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Takeaways from Championship Weekend

January 23rd, 2013 2 comments

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan deserves a new deal.

I was late in posting the recap of the Falcons-49er game partially because of my attendance at the game didn’t really give me access to a computer afterwards. That was followed up by my car breaking down Monday on my return trip to North Carolina, which consumed all my energy then and the following day. All in all, it was not a great weekend for me.

But I really needed some time and energy to digest the loss. I was never distraught over it, but it was highly disappointing. While some may label the Falcons as chokers, I don’t see it that way. Did they blow the game? Yes. They had a lead, didn’t hold it, but they had an opportunity at the end of the game to win it. They just didn’t. I’m not going to sit here like many have done over the past 72 hours and try and find a scapegoat. The 49ers were widely considered to be a better team than the Falcons, and thus their win over the Falcons is not a surprise. The Broncos were 10-point favorites over the Ravens. Their loss was a chokejob especially given the outright impossibility of the now infamous Rahim Moore blown coverage. The Broncos played uncharacteristic in that game. Peyton Manning looked a little gun shy, Champ Bailey looked old, and they even got a pair of special teams touchdowns, which had never happened in a playoff game. Teams with a pair of special teams touchdowns since 1970 are 31-7 in games. That was a chokejob.

With the Falcons being the underdogs in the game, I don’t think they choked. They had ample opportunities to win the game, they did not.

It’s more disappointing because of what I wrote about in mid-November. This was likely the Falcons best chance to be in the Super Bowl in the foreseeable future. I still believe that. Matt Ryan played the best football we’ve seen him play. What’s interesting to me is that after posting that piece, I think we started to see a significant decline in Ryan’s game, and he sort of “reverted” back to his older self as opposed to playing at the MVP level he was for the first half of 2012. I think that reversion began with his 5-interception performance against the Cardinals. Now don’t get me wrong, a “reverted” Matt Ryan is still a Top 10 quarterback, so if you hear or see any Falcon fans complaining about Matt Ryan, then my suggestion is to punch them in the face. Matt Ryan may not be as good as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, or Tom Brady, but anybody that is unsatisfied with his performance over the past five years or this past season is a lunatic. Anybody that is still questioning Ryan’s ability to win in January, should only look at those four quarterbacks and their recent playoff success (or lack thereof). Even the great ones play poorly in January, and Ryan certainly outperformed those elite guys this past January.

Ryan certainly deserves to get a big-time extension this off-season. And my expectation is that it will make him one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. That likely will exceed $16 million per year, and possibly approach $18 or $19 million per year, which would put him just behind Drew Brees ($20M/yr.) and Peyton Manning ($19.2M/yr.) (per Spotrac) as the highest paid QBs in the league. His guaranteed money will probably be in the $40 to $50 million range. It’s a very high premium, but when you think about the stability it potentially provides the Falcons for the next 5-7 years it is well worth it in my opinion. And it actually should help alleviate cap space for the Falcons as Ryan’s cap hit of $10 million in 2013 could potentially be cut in half if the Falcons structure the new deal appropriately.

The downside of such a deal means that the Falcons cap space will be limited in future years, and thus they will have to recommit to the draft which they have not done in recent years. They have traded a first or second round pick in each of the past three drafts. That can’t happen, as the Falcons won’t be able to spend as much on the open market in future years due to the high price that will be annually paid to Ryan. But that is not too much of a downside, because I think that’s exactly how Thomas Dimitroff likes it. It just means that the margin for error grows even smaller, and the Falcons can’t have any more Peria Jerry picks.

As for what the Falcons do in the off-season, nothing really has changed in terms of assessing how the year ended. We’ve known all year long that the Falcons need to become a more balanced offense by improving the ground attack. Michael Turner is likely gone. The Falcons should look to replace him with some fresh legs in the draft. The offensive line held up better down the stretch than I certainly expected after a fairly lackluster regular season. So the Falcons don’t need to make sweeping changes there. They should look to get a new right guard, as I still think Peter Konz is better suited to playing center. Maybe they can find someone in free agency, such as Buffalo’s Andy Levitre. They need to find a young replacement for Tony Gonzalez, which we’ve known for several years was a move that was inevitable.

