“On any given Sunday, you can win or lose.”
Perhaps that is not the exact quote from the famous phrase that indicates the fickle nature of professional football, but it’s the basic premise.
That statement proved very true this past Sunday where the 4-7 Atlanta Falcons defeated the 9-2 Arizona Cardinals with a 29-18 victory. The Cardinals were the NFC’s top team, while the Falcons, despite holding a lead on their division, were considered among the conference’s worst.
While few who had watched the Cardinals this season would claim them to be a juggernaut without flaws, they certainly appeared to too tough an opponent for the inconsistent and frankly, soft Falcons team that has taken the field throughout the 2014 season. So much so that I felt it really unnecessary to write a preview of this game this past weekend because I just didn’t see much of a way in which the Falcons could win.
Had I written such a preview I likely would have hoped for Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton turning the ball over multiple times in a reversal of the Falcons past two meetings against the Cardinals where Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a combined nine interceptions in their past two meetings. Without which I would have found it difficult to project a Falcons win. And that did occur with Stanton tossing a pair of interceptions, coupled with a fumble from wide receiver Michael Floyd. But never would I have expected the Falcons offense to be as successful as they were Sunday against one of the league’s premier defenses that the Cardinals sported.
One definitive takeaway from Sunday was that it was clearly not the Cardinals’ best day, while it could be argued that it certainly was the best overall performance from the Falcons in the entire 2014 season.
Perception Rarely Meshes With Reality
This Falcon team has now won three out of its most recent four game coming out of its Week 9 bye. And without some poor game-management decisions by Mike Smith in Weeks 8 and 12 against the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns respectively, it’s possible the Falcons could now have just wrapped up a five-game winning streak. Certainly, a timeout here or there would completely change the perception of this Falcon football team which could now be 7-5 instead of their actual record of 5-7.
Now perception is fascinating because it really boils down to wins and losses. A win tends to whitewash all the negative things that occurred in a game, while a loss only makes them more pronounced.
For example, the Falcons defense nearly suffered catastrophic collapses in wins over both the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers in Weeks 10 and 11. Quarterbacks Josh McCown and Cam Newton had little to no trouble moving their respective teams down the field in the fourth quarter to set up scores. McCown wound up throwing an interception in the end zone that could have potentially cut the Falcons’ lead to three points to set up a onside kick with under two minutes remaining. Newton on the other hand stood idly by as Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed a potential game-winning field goal from 46 yards out with less than 82 seconds remaining in that game.
While most understandably focus on Smith’s poor decisions in the losses to the Lions and Browns, one can’t simply overlook that those games also featured defensive collapses that saw the Falcons’ opponents drive the length of the field in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
One of the points I tried to make in last week’s takeaways was to not overlook the fact that the Falcons defense was functionally a revolving door in crunch time throughout the entire season. And whether or not Smith makes the right decisions when it comes to clock management doesn’t change that fact.
And in the reality of pro football, there aren’t going to be many games where a head coach calling a timeout is going to be the deciding factor. However, a defense’s ability to get a stop in critical situations is going to matter almost every single week. There’s no doubt that if Smith had made better decisions, the Falcons could currently be sitting at 7-5. But that’d be a 7-5 team with a defense that couldn’t stop middling offenses like the Lions, Buccaneers, Panthers and Browns. And thus the perception of that 7-5 team probably wouldn’t meet the reality.
Instead this past Sunday, the Falcons won and it was an instance where perception met reality. The Falcons beat the Cardinals because they played well, not because they caught a break.
Certainly, there are some concerning things from the team’s win over the Cardinals. The fact that the Falcons were only able to generate a touchdown on one of five red-zone trips is definitely concerning. But it’s worth noting that the Cardinals sport one of the league’s premiere red-zone defenses, so one wonders whether those failures were due to the Falcons’ struggles or because of the Cardinals’ toughness. But otherwise, the Falcons really had no issues moving the ball against the Cardinals.
Jones Took Advantage of Flawed Cardinals Defensive Gameplan
And that was thanks largely to the play of wide receiver Julio Jones, who repeatedly beat Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson throughout the game. Peterson received little safety help in covering Jones, and that ultimately proved to be a mistake on Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ part as Jones made them pay for it.
It was a risk few teams have shown a willingness to make this season, typically bracketing Jones as much as possible with both a safety and corner to prevent the Falcons wide receiver from breaking out. One could understand Bowles’ decision to not follow suit, as there haven’t been a better pair of starting corners in 2014 than Peterson and Antonio Cromartie have been. Both players have experience against Jones, as Peterson drew frequent matchups on an island against him during their shared careers at Alabama and LSU in college. Cromartie held his own at times against Jones as a New York Jet, as the Falcons receiver gained 99 yards on eight catches in their Week 5 contest a season ago.
Other games where Jones has been held in check usually have featured a physical, press corner like Aqib Talib or Xavier Rhodes getting plenty of safety help over the top to guard against the deep ball in the situations where Jones is successfully able to get past the defender.
Jones Critical to Falcons Offensive Success
The simple truth is that the Falcons offense goes as Jones goes. When they are effective at getting him the ball, the team also manages to move the ball effectively. If looking at all seven of the Falcons’ scoring drives against the Cardinals, Jones received the ball on six of them and made the key play on five of them. On those seven possessions, Jones totaled nine catches for 173 yards. On the team’s four other full offensive possessions (not counting the final one which featured two kneel downs) where they generated no points, Jones totaled just one catch for 16 yards. And that 16-yard catch came on the drive where the Falcons were driving, but Matt Ryan threw the pick-six to Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson. So in a twisted way, somebody still managed to score when Jones got the ball.
