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Takeaways from Super Bowl XLVIII

February 3rd, 2014 1 comment

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Wilson

Super Bowl XLVIII proved compelling if you find one-sided blowouts to be such. The Seattle Seahawks just decimated the Denver Broncos, who were masquerading as the ’90s era Buffalo Bills, in the 43-8 blowout on Sunday. However, what was compelling is the lessons that may be learned from the game.

Last year, I mused on the fact that there had been an unprecedented run of closely contested Super Bowls over the past decade. Fitting that streak came to an end yesterday.

Super Bowl XLVIII All About Seattle’s Defense

My initial expectation for the game was that Denver would not be able to cope with Seattle’s defense, headlined by their physical secondary and relentless pass rush. But apparently I over-thought it because I chose the Broncos to win the game, largely because I didn’t believe the Seahawks had enough offensive firepower.

Well, it was clear that the Seahawks defense was more than a match for the Broncos. The Broncos didn’t convert a first down until five minutes into the second quarter and were held scoreless until the final play of the third quarter. The Seahawks were able to set the tone early by winning the coin toss and electing to play defense first.

My expectation that the Seahawks offense wasn’t good enough did seem to be fairly accurate through the early going of this game. I would say that Seattle’s offense was solid, but unspectacular. For the Seahawks, 21 of their points were generated off turnovers, including a pick-six by linebacker Malcolm Smith. The other two gave them favorable field position near midfield or in Bronco territory to score points. And the Seahawks took the opening kickoff of the second half for six.

Factoring in all those points that were directly responsible by the defense or special teams, the Seahawks only scored 13 points in the game. And that touchdown was set up by an onside kick that once again gave Seattle favorable field position to start their drive. Really, the only success the Seahawks offense had that was generated on their own was a pair of drives that ended in field goals in the red zone in the first quarter.

So I feel better that at least half of my prediction came true. It was a game where field position, special teams, and defense were the deciding factors. A stark change from previous years, which was a main reason why the other half of my prediction was so wrong. I expected the Seahawks defense to have a good game, but I never expected them to stymy the Broncos as thoroughly as they did.

Absolutely nothing went right for Denver, and this game ultimately will probably become a referendum on whether defense still matters in today’s offensive-driven league. Really, it should not be a revelation that it still does. But it just shows that even still, an excellent defense can have the advantage over an excellent offense despite all the rule changes in favor of the latter.

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Takeaways from Last Week – January 27

January 27th, 2014 Comments off
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame’s Zack Martin was one of the bright spots of the Senior Bowl

This past week represented a big one for the Atlanta Falcons, as they are fresh off coaching the North team in the Senior Bowl, the premiere college all-star game, in Mobile, Alabama on Saturday.

As mentioned in last week’s column, direct access to the Senior Bowl players should help the Falcons get a leg up on their evaluations of individual prospects for the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft.

You have probably heard or will be hearing a lot about particular players the Falcons may have liked while spending time down in Mobile last week, but in reality it’s really inconsequential for the time being. At least from my perspective, it won’t be worth paying attention to until we get into March and April when the Falcons start traveling to pro days and working out individual players where any Senior Bowl connections will be significant.

I suspect the Falcons will be looking hard at several of the players they coached in the Senior on the second and third days of the draft. As noted a week ago, the Falcons have historically gone heavy on Senior Bowl players in the first round of the draft, but that doesn’t seem likely this May. Simply because there were no real prospects that merit as high a selection as the No. 6 overall pick. Perhaps Notre Dame’s Zack Martin will piggyback a strong Senior Bowl week and tear up the combine similarly to Eric Fisher did a year ago, prompting his rise from the latter portion of Round One to the No. 1 overall pick. But I doubt it, since Martin will struggle to overcome his subpar stature and short arms to climb into the top 10 picks. Perhaps if teams like Buffalo or Detroit, who pick ninth and tenth respectively this May, see him as an elite guard prospect he might be able to climb that high. But if the Falcons are looking to take Martin with their first pick, it almost certainly will necessitate a trade back.

It does seem that the Falcons are open to such a move. Although it’s very easy to say you’re open to a move in January, as I’m sure all 32 NFL teams are open to trading up or back at this point in the calendar. It’s still very early in the process and would be silly for any team to be eliminating options by saying they are against trading at this point in time.

Whether the Falcons should trade back remains to be seen. I’ve been contacted by many Falcon fans that seem to be of the mindset of “Jadeveon Clowney or Bust,” meaning that unless Clowney is there at No. 6 or the Falcons try to move up to get him, their next best strategy would be to trade back in the draft.

