sharp, only allowed 283 total yards by the Panthers. However, 134 yards came on the ground as the Falcons struggled to handle the scrambling ability of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Newton led his team with 72 yards rushing. The Falcons did generate two turnovers, with William Moore intercepting a tipped pass and Desmond Trufant recovering a fumble by DeAngelo Williams. But the Panthers were able to convert both of their red zone trips into touchdowns and converted 47 percent of their 15 third-down attempts. Paul Worrilow led the team with 13 tackles and tallied the team’s lone sack and hit on the quarterback on the day. Robert Alford (three tackles, one forced fumble); Jonathan Babineaux (four tackles); Joplo Bartu (six tackles, two tackle for loss); Peria Jerry (three tackles, one tackle for loss); Jonathan Massaquoi (four tackles); Cliff Matthews (four tackles); William Moore (two tackles, one interception); Stephen Nicholas (four tackles); and Desmond Trufant (five tackles, one pass deflection, one fumble recovery) had noteworthy performances.
As I predicted last week, I had a disappointing week. I finished 7-9 picking against the spread, indicating that I need to get to 10-6 this week if I want to end the year at .500. A tall proposition given that I haven’t hit that benchmark very often this year.
I was 8-8 picking games straight up, making my season total at 150-90.
This week, I noticed I’m predominantly picking the home teams to win straight up, with home teams projected to go 13-3. I hope I’m right.
Carolina Panthers (11-4) at Atlanta Falcons (4-11)
Sunday, December 29 at 1 pm ET on FOX
Line: Falcons (+7.5)
This will be a farewell game for Tony Gonzalez, and I have the feeling that the Falcons will be competitive. They were against the Panthers for the most part in their last matchup on the road, and they will benefit from not having a healthy Steve Smith to go against. So the real question is will this offensive line do as good a job as they did last time to hold off the Panthers front.
I like their chances to pull the upset, especially now that Roddy White is healthy and making impact players. Finally, the Falcons have the weapons to take advantage of the lone Panthers defensive weakness: their secondary. I’m going to go out on a limb and pick the Falcons to win.
Spread Pick: Falcons
Straight Pick: Falcons
Baltimore Ravens (8-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-5)
Sunday, December 29 at 1 pm ET on CBS
Line: Bengals (-5.5)
The delay in posting this was partially due to the holidays preventing me from looking at the All-22 earlier in the week, and then technical issues involving access to the internet later in the week.
In reviewing the game, the offense had their typical game in terms of what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing over the years. One that starts promising, then sputters in the third quarter, but then is able to turn it on in the fourth quarter. But the promising start wasn’t really all that promising. They did find some success moving the ball in the second quarter thanks mainly to a healthy running game and that big play to Drew Davis.
Matt Ryan had a decent game, although there were a couple of times where he once again seemed hesitant to throw down the field. But it wasn’t anything too glaring. There were other instances where he seemed to once again get locked onto his first read, which was often Roddy White. White earned quite a bit with a lot of short completions that helped move the chains. Six of his first seven receptions didn’t go more than seven yards in the air.
The running game had its moments, although most of their missed opportunities came due to poor blocking as once again with the young guys on the right side missing the majority of those assignments. I still believe that Harland Gunn is a better option to start at right guard than Peter Konz. Gunn didn’t have a great game, but it’s clear on tape that Gunn is simply better at everything than Konz. He’s quicker off the snap, got better feet, more violent hands, better mobility, etc. Konz isn’t playing poorly, but he’s just not showing the things on tape that suggest he’s got the potential to get demonstrably better than he has been the past two years.
Overall, the pass protection was solid. Aldon Smith was able to get the better of Lamar Holmes a couple of times on the bull rush, but for the most part, he, Justin Smith, and Ahmad Brooks had relatively quiet games.
It’s hard to put an exact reason on why the Falcons failed to move the ball in the third quarter. Konz missed a block on 3rd-and-1 on the opening drive of the third quarter, trying to pull and block Patrick Willis. Willis was able to blow up the play and halt Steven Jackson in the backfield, forcing a punt. The Falcons did take their first designed deep shot of the game on the opening play of that series, with a play-action pass to White that went 14 yards in the air, although I say it was deep because the reason why it wasn’t over 15 yards was because of Ryan’s throw not the design of the play.
Then on third down on the second series of the third quarter, Blalock gave up late pressure after Ryan had time in the pocket. I won’t blame that one on Blalock though, that was just simply the receivers not getting open. Ryan was looking at White, but was hesitant to pull the trigger because Navorro Bowman was sitting underneath and could have jumped the throwing lane. Then Ryan scrambled and threw the ball away, although had he kept his eyes downfield he could have thrown a first down to Drew Davis who was crossing the field and was open. But Ryan threw it away and the Falcons punted. The first down play on that series was a play-action bootleg where Ryan threw to a spot, but Harry Douglas got no separation from Carlos Rogers and couldn’t get to the spot where he was supposed to be.
I’d love to sit here and pick on Douglas some more, particularly for his inability to win in traffic at the end of the game on the pick-six where he got outmuscled by Tramaine Brock. But what needs to be said about Douglas that hasn’t been said already? The Falcons need to find an upgrade at wide receiver this offseason. They have been complacent there for the past two years, and this is the offseason where that needs to change. But I’m not overly optimistic that it will change.
