The Atlanta Falcons are finally back in the win column. Enjoy it while it lasts, as I’m not sure there are going to many more instances this season that see a repeat of it.
It’s certainly possible that the team’s 27-17 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is the kick in the pants that the team desperately needed coming out of their bye. But it’s just as possible that is a one-week aberration, the result of the Falcons beating up on a weaker, undisciplined opponent.
The remaining seven opponents the Falcons face include three match ups against teams with sub-.500 records, all of whom are in the NFC South. The Falcons are currently undefeated within their division, but that will certainly be tested next week in another road contest against the Carolina Panthers.
What positives can be gleaned from the Falcons win in Tampa? Not a ton, but enough to provide some hope. But that hope mostly rests for the future of the team in 2015, not necessarily what might occur in 2014.
One is that the Falcons didn’t have the multitude of pass-protection breakdowns which have become the norm during their recent five-game losing streak. The Falcons were able to keep the Bucs’ dominant defensive tackle, Gerald McCoy, in check for the game as he finished with just one tackle. Without McCoy wreaking havoc, the Bucs simply lack any pass rush to speak of.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons can perform a similar feat against the Panthers next week. The Panthers have routinely dominated the line of scrimmage in their last several meetings with the Falcons. The Panthers won’t have defensive end Greg Hardy, who has sat out since Week 1 due to the fallout of a domestic violence conviction. Fellow end Charles Johnson hasn’t had a great season, but usually makes his presence felt against the Falcons. He’s had a combined eight sacks in his last six outings against the Falcons, including a pair of sacks in Week 17 last year when he was facing Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder.
Next week’s game will offer redemption for Schraeder and be a solid litmus test to indicate what if any growth he’s shown since his four-game stint as a starter late last season. Schraeder is in a position to steal Lamar Holmes’ spot as the right tackle of the future right from out under him. Holmes is obviously out for the year with an injury to his right knee, an untimely injury in a lot of ways.
One way is simply from the likelihood that the Falcons will be making a coaching change by year’s end, and thus any new regime may not have as much faith and optimism in Holmes as the current one does. The Falcons spent a third-round pick on Holmes in 2012, and there certainly was an expectation with offensive line coaches Mike Tice and Wade Harman to get Holmes ready to play after Sam Baker suffered a season-ending injury this past August.
But with a potential head coaching change, there’s certainly a likelihood that Tice and Harman won’t be returning to Atlanta in 2015, and thus Holmes will have to prove himself to a completely new regime. At least for Schraeder, he’ll have some recent tape to put out there that can earn him some leeway with a new regime. Holmes will be considered an unknown, and based off what he has shown over the past two years, hardly a commodity.
A strong performance against the Panthers rush, even a diminished unit, will be a much stronger indicator that the Falcons might have put many of their offensive line woes behind them. If that is the case, it certainly improves the chances that Sunday’s win won’t be the last of 2014.
Falcons May Rely Too Heavily on Jones
Also against the Buccaneers on Sunday, we observed that wide receiver Julio Jone is the team’s best receiver. That was by no means a new revelation, but it remains clear that the Falcons rely heavily on him. Arguably, they rely too much on Jones.
It was Jones that was the target at several key moments in the fourth quarter when the Falcons were driving to try and retake the lead, down 17-16. Matt Ryan attempted seven passes on that 10-play drive, completing four of them for 42 yards. Four of those seven passes were targets to Jones, and the only completion that wasn’t to Jones was the five-yard grab by Roddy White for the score. And even then, it was likely the cross by Jones that froze the Bucs defender, safety Major Wright, from picking up White on the throwback pass.
It’s been no secret that the Falcons offense is mostly facilitated by the presence of Jones on the field. And should there be a time this season where he is not for an extended period, the Falcons 2014 season will be even more dead than it already is. It will not only be an additional nail in a coffin that is already bolted shut, but one might as well pour gasoline upon the coffin and set it on fire before dropping a thermonuclear warhead atop it.