If only including the scoring drives where Jones made the key play, he accounted for 164 of the team’s 259 total yards on those five possessions. That’s one player accounting for 63 percent of the team’s offense, which eventually led to 19 points.
And one could certainly argue that the Falcons’ red-zone troubles on Sunday had a lot to do with their inability to get Jones the ball in those situations, as he saw just one red-zone target against the Cardinals.
I don’t know how these numbers hold up over the course of the entire 2014 season, but I can certainly say from the eyeball test in terms of reviewing games, there certainly appears to be a strong correlation between Jones getting the ball and the Falcons’ offense clicking. Thanks to Bowles’ overconfidence in the abilities of Peterson on Sunday, the Falcons offense was able to click at least between the 20-yard lines.
But it wasn’t just Jones that was showing out against the Cardinals, as the defense also played well. After the Falcons built their early 17-0 lead, I’m sure many like myself were just waiting for the Cardinals to climb back into the game as teams like the Lions and Panthers did. That never occurred, thanks in part to shoddy play from Stanton but the Falcons defense also deserves a fair share of credit for holding the Cardinals offense at bay.
One certainly could point out the return of safety William Moore from injury as a reason for that. Moore’s presence at strongs safety seemed to free up free safety Dwight Lowery to be utilized more effectively. Lowery made a nice interception off a tipped pass and was also able to blitz a few more times which led to some pressure. Having Moore on the back end likely allowed defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to do some more exotic things with his blitzes since he had a safety that he could trust to not blow his deep coverage and zone assignments as readily as fellow safeties Kemal Ishmael and Dezmen Southward have done over the past two months since Moore was first sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Falcons Receive Boost From Cliff Matthews
The Falcons run defense also showed up. The Cardinals aren’t a good rushing team, but that hadn’t stopped other Falcons opponents that were struggling on the ground from gashing the defense in previous games this season. Is it a coincidence that the Falcons run defense improved while nose tackle Paul Soliai was absent for this week’s practices as well as inactive on Sunday due to an undisclosed personal matter? Perhaps, although the tape will have to be the final determinant. Regardless, in Soliai’s absence the Falcons got solid production from defensive tackle Cliff Matthews against the Cardinals. Matthews was officially credited with a pass deflection which was actually performed by Jonathan Babineaux in the first quarter, but also had a pair of pressures and hits on Stanton in the game.
Matthews is a player that I’ve always had an affinity for since he usually manages to pop on tape even in limited opportunities. Throughout 2012, he always seemed to be getting a stop against the run or providing some heat on the quarterback thanks to his high effort and motor. That wasn’t the case throughout the 2013 when he tried bulking up and didn’t seem to handle the extra bulk and muscle well. But this past summer, he looked to have put those issues past him. Throughout most of the preseason, Matthews lined up beside Ra’Shede Hageman at defensive tackle and continually out-worked and out-produced the Falcons second-round rookie against opposing second and third-string linemen. It signals one of the criticisms I’ve had for this current coaching staff and front office regime, in that if things were truly a meritocracy, then a player like Matthews (as well as Travian Robertson) would have been playing throughout the first three months of the season over an inconsistent, younger player like Hageman.
But at the same time I also understand that in terms of developmental potential, a player like Hageman blows away Matthews and Robertson and thus deserves playing time for that reason alone. Hageman needs time on the field in order to develop and his size, power and strength combine to give him far greater potential down the road than either Matthews or Robertson possess if said development occurs, particularly the former. Matthews is essentially “tapped out” as far as his upside goes. He’s not going to be a player that ever possesses the sort of first-step quickness to be a spectacular disruptor, nor does he have the natural strength to think he can be a space-eater against the run. He basically wins because he’s going to outwork the guy he lines up across from. And that can and has been effective at times, but it’s certainly not going to reap a defense a ton of positives on any given Sunday.
I think that speaks a lot to my criticisms of the Falcons talent over the course of this season. There just seem to be too many players like Matthews that are nearly “tapped out” on this roster as opposed to guys like Hageman that still have tremendous room for growth.
Can Falcons Repeat Success Next Week Against Packers?
It’s also worth noting that against the Cardinals, Matthews was facing two of the leagues’ weakest offensive guards in Ted Larsen and Paul Fanaika. Next week against the Green Bay Packers, he’ll be facing two of the league’s best guards in T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton. And while Matthews deserves plenty of praise for his performance this past weekend, things don’t bode quite as well when looking ahead to next week.
And that hints to the concerns moving forward for the Falcons, which is whether they can repeat Sunday’s solid performance against the Cardinals against the Packers next week. Like the Cardinals, the Packers have some flaws with a defense that isn’t particularly great. If the Falcons can find ways to get Jones the ball and it doesn’t require them to rely on predictable screen passes, then they have the capacity to take advantage of that Packers weakness. However, it’s unlikely that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will watch this week’s Falcons-Cardinals game and repeat the mistake of Bowles and not provide frequent safety help for whichever cornerback that is tasked with covering Jones.
Green Bay also has an outstanding offense and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will certainly test the limits of Atlanta’s defense far more than Stanton was capable of doing. While the Falcons defense did play particularly well on this most recent Sunday, if looking at their entire 12-game body of work, it appears probable that if quarterbacks like McCown and Newton can move the ball effectively against the defense, then someone like Rodgers should decimate them.
Throw in the fact that the Falcons will be playing outdoors on the road in what is projected to be freezing temperatures also doesn’t appear conducive to success. But you never know and that’s why anything can happen on any given Sunday.