Who are you, and what did you do with the 2014 Atlanta Falcons defense?
Apparently the Falcons organization pulled a switcheroo at some point before landing in New Orleans this weekend. Because the defense that showed up on Sunday in the team’s 30-14 win over the Saints looked far different than any we’ve seen for quite some time in Atlanta.
The Falcons needed to create turnovers in order to win the game. They did that with four turnovers that led to 10 Falcons points. They needed to create pressure to harass Saints quarterback Drew Brees. They did that by sacking Brees five times.
Not only did the Falcons need their defense to step up, they also needed to wide receiver Julio Jones to be healthy and productive. He was that, despite nursing a sore hip. Jones finished the day for the team lead with seven catches for 107 yards.
But let’s revisit the Falcons defense for a moment. Despite all the clamoring for the Falcons to utilize their young edge-rushers in Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga, it was the “old men” of the defensive line that stepped up in what amounted to be the biggest game of the team’s 2014 season to date.
Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux appeared to wreak havoc throughout the game with several pressures and hits. Osi Umenyiora made a play when it mattered, destroying ex-Falcons and Saints left tackle Bryce Harris to put a lick on Brees on his final interception. Then on the next Saints possession, Umenyiora got the scoop-and-score off the sack-strip from Biermann to seal the victory in the final seconds.
Veteran Defenders Lead Way for Falcons
Osi had this to say to CBS Sports during the team’s bye week:
“We have a lot of young players. I think in the NFL everybody’s trying to push the veterans out. Get out of here, we want young players. But at the end of the day, of course it’s all about money. But at the end of the day when your backs are against the wall, the rookies aren’t going to step up. They’re going to capitulate every single time. It’s going to be the veteran players who have been there and who have played football and who have been through all the wars. Those are the guys that are going to be able to come out there and perform for you when your backs are against the wall.”
And there’s no denying that he absolutely nailed it. The Falcons’ collective backs were against the wall going into Sunday, and it was the veteran players who stepped up. That’s not to say that many of the young players didn’t also step up.
Ra’Shede Hageman also got in on the action up front, as he earned his first career sack and seemed to push Saints right guard Jahri Evans around quite a bit. Paul Worrilow also made his fair share of plays, including a key hit on Brees on a third-down blitz that led to a stop.
Controversial Ishmael Strip Becomes Play of Game
And rookie safety Kemal Ishmael might have made the biggest play of the game with a goal-line strip of tight end Jimmy Graham that prevented the Saints from scoring seven points.
If I’m being honest, had I been in the officials’ shoes, I think I would have ruled it a touchdown. It appeared to me that the nose of the ball crossed the plane by an inch or two. But I certainly won’t stand on a soapbox and say that the officials got it wrong. They ruled it a fumble on the field and there wasn’t conclusive evidence to overturn it. Had they initially ruled it a touchdown or that Graham’s forward progress had been stopped, it probably would have gone the opposite way.
I’m sure Saints fans feel that single call robbed them of their victory. And I certainly can’t blame them for that opinion. While the Falcons didn’t generate any points off that turnover, it did take potentially seven points off the board for the Saints. If that’s a touchdown, it’s suddenly 20-14 to start the fourth quarter. And if they go down and score on their next possession as they eventually did, it’s suddenly 21-20 in their favor with less than six minutes to go. And the Falcons are then on their heels as opposed to the other way around.
Sense of Urgency Needed For Falcons’ Playoff Hopes to Remain Alive
But despite that big play, it’s fairly safe to say that the young players took their leads from the veteran players. A first or second-year player could not truly appreciate the depth of this rivalry. Even though Umenyiora is only in his second year in Atlanta, his experience from playing nine seasons with the New York Giants certainly allows him to appreciate the magnitude of the situation. It wasn’t that long ago that a 7-7 Giants team was on the outside looking in going into the final two games of the year and needing to run the table to make the playoffs. That Giants team eventually won the Super Bowl via a postseason path that included holding a 10-6 Falcons team to just two points.
Hailing from a system that includes bowl games, no young player is going to appreciate the sense of urgency required to overcome it. Their careers are only beginning and no different than most human beings will have a tendency to take any early success for granted.
Steven Jackson perfectly illustrates this. As a rookie, he was a reserve on a St. Louis Rams team that finished 8-8 and made the playoffs in 2004. Especially given that the Rams had made the playoffs four of the previous five seasons, including two Super Bowl appearances, Jackson likely took that early success for granted and assumed that playoff berths would be regular for the years to come. Well, of course history had other plans as the Rams have failed to make the postseason or eclipse eight regular-season wins for the decade since.
Next week, the Falcons will have to again play with a similar level of urgency. They face the Carolina Panthers at home, with the winner of the game becoming the NFC South champion and the underwhelming division’s only representative in the postseason.
Will the Falcons be able to rely on their defensive veterans to step up for a second week in a row? Perhaps, but no one should fault the coaches if they continue to give the veterans that opportunity.
Several Veteran Linemen Might Be Gone Come 2015
Should players like Biermann, Babineaux and Umenyiora fail to step up again, I for one won’t complain about it. All three players could be playing their final gamees with the Falcons and perhaps in the NFL.
