Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Last Week – August 4, 2014


Julio Jones (left) and Roddy White will have to carry Falcons offense this year

The Atlanta Falcons are practicing today against the Tennessee Titans. It will be interesting to see if any fights break out between the two teams. The Falcons have been a lot fiestier this summer, and I can’t help but think how Hard Knocks may be affecting things.

I’m a firm believer that you win by what happens on the field. Something may or may not be a distraction in the summer just can’t be used as an excuse for not being able to make plays in October. Losing a loved one could certainly be that type of distraction, but having a few cameras in your face is not.

If Robert McClain struggles against Victor Cruz of the New York Giants in early October, can he really blame Hard Knocks for distracting him in August? In August, McClain wasn’t thinking about Cruz. He was thinking about competing to be the nickel cornerback or trying to learn the safety position. If Hard Knocks was going distract him from anything, it would be to that. McClain isn’t supposed to really think about Cruz until the Monday before the game since it’s a week-to-week mentality in the NFL.

That’s why I’m not saying that Hard Knocks will negatively impact the regular season, but I certainly think it can have a significant impact on training camp and the preseason.

One can certainly forget about the cameras after being around them long enough, and I’m sure for most Falcons players, coaches, and other various team employees the presence of the NFL Films staff isn’t much of a nuisance. But there are going to be certain times where those same people are also going to be hyper-aware that they are on camera, and it’s human nature that one’s behavior can change in those instances.

If I can try to step into the mind of an NFL offensive lineman, of which I’m overwhelmingly under-qualified. But I can imagine that those instances for them where they are hyper-aware of the extra eyeballs may be on the practice field. They’re mostly young men in their 20s that couldn’t care less about what people think about them off the field. But on the field is a different matter. Livelihoods are at stake.

And if someone lined up across from those linemen gives that extra push, they don’t want to look like they’re backing down. And somebody gets a little too heated in the Georgia sun and takes a swing. And that’s how the fighting starts.

I can’t help but notice which players are the primary ones fighting: young guys. The guys that are truly competing for jobs and feel like they have something to prove. Jake Matthews, Gabe Carimi, and Brian Wozniak are all new additons to the offense, and Ryan Schraeder isn’t guaranteed a roster spot in his second season. They’ve collectively mixed it up with Ra’Shede Hageman, Jacques Smith and Tyler Starr, who are all rookies. Maponga is in the same boat as Schraeder as a second-year player on the bubble.

Kroy Biermann and Joe Hawley, two veterans involved in the fighting, should probably know better. Or rather, Biermann should know better. But his came on the first day of work, and I’m betting was a veteran guy trying to set some boundaries for the rookie in Matthews.

In the case of Joe Hawley, all you can say is typical Joe Hawley. As I said before, I’m certain Justin Tuck was singling out Hawley when he called the Falcons offensive linemen dirt bags over two years ago. Hawley was the right guard, and the guy that Tuck would most likely face when he kicked inside in pass-rush situations. Hawley is indeed a dirt bag.

But I mean that in the most complementary sense imaginable. Some offensive lines need that little bit of “extra.” And there’s no denying that this current Falcons line needs it. Hawley was clearly miscast at right guard in 2011, but that year the Falcons run game was occasional functional enough to inspire some confidence in the coaching staff. After all, the Falcons gameplan against the Giants was to ride a plodding Michael Turner to victory. It didn’t work of course and the Falcons offense was shut out, but there was at least a sliver of hope it would work then.

Then Hawley got passed up by second-round pick Peter Konz the following year because the team wanted to get bigger and stronger than the 305-pound Hawley allowed. But they lost something as the run defense completely bottomed out in 2012.

Things didn’t get better in 2013 on the ground, until Hawley was inserted into the lineup at center in Week 11. I won’t try to convince you that the Falcons running game over the final seven games was good, but it was better than it had been in previous weeks.

Forgetting the Falcons unlikely Week 3 romp through the Paul Soliai-less Miami Dolphins defense away, if you compare the last six games that Konz started at center (Weeks 4 through 10) and the seven that Hawley started (Weeks 11 through 17), you see improvement in the latter. Here’s Moneyball statistics for the entire team in those weeks as the basis for comparison:

CategoryKonzWks 4-10HawleyWks 11-17
Team StatsTotalPer GameTotalPer Game
Key Blocks152.5273.9
Missed Blocks244.0213.0
Sacks Allowed91.5263.7
Pressures Allowed142.3253.6
Hurries Allowed366.0385.4
Rushing $$ Earned$48.00$8.00$90.00$12.86

Notice that the Konz-led line was significantly less prone to break downs in pass protection, while the Hawley-led lines outclassed the other in run blocking by a significant margin.

That’s seemingly the trade-off with Hawley. What you gain on the ground might be lost in pass protection. It’s a good thing that the Falcons revamped the right side of their offensive line with additions like Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews to upgrade in that area elsewhere. Both of those guys are going to have to really step up this season. The Falcons need to go back to that side of the line being a strength, as it was from 2008 to 2010 when Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo manned it. They were a right-handed defense and they were good running behind those two in the heyday of Turner.

