Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Week 11 – November 17, 2014

I’m sure if I really looked, I could probably find an uglier win in the Atlanta Falcons past. But Sunday’s win over the Carolina Panthers was certainly about as ugly as I can recall in recent memory.

Yet nonetheless, the Falcons now sit atop the NFC South with a 4-6 record. All four of their wins have come against divisional opponents and there’s the real possibility that the Falcons could sweep the division and yet not find a way to win any other game this season. That would be something for the record books, I’m sure.

But after giving up on this Falcons team and season over a month ago, it’s now reached a point where I might have to rethink that policy. It becomes an issue of taking it one week at a time. Sunday’s win buys back some faith and hope. A win next week against the Cleveland Browns buys a lot more. And if they can manage to upset the Arizona Cardinals the following week, it will buy even more.

At the start of October, the notion that the Falcons could get their act together and finish this season strong seemed a remote, but realistic possibility. However their play over the rest of that month really eradicated any hope that possibility would become a reality.

But the Falcons do seem to have found a little hope coming out of their bye. Their wins against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and now the Panthers, were anything but dominant. But they got the win, and that’s all that matters in the end, right?

I do agree with that statement to a certain extent, but how a team plays in their wins (or losses) cannot be dismissed. The Falcons don’t look like a very good team. But they seemingly play in a division where nobody else does either. So perhaps, they are best of a quartet of bad teams, which as unlikely as it sounds could get them into the playoffs.

My initial reaction to the team’s win against the Panthers was a negative one. It was hard for me to not focus on how the team almost gave away a lead twice in the final two minutes. Yet, now that I have a bit more time to step away and consider the game in it’s entirety, I realize that my initial reaction was colored by this season and how poorly it’s gone for the Falcons. It’s hard given how many things have gone wrong for the Falcons in 2014, to not keep looking at how easily things went wrong on Sunday. But in previous seasons when the Falcons were a winning team, these types of ugly wins were commonplace. And I had little issue accepting them as just another notch in the team’s belt on their path to January. So in reality, it’s not really the game I’m reacting to but the entire season instead.

I’m still reluctant to say that the Falcons have indeed turned around their season, but a win next week against the Browns could change that. But I’m at least ready to proclaim that the Falcons have injected a bit more hope back into the fan base. And if there is going to be any sort of eventual turnaround, it has to start with that.

How have they accomplished the renewed hope? Well, much of it has stemmed from improved defensive effort. Again, I’d be crazy to say that the Falcons defense has morphed into a good unit. But they are at least capitalizing on the mistakes of their opponents. They generated a trio of turnovers against the Buccaneers and added another pair against the Panthers on Sunday.

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Dwight Lowery has been a key component in the Falcons recent defensive shift

Turnovers can often be random occurrences. Malliciah Goodman made an excellent strip of Charles Sims last week, but the bounce of the ball to the point where Stansly Maponga could fall upon it could be considered random luck. Dwight Lowery’s interception in the end zone at the end of that Buccaneers game was both an instance of being in the right place at the right time and quick, split-second reaction by Lowery to make a play.

On Sunday, the Falcons got one of those turnovers that mixed both random luck and heady defensive play on Kemal Ishmael’s interception. Ishmael was certainly in the right place at the right time, and benefited from Panthers tight end Greg Olsen’s inability to reel in the catch. But Ishmael also made an excellent play toeing the sideline and getting both feet in bounds to make the grab. When Ishmael was initially coming over the top in coverage, he had no expectation that the ball would be coming to him. Random luck could be the onus behind the ball being deflected in his direction, but he deserves full credit for making the play after it was.

Desmond Trufant’s third-quarter interception on Sunday was more a play where you can clearly point to a defensive player simply making a play. Trufant read the slant to Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin perfectly, jumping the throw and picking off Cam Newton. Trufant did get a bit of help though as Newton threw late and inaccurately on the play, thanks in part to some pressure by Ishmael on a blitz causing him to throw off-balanced and side-armed.

But regardless of how much luck is involved with the Falcons creating turnovers, they are nonetheless creating them and benefiting from them. The Falcons scored 28 points off five Buccaneers turnovers in Week 3. Through Sunday’s game against the Panthers, the Falcons have scored just 16 points off their other 13 takeaways. And 10 of those points came of two turnovers in Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints.

So clearly the offense is failing to take advantage of the opportunities the defense is giving them. But at the same time, the turnovers are still a huge benefit because it’s getting the defense off the field. The Falcons once again are at the bottom of the league in terms of third-down defense. That has consistently been the case under head coach Mike Smith, as the team has finished 24th or worse in third-down defense for five consecutive seasons. And unless the team has a dramatic turnaround for the remaining six games this year, it looks like it’s inevitable that streak extends to six seasons.

