Once again, the Atlanta Falcons have lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to a major injury. This time it is for the rest of 2014 due to a torn Achilles heel which he suffered last Tuesday during practice.
There seems to be three presiding theories on what Weatherspoon’s impending absence will mean to the Falcons.
There’s the conservative theory that losing Spoon is not a huge loss. The presences of second-year linebackers in Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu will allow the Falcons defense to navigate the loss of its leader to a competent level.
This theory makes sense given Worrilow and Bartu had to perform the same task a year ago as undrafted rookies. They certainly will be better prepared to fill Spoon’s shoes with a full year under their belts.
But it still does not adequately encompass the loss of Spoon on the field. Which creates the second theory: that Spoon’s absence will have a dramatic negative effect on the team’s defense in 2014.
That is also somewhat fair given the simple fact that neither Worrilow and Bartu are Sean Weatherspoon.
Falcons Have a Leadership Void That Needs to be Filled
Weatherspoon was the defensive leader for a reason. That being that he is one of the team’s best players on the field and has a natural outgoing personality that makes him capable of adopting a leadership role. Neither Worrilow nor Bartu are of Spoon’s talent level on the field, and while Worrilow especially, has shown solid leadership traits, he is not the defensive leader.
Leadership in the National Football League often comes simply from the fact that you’re the best player on the field. Leaders are supposed to rally the troops and when the team needs it and have to be the guys to step up in the face of adversity. Simply put, you can’t lead from the bench.
That being said, it would be more advantageous for the Falcons if Desmond Trufant was the second-year player that stepped up and took on a leadership role in Spoon’s absence versus either Worrilow or Bartu. Trufant was the team’s best defender a year ago and he’ll need to have possibly an even better second season to follow up. Other players like William Moore, Jonathan Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi will also have to step up in the locker room as well as produce on the field.
That is not to say that Worrilow and Bartu won’t need to also carve out their own roles as leaders and playmakers on the field. But they cannot be expected alone to fill that void. And if the aforementioned players are unable to improve their play, then it will make the more dire projections of Spoon’s absence a reality.
But in truth, the loss of Spoon will likely far somewhere in between those two poles. The Falcons will miss him more than the most conservative estimates indicate, but it also won’t cripple the team’s defense in 2014.
The best way the Falcons will be able to hide Spoon’s absence is with significantly improved defensive line play. Having a widebody like Paul Soliai at nose tackle should help free up the inside linebackers to make more plays. The same can be said of fellow free-agent signee Tyson Jackson at defensive end as both players should be significant assets in defending the run.
They should help limit the number of blockers that either Worrilow or Bartu have to take on at the point of attack, allowing them to flow more easily to the ball and make more plays.
The Falcons will also need significant contributions from edge-rushers like Massaquoi, Biermann and Umenyiora, who will be the team’s primary assets when it comes to generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Babineaux was their most productive last year in terms of generating pressure and that simply can’t happen again. Babineaux is a capable complementary pass-rusher, especially given his relative age since he’ll be turning 33 in October. But the team needs especially players like Massaquoi and Umenyiora to take significant strides as pass-rushers.
Pass Rush May Be the Key to Replacing Spoon
A year ago, I outlined projections for what sorts of seasons Umenyiora and other Falcon defensive linemen needed to have in terms of their pass-rush production.
In reviewing games, I tally the number of sacks, hits and pressures individual players generate over the course of a season. Last year was the first year in which I also kept track of hurries, which I can term simply as where an individual almost has a sack or pressure. For reviewing purposes, a sack is where a quarterback is tackled in the act of passing and a pressure is when a defender disrupts the passer enough to cause an incomplete pass, throwaway or interception. A hit, in itself could be considered an “almost sack” given it means that the defender was successful in striking the quarterback, but only after he was able to get rid of the ball.
Last June, I noted that in defensive end John Abraham the team lost 33 “positive pass rushes” (PPRs or the combined number of sacks, hits and pressures). Over the first half of the 2012 season, Abraham had excellent production, but saw that decline significantly in the latter half. That likely had to do with Abraham’s struggles to adapt to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme.
It was in Week 9 against the Dallas Cowboys where I really started to notice Nolan embracing the 3-4 aspects of his defensive scheme as Abraham stood up a lot more when rushing the quarterback from the edge. Prior to that point in 2012, Abraham had six sacks, three hits and 13 pressures for a total of 22 PPRs. Had Abraham maintained that pace for the remaining nine games of the year, he would have finished with a total of 50 PPRs.
In an ideal world, both Umenyiora and Massaquoi would combine for a similar total in 2014, roughly 25 each. However a year ago, the pair combined for just 24 total PPRs. Which means collectively they are both going to essentially have to double their output.