The Atlanta Falcons announced their injury report earlier today with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and running back Jacquizz Rodgers being listed as out with knee and concussion injuries, respectively. Neither player will suit up this weekend to face the Carolina Panthers in the team’s 2013 regular season finale. Weatherspoon missed his second week of practice with the same knee injury, having missed last week’s loss against the San Francisco 49ers despite being listed as questionable then. Rodgers suffered his concussion in the 49ers game, and was also held out of practice this week.
Likely replacing Weatherspoon will be Stephen Nicholas, who got his most extensive playing time of the year last week against the 49ers. Rodgers serves as the team’s primary kickoff returner and top backup at running back. In both duties he is expected to be replaced by fellow running back Jason Snelling. Snelling did return one kick for 23 yards following Rodgers’ exit from the 49ers game.
Jason Snelling said he's handling kick return duties Sunday with Jacquizz Rodgers out with a concussion.
— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) December 27, 2013
Also listed on the team’s injury report is wide receiver Darius Johnson (ankle) as questionable. Johnson was limited all three days of practice this week after missing every practice last week and the 49ers game. He will likely be replaced by Drew Davis if he is unable to go on Sunday.
Like Johnson, tight end Tony Gonzalez was limited all week with a toe injury but he is listed as probable. Gonzalez has been nursing his toe injury since Week 10, the last time he fully participated in one of the team’s practice. But he has yet to miss a game this year, and Sunday will mark his final game after a 17-year NFL career since he is expected to retire this offseason.
Cornerback Robert Alford (ankle) and offensive lineman Peter Konz (neck) were also listed as probable. Alford was limited on Wednesday and Thursday, but returned to fully participate in Friday’s practice. Konz was able to go fully in all three days of practice this week.
Notable injuries for the Carolina Panthers include wide receiver Steve Smith (knee), running back Jonathan Stewart (knee), and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf). All three are listed as out this week. Quarterback Cam Newton (ankle) is listed as probable, as he was able to fully participate in practice this week.
D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Atlanta Falcons will place defensive tackle Corey Peters and rookie safety Zeke Motta on injured reserve. Peters suffered an Achilles injury in Monday night’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The injury will likely limit Peters during the upcoming offseason where he is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Motta suffered a fracture in his C1 vertebrae during the preceding week’s win over the Washington Redskins. He is expected to miss 4-6 weeks as he recovers from his recent surgery.
For the fifth consecutive season the Falcons have placed a player on injured reserve before the season finale. Last year, it was wide receiver Kevin Cone. In the preceding year, it was linebacker Mike Peterson and cornerback Kelvin Hayden. In 2010, safety Schann Schillinger found himself going to injured reserve while guard Harvey Dahl and cornerback Chris Houston were sidelined in 2009. Traditionally the Falcons typically elevate player(s) from the practice squad to the active roster for the season finale.
In the absence of Peters, the Falcons moved Peria Jerry to his traditional nose tackle spot against the 49ers. It will likely lead to increased reps for Travian Robertson in the season finale next week against the Carolina Panthers. Robertson has just played a total of 55 defensive snaps this season in four games played. Motta filled in for an injured Thomas DeCoud at free safety against the Redskins in his lone start of the season. But DeCoud returned this past week against the 49ers. Motta’s injury led to fellow rookie Kemal Ishmael receiving three snaps against the 49ers, his first of the season on defense. That will likely continue against the Panthers with Ishmael being the team’s top backup at both safety spots.
Ryan led the way completing 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards, two touchdowns, and a pair of interceptions. Steven Jackson led the team in rushing with 53 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown. Roddy White led receivers with 12 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. Tony Gonzalez caught eight passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. Douglas finished with five catches for 46 yards, while Drew Davis had three catches for 70 yards. Matt Bryant hit on his lone field goal attempt from 35 yards out. Matt Bosher punted five times for an average of 48.8 yards with two kicks placed inside the 20-yard line. Robert McClain averaged 16.5 yards on a pair of punt returns, while Jacquizz Rodgers had 50 yards on two kickoff returns. The Falcons offense was able to generate 402 total yards, mostly coming in the air. They also were able to convert eight of 15 third down attempts and scored touchdowns on half of their four red zone trips.
Defensively, the Falcons gave up 379 total yards, including 199 yards on the ground. The defense got off to a good start, limiting 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to just 69 yards passing in the first half. The 49ers also only had 52 rushing yards and were only able to convert one of five third downs in the first half. But that changed in the second half, as San Francisco generated 266 total yards, including 147 on the ground. They also were able to convert on three of four third down attempts and had no issues moving the ball at will against the struggling Falcons defense. Joplo Bartu led defenders with 11 tackles, including one for loss. Thomas DeCoud (5 tackles); Jonathan Massaquoi (1 tackle, 1 sack); Robert McClain (2 tackles, 1 pass deflection); William Moore (5 tackles); Stephen Nicholas (10 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 pass deflection); Corey Peters (1 tackle, 1 sack); and Paul Worrilow (5 tackles) had noteworthy games.