Defensively, the Falcons need to upgrade their pass rush. Their inability to cover tight ends probably also means they need to look into getting a good coverage linebacker. Stephen Nicholas did an admirable job, but similar to Curtis Lofton he’s just not cut out to be an everydown player. But ever since Darren Sproles made Sean Weatherspoon look silly, we’ve known we needed upgrades there. And the Falcons will need to make a decision about the relative futures of Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. Grimes is a free agent and Robinson is due a high $8 million salary, $3 million of which becomes guaranteed if he’s on the team as of the fifth day of the new league year (approximiately March 16). Do the Falcons want to keep either one or go in a new direction with another young corner? I think Robert McClain had a good season, but I don’t think the Falcons should turn over a starting position to him just yet. Considering that Asante Samuel is also up there in age, I think McClain instead should be groomed as his long-term replacement. McClain is a restricted free agent following 2013, and dependent on his performance this upcoming season will determine if he’s in the long-term plans of the team. Again, given Samuel’s age, probably the smart strategy is try to get younger. The free agent market isn’t overly strong, so it probably behooves the Falcons to look for a corner on either the first or second day of the draft come April.

Of their own free agents, William Moore and Sam Baker are the two guys that they probably cannot afford to let walk. Alongside Spoon, Moore is the only impact player on the defensive side of the ball that is in the prime of his career. Baker has played well enough to earn a new contract. I’m not 100% sold that he won’t revert back to his subpar pre-2012 form, but I think his play certainly merits a new deal. And the Falcons can still develop Lamar Holmes as an insurance policy, and give him the much-needed time I believe he needs before he’s ready to be a starter.

Those are basically the needs the Falcons need to address this off-season. Will they be able to solve all of those problems this off-season? Probably not. I personally would prioritize upgrading the offensive line at right guard, but it would not surprise me if the Falcons instead opt to make additions at running back and tight end bigger priorities offensively given they could probably live with a combination of Konz, Hawley, and/or Mike Johnson at center and right guard next year. Defensively, their priority is going to be upgrading the pass rush which could be either by adding a young edge rusher as the heir apparent to John Abraham, or an interior presence to succeed Jonathan Babineaux. Babineaux and Corey Peters are both entering the final years of their contracts, while both Abraham and Biermann have two years left. So don’t be surprised if the Falcons are more interested in defensive tackles this spring in the pre-draft process than edge rushers.

Abraham, Babineaux questionable vs. 49ers

January 19th, 2013 Comments off

The Falcons announced their injury report for this Sunday’s upcoming NFC Championship Game matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. On it, defensive end John Abraham and defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux were listed as questionable. Abraham injured his ankle in the Falcons’ season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He returned last week in the Falcons’ win against the Seattle Seahawks, but re-aggravated the injury after roughly a dozen snaps and was pulled from the game. He was limited in all three days of practice this week. Babineaux was also limited all week with a shoulder injury. Babineaux played against the Seahawks last week, and had an outstanding performance in the first half, but had a fairly quiet second half.

Also on the injury report were safety William Moore (hand), linebacker Stephen Nicholas (foot), and cornerback Chris Owens (hamstring). Both Moore and Nicholas managed to practice fully all three days this week with their injuries. Owens missed last week’s game but after being limited on Wednesday and Thursday, he suited up for full participation for Friday’s practice.

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Pudge’s Picks – Championship Weekend

January 18th, 2013 Comments off

This is the weekend where legends are formed. Every paper and sports blog in America, and many across the globe will run stories about lesser-known players like Stephen Nicholas, Robert McClain, Rob Ninkovich, Bernard Pierce, or Alex Boone over the next two weeks should their teams win on Sunday. When your team is in the Super Bowl, suddenly every aspect of your team becomes interesting. When your team is not, no one cares. Regardless of how much success you’ve had this season up to this point, if you lose this weekend, the storyline becomes about why you weren’t good enough as opposed to being pretty darn good to make it this far in the first place. People tend to become only focused on all the things that are missing for you to taste and experience that glorification that comes from two weeks of Super Bowl coverage.