Biermann and Umenyiora both become free agents after this season. Umenyiora has already indicated that he is poised to retire at the end of the season. While he has failed to live up to expectations here in Atlanta, it will still be tough to see one of the past decade’s top pass-rushers hang up his cleats.
Biermann will be just age 29 at year’s end, so presumably he has a few more years left in the league. But they probably won’t come in Atlanta.
Despite an unprecedented level of vitriol directed towards him by the fan base, Biermann hasn’t been nearly as bad a football player as many like to pretend. In fact, in a few games this year he’s arguably been the best player on the field at least as far as front seven defenders go. He’s had a solid career in Atlanta over the past seven seasons, working his way from a fifth-round pick into a starting role.
Babineaux won’t be leaving the Falcons via free agency if he departs after the season. But he’s 33 years old and should the Falcons’ next coach be one that insists on a complete transition to a 3-4 scheme, it’s questionable if he’ll feel overly compelled to keep Babs given his age and the fact that releasing him in the offseason could save the team more than $2 million on next year’s cap.
The fact that Babineaux can still get after the quarterback could potentially save him, as today most “true” 3-4 defense still employ four-man fronts in their nickel and dime sub-packages. But if the Falcons make a coaching change, the next head guy could believe that he can get a younger, cheaper player for that same role.
That could be Corey Peters, if the Falcons can convince the soon-to-be free agent to re-sign with the team. But that might prove tough given that the team slighted him this past offseason with a low, one-year “prove it” deal despite being extremely gracious when spending for free agents in Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson.
Reports Indicate Smith Remains on Hot Seat
However, those decisions have yet to be made and won’t be made for several months. Until then, the Falcons sole focus will be on making the playoffs.
But one can’t completely dismiss the notion that even such a feat won’t save Mike Smith’s job. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora is the latest to release a report that Smith is well on his way out the door, regardless of the outcome of this season.
Well, to be fair La Canfora indicated that only a “shocking playoff run” could salvage Smith’s job. I interpret that to mean that only a trip to the NFC Championship Game or beyond will be cut it. So clearly, La Canfora’s sources fly in the face of my speculation last week that making the playoffs would be enough.
The report also indicated the general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s job is comparatively safe and will likely be retained. My interpretation of that is that unless Blank can land a big-name coach that has the level of clout to hand-pick his own GM, then Dimitroff is probably going to stick around.
Despite my frequent criticisms of Dimitroff, such a revelation is by no means a surprise. Compared to head coaches, NFL general managers tend to be teflon. For the most part, they are able to survive two or more head-coaching changes before the crosshairs fall upon them.
The most interesting thing from La Canfora’s report is that it implies that Falcons owner Arthur Blank expected the team to show that their 2013 season was an aberration and be back in the Super Bowl hunt this year. Blank certainly wasn’t alone in that regard as I had many a conversation with my fellow Falcon fans this offseason that believed it was a “Super Bowl or bust” sort of year.
Were the Falcons Ever A Super Bowl Team?
What makes that interesting is the implication that Blank believed this team was a Super Bowl-caliber group heading into this season, and falling anywhere short of that goal would be considered a failure on the part of the team’s coaching staff. And if that’s the case, I can only conclude that Dimitroff has pulled a fast one on Blank.
It’s undeniable that the Falcons have underachieved this year, but I don’t think it’s to the extent that it’s popularly perceived. Certainly, the Falcons could have a couple more wins if Smith had done a better job managing the clock. But even if they were 8-7 instead of 6-9, they’d still be a highly flawed 8-7 team.
Teams that make deep runs in the playoffs typically lack the level of flaws the Falcons have and also tend to have some commonalities. Those commonalities typically are balance on offense and strong defensive play. And when I say balance, I’m not necessarily describing the run-pass balance that is most often conferred with that word. Instead, I’m referring to an offense that isn’t reliant on one thing or one player to carry them.
This lack of balance is most often seen with run-first teams struggling in January when playing from behind and compelled to throw. This was certainly the case for the Falcons during the early portion of Smith’s stint in Atlanta.
In the case of the 2014 Falcons, their balance is lacking due to the fact that the offense becomes exceedingly ordinary if/when Jones is out of the lineup. This was evidenced last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers where the Falcons struggled at home to move the ball and score points against one of the league’s worst defenses. The Falcons have essentially been one Jones injury away from being one of the weaker offenses in the league.
Lack of Talent and Player Development Holding Falcons Back
Many might be quick to put that on the shortcomings of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, which is valid to a certain extent. But Koetter’s offense was just fine when quarterback Matt Ryan had quality weapons like Tony Gonzalez and a younger, healthier Roddy White to throw to alongside Jones. And it’s not necessarily Koetter’s fault that he was saddled with the likes of Levine Toilolo and aging versions of White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester to fill that void this season.
The Falcons have done a poor job acquiring and developing talent at wide receiver and tight end over the entire stint of Smith’s tenure. And while some might be quick to point the blame at Smith or wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie for those failures, it’s hard to successfully develop undrafted talent like Eric Weems, Drew Davis and Michael