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.
Since 2008, no team has won more road playoff games than the Baltimore Ravens with six of their nine postseason wins coming away from M&T Bank Stadium. And it’s fairly obvious to all that the calling card of the Ravens for well beyond the past six seasons has been their outstanding defensive play. Even if you consider last year when they won the Super Bowl and played with a middling defense for much of the regular season, they were excellent on that side of the ball in January.
The New York Jets under Rex Ryan won four road playoff games over the course of his first two seasons patrolling that sideline. It was certainly strong defensive play that was the key catalyst to their ability to go to two consecutive AFC Championship games, and not that of quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The San Francisco 49ers would be next on the list, earning their third road playoff win over the past two seasons on Sunday with their defeat of the Carolina Panthers. They are another team that has built a reputation as one of the league’s premier defenses since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011.
The Green Bay Packers won three road playoff games in 2010 on their way to a Super Bowl win. Due to the poor defensive performances of the Packers in recent years, people often forget that the Packers defense was very good throughout that 2010 season. They ranked second in scoring defense and fifth in total defense, thanks to a top-tier pass defense headlined by linebacker Clay Matthews, cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, and safety Nick Collins.
The New York Giants are another team that won multiple road playoff games due to good defense in 2011 on their way to the Super Bowl. They not only shut out the Falcons offense in their first playoff game, they also stopped the 49ers from converting more than one of 13 third-down tries in the NFC Championship Game that season. Those performances of course bookended their win over the Packers, a team at that point which was the second-most prolific scoring offense in NFL history. Pressure was a key ingredient to stymying the Packers offense, as they sacked Aaron Rodgers four times and forced four Packers turnovers.
And last but not least would be the 2008 Philadelphia Eagles, who won two road playoff games that year on their way to the NFC title game. That season happened to be the last year in which Jim Johnson served as the team’s defensive coordinator before cancer forced him away from the sidelines and ultimately claiming his life the ensuing summer. That last Johnson-led Eagles defense ranked in the top four among both scoring and total defense in the league that season.
Clearly, there is undeniable evidence that the better your defense, the better your chances of being able to make a deep run in the playoffs year after year if you find yourself playing in a hostile stadium.
Offensive Line Needs Help…
Because of that, I believe the Falcons can’t get tunnel vision when it comes to improving their offensive line this offseason. In fact, I believe the team’s priority this spring needs to be laying the foundation for what could become a defense of similar caliber to those mentioned previously.
The Falcons do need to upgrade their offensive line, but it’s possible that the Falcons may only need to upgrade one of those spots this offseason. I think the right guard spot has to be the priority, largely because it’s conceivable that the team could get away with having some combination of Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes, and Ryan Schraeder holding down either tackle spot. Joe Hawley and Justin Blalock’s play this past year indicate that they are relatively trustworthy at center and left guard, respectively.
I hope that the Falcons will at least add another tackle into the mix as an insurance policy in case Baker, Holmes, and/or Schraeder continue to struggle. Part of the reason why the Falcons may not need to make a big-time upgrade at offensive tackle is because of the bad contract that they gave Sam Baker last offseason. Because of the structure of that deal, the team is stuck with Baker for at least another year. And because of their poor spending, they are somewhat beholden to trying to make that deal work for them, which includes giving Baker another shot at left tackle. If the Falcons opt to have Baker and Holmes compete in an open competition at left tackle, they might be able to make do at right tackle with a stopgap signing like Anthony Collins, Charles Brown, Zach Strief, Winston Justice, or Rodger Saffold. The best case scenario is one that involves Holmes and Schraeder improving under the tutelage of new position coach Mike Tice and one or both becoming capable long-term solutions at either tackle spot rather than being forced to spend on another large free agent contract or use their top pick in the draft to bolster the position.