It’s one of the reasons why there were many like myself that found the team’s decision to invest in their run defense rather than their pass rush to be a head-scratcher this offseason. But that’s a dead horse that has been beaten enough already.

Nonetheless, the point still remains that even though the Falcons aren’t benefiting from their turnovers by scoring points off them, they are benefiting in the sense that their opponents aren’t scoring either. These turnovers essentially count as their third-down stops. And for a defense that has struggled as much as the Falcons offense has this season, that is a major improvement.

Coming out of their Week 8 bye week, the Falcons have employed a lot more dime the past two weeks. When the Falcons utilize their dime looks, six defensive backs are employed on the field: three cornerbacks and three safeties. Dezmen Southward comes out on the field, and Lowery drops into the box to act either as an extra cornerback or extra linebacker, depending on the situation. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, Southward appeared in 66 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last week against the Buccaneers. While the snap counts aren’t known for Sunday’s game yet as I write this, it appeared at first glance that Southward got a significant amount of playing time.

This dime look didn’t help the Falcons on third downs last week as the Bucs converted 71 percent of their third down attempts, the worst performance of the season for the Falcons defense. But it may have paid off this past week against the Panthers, as the Falcons allowed a season-low 23 percent of third downs to be converted against them.

Now without reviewing the tape first, it would be foolish of me to suggest that success was largely because the team employed more dime looks. A lot of it probably had to do with the erratic passing of Newton on Sunday, which probably had less to do with the Falcons’ defensive looks and more to do with his sloppy mechanics and poor decision-making.

But nonetheless, it appears that the dime sub-package is here to stay and for good reason. The Falcons have gotten little from their linebackers over the course of this season. And essentially their dime sub-package replaces them with defensive backs, who are simply going to be better in coverage.

The flaw of the dime is that it may not present the best option against the run. But the Falcons appear to be sticking to employing their sub-package mostly in passing situations. And they’ve been able to avoid being put into too many of those situations the past two weeks because the team has been able to generate early leads.

It will be interesting to see if that is the case next week against the Browns, who are at the top of the league in terms of running the football.

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Arthur Blank can be a little more happy after the past two weeks’ results

So the Falcons will have a different test this week. But that is simply going to be the nature of the rest of the season. Every week will bring new and different challenges, and even as uncompelling as it sounds, Falcons head coach Mike Smith is right to try and keep the team focus on each week. And whether the Falcons are able to navigate those challenges will determine if they are “for real” in terms of continuing their reign atop the NFC South.

If the Falcons are successful, then there’s a good chance that Smith manages to keep his job. While that proposition doesn’t exactly thrill me, if Smith is able to lead the Falcons to a winning record in the second half of this season and get the Falcons into the postseason, it will be hard to argue that owner Arthur Blank would be wrong for keeping him on for one more year.

The Falcons have not done a good job responding to adversity over the past two seasons, yet have an opportunity to crush that narrative during what’s left of this season. The Falcons have four of their final six games at home. Their schedule had always set up for them to have the ability to finish the year strong with an ability to make a run down the stretch. The problem was that seven-game stint in the middle of the season that saw them playing one game inside the Georgia Dome. The key for the 2014 Falcons season was always to try and navigate that span as best they could. Going into the year, the hope was that the team could win three or four of those games, putting themselves into position to make a stretch run for the playoffs in November and December.

The Falcons are still in position to make that run to the playoffs despite only winning two of those past seven games. Losing five of those games wasn’t necessarily the problem, but rather it was the fashion in which they lost them. The Falcons lost those five consecutive games by a combined margin of 60 points, or an average of two scores.

Over the past two seasons, the Falcons have lost a total of 10 games by a margin of at least nine points. That nearly matches the total of 12 such losses they had combined from 2008 to 2012. As a fanbase, we’re just not used to seeing the Falcons being as uncompetitive as they have been for much of the past two seasons.

But what we did grow accustomed to was the close, ugly wins. The Falcons had an uncanny knack for winning close games during Smith’s first five seasons. But over the last two years, the Falcons have struggled to pull out wins in such games, sporting a 5-8 record which is near the bottom of the league in that span.

Yet, they managed to do so on Sunday in Charlotte. Does that mean their close-game slump is over? That remains to be seen but Sunday’s win with the high degree of turnovers and ability to pull out a close one at least were reminiscent of the Falcons teams of old that were actually pretty good.

Despite my initial negativity over the ugliness of the Falcons win, I can appreciate that. Regardless of how the rest of the Falcons 2014 season turns out, at least they were able to give me that before it comes to a close.

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Aaron Freeman
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