In 2009, I developed a system for reviewing Atlanta Falcons games that I called “Moneyball.” This has nothing to do with Sabermetrics and baseball, but simply because it’s a catchy name and the grading system uses monetary values to represent itself. The more money a player earns, the better. In 2012, once the NFL granted access to coaches’ film (All-22) on NFL Game Rewind, I’ve expanded some of the things I look for. If you want a refresher on what things I look for and how players earn money, then check out this thread in the forums.
The Atlanta Falcons offense looked very promising in this game. They were able to spread the ball around and they managed to generate a number of big plays both in the passing game and on the ground. It was perhaps the most explosive the team has ever looked under head coach Mike Smith and certainly under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
Granted, their ability to dial up big plays was linked heavily to the fact that got down early in the game, making it more a necessity than a choice. But they did dial up a deep play to start their second drive. That was the play where Harry Douglas made the diving catch out of bounds. That play was designed to be a deep corner to Julio Jones, but Patrick Robinson jammed Jones enough at the line that it threw off the timing of the route. So when Matt Ryan was ready to throw it deep, Julio had yet to make his break (although I’d probably argue Julio should have adjusted and made his break sooner). But the Falcons were certainly successful at pushing the ball down the field for the most part when they wanted to, thanks to solid pass protection. There were a number of plays where Ryan had plenty of time to throw (or decide to check it down), which was a rarity last season.
The play of the offensive tackles could use some improvement, particularly Gabe Carimi. Carimi gave up three pressures and a hurry to Junior Galette, and of course the sack to Tyrunn Walker. Lamar Holmes had a couple of lapses blocking Cameron Jordan, but relative to last year’s performances, Holmes was a revelation. Jake Matthews was solid in the first half, before suffering an injury on the final play of the half and exiting the game.
The real success of the pass protection was thanks to the interior. Jon Asamoah was excellent and Joe Hawley also played well. Justin Blalock had a couple of times where a Saints defender got the better of him, but on a few of those plays, he got some help from Hawley which prevented him from giving up a pressure or sack. The play of the interior, allowed Ryan to have a clean pocket to step up into and allow him to step into his throws so that he could put a little bit more “umph” on his downfield passes.
I did like that the Falcons were trying to design plays that weren’t necessarily designed to go down the field, but did get some of their playmakers like Jones and Devin Hester the ball in space. Jones had three bubble screens go his way. Hester and Douglas were used on a number of crossing patterns, which was something that the former excelled in due to his superior speed. Douglas had a decent day, making a couple of nice catches. But there were a couple of plays to Douglas that had me rolling my eyes. Particularly, there was deep shot in the third quarter that went through his hands that should have been a 35-yard play if Douglas was better at going and getting the football. But I won’t pile on Douglas unnecessarily, as he made a couple of nice catches that helped move the chains in this game.
Roddy White on the other hand had a fairly quiet day. Jones didn’t really get into the act until the second half, but that was understandable given how much attention the Saints secondary and coverages were giving him. White made a couple of nice plays, but the tape suggests that Keenan Lewis can count this as another win (similar to his performance in Week 12 of last year). White could have been flagged for offensive pass interference on his touchdown catch for a “savvy” push-off against Lewis. White had another first down when working against zone coverage, and his big 39-yard catch was thanks to a “scramble drill” where he got behind defenders once Ryan got outside the pocket. Lewis is arguably a top 10 corner with a track record of locking White down, so I won’t try and draw too many conclusions from this game. But it’s going to be something to keep our eyes on as the season unfolds if White is still that guy against premium competition.
On the ground, the Falcons did a nice job getting all their running backs into the mix. Steven Jackson showed some power on a couple of runs, but I couldn’t help but notice how effective Curtis Lofton was at getting him down on the turf. In fact, Lofton flashed several times in this game and seemed to do a much better job avoiding and defeating blocks in this game than I ever recall seeing him do in four years in Atlanta. There were a couple of runs that I thought Jackson left a couple of yards on the field that a younger, sprier version of himself would have turned into longer gains.
Jacquizz Rodgers’ spin-move on his touchdown run was a thing of beauty. On that play, Asamoah was able to effectively block Lofton on the second level. Levine Toilolo also led Quizz through the hole and was able to nudge enough of David Hawthorne to seal the alley, with Jones’ blocking of Robinson also helping give Rodgers enough space to score the touchdown. I credited all three with key blocks on that run.