It’s the right guard position that concerns me the most. Garrett Reynolds, while serviceable at times, is a better backup than starter. Peter Konz has shown little over his first two seasons to suggest that he should remain a worthwhile investment for the Falcons. Maybe Tice is able to light a fire under him to get him to step up his play, but at this point, I would only really consider him a backup candidate behind Hawley rather than a starting option anywhere along the line.
In free agency, there isn’t a lot to love in terms of potential targets on the open market. Kansas City Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah is among the better free agents that could potentially be available, and is one of the few guys that might be worth a substantial investment. But if he’s re-signed by the Chiefs, then I’d likely turn to the second or third rounds of the draft for the Falcons answers at guard.
…But Defense Should Still Take Precedence
If that were to happen, that would leave the potential out there for the team to use their top selection on a defensive player. Ideally, that’s going to be one of the premier edge pass rushers. South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney is the headliner, but players such as UCLA’s Anthony Barr, Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, and Missouri’s Kony Ealy might also be in the mix.
If you’re wishing for me to pick one of those guys, I’m not going to. I really like Clowney’s potential, but I haven’t seen enough of the others to lean one way or the other. It’s the middle of January, and it’s still very early in the process. Until we get to March when the Combine is completed and free agency is upon us, and subsequently the big decisions need to be made, I’m not going to feel pressure to jump on any particular players’ bandwagon as a potential Falcon target.
Frankly, I don’t care who it is among those players, as long as they are ultimately turn into a really gifted pass rusher, akin to John Abraham, Patrick Kerney, Rod Coleman, Chuck Smith, or any of the past Falcon players that gave opposing quarterbacks hell.
Ultimately, if the Falcons can find a fearsome pass rusher that can serve as the building block for what eventually becomes a playoff-winning defense as other teams have with picks like Terrell Suggs, Aldon Smith, and Jason Pierre-Paul, then I’ll be happy.
And it’s not going to be just one player and suddenly the Falcons are stacking Lombardi Trophies in Flowery Branch, as it’s going to take multiple players. Impending free agency of defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, and Peria Jerry means the Falcons are going to need an interior disruptor to tag-team with that edge rusher. It sounds like the Falcons want to bring back Babineaux, and Peters is certainly deserving of a long-term deal despite suffering an ill-timed Achilles tear at the end of the season. But neither player is that sort of disruptor, and Jerry couldn’t be further from it even though that is what the team envisioned him becoming when they used their top selection on him in 2009. Babineaux was that type of player in his prime several years ago, but age has slowed him down and the Falcons need to find a suitable successor.
In an ideal world, the Falcons will also find that player in this year’s draft since it’s unlikely to come in free agency. The positive is that the premium on interior disruptors isn’t as high as it is for edge rushers, and thus it’s conceivable that the Falcons won’t need to address that in the first round.
Players like Darnell Dockett (third round, 2004), Babineaux (second round, 2005), Calais Campbell (second round, 2008), Henry Melton (fourth round, 2009), Geno Atkins (fourth round, 2010) give hope that such players can be found on the second and third days of the draft. Whether there are any such players in this year’s draft class remains to be seen but the possibility is at least out there given recent history.
Given the team’s proclivities to avoid large expenditures in free agency, I’d expect the Falcons to focus on re-signing their own players such as Babineaux, Peters, Hawley, and Mike Johnson this offseason. If they can add a relatively cheap insurance policy at right tackle such as Charles Brown or Anthony Collins, that would be another good move. Then if they used their top pick on an edge pass rusher, followed by a guard in the second round, with an interior disruptor at defensive tackle in the third, that would be a good way to start the draft. Then the third day of the draft can be devoted to solidifying their depth across their roster at positions such as running back, wide receiver, tight end, and linebacker.
If asking me what my ideal offseason would be given the realm of reasonable possibilities, that would likely be it. Again, it’s still early in the process and I’ll be more than willing to change my mind as we progress through this offseason.
Elsewhere in the NFL…
While the divisional playoff round didn’t feature as much drama as the previous week’s playoff action, it was an overall solid slate of games played. None of the results were surprises given the picks I made on Friday.