The beauty of this year’s conference championship matchups, is that you’re going to get a fairly compelling Super Bowl matchup no matter what. If it’s Patriots-49ers, then you get that Belichick vs. Harbaugh hype. You also get the connection between Kaepernick and Brady, where Kaepernick’s usurption of an injured Alex Smith’s job in his second season and coming from virtually out of nowhere is so similar to Brady’s beginning back in 2001 with Drew Bledsoe.

If it’s Patriots-Falcons, you can get the Master vs. the Student hype with Belichick and Dimitroff. You also solidify those comparisons that people like myself have made with Matt Ryan and Tom Brady.

If it’s Ravens-49ers, you obviously get the Harbaugh Bros. storyline. You get the Flacco-Kaepernick storyline that centers around the fact that 2 months ago no one would have believed they’d be squaring off in New Orleans.

If it’s Ravens-Falcons, then you get the Flacco vs. Ryan storyline that has been brewing since both emerged as dynamite rookies in 2008, and kicking off this mini-run of successful rookie quarterbacks (and yes, I’m purposefully forgetting Roethlisberger).

I picked the Broncos over the Ravens straight up last week, and should’ve gone with my heart and taken the Ravens. I have an aunt that lives in Baltimore that is a die-hard Ravens fan, so if my picks are right this week, it should make the next two weeks very interesting.

Last week, I went 3-1 both against the spread and straight picks, bringin my playoff record to 6-2 against the spread and 5-3 straight up. I picked the Ravens to go to the Super Bowl in my preseason predictions, and if they do, that will mark two years in a row where I have successfully picked the AFC representative. A trifle, but it makes me feel at least semi-competent in terms of my prognostication skills. But here are my picks:

Ravens over Patriots
Falcons over 49ers

For more detailed analysis of why I picked the teams I did, keep on reading after the jump.

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Scouting the 49ers: How Atlanta Matches Up

January 18th, 2013 Comments off
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick runs away, over, and through the Packers defense

As I did a week ago in preparation for the Seattle Seahawks matchup, I went back and watched several San Francisco 49ers games over the past two days. I really wanted to take a more in-depth look at the team that most of the football-watching world feels will be the NFC representative in this year’s Super Bowl XLVII.

For much of this year I have considered the 49ers to be the premier team in the NFC, even ahead of my beloved Falcons. And from watching the film, my opinion has not changed.

Yes, I’m saying the 49ers are a better team than the Falcons. But that is not the same as saying the 49ers will be a better team on Sunday, nor is it is saying they will beat the Falcons. The 49ers are a team that are very similar to the Seahawks, except probably better in a lot of the same areas. The Falcons playing Seattle last week was probably the best possible preparation for this game as they won’t have to drastically change their gameplan from a week ago due to many of those similarities between the two teams. But the 49ers do present a number of interesting challenges for the Falcons.

Much has been made about Colin Kaepernick and the read-option as he absolutely ran circles around Green Bay’s defense last week. Although I think as it applies this week, it has been much ado about nothing. This will not be the Falcons first rodeo when it comes to the read-option, unlike the Packers. The Falcons have now faced Cam Newton twice, Robert Griffin, and last week saw Russell Wilson. The Panthers, Redskins, and Seahawks did not appear on the Packers schedule this year. They were ill-prepared for what Kaepernick and that play could do against them. The Falcons will have no such excuses. Only the Dallas Cowboys have played as many games (5) against read-option teams as the Falcons. The Falcons haven’t shut down the read-option, but with the stakes this high it would be a major surprise if it’s a deciding factor in the game as it was a week ago against Green Bay.

Kaepernick is a dangerous quarterback because he specializes in big plays. He is one of the league’s best vertical passers, completing a league-high 60% of throws over twenty yards, and anybody that saw only the highlights of last week’s game knows how deadly he can be with his legs.

That is where he is most dangerous, with his legs. He is blessed with deceptive speed due to his long strides. If he can get to a corner, your defense is going to be in trouble because he’s going to run right by you. Often times watching the 49ers on tape, he’s 10 or 15 yards downfield before the defense can even react to him. The Falcons employed a lot of zone against the Seahawks last week due to the fact that they wanted most of their defenders to keep their eyes on Russell Wilson, to try and defend against his scrambling ability. Wilson presented similar challenges, but not all running quarterbacks are built the same.