Eventually the Falcons might have to return to that style of offense if they intend to reach new heights. They had their shot as a pass-first team in 2012. Let’s face it, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the Falcons passing attack never achieves on that level again. I said as much during that particular season. Matt Ryan put up oustanding production week-to-week that season because his top three receivers were all playing at elite levels.

Tony Gonzalez was no slouch, ladies and gentlemen. He will be greatly missed. Sure, some Falcon player(s) will fill the void of his production since someone is going to have to catch Ryan’s passes. But it’s not the production the Falcons will miss, it’s the impact.

Gonzalez was money on third downs and money in the red zone. The Falcons have not excelled at many things in the Mike Smith Era, but converting on third downs is one of the exceptions.

Most would be surprised to know this, but even in 2013 the Falcons were excellent on third downs. They ranked fifth in the league in converting third downs, thanks largely to the G.O.A.T.

In fact, they have only finished outside the top six once in the six years under Smith. That was in 2009, when the Falcons still managed to be the 11th best team in the NFL at converting offensive third downs.

Can the Falcons replace that this year? Probably not, not unless both Julio Jones and Roddy White are healthy for the entire season. And even if they are, they have to ball. They have to take it seriously their shared belief that they are the best wide receiver duo in the league. Better than Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, who the Falcons will face this season.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Antone Smith

Because let’s face it, the Falcons would otherwise be relying on Harry Douglas, Devin Hester and perhaps Bernard Reedy to be a go-to guy in the offense.

Douglas is not worthless since he makes a big play every now and then. But I repeat, Tony was money! Douglas simply is not.

Hester is an outstanding returner, but like Douglas he too was asked for five years to take that next step as a wide receiver in Chicago and never did. It’s not as if it was all going to suddenly click now that he’s in Atlanta.

And Reedy is a rookie. I hate to say it folks, he’s a 5’9″ rookie. Can he make big plays this season as a Falcon? Absolutely. I’d love to see if the Falcons can use him to try and create some explosive plays. His speed and ability on reverses, screens and sweeps could be a very effective weapon for this offense. The same came be said of Hester. And yes, even Douglas can dial up the occasional big play on a crossing pattern or screen as he has been known to do on the underwhelmingly rare occasion.

But again, Reedy is a small guy. And when push comes to shove and it’s 3rd-and-6, is Ryan going to trust him to make that clutch grab over the middle like he could Gonzalez? That appears highly doubtful.

It’s why the Falcons may be forced to trade in efficiency and reliability for sheer explosiveness.

Antone Smith could also be part of that big play mix. Perhaps even Devonta Freeman, although I’m not as sold on Freeman’s homerun potential as others are. But I’m only judging based off what I saw from him at Florida State. I’m very much looking forward to this Friday’s first preseason action so I can get an accurate look at Freeman’s speed against NFL-caliber players.

There’s no doubt that Freeman is quick and his acceleration to top speed is excellent, but what is that top speed? Is he Darren Sproles-esque in that once he gets in space, it’s over? Or is he a lot more like Jacquizz Rodgers in that he can get you 30 or 40 yards, but not the 60 or 70-yard play to the house? Antone Smith is certainly the former, but is Freeman?

But I’ve digressed. I was talking about reliability and veered into explosive capability. The Falcons aren’t going to have that reliable option in the middle of the field that made Ryan so effective in that zone last season.

He attempted 373 passes just in the middle of the field last season according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Why else do you think Ryan’s accuracy was so good last year? Because he was forced to rely on Gonzalez for most of the year since he couldn’t rely on Douglas or anybody the team had lined up wide for most of it.

Now Ryan will be forced to rely on either Jones or White, two players certainly capable of filling Gonzo’s shoes. But the Falcons are only helped if both are healthy. Having just one makes it so much easier for opposing teams to defend the Falcons offense.

Without Jones, opposing defenses won’t have to respect the deep ball nearly as much. Hopefully the presences of players like Reedy and Hester can help change that, but I’m not going to hold my breath that a Jones-less Falcons offense is going to be anywhere besides near the bottom of the league in explosive plays. That means defenses can stack the box against the run, bracket White and not really have to fear any other receiver beating them like Gonzalez could and often did.

If White is out of the lineup, they’ll continue to bracket Julio and again force someone else to beat them.

The Falcons need them both if this offense is going to rebound and help carry this team back to the playoffs. Because let’s face it, that’s the most likely way the Falcons reach the playoffs, with the passing attack in the driver’s seat.

It’s not going to be the running game. Adrian Peterson has certainly put a team on his back and carried them into the playoffs, but he plays for the Vikings, not the Falcons. Steven Jackson hasn’t been that type of runner for several years, and even the biggest supporter of Freeman is not putting that level of expectations on him.

The defense? While I think the defense will certainly improve this year, it’s not exactly going to morph into the Baltimore Ravens defenses of yesteryear or the Seattle Seahawks of today that could often carry a struggling, inconsistent offense because they could put a stranglehold on opposing offenses.

One day the Falcons may have that caliber of defense, but it’s not going to be in 2014. So the Falcons need their passing game to be on point if their backs are against the wall this year, as they certainly are.

Perhaps that’s why some of these young guys feel compelled to get into fights.

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Aaron Freeman
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