The Atlanta Falcons played their first preseason game on Friday night against the Miami Dolphins and won. That alone might be a cause for celebration and instill the belief that this year’s Falcon team is different from its predecessors.
That’s probably a stretch given the fickle and irrelevant nature of the preseason. The reasons why teams win preseason games are usually because some third-string player that is probably not going to make the team makes a big play or a mistake in the fourth quarter that decides the outcome. In the case of the Falcons-Dolphins game, the outcome of the game could be reduced to the tackle by Falcons safety Sean Baker that saved a touchdown, and the botched snap by Dolphins quarterback Seth Lobato. Two players with NFL careers that may just be footnotes in team media guides. Two instances that don’t quite apply to how the Falcons 2014 regular season is going to shape up. I’m certainly not expecting Baker to make a touchdown-saving tackle on a screen to Brandin Cooks Week 1.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be positive if you so choose, and there are also reasons to be negative based off the Falcons first preseason action.
Some of the positives are that the Falcons’ play in the trenches was fairly strong. Working against the Falcons starting defensive line on the first two series, the Dolphins were successful on just two of seven (28.6 percent) running plays. That’s a sign that the added beef up front for the Falcons has improved. On the opposite side of the ball, the Falcons themselves were successful on four of their eleven (36.4 percent) runs with the starting offensive line. Not great by any means, but certainly competent.
A skeptic of course would say that the Dolphins aren’t exactly known for having stellar offensive line play. After all, two of their starters are Daryn Colledge and Samson Satele, players that have only been signed by the team within the last six weeks. Satele has only been on the team for a week.
But it’s at least a positive step for the Falcons ability to win at the line of scrimmage. How much of a positive step may only be measured over upcoming preseason games and of course when the games that actually count beginning in September.
Are the Falcons a different team? As a skeptic by nature, I’ll probably hold off judgment. And as a cynic, it’s hard for me to buy into the rhetoric we’ve heard for months that was also hammered into our heads during the debut of the new season of Hard Knocks last week.
That rhetoric of course, centers around toughness. Or as the Falcons might rather term it, physicality.
Are they going to be tougher this year? Yes, I think they will be. But it’s probably more a question of degrees. How much tougher will the Falcons be?
While I think being able to match up along the line of scrimmage will certainly help this team, I don’t believe that is basically what this season boils down to.
When reading about the perception that the Falcons have been “soft” in recent years, it certainly becomes understandable why the team emphasizes its need to be
tougher more physical.
And for myself, it’s hard to deny that this team has indeed been soft. But that has been an issue that has plagued the team throughout the Mike Smith Era. That softness isn’t simply defined by their propensity to get owned in the trenches, but how this team responds to adversity.
As Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman writes in the above-linked article:
Punch the Falcons in the mouth, one assistant coach told me, and they fall to the canvas.
In past years, I’ve heard a lot of talk about this team’s lacking a killer instinct. I never quite agreed with that label since I believe this team’s inability to “knock out” opponents had more to do with lacking personnel than any sort of ethereal attitude adjustment.
Coaches trying to instill a mindset of going for the jugular is all well and good, but at the end of the day the players simply have to do it. And it’s a lot easier to do that with the right sort of players, something the Falcons haven’t had. It’s hard to finish off opponents with as an inept running game as the Falcons have had the past two seasons. And when coupled with a defense that rarely gets stops on third down, then it’s going to be hard to prevent opposing teams from clawing their way back into games.
And there’s no amount of “scrapping” in training camp that will change those things. And if the Falcons think that they can approach 2014 in a better place because there have been a larger number of haymakers thrown in camp, then they are in for a rude awakening. While the fighting makes for great television and water-cooler talk, it’s nothing new for this team.
Instead, the Falcons can become a tougher team if this coaching staff does a better job responding to adversity. I truly believe that the downfall of the 2013 season had less to do with actual injuries, and more to do with how the coaching staff responded to them.
Was any team hit harder than injuries last season than the New England Patriots? No, and they made it all the way to the AFC Championship game. Recent Super Bowl winners like the Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers weren’t immune from the injury bug during their celebrated seasons. They each managed to overcome them. How? Well, I’d argue it had more to do with personnel than Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh or Mike McCarthy’s ability to instill killer instincts in their respective teams.
Mike Smith and the Falcons coaching staff need to have fundamental changes to how they do business. And holding more padded practices during the summer isn’t enough.
It’s going to require changes to how they call their plays and create gameplans. I know I sound like a broken record, because I’ve been harping on the team being more explosive for at least nine months.
But perhaps my biggest takeaway from the Falcons first preseason game is that they potentially have the tools to finally become more explosive.
We got to see Antone Smith’s knack for generating big plays with a 76-yard touchdown and 34-yard pass play on their first two series that were called back due to penalties. Smith is a threat to take it the distance every play. And I’d bet you that if Carroll or McCarthy had playmakers like Smith they would not be as hesitant as the Falcons have been to get Smith the ball in the regular season.
Many probably forget that Smith has been around since 2009, and it’s not like his explosive potential suddenly manifested itself last season. We saw it way back in the summer of 2011 when Smith put up 188 total yards in the preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens thanks to two 40-yard plays. Yet in four seasons with the Falcons, Smith has managed to touch the ball only eight times in the regular season.
So there is reason to be positive when Mike Smith follows up the Dolphins game by saying this:
Antone’s a guy that can do some things when we get the ball in his hands. So, I would imagine we want to make that we have a game plan that will help him get some touches [and] to put him in advantageous situations.