Due to Wilson’s shorter stature, he struggled throwing from the pocket. It was important for the Falcons defense to try and contain him to the pocket. That is really not the same challenge that Kaepernick presents. If you confine him to the pocket, he’s going to pick you apart because that is not where he struggles. He’s very tall and has no issues locating throwing lanes unlike Wilson. Surprisingly, getting Kaepernick outside the pocket seemed to work well for defenses from what I saw on tape. His shoddy footwork and mechanics causes him to struggle to reset his feet and square his shoulders when throwing on the run, resulting in a lot of off-target passes. So there’s a bit of a risk-reward. If you can flush him, it can make him into a much less efficient passer, but also it increases the risk he gets to the outside and uses his legs for a big gain.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Nolan tries to deal with that. I don’t think you can really mush rush Kaepernick quite like you could with Wilson. While you definitely don’t want to get out of your lanes with him as he can easily step up and run for big yardage, I do think you want to make a much more concerted effort to get pressure on him. Against the Rams and Seahawks, it seemed like edge pressure really gave him fits at times. John Abraham is sporting a bum ankle, and there’s no doubt that he will play in this game. But there’s also no doubt that he won’t be at full strength. Basically you’re crossing your fingers at this point that Abe pulls a gutsy performance and manages to make an impact in this game basically on one leg.

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Monday Takeaways from Divisional Round

January 14th, 2013 Comments off

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Defense will need Abraham next week vs. 49ers

The Falcons did what they needed to do on Sunday. I just hope they don’t shut it down next week against the 49ers now that they’ve finally won a playoff game. They haven’t reached the summit of the mountaintop, that will occur with a win next week. And even when you get to the top of that peak, you emerge to see a second even taller peak off in the distance that represents winning the Super Bowl. Let’s hope that Mike Smith has the Falcons prepped with a sherpa and some climbing gear.

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.

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Owens out against Seahawks, Abe questionable

January 11th, 2013 Comments off

The Falcons announced their injury report today. On it, cornerback Chris Owens was the only play to be ruled out for this Sunday’s divisonal playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. Owens missed the entire week of practice with a hamstring injury. Defensive end John Abraham, who went down with an ankle injury in the season finale was listed as questionable, after going through limited participation in practice this week. Safety Charles Mitchell (calf) was also listed as questionable. Safety William Moore (hamstring) and cornerback Dunta Robinson (concussion) were listed as probable. Moore went fully during today’s practice, while Robinson hasn’t skipped a bit all week. Moore has not played since Week 13, missing the final 4 regular season games due to his injury. Robinson suffered his concussion early in the Falcons Week 17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but returned to practice last week.

Due to the absence of Owens, Dominique Franks will likely get more reps on defense if the Falcons opt to utilize their dime package which normally features four corners.

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Scouting the Seahawks: How Atlanta Matches Up

January 11th, 2013 Comments off

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Marshawn Lynch is the foundation of the Seahawks attack.

I’ve watched quite a bit of Seahawks games on NFL.com’s Game Rewind to prep myself for this preview. I watched how they fared against New England’s and Buffalo’s offenses. I wanted to see how they did against a top quarterback with weapons (something they haven’t seen much of this year) and a dynamic wideout in Stevie Johnson who brings similar tools to the fold as Roddy White. I also looked at their Week 12 loss against the Dolphins, to see how the Dolphins pulled off that victory. I also wanted to see what the New York Jets did in Week 10 to cause Russell Wilson to have one of his worst games of the year. And of course I looked at their matchup last week against the Washington Redskins.

What I discovered was a very good Seahawks team that plays a style that is going to be a difficult matchup for the Falcons.

The key to Seattle’s success is their strong running game helmed by Marshawn Lynch and Tom Cable’s zone-blocking scheme. Lynch is one of the best after contact runners in the league, and the Falcons defense has struggled throughout this year with their tackling. If they aren’t swarming to the ball and Lynch gets too many one on one situations with our linebackers and safeties, the Falcons could be in for a long day.