Firstly, I think it’s far too early to start to pigeon-hole yourself for one prospect or the other. A lot of things can and will happen between now and May 8 that can affect that opinion. And secondly, I think it’s overlooking two potentially excellent prospects in Matt Kalil Jake Matthews and Von Miller Khalil Mack.

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Takeaways from Championship Weekend 2013

January 20th, 2014 Comments off

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith gets chance to coach up some draft prospects at Senior Bowl

This week will be all about the Senior Bowl for the Atlanta Falcons as the team is tasked with coaching the North squad in the prestigious annual college football all-star game.

The potential boost coaching the Senior Bowl could give to the team drafting this May could be significant. It is by no means a guarantee that the team will be able to draft well, but it does give Atlanta a potential leg up. They will get to know the many players that they will be coaching during the course of the week better than several other teams.

The Falcons will get a first-hand look at how players react to hard coaching, decipher information, and just interact with teammates and competition in general. Much of this information a team can discover with painstaking research about a particular draft prospect, but it would all be second-hand based and can’t be completely trusted.

This week will definitely help in the team’s draft evaluations, even if the team doesn’t fully take advantage by targeting players they coach. But in all likelihood, the Falcons will take advantage thanks to their history under general manager Thomas Dimitroff of targeting Senior Bowl players. Since taking over the team in 2008, Dimitroff and the Falcons have drafted 14 players that participated in the Senior Bowl:

Falcons Senior Bowl Picks (since 2008)

Year
Player
Team
Round
2008Baker, SamNorth1
2008Jackson, ChevisSouth3
2008Douglas, HarrySouth3
2008DeCoud, ThomasNorth3
2009Jerry, PeriaSouth1
2009Moore, WilliamNorth2
2009Sidbury, LawrenceSouth4
2009Walker, VanceSouth7
2010Weatherspoon, SeanNorth1
2010Johnson, MikeSouth3
2012Ewing, BradieNorth5
2013Trufant, DesmondNorth1
2013Alford, RobertSouth2
2013Goodman, MalliciahSouth4

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Categories: Features Tags: , ,

Takeaways from Divisional Playoff Round 2013

January 13th, 2014 Comments off
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A player like Jadeveon Clowney could revitalize the entire Falcons team

If the Atlanta Falcons want to improve their chances of winning games in January, they must improve their defense.

Everyone knows the Falcons sport one of the better home-field advantages in the NFL today. The Falcons have the sixth best winning percentage of any team in the past six seasons (including postseason games) in their home stadium.

It’s then obviously to their advantage if they are able to get a top seed in the playoffs and be able to host opponents in the Georgia Dome come January. But what happens if adversity strikes as it did this past season, and the team is unable to rack up all those regular season wins to get a high seed?

And given an already tough NFC South might have gotten tougher with Lovie Smith becoming the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the chances have increased that the Falcons may have to “settle” for more wildcard playoff berths in future seasons. And thus defense becomes their best asset if the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome are no longer part of the equation.

History Shows Strong Link between Road Playoff Success and Defense

All one has to do is look over the past several years at teams that have managed to win multiple playoff games on the road and you see a commonality among them: good defense.

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Takeaways from Wildcard Weekend 2013

January 6th, 2014 Comments off
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Julio Jones stands alone in Falcons offense

I got into an interesting Twitter conversation on Sunday in regards to the Atlanta Falcons identity. Or rather, lack there of.

This isn’t a new issue, and the team’s identity crisis really all started when the team mortgaged a good deal of its future to trade up for Julio Jones. After being initially critical of that trade, I have now embraced it following Jones’ transcendent play in last year’s playoff run.

But when Atlanta first made the move, I made comments about the Falcons adopting a new identity signaled by the team’s decision to trade away all those assets for Jones. And the reality is that the Falcons have failed to assume that identity.

The buzz word in 2011 was “explosive” and the Falcons have been anything but that since making the Jones trade. Essentially the team stood pat afterward that move, believing that Jones’ presence alone would be the difference in transforming their offense and leaving behind their run-dominated identity headlined by Michael Turner from 2008-10.

After finishing dead last in the NFL in 2010 in terms of percentage of passing plays that were completions for 20 or more yards, the Falcons made improvement to 18th in 2011. But then fell back to 27th in 2012, and were once again in the cellar this past year at 31st. Only the Washington Redskins fared worse in 2013.