But then that voice whispers in the back of my head, wondering why it’s taken four years for this coaching staff to reach this conclusion. That’s four years where only four teams have produced less big plays in that span than the Falcons.
The Falcons also now have a wide receiver in Devin Hester that commands far more respect when it comes to teams trying to defend the deep ball than Harry Douglas. But then I also hear that Hester isn’t expected to be a full-time component of their offense, just an occasional weapon that they can dial up from time to time.
That certainly can be interpreted as a step in the right direction, because in previous years the Falcons had nobody that they could call up as a situational playmaker and seemed oblivious to this absence. But in the cases of both Smith and Hester, it does seem that it would still be easy for the coaching staff to dismiss their involvement on offense because the situations presented weren’t quite advantageous enough. Smith will revert to being a forgotten man and the team will forget that Hester is one of the most dynamic players to ever set foot on a football field in NFL history. And we’ll hear in post-game press conferences, how Smith wants to get each more involved in the offense, yet every Sunday those desires amount to nothing.
But that’s my skeptical side rearing it’s ugly head again. I apologize, but it comes with the territory of being a Falcon fan for more than two decades. Root for this team long enough, and one develops a knack for expecting disappointment.
It is said that necessity breeds invention. And Mike Smith and Dirk Koetter need to be inventive this year, otherwise they may be looking for new jobs next year. And at least the cynical side of me at least can get behind that. Cynicism is defined by the belief that human beings are essentially selfish by nature. And what’s more selfish than self-preservation?
The question on the security of Smith’s job is the ugly, little secret that nobody wants to talk about. After all, it’s the summer where the coverage of NFL teams veers completely towards the positive. But everybody knows that at the end of the year, only a dozen teams (although soon to be more) will be left standing at the end of the dogfight this is every NFL season.
I can certainly say the Falcons are better equipped of being one of those teams than they were a year ago. A sense of urgency will have to be there, otherwise this coaching staff and many of the current players won’t be around for much longer.
And to put a stamp on the issue of responding to adversity, becoming a more explosive should benefit the Falcons in withstanding that metaphorical “punch to the face.”
Despite Matt Ryan’s historic number of fourth-quarter comebacks, most of them have come in games where the Falcons lost a previous lead in the fourth quarter. Under Smith and Ryan the past six seasons, in games where the Falcons entered the fourth quarter losing by more than a field goal, the team is 4-23. Do you know which four games they won?
- A 2009 win against the New York Jets that featured several special teams miscues by the Jets.
- A 2010 win against the San Francisco 49ers that featured Roddy White’s famous strip of Nate Clements in the final minutes.
- A 2011 win against the Carolina Panthers that featured Cam Newton tossing a pair of interceptions in the third quarter.
- A 2012 win against the Oakland Raiders that featured a pick-six from Asante Samuel in the final three minutes.
It’s hard not to notice the flukiness of those four wins and how easily the Falcons could be 0-27 in those situations. Three missed field goals, all under 40 yards came against the Jets, with two of them being due to a bad snap or hold.
While White gets complete credit for his outstanding hustle play, it’s worth mentioning if Clements makes the decision to simply take a knee the game results in a Falcons loss. Not to mention the level of random chance that is required for Harvey Dahl to recover White’s strip of Clements in the scrum of a dogpile.
The Panthers win is less flukey, but it does require Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s calling 10 passes versus six runs in the third quarter despite having a 16-point halftime lead and the team gaining 115 yards on the ground in the first half.
But I can’t help but notice that the play the sealed the comeback win for the Falcons was a 75-yard touchdown score from a then rookie Julio Jones. And that play came on a deep post pattern from Jones that had a Panther defender whiff on the tackle. And that came only after the Falcons scored on a 31-yard wheel route to Jacquizz Rodgers, another big play by design. Isn’t that Rodgers score reminiscent of a play made on Friday night?
Perhaps the Falcons will better respond to adversity if they are able to score points more easily via yards gained in chunks. The methodical, dink/dunk approach on offense has been effective over the years, but it’s unlikely to remain so in 2014. As I suggested last week, the absence of tight end Tony Gonzalez is going to be a significant obstacle for this team to overcome.
With an offense headlined by Gonzalez and White beginning in 2009, it made perfect sense for the Falcons to try and move the football in 10-yard chunks at a time. Gonzalez was no longer a big play threat when he arrived in Atlanta at age 33. And over the years, there have been diminishing returns on White’s ability to hit the home run.
Despite the arrival of a dynamic Jones in 2011, the Falcons didn’t revamp their offensive approach. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
But 2013 told us something was broken. The Falcons cannot realistically expect players like Hester, Harry Douglas and Levine Toilolo to be the sort of reliable security blanket that Gonzalez had been the past five years. And if options like Antone Smith, Devonta Freeman and Bernard Reedy are also in the mix on offense this year, the Falcons feature quite of a bit of explosive potential as opposed to the practical efficiency of yesteryear.
It should become a lot easier to mount those late-game comebacks when you’re confident you score from any spot on the field. Whether it comes from dialing up a checkdown to Smith, reverse to Hester or wheel route to Freeman, the best way to answer a punch in the mouth is to punch right back.
If the Falcons coaches finally grasp this principle, then this season won’t be their last. Unfortunately given the vanilla, never-show-your-hand nature of the preseason, it will be difficult to know whether the Falcons offense has undergone this fundamental change. Until the games really begin to count in September, it is merely is a matter of speculation.
No amount of fighting and shots of Mike Smith’s epic mustache on Hard Knocks will give us a proper answer. But nonetheless, my advice to everyone is to still enjoy the show. It’s meant to be entertainment after all!