Lynch’s running is the foundation of their offense. With it, they utilize a lot of play-action and read option with Russell Wilson. The Falcons have been fairly solid against those two, but have had their lapses. They’ve faced Carolina (twice) and Washington, both of whom utilized a lot of read option, so they will be prepared. However neither Carolina nor Washington used much of it in their early matchup. The only time the Falcons have seen a lot of it (and I suspect Seattle will use it quite a bit) was in their Week 14 loss to Carolina. During that game the Falcons did give up a pair of long touchdowns on read option on a Cam Newton run and a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams. But I feel somewhat confident that Mike Nolan may have fixed many of those kinks in the subsequent weeks.

If the Falcons can contain Lynch, it will be difficult for the Seahawks to overcome it because it might force them into playing a way they don’t want to play, which is a dropback passing game. Russell Wilson’s short stature has made it difficult for him to be your typical pocket passer at this level. He likes to get out on the move, using his legs and throwing downfield. In fact, it reminds me quite a bit of the Falcons circa 2002 with Michael Vick. It’s what makes Seattle so dangerous since Wilson is prone to breaking some long runs. The key for any defense against them will be to contain him to the pocket and force him to use his arm, not his legs. The former has not quite developed, and he still is prone to making some youthful mistakes against the blitz, similar to Vick.
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Abraham returns to practice

January 9th, 2013 Comments off

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Abraham went down with an ankle injury in Week 17

Falcons defensive end John Abraham, after suffering an ankle injury in the team’s season finale returned to practice on Wednesday on a limited basis. Abraham went down in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Safety William Moore (hamstring) also practiced on a limited basis, although Moore returned to practice on Saturday. Moore had missed the final three games of the season due to his hamstring injury. Missing Wednesday’s practice was safety Charles Mitchell (calf) and cornerback Chris Owens (hamstring).  Dunta Robinson, who returned to practice last week after suffering a concussion against the Buccaneers in Week 17, fully participated in practice.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith expects that Abraham, Moore, and Owens will also be able to suit up Sunday in the Falcons Divisional playoff matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.

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FalcFans Podcast – Ep. 23 “2012 Year in Review”

January 4th, 2013 Comments off

I am joined once again by my friend Allen Strk to recap the Falcons 2012 season. We give our thoughts on a plethora of Falcon players and our favorite moments from the season. We discuss the health of players like John Abraham, William Moore, and whether Mike Smith made the right call playing the starters against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But quickly our attention turns to the Falcons upcoming playoff matchups, each giving our opinions on the different scenarios the team could see in the second round. We each give our insights on the Redskins, Vikings, Seahawks, 49ers, and Packers as potential obstacles to the Falcons potential journey to the Super Bowl. Eventually we wind up giving our picks for who will make it to the Super Bowl, as well as our thoughts on the many coaching vacancies around the league.

Ep. 23: 2012 Year in Review [Download]

Duration: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Allen writes for TJRSports.com as well as the Bleacher Report. His twitter handle is: @Allen_Strk.

 

If you have any questions and comments, you can hit us up on Twitter, post in the forums in the podcast thread, or drop an e-mail at: pudge@falcfans.com.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. You can also subscribe directly to our feed at the following URL: http://feeds.feedburner.com/falcfans/LXSt

Robinson cleared to return to practice

January 4th, 2013 Comments off

John Manasso of FOX Sports South first tweeted this morning that Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson was cleared to return to practice today. Later, Jay Adams of AtlantaFalcons.com confirmed that Robinson did indeed participate in Friday’s practice. Robinson suffered a head injury early in the Falcons loss last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, missing the rest of the game. But he was cleared to return to practice as part of the league’s concussion protocol (meaning he must be cleared by team doctors through a series of tests) less than a week later. Previously, Robinson had suffered a concussion in 2010, and returned to practice after 15 days.

Alongside defensive John Abraham (ankle) and safety William Moore (hamstring), Robinson had sat out this week of practice. The team will also be without cornerback Asante Samuel, who has returned home to Florida to deal with the death of his mother. His mother passed away earlier this week after a long battle with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The Falcons expect all three players to return to practice next Wednesday.

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