My initial reaction for how the Falcons match up against the 49ers is not very promising. The 49ers present many of the same challenges as the Seahawks, but only better. They won’t be missing Chris Clemons like Seattle was, as Justin Smith and Aldon Smith will likely be playing and near full strength. They have many more dangerous weapons on offense that require a lot more man coverage. The Falcons looked to be playing a lot of zone against Seattle in order to keep all of their eyes on Wilson and his scrambling ability. That was one of the reasons why guys like Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, and Zach Freakin’ Miller were wide open throughout the day. I don’t think the Falcons can try to get away with what against the likes Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Vernon Davis, etc. Which means that the front line has to be more disciplined and do a better job of trying to contain Kaepernick on the read-option. That appeared to be the Achilles Heel of the Packers on Saturday night, as they did not seem prepared for it or equipped to play it. That won’t be an excuse for the Falcons with a week to prepare and that they have perhaps seen more read-option than any other defense this year. Getting John Abraham back healthy will be key, and if the Falcons plan on winning and containing the 49ers explosive offense, they will need him to play all four quarters.
However, I do like the fact that Kaepernick really struggled against the noise in Seattle in Week 16. Similar to Wilson, it appears Kaepernick is a much different QB on the road. I also like the fact that this will be Harbaugh’s first road playoff game. Will that matter that much? Probably not, but it at least gives me some hope that the 49ers won’t be that sharp, which I think might be necessary if the Falcons are going to pull the upset. And let’s not be naive here, it will be an upset if the Falcons win. The line for that game opened up with the 49ers being a 3-point favorite. The 49ers have the capacity to utterly dominate the Falcons in the trenches. It’s going to be a fun week as I try to dig deep to find flaws that can be exploited by the Falcons in this matchup.
In order for the Falcons to win, I think it has to be similar to yesterday’s game, where the Falcons get an early lead. But unlike against the Seahawks, the Falcons can’t take their foot off the pedal.
I’m very critical of John Fox’s late-game decisions from Saturday, and I think they really helped cost Denver the game. There were a couple of makeable 3rd downs where the Broncos opted to run the ball in the fourth quarter and overtime period, thus taking the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hand. People will blame Manning for his bad interception in overtime, and he deserves it. But Manning played a fairly good game in my eyes, and had Fox given him opportunities earlier he could have won the game for the Broncos.
Fox’s decision to play for OT with 30 seconds on the clock in regulation was a terrible decision. If you have a chance to win the game, you always take it. You never let it get to overtime. Sure, the new OT rules make it so that it’s much harder to “lose on a coin flip” like you could before. But even still, don’t take the risk that you have a breakdown and someone scores on a big play. Especially given how many big passes the Broncos gave up in that game. There was no reason for Fox to think that if the Ravens won the toss, Torrey Smith or Jacoby Jones could go 80 yards on the opening play for the score.
This happened to Mike Smith before, back in 2010 against the Steelers. With 1:45 left in the game with the game tied 9-9, Ryan throws an interception to Troy Polamalu. The Steelers play for the field goal, but the high winds at Heinz Field blow Jeff Reed’s 40-yard kick wide right. Now there are 39 seconds left on the clock with the Falcons at their own 30-yard line. Matt Bryant had already made a 49-yard kick earlier in the day. So if you’re the Falcons, you figure if you can go 38 yards in 39 seconds you have a chance to pull out the win. What does Smith do? He hands the ball off to Jason Snelling and lets the clock expire. After a failed Falcons possession, Mendenhall bursts off the right side 50 yards for a touchdown. Game over.
The fact that the Falcons were able to basically under similar circumstances pull the win off yesterday against the Seahawks is exactly why Fox was mistaken. At their own 28, the Falcons just needed 2 passes to get in position for a 49-yard game-winning field goal for Bryant.
If either Smith or Fox had Mason Crosby as their kicker, or Christian Ponder as their quarterback, you probably do sit on the ball and take your chances in OT. But if you have Peyton Manning or Matt Ryan or any of the Top 15 QBs in the NFL, you give your guy an opportunity.
I’m glad that Wilson and the Seahawks did not win, because I didn’t really want to hear for the next few weeks and months about how this league is morphing into one where running quarterbacks can succeed.
I believe that nothing really has changed in that running is not going to lead to long-term success in the NFL. All that has changed is that the NFL has adopted the read-option wholesale the past two years. But that’s something that has been regular in college for a number of years. We went through this with the wildcat a couple of years ago, where it initially has success, but eventually defensive coordinators adjust and it goes by the wayside. I don’t think the read-option will completely go away, but it can’t be the basis of your offense. And thus throwing the ball from the pocket will still be the staple of the NFL game.