That seems like a difficult task for Umenyiora, who will turn 33 a month after Babineaux. Father Time, after all, is undefeated. Which likely puts the brunt of the workload on Massaquoi’s shoulders. Last year, Massaquoi had four sacks, 3.5 hits and four pressures with seven hurries.
The pressure is going to have to be there because Worrilow and Bartu are bound to make mental errors in terms of coverage.
Worrilow didn’t make many errors in coverage a year ago, but he doesn’t have the smoothest hips when it comes to man coverage. And that could be something opposing teams look to exploit more in 2014 than they did a year ago now that they have had an offseason to make adjustments.
Increased pressure on the quarterback can limit the amount of exposure that players like Worrilow and Bartu have in the middle of the defense. That coupled with the fact that Moore is also weak in man coverage, puts added pressure on the remaining players in the secondary to cover better.
But ultimately coverage can only hide so much. Corners, safeties and linebackers cannot be expected to cover for an eternity and the Falcons may ultimately wind up relying more on their blitz to generate pressure.
Adding Flowers Could Help Generate More Pressure Via the Blitz
That is why the possible addition of cornerback Brandon Flowers could be a key asset for the Falcons defense. The whole reasoning behind the Falcons signing a player like Flowers is so that he can allow Nolan to dial up more exotic blitzes because he’s more comfortable with leaving his corners on islands against opposing receivers. And that may be a bit more reliable way of generating pressure in 2014 than hoping for significant improvements from individuals like Massaquoi and Umenyiora.
The success of blitzing often relies on the simple task of bringing more guys than the opposing offense can block on a given play, which can often be six rushers. That leaves only five defenders on the back-end to deal with up to the five possible outlets a quarterback has to throw to. So you have to trust those players in man coverage. It’s a reason why having a former cornerback like Dwight Lowery at free safety could ultimately lead to improvement from the Falcons pass defense.
If one is constructing an argument for why the 3-4 defense is superior to its 4-3 counterpart, it’s because it is easier to mask and disguise pressure when bringing blitzes. The alignment of the linebackers can often create havoc when opposing centers and quarterbacks are trying to adjust pass protections.
This is illustrated by the fact that the smartest quarterback around, Peyton Manning, has historical struggles against the 3-4 defense. Now, in part those struggles have been somewhat exaggerated due to fact that Manning’s teams have often exited the playoffs when playing against 3-4 defenses. But as this past year’s Super Bowl loss to Seattle illustrates, it’s not really the scheme that matters, but the overall quality of the defense that is affecting Manning more.
The Falcons defense is far from being on par with some of the top defenses that Manning has faced over the course of his career, but at least in theory, adding a cornerback like Flowers is another step closer to reaching that sort of quality.
Ultimately Spoon’s injury really puts a magnifying lens on the team’s decision-making this offseason in regards to their defensive line. Rather than focus on adding players that could rush the quarterback, the team instead opted to “toughen up” against the run.
If players like Massaquoi, Umenyiora, Soliai and Jackson step up and become significant contributors this year, that decision-making will be judged favorably. If they do not, then it could ultimately lead to the downfall of both the front office and coaching staff.
Hard Knocks Will Put the Falcons in a Fish Bowl
Such a downfall may be further exasperated by the news that the team will be featured on the HBO and NFL Films documentary series, Hard Knocks this summer.
No, the show itself won’t contribute to the team’s downfall but it will draw a lot more attention and eyes towards the Falcons organization regardless of how the 2014 season plays out.
And that’s exactly why Arthur Blank volunteered the team. It was a carefully calculated and savvy business decision by Blank to have the Falcons be the center of attention this summer on the Emmy-winning series.
And if only speaking for myself, it has already worked. I’m much more excited about training camp knowing that I will get an inside look at my favorite team this summer. Otherwise, I was not looking forward to training camp beyond the usual sense that it is a sign that actual football is just right around the corner. But Blank’s decision has now made training camp itself an event, not just the usual precursor to the regular season.
And for an owner that wants to generate stronger fan interest following a dismal 2013 Falcons season, it’s a smart move. And that interest should lead to fans being more willing to shell out their hard-earned money for personal seat licenses that are soon coming to the new stadium currently under construction.
But the show alone won’t do that as it will also take positive results on the field. And as a result, it will put greater focus on the coaching and leadership of Falcons head coach Mike Smith.
Many think that having NFL Films cameramen at Flowery Branch will create a distraction. It certainly will, but not to the degree where it can or should doom the Falcons’ season.
Hard Knocks May Not Be the Distraction It Is Cracked Up to Be
When you look at recent teams that have participated in the series, there was little to no negative effect on the outcomes of their seasons.
Last summer, the Cincinnati Bengals were featured on Hard Knocks. They wound up finishing the year 11-5 and exiting in the opening round of the playoffs. It was hardly different from their 2012 season where they finished the regular season 10-6 coupled with another first-round playoff loss.