If there is a silver lining, it was that the Falcons weren’t always that bad this year. If you only consider the first five weeks of the year when Jones was healthy, the Falcons ranked 20th. But that still is below average. So while one can say Jones has definitely helped make the Falcons more explosive, they have yet to cross the threshold that indicates a rise above mediocrity. In fact when one looks at the numbers collectively over the past three seasons, the only teams that have been less explosive than the Falcons are ones that have been plagued by poor quarterback play and/or no weapons at wide receiver.

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Takeaways from Week 17

December 30th, 2013 4 comments
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas

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.

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Takeaways from Week 16

December 23rd, 2013 Comments off
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Does Atlanta have enough to slow down Colin Kaepernick?

We’ll get the chance to see the Atlanta Falcons tonight against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night football.

I don’t have particularly high hopes for the Falcons, although the last time I expected them to get blown out was in Week 12 against the New Orleans Saints. During that week, the Falcons had the factors of playing at home and against a familiar opponent in their favor. They will be in a hostile environment tonight against the San Francisco 49ers, particularly since it will be the final home game at Candlestick Park, assuming the 49ers and the other NFC wildcard team don’t make improbably deep playoff runs. And the familiarity of the 49ers just isn’t that strong. It was roughly 11 months ago that the two teams squared off in the NFC Championship game, so the Falcons won’t have to clean too much dust off their game plan to try and get an accurate read on the 49ers.

The 49ers since then haven’t changed that much. They are still an offense that is predicated on the run game and the vertical passing attack. But they aren’t as effective in either area this year as they were a year ago.

They were among the league’s best rushing team a year ago, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. They ran the ball on about 50.8 percent of their offensive plays in 2012. This year, their yards per carry has fallen to a much more mundane 4.2 yards per carry. They are running the ball more however, up to 53.3 percent.

That increase in runs is largely due to their inability to generate as many big plays in the passing game as they did a year ago. Colin Kaepernick led the league with a ridiculous 60.6 percent completion rate on passes of 20 or more yards (per Pro Football Focus). He’s still near the top of the league this year, but it’s down to a much more human 46 percent completion rate on those deep passes. Despite only starting roughly half the season, Kaepernick completed 19 of those 20-plus yard throws last year for a total of 595 yards. This year in nearly twice the playing time, he’s completed 19 for 632 yards. So in one sense, he’s been half as effective throwing deep.

Much of that centers on the lack of reliable weapons that Kaepernick has been asked to throw with Michael Crabtree being injured for most the year. In fact, no 49ers receiver besides Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and Vance McDonald have caught deep passes from Kaepernick this year. Boldin is certainly not a deep threat by nature, and McDonald is not quite as adept as Delanie Walker was a year ago. Last year, players like Mario Manningham, Randy Moss, and Kyle Williams all contributed there as well as Crabtree.

But will any of this matter against the Falcons? Probably not. The Falcons run defense is among the weakest in the league, and the 49ers absolutely dominated the Falcons in the trenches in last year’s NFC title game. With the Falcons run defense giving up 100 or more yards in 11 straight games, it is doubtful that streak is snapped this week.

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Categories: Features Tags: ,

Takeaways from Week 15

December 16th, 2013 Comments off
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Osi Umenyiora is likely to become another expendable veteran player

The Atlanta Falcons offense sunk to new depths of ineptitude and ineffectiveness, despite defeating the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

Against the league’s worst scoring defense, the Falcons offense was only able to mount two successful offensive series, and netting just seven points off those two drives.

Thankfully the Redskins turned the ball over seven times, which helped give the Falcons 20 points thanks to short fields and they were able to win the game.

But of course the key point of the game was Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to go for the win rather than settling for overtime. Shanahan called for a two-point conversion with the Redskins down a point with less than 20 seconds to go. Desmond Trufant broke up the throw to Pierre Garcon, and the Falcons were able to hold onto the lead and eventually gain the win. It was a ballsy, and in many eyes stupid call.

I don’t consider myself one of those people that would call it stupid. I generally don’t fault coaches or players for being aggressive. Obviously there is a thin line between being appropriately aggressive and stupidly aggressive. And I wouldn’t argue against anyone that said Shanahan crossed that line.

The reasons why it could be considered stupid is because the Falcons offense really did nothing all game. And thus in overtime, there’s no reason to think that the Falcons can mount a drive to win. The Redskins had marched the ball up and down the field for 476 total yards, and as long as they don’t cough it up, there’s every reason to believe Washington had the advantage if it went into overtime.