Toilolo also had a key block on Antone Smith’s touchdown catch and run, where he got just enough of Robinson downfield to allow Smith to really turn on the jets. Toilolo wasn’t quite as effective as an inline blocker when asked to block linebackers and defensive linemen, although a couple of times he was facing Cameron Jordan, so it’s understandable that he couldn’t execute his blocks.
There was one run by Devonta Freeman that stood out in particular to me. It was a 10-yard run at the end of the third quarter a few plays before Smith’s touchdown. On that play, Hawley did a nice job puling into the hole and blocking Lofton, while Blalock did a number on Hawthorne at the second level. Freeman then juked Kenny Vaccaro, but stumbled when making his cut and went down. Had he managed to keep his feet, it was possible he could have scored a touchdown, depending on if he could have outrun Jairus Byrd’s angle. Either way, there was probably another 10-20 yards he could have gained had he maintained his balance.
Smith’s big play was obviously his 54-yard touchdown catch, which came on a simple check down on an option route. The Falcons are going to have keep finding ways to get him the ball in space, and such plays should be a regular feature of the Falcons offense week-to-week. There just aren’t many linebackers that can match up with Smith in the open field.
And I would be remiss if I don’t mention the excellent performance by Ryan. With time and protection, Ryan had little issue finding his targets. We’ve always wondered what Ryan could do if he had good receivers and an offensive line, as he’s only ever had one or the other in his six years in Atlanta. We’ll see how the rest of this season fares, but certainly off this week alone, we saw having both paid huge dividends. He played with a sort of moxy that has been rarely seen in him, scrambling a couple of times and managing to extend plays outside the pocket and find open receivers downfield. From a Moneyball standpoint, he matched his highest earnings ever as a passer, a cool $21 that he earned in Week 2 of last season against the St. Louis Rams.
The defense really struggled in this one and it mainly had to do with the utter lack of pressure from the pass rush. While Jonathan Babineaux and Malliciah Goodman each flashed a number of times to help move Drew Brees off his spot, there were very few instances where Brees felt serious heat. There was not a single instance where Brees hit the turf thanks to a Falcons defender. Brees wound up having all day to throw, and was easily able to find open receivers, particularly when the Falcons were trying to utilize zone coverage.
If you’ve been a regular reader of these reviews over the years, you’re probably familiar with my distaste of zone coverage. It’s nothing inherently wrong with zone, since it makes sense when you can reliably get pressure with your front and/or you have players on the back-end that are smart, fast and able to reliably make plays in space. Those descriptors don’t really describe the Falcons defense. There were a couple of plays where coverages broke down because one defender released a guy to another without the latter realizing it and leaving Saints receivers and backs wide open for big gains. But at the same time, it’s understandable why the Falcons coaches aren’t keen on relying on man coverage because it’s not as if they are chock-full with premium athletes at linebacker and in the secondary.
Dwight Lowery blew four coverages, two of which came as a direct result of being left on an island against Jimmy Graham. On both plays, Lowery’s coverage was not bad, it’s just that the bigger, more physical Graham was just too much of a match against him. The other two came as a result of when he had over-the-top coverage and Brandin Cooks (on the 32-yarder) and Marques Colston (on the 57-yarder) were able to slash through the middle of the Falcons defense. Without knowing exactly how the coaching staff drew up the coverages, it’s hard to say definitively that both plays were Lowery’s fault. But I only attributed blame to him because someone had to be culpable, and he was the defender that was in best position to potentially prevent either play had he not given the receivers so much cushion.
William Moore had a relatively quiet game until his strip at the end. It was likely once again a result of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan scheming his way to prevent Moore from being stuck on an island against any of the Saints receivers. Kemal Ishmael got several looks when the Falcons went into their dime sub-package. On those plays, Lowery usually lined up on the line as a cornerback with Ishmael joining Moore on the back end. It wasn’t really an impressive defensive debut for him, but I won’t be too harsh on him. He was run over by Mark Ingram on the final touchdown, and failed to close quickly enough on an out pattern from Graham on a third down, leading to his missed tackle and blown coverage, respectively.