The Miami Dolphins were featured in the summer of 2012, finishing the season with a 7-9 record and a second-place finish in their division. That was an improvement from the previous year’s 6-10 record and third-place divisional finish.
The New York Jets were featured in the summer of 2010, and just as they did the previous year, they got ousted in the AFC Championship Game that season.
The Bengals were also featured the previous summer in 2009 and saw significant improvement by making the playoffs with a 10-6 regular season finish. In 2008, they were 4-11-1.
The 2008 Dallas Cowboys were also featured on the series, finishing that year 9-7. That was a disappointment relative to their 13-3 season the year before, but still a winning record. The 2008 Cowboys went 1-3 in the final month of the season, a late-season collapse that would be difficult to blame on Hard Knocks. Clearly the series didn’t deter them from beginning the season 8-4.
Play on the Field Matters More than Cameras
You really have to go back to the 2007 Kansas City Chiefs before you find a team that saw a dramatic misfortune following a stint on Hard Knocks. After going 9-7 and losing in the opening round of the playoffs in 2006, the Chiefs fell to a dismal 4-12 in 2007.
But again, it’s hard to blame that collapse on Hard Knocks. The 2006 Chiefs were helmed by quarterback Trent Green. He was traded the following year to the Dolphins, and his replacement was ostensibly second-year man and former third-round pick Brodie Croyle. The drop-off in play from Green to Croyle was dramatic, as Croyle was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in 2007.
But Croyle was not alone in poor quarterback play that season as Damon Huard took the bulk of the snaps under center in 2007. Huard saw significant reps in 2006 thanks in part to Green suffering a nasty concussion in the season-opener. But Huard could then rely on the legs of running back Larry Johnson, who was on his way to 1,789 rushing yards, the second-most in the NFL that year. Huard just had to manage the game, and he did so well with a 98.0 passer rating (second-best in the league) and 11-to-1 touchdown-interception ratio in 2006.
However in 2007, Johnson got hurt midway through the season and the Chiefs offense tanked. Huard’s passer rating dropped to 76.8 and his touchdown-interception ratio was 11-to-13.
Johnson’s injury was following a summer holdout as a result of consecutive 1,700-yard seasons. But Johnson wasn’t the same rusher in the first half of 2007, totaling just 559 yards in eight games and averaging just 3.5 yards per carry after averaging 4.3 yards the previous year.
When Johnson was healthy, the Chiefs were at least somewhat competitive. Their scoring margin was -22 over the first eight games of the year, meaning they were being outscored by opponents by roughly a field goal per game. The minute that Johnson was lost for the year, that competitiveness evaporated as the team lost their final nine games by an average of 10.9 points per game.
The only argument for how Hard Knocks could have caused that second-half collapse is if you believe that Johnson’s reasons for holding out that summer had more to do with the cameras descending upon Chiefs’ camp than his salary. A silly argument to make because ultimately, the success (or lack thereof) of a football team is decided on the field.
But nonetheless, if the Falcons struggle in 2014, you will hear the inevitable outcries that it was Hard Knocks that was the root cause. Just like I’ve heard that Tony Gonzalez missing a large part of training camp was the root of the team’s struggles a year ago.
Did Gonzalez missing time cause Steven Jackson to drop the potential game-winning touchdown pass in Week 1 against the Saints? Or did it cause the defense’s failures to get stops on three consecutive third downs in the final five minutes against the Miami Dolphins two weeks later? Did Gonzalez’s absence lead to injuries to Sam Baker, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Biermann and Weatherspoon?
One can certainly argue that Gonzalez’s time off sent the wrong message to the team and was a sign of their overall complacency, but ultimately the Falcons had every opportunity to make the necessary plays on the field. They simply did not.
Falcons Brass Face Added Scrutiny
And this year, they will have to. If they don’t, it will make the seats of Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff a little warmer.
Smith won’t be able to shy away from the cameras like he did in 2001 when he was an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens when they were featured on Hard Knocks. And if Smith cannot successfully steer the ship in the wake of the added scrutiny, then frankly he may not be deserving of keeping his job.
Here’s hoping it never reaches that point. If the Falcons perform up to par this year, are we going to say Hard Knocks was the cause? No. We’ll probably say the reason why the Falcons win total increased will have to do with improvements to their offensive line play, healthy years from Jones and White and significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball that encompasses their beefed-up run defense and increased pass rush. If those things occur, then the Falcons should at least double their win total from 2013 and it will have nothing to do with cameras. If not? Well, at this point I don’t really want to consider the alternative.
Ultimately coaches coach, players play and filmers film. One guess as to which of them is inconsequential to the outcome of the Atlanta Falcons 2014 season…