You know what I’m going to say. The Falcons didn’t have a single play of 20 or more yards, and it’s not a coincidence in my eyes that their offense really struggled. On those two aforementioned good drives, the Falcons were able to convert five of six third down tries but were zero for eight on their other seven possessions.

People will continue to blame the subpar play of the offensive line for why the Falcons struggle to generate those big plays, but as the win over the Bills showed two weeks ago, having a leaky front doesn’t preclude you from taking shots downfield.

The real problem the Falcons have is that they lack the weapons that can create those plays down the field. Matt Ryan attempted just three deep passes in the entire game, with Roddy White being the lone receiver to reel in one. White had a 19-yard catch on the opening series, the longest play of the day for the Falcons. Again, probably not a coincidence that was the one drive where the Falcons offense managed to move the ball and finish with a touchdown.

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Takeaways from Week 14

December 9th, 2013 Comments off

Gary Kubiak fired by Houston Texans

Despite solid play, Steven Jackson remains expendable

Another week gone by and another loss by the Atlanta Falcons.

I’ve grown numb to it over the course of this season, as the Falcons dropping another game to a very mediocre Green Bay Packers team on Sunday barely affected me.

After feeling some small elation a week ago following Atlanta’s win over the Buffalo Bills, it’s back to the same old bitterness of defeat this week. It’s a feeling and situation very reminiscent of past Falcon teams, especially the Mora Era teams that never could ever really seem to build sustaining momentum.

I could sit here and sound like a broken record, but I’ll continue to stress that we saw another week where the Falcons were conservative offensively with their willingness to take shots downfield, and we saw another week where the Falcons offense struggled to move the ball and score points.

It just can’t be a coincidence that the Falcons put forth one of their best offensive games of the season a week ago against the Bills in a game where Matt Ryan took more deep shots than he did in the previous three outings combined.

And this week, they revert back to that dink and dunk offense with Ryan only taking one deep shot in the first 52 minutes of the game. The Falcons offense subsequently generated just seven points up to then if you don’t count the pick-six and the gift touchdown off a turnover that required them to move only 13 yards before they reached pay dirt.

Someone might retort that the wintry conditions prevented the Falcons from being more aggressive, which I don’t quite buy. In the game between the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, with similar conditions, both teams threw the deep four times in the first 52 minutes of that game.

I just think that maybe if the Falcons had taken two or three more shots downfield, they could have completed at least one of them, and that could have helped put at least three more points on the board, making the outcome potentially different.

But enough about the timidity of the offense, let’s move onto something a bit more interesting, which is the 2014 season.

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Takeaways from Week 13

December 2nd, 2013 Comments off
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Roddy White’s resurgence is a big reason for Falcons offensive success vs. Bills

I feel somewhat vindicated, as the Atlanta Falcons dialed up the deep pass several times and put forth the best offensive game by putting up a season-high 34 points against the Buffalo Bills defense.

According to the official stats from the gamebook, Matt Ryan completed 4 of 10 deep passes for 94 yards, which doesn’t include a deep pass to Harry Douglas at the end that drew a 15-yard penalty. Ryan’s four deep completions came on four separate drives, all of which led to points for the offense, accounting for 24 points. The correlation between the Falcons being able to generate big plays leading to points is fairly obvious right there. Roddy White was the recipient of all four deep catches, and for the first time this season looked like the all-time great that we’ve come to know, love, and respect over the past eight years.

Falcons Are Aggressive, and Rewarded for it

This newfound aggressiveness has been something I’ve been calling for since the Falcons Week 8 loss to Arizona, where I felt the Falcons first failed to capitalize on the deep-ball opportunities they had in that game.

One of the bigger obstacles the Falcons have faced in the weeks since has been the concern surrounding their pass protection. It’s led to questions whether the Falcons offensive line could protect Matt Ryan long enough to allow him to throw down the field. Well, against the Bills Ryan was sacked six times. giving Buffalo a league-leading 43 sacks on the year.

One conclusion is that it really doesn’t matter whether or not the Falcons offensive line is good enough to protect Matt Ryan for all of the plays, just as long as they protect him for some of them. The Falcons lost 39 yards on those six sacks but the 94 yards on the deep throws more than makes up for the yardage lost.

While six sacks allowed will look bad on the stat sheets, it really didn’t have as huge a negative impact on the game because the Falcons offense was able to generate big chunks of yardages and create turnovers on defense, both of which have been rare occurrences this season since Julio Jones’ injury.

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