I think what is happening is a pattern we’ve seen many times in the NFL before. A young, athletic QB comes into the league and is able to make a number of plays with his legs. But defenses adjust, and when that young QB is now asked to throw accurately from the pocket, if he cannot then he becomes very average. This hype that is for guys like Cam Newton, RG3, Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson is no different than the hype that we saw with Vince Young and Michael Vick early in their careers. Like those two, if these young guys don’t grow as pocket passers, then eventually their running ability is going to wear off and they are going to start helming 7-9 and 8-8 teams. Of those guys, I think Griffin has the best pocket passing skills and upside, and I think his knee injury could ultimately be a blessing in disguise. Because it may force the Redskins brass to try and convert him into a pocket passer much earlier than they probably would have had his knee held up.
Heard the rumors about Percy Harvin being traded? Heard the ones about the Patriots being the trade partner? Yeah, that intrigues me a lot. Wes Welker is a free agent when this season is over, and I’ve heard people talk about the Patriots trying to move on from him. They won’t turn the keys over to Julian Edelman, who is also a free agent, as some previously envisioned. I’ve heard people say that the Rams Danny Amendola (A.K.A. Welker Lite) could replace him, as Amendola is also an impending free agent. Belichick loves those Urban Meyer guys. And they’ve had several high-profile reclamation projects like Randy Moss, Corey Dillon. Even Aaron Hernandez was eliminated from the Falcons draft board over character issues, and he’s blossomed in New England.
Harvin is an enigma and certainly not a guy that many teams would want in their locker room based off many of the things I’ve heard about him. But if there is any locker room he could fit into, it’s New England’s. No, not because Belichick is such a great coach or whatever, but because of the sheer number of former Florida teammates that he’d be joining. Hernandez, Brandon Spikes, and Jermaine Cunningham all played with Harvin at Florida. They also have Jeff Demps who was a freshman during Harvin’s final season.
Welker is going to turn 32 this off-season and while still a very good receiver, is not nearly as explosive as he was a few years back pre-ACL injury. Harvin is all explosiveness and offers the sort of versatility that Belichick loves having. If Harvin doesn’t self-destruct in New England, that could be a huge upgrade for them. Harvin, Hernandez, Gronkowski, and Brandon Lloyd coupled with one of the league’s better running games. Oh, and some dude named Brady. Regardless of how this season finishes, if the Patriots managed to get Harvin in the off-season, the expectations would be on par with that 2007 season where they got Moss and Welker.
When you have coaching changes, you have changes in systems and schemes. And one of the biggest questions fans always wonder about is whether or not a team will switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 or vice versa. But what’s interesting to me is that looking at many of these teams that are making these changes, the jump won’t be as huge as it might once have been perceived. For much of the past decade, we’ve lived in an era where you have a lot of hybrid schemes and defenses. I don’t recall exactly when it started, but I feel like the Patriots and/or Ravens sometime around 2003 or so were the first to really do it. And now you have a bunch of 3-4 teams that use a 4-man front when they go to nickel or dime. Which in this era that is dominated by passing can sometimes be just as often as when you are in your base package.
But I look at 3-4 teams like Dallas, Kansas City, and San Diego at what changes may come with their defenses. We know that with the hire of Monte Kiffin as DC, Dallas will be switching to a 4-3. Kansas City hired Bob Sutton, who has experience coaching both the 3-4 and 4-3, so it would appear they will keep the 3-4. But if they were to switch, players like Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Derrick Johnson could make an easy transition. In San Diego, Corey Liuget and Melvin Ingram could slide easily into a 4-3 as key pieces up front, and Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler could man the WILL and MIKE spots fairly easily.
Buffalo might be making the switch from 4-3 to 3-4, although new coordinator Mike Pettine appears to want to have a hybrid unit. They had one not that long ago, and guys like Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, and Nick Barnett won’t have to make major adjustments to play in a 3-4 since all have spent time playing that scheme recently: Dareus at Alabama, Williams in Houston, and Barnett in Green Bay.
A team like Philadelphia might have a harder time making the switch from 4-3 to 3-4. But then again, DeMeco Ryans played in the 3-4 in Houston, Cullen Jenkins in Green Bay, and Casey Matthews, Fletcher Cox, and Mychal Kendricks all have 3-4 experience stemming from college. Their big question would be at outside linebacker, but it probably wouldn’t require a whole lot for Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and/or Phillip Hunt to make the switch. Trent Cole probably wouldn’t be a great fit there, but given the subpar season he had this year, they’d probably just cut bait with him.
With all of the coaching turnover that has happened in the league in recent years, you’ve had a number of teams that seem to have been making the switch back and forth every few years. And thus you have a much wider range of players that have experience playing in both schemes. So when coaches say they are going to pick a scheme that fits their players, for many teams in the league that might as well be a hybrid scheme that uses both the 3-4 and 4-3, since many more players today fit both.