As expected, the New England Patriots were able to keep the lid on T.Y. Hilton in their 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck threw four picks and LeGarrette Blount had just as many touchdowns alongside 166 rushing yards.
The Colts are still a few pieces away from being able to compete with a team like New England, who can effectively take your best asset and make it obsolete (just ask Julio Jones). Another big-time playmaker on offense would work there, although I think the Colts envisioned Trent Richardson being that player, and he has been anything but. Counting his time in Cleveland, Richardson finished the year with 563 yards on 188 carries (3.0 avg) and 3 touchdowns. There aren’t many running backs that have gotten that high a workload and been that unproductive. In fact, since the league went to 16 games in 1978, nine running backs have received at 180 carries but rushed for less than 600 yards. Another former Colt that graced that short list was Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, back in 1996 when he had 587 yards on 198 carries (3.0 avg) and 7 touchdowns. It was Faulk’s third season in the league after a pair of thousand-yard seasons. Faulk did follow it up with a 1,054-yard effort in 1997 before rattling off four-straight seasons where he eclipsed 1,300 yards rushing. So for Faulk, that ’96 season was an aberration on his career record. The Colts hope that Richardson has a comparable career path, or we’re going to be talking about that trade (one I originally applauded) that sent a first round pick to Cleveland as one of the worst in recent history.
The Seattle Seahawks-New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos-San Diego Chargers matchups were similar in that the Seahawks and Broncos both controlled the first halves of their respective games. Seattle had a 16-0 halftime lead, while Denver was up 14-0. In fact, in the case of both the Saints and Chargers, neither opponent scored a point until the start of the fourth quarter. Seattle sort of coasted until they needed a late score to seal their win. San Diego seemingly turned it on in the fourth quarter and almost made it a game, although their defense couldn’t get enough stops to get back into it. The Broncos held the ball nearly nine minutes in the fourth quarter and converted all four third-down attempts.
The big takeaway from the Saints-Seahawks game is how thoroughly that the Seahawks shut down Jimmy Graham, who is the bane of the Falcons defensive existence. Graham was held to just one catch, which he didn’t make until there were just 24 seconds left on the clock. Here’s hoping that Mike Nolan studies the tape of that game thoroughly to see if he can learn some lessons from Seattle’s success. Although I’m betting that it had more to do with the athleticism and skill of Seahawk defenders than any breakthroughs schematically.
The weekend’s other game was San Francisco’s 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers. The 49ers seemingly got off to a sluggish start, which probably has something to do with the long flight cross country. But the 49ers got back to their brand of football in the second half, which was running the ball and playing strong defense.
In the first half, where their runners combined for just 19 yards on eight carries, the 49ers rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries in the second half. Colin Kaepernick struggled in the early going of the game, but just attempted four passes in the entire second half.
Cam Newton and the Panthers just didn’t have enough firepower to get back into the game once the 49ers went up 13-10 at halftime. Prior to a 59-yard catch and run by Ted Ginn in the final ten seconds of the game, Newton had just completed seven of 12 passes for 72 yards and an interception in the second half after completing eight of 10 passes for 136 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in the first half.
Kaepernick struggled in this game, although that will likely be forgotten thanks to the fact that the 49ers won the game. After starting the game completing four of his first five passes for 34 yards, he proceeded to just complete two of his next 10 for a mere 25 yards before starting to get things going again on the final drive of the second quarter. On that drive, he completed five of nine passes for 62 yards, capping it off with a one-yard touchdown grab by Vernon Davis in the back-corner of the end zone. He got help from Frank Gore, as a pair of five-yard runs on first down during that series helped give the 49ers offense more manageable downs to follow. That drive was the critical one of the game, as it essentially swung the game in San Francisco’s favor after Carolina had controlled much of it up until then.
We’re going to get compelling matchups in the conference championship games next week with another Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning game, while division rivals Seattle and San Francisco square off again. Whether they turn into compelling games remains to be seen, but history suggests that they will be.