Both cornerbacks, Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, played well. They had a couple of pass breakups. Robert McClain had his hands full against the speedy Cooks, but relatively speaking did a solid job. He’s always had trouble against speed and my imagination dreamed up worser results than what happened in reality when it came to his matchup against Cooks.
Kroy Biermann had a good day against the run, although did very little as a pass-rusher except on one stunt where he and Babineaux split a pressure. Joplo Bartu looked a lot better than he had in any of the preseason games, but there were a couple of plays where he still looked undersized. Prince Shembo got some reps at inside linebacker, but there were a couple of times where he seemed a bit lost and out of position. I’m not quite sure if his ascension to the starting lineup is right around the corner, but it’s clear the coaching staff will continue to put things on his plate to see if he’s ready.
Jonathan Massaquoi was key blocked a couple of times, although in both instances I don’t recall them being glaring issues against the run. They were just more instances where he failed to get off the block at the point of attack to possibly make a play. He had very few opportunities to rush the quarterback, which I thought was shameful.
Paul Worrilow had a couple of nice plays against the run, but also seemed to have a hard time avoiding some second-level blocks since it seemed like Ben Grubbs got the better of him a couple of times. Worrilow also had a couple of struggles in coverage, where he was simply overmatched against Pierre Thomas in man coverage.
Newcomers Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman had relatively quiet performances. They were able to occupy blockers at times, but not so much at others. I will say that Jackson and Hageman looked a lot more consistent than they did at any point during the preseason.
For the few of you that care about these things, the Falcons kickoff coverage unit featured the following players from left to right: Alford, Courtney Roby, Patrick DiMarco, Eric Weems, Antone Smith, Matt Bosher, Ishmael, Shembo, Cliff Matthews, Goodman and McClain.
Interesting that Alford got that last end spot over Josh Wilson or Dezmen Southward. But last year, that spot was helmed by Thomas DeCoud for most of the year, so it seems that Keith Armstrong is intent on having a defensive starter in that role. While Matthews was a very good special teams player his first two years in Atlanta, since he’s bulked up (and subsequently slowed down), he has not been quite as effective. Given the depth along the defensive line, I’d imagine that linebacker Nate Stupar might be a better option in that role, or that of Goodman. I’ve never really quite understood why certain players are given preference on coverage units, although my belief based purely off Hard Knocks is that Armstrong is very specific about guys doing it “his way.”
Roby and Smith served as the gunners on punts, with Ishmael, Massaquoi, Matthews, Josh Harris, Toilolo, Shembo and DiMarco forming the line. Rodgers was the up back as opposed to Freeman, which wasn’t a surprise given Freeman’s subpar preseason performance in that role.
Bear Pascoe whiffed on a block against Patrick Robinson on the field goal that sent the game into overtime. That could have been very disheartening had Robinson blocked the kick.
Matt Bryant of course was money. Matt Bosher had an okay game as a punter, relative to many of last year’s performances. Nothing special, just did a good job with hang time to force a couple of fair catches.
Advanced Stats from Week 1:
Poor Throws (4): Ryan
Drops (2): Toilolo
Key Blocks (9): Asamoah (2), Toilolo (2), Blalock (1), Hawley (1), Jackson (1), Jones (1), White (1)
Missed Blocks (2): Asamoah, Blalock
Sacks Allowed (1): Carimi
Pressures Allowed (4): Carimi (3), Blalock (1)
Hurries Allowed (3): Holmes (2), Carimi (1)
Tackles for Loss (2): Bartu, Biermann
QB Sacks (0)
QB Pressures (1): Babineaux (0.5), Biermann (0.5)
QB Hits (1): Goodman
QB Hurries (4): Goodman (3), Babineaux (1)
Passes Defended (3): Alford (2), Trufant (1)
Blown Coverages (10): Lowery (4), McClain (2), Worrilow (2), Alford (1), Ishmael (1)
Missed Tackles (5): Biermann, Ishmael, Lowery, McClain, Worrilow
Key Blocked (9): Worrilow (3), Massaquoi (2), Babineaux (1), Bartu (1), Biermann (1), Lowery (1)
Stops (12): Biermann (3.5), Worrilow (3.5), Bartu (1.5), Lowery (1), Massaquoi (1), Jackson (1), Babineaux (0.5)