Unlike the situation with Holmes and Schraeder, there is no other young player that would be expected to benefit from Jones’ absence. Last week, Roddy White and Devin Hester both celebrated their 33rd and 32nd birthdays, respectively. Harry Douglas turned 30 in September. All three veterans are relatively speaking, “short-timers.”
White May be Destined For New Role in 2015
White signed a three-year extension this past summer, with the understanding that he would have the opportunity to finish his career in Atlanta. Some have asked me whether or not the Falcons should or would cut White this offseason. It’s certainly a possibility, although it would likely only come with a “post-June 1” designation. But White is not the only player that could see that axe fall, as veterans like Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson and Baker are also possible post-June 1 releases. Teams are only allowed to designate two such players as such, and among the four it would seem that White is the least likely to find himself in that position.
I’ve been very vocal in my belief that White has been a significantly diminished player this season. But I think a lot of that has to do with a knee injury he suffered this offseason, as his ability to separate from coverage has declined sharply within the past year. There’s just little reason to chalk that up to simply being a year older. But on Sunday, White did show a little bit more burst, showing an ability to beat man coverage on a couple of occasions. Granted, they came against a journeyman in cornerback Crezdon Butler, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for White.
I’m skeptical whether White will finish the three remaining years left on his contract after this season, but I’m fairly confident he’ll play at least another year in Atlanta. If healthier next season coupled with a move inside to the slot, White could be a significantly improved player in 2015 than he has shown thus far in 2014. White no longer has the sort of speed to really challenge defenses, but his physical playing style and sharp route-running abilities assuming improved knee health would be an asset when working in the slot against what are usually smaller and lesser nickel cornerbacks. It’s essentially how their respective teams were able to milk the last little bit of ability out of Donald Driver at age 37 and Hines Ward at 35, by moving them almost exclusively to the slot in the final years before retirement. The move to the slot is also a reason why a player like Anquan Boldin, who is a year older than White, has seen a late-career resurgence in both Baltimore and San Francisco.
Douglas Likely on Roster Bubble in 2015
Douglas is going to have to finish the season strong in order to be guaranteed a return to the roster next season with a new coaching staff taking over. If White moves to the slot, Douglas’ value diminishes significantly. He’s been a functional receiver when asked to play outside, but his smaller build and limited vertical abilities make him a less-than-ideal option as an outside receiver. Hester is a much better fit in such a role, although the majority of his work in his first season in Atlanta has come in the slot. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, Hester has caught an astounding 92 percent of his 14 targets when lined up in the slot for an average of 12.2 yards per catch going into Sunday’s game. When lining up outside, Hester has caught just 50 percent of 10 targets, but averages an impressive 20.8 yards per catch. Comparatively, Douglas has caught 72 percent of 18 slot targets for an average of 11.3 yards per catch. Outside the slot, Douglas has caught 50 percent of four targets for an average of 12 yards per catch.
The Falcons will be able to clear about $3.5 million in cap space next offseason by releasing Douglas. Hester could also be released, saving the team about $1.67 million in cap space. But it would be a surprise if Hester is released given his value on special teams. A $3.33 million cap hit in 2015 doesn’t appear too pricey for a special teams stud that can still occasionally take the top off a defense when working on offense even at his age.
Douglas will have a much harder time justifying his roughly $4.4 million cap hit, unless he has significant production down the stretch. His 1,067-yard performance from 2013 won’t be as much a saving grace as it was this past offseason given the multitude of “slot-capable” receivers the Falcons will have on their roster.
However, if Douglas keeps making catches like he did on that two-point conversion catch against the Buccaneers, then it could go a long way to saving his job.
The only player that could potentially benefit from the opportunity created by an injury to Jones would be current practice-squad member Bernard Reedy. But given the team already has a glut of slot receivers, Reedy might find difficulty earning reps on offense and much like current backup Freddie Martino, would likely be inactive for a majority of any remaining games.
Besides Jones, Reedy appears to be the only receiver on the right side of the 30 that appears to be potentially an asset for the Falcons long-term. And while I would love to see Reedy get an opportunity, it’s highly doubtful that would happen unless someone currently on the roster was shut down for the rest of the season. And particularly for a player like Jones, that would not be a fair tradeoff.
Steven Jackson Continued Strong 2014 on Sunday
Another positive from Sunday was that most people were finally awakened to the solid play of running back Steven Jackson with a season-high 81-yard effort against Tampa Bay.
Jackson has received an unfair and large amount of criticism this season, despite the fact that he has been one of the team’s most effective offensive players this year. Jackson has taken criticism for his pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry average this year, but as I explained in my most recent game review, that statistic doesn’t reveal his true value and impact.
As previously explained, success rate is a much more effective measure of evaluating a running back’s performance than yards per carry. But the former is often overlooked because it’s an “advanced” metric that isn’t readily available and also has a tendency to have fluid definitions from place to place.
I’ve often found small disagreements on what constitutes a success run on first down, whether it’s achieving 40 percent of the necessary yardage for a first down or as much as 50 percent. Personally, I take the easy route and split the difference at 45 percent. That also is the figure used by Football Outsiders, who rank Jackson with the eighth-best success rate of all runners in the league through Week 9.
But on Sunday, Jackson saw an uptick in his yards per carry because of a 27-yard run that skewed that number upwards. He finished the day averaging 5.1 yards on 16 carries. But outside that one long run, he averaged just 3.6 yards on his other 15 carries, more fairly pedestrian production.
But if judging by success rate, it would appear the opposite. Jackson had successful gains on 10 of 16 carries, or 62.5 percent of his runs. For the uninitiated, a success rate of 45 percent is typically considered ideal. Comparatively, on the Falcons’ nine other non-quarterback runs, they were only successful on two of those.
The problem is not that the Falcons’ other running backs have played poorly this year. They’ve all been effective too for the most part, with both Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers having solid production when judging by success rate. Smith’s success rate this year has been an impressive 57 percent, while Rodgers has roughly 42 percent. Devonta Freeman’s success rate of 28 percent was skewed downwards thanks largely to poor blocking in a 11-carry effort late against the Buccaneers in Week 3.
But in the realm of running backs it’s a zero-sum game. Only one back can get the ball at a time. And if Jackson is getting carries, it means that Smith, Rodgers and Freeman are not. And many have bristled at that because Jackson is also a short-timer.
Falcons May Do Jackson a Favor and Cut Him
Jackson has another year left on his contract but by carrying nearly a $5 million cap hit in 2015, he is very likely to be released. If he is, the Falcons will save $3.75 million against next year’s salary cap. Jackson may do the smart thing and try and renegotiate for a lower hit since he’ll be hard-pressed to get anything close to that figure on the open market next spring. Jackson will turn 32 next summer and even if he averaged 81 yards per game for the remainder of the season, he still would finish just shy of 1,000 yards rushing. That’s not likely to have teams breaking down his door to sign him to a lucrative deal should he become available next offseason.
But at the same time, Jackson may opt to refuse any renegotiation, hoping it will prompt his release. And that might be something the Falcons are willing to do. It’s clear that Jackson is looking to win a Super Bowl before he hangs up his cleats, and it’s unlikely the rebuilding project the Falcons are likely to undergo next season will bring him closer to that goal.
Teams like Denver, Indianapolis, Baltimore or Philadelphia appear much closer and all could certainly use a grinder like Jackson in their running back committees. Even considering that Jackson has been one of the few bright spots for the Falcons offense this year, they will likely do him a favor and expedite his release so that he gets one last opportunity elsewhere to add the ultimate bling to his collection.
Not many more positive takeaways to glean from Sunday’s win over the Buccaneers. The defense continues to struggle and give up points whenever they are put in critical moments. The Falcons did manage a couple of turnovers at some critical moments to stall Buccaneers drives in the second half. That was a positive, although turnovers tend to result from something simply known as luck.
But it might not be purely due to the luck. As they did in Week 3, the Falcons pass rush looked spry as they generated 11 hits on Bucs quarterback Josh McCown. As noted previously, there seems to be a hint of a correlation between generating pressure and turnovers.
In fact, in both Buccaneers games, official stats indicate the Falcons have hit opposing quarterbacks a combined 18 times. In their other six games combined, they have hit opposing quarterbacks just 14 times. And 10 of those came against the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears, thanks largely to the efforts of Jonathan Massaquoi, who was absent mostly from Sunday. It likely had to do with his foot injury that kept him limited in this past week’s practices. But nonetheless, Osi Umenyiora and to a lesser extent Kroy Biermann seemed to step up in his absence. The pair had six hits between them, with Umenyiora feasting on backup left tackle Oniel Cousins throughout the game.
Improvements to Pass Rush Could Prompt Changes to Defensive Front in 2015
Despite the effort, it’s very clear that a huge priority next offseason will be upgrading the team’s pass rush and front seven. It’s probable that there could be a significant revamp of the team’s front seven next offseason, with several new starters.
Umenyiora and Biermann will both become free agents after this season, and unless they can produce at similar levels for the majority of the remaining seven games, both will be unlikely to return in 2015.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Corey Peters also join Osi and Kroy as potential free agents. There’s a good chance that the Falcons will offer contracts to both, but by no means a guarantee that either will accept and stick around.
Current inside linebackers Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo have shown little indication that any should be penciled into starting spots next year. All will certainly be back in camp, but could be competing for an opportunity just to make the roster rather than a starting spot.
Massaquoi has played well this year in limited opportunities, but it remains to be seen if he is more than a situational player. However, one persistent issue many have with the Falcons current coaching staff is that they have been reluctant to give Massaquoi the opportunity to prove otherwise.
As mentioned before, both Soliai and Jackson are candidates for release next spring especially if the Falcons make a switch in scheme back to a 4-3 set. Between the two, Soliai is safer as he’s proven to be an effective two-down player in a 4-3 in past years in Miami. Jackson has spent his entire career playing in a 3-4 and has shown little when asked to kick inside as a defensive tackle when the Falcons have employed four-man fronts this year.
Jonathan Babineaux is 33 years old, and while his $3.67 million 2015 cap hit is not too pricey for an effective situational player like himself, he may also be seeking employment elsewhere. Babineaux would certainly benefit from a return to a 4-3, but if the next coaching staff continues the 3-4 looks, then he might be shown the door for someone that is a more natural fit.
Babineaux could fall into the same camp that former Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler once did when the arrival of Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff prompted his release in 2008. Crumpler was certainly a declining player at that point and spent the majority of his remaining three years in the NFL as a blocking tight end. Babineaux certainly still offers value as a rotational player evidenced by his two hits on Sunday against the Buccaneers, but it’s certainly possible that the next coaching staff feels they can get a younger, cheaper player in his spot.
Youth Movement Unlikely For Falcons 2014 Defense?
So when looking for players to pencil in as potential starters along the defensive line in 2015, there are certainly no safe bets. Malliciah Goodman and Ra’Shede Hageman will certainly return next year, but making a leap to starter seems to be a significant jump at this point. Both would have to show significant improvement in terms of production over the second half of 2014 to have that occur.
It certainly would benefit the team long-term to give young players such as them, as well as Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga increased reps over the next seven games. But it’s not likely to occur given the sort of short-term perspective that Mike Smith is likely to have since he’s trying to save his job. Even as Umenyiora noted in an interview last week, it’s the veterans that are more capable of stepping up and traversing the adversity that has hit this Falcon team in 2014.
So I suspect Falcon fans will continue to be frustrated over the usage of some of its younger defenders over the next two months.
But for all the frustration that is still likely to come in 2014, there’s always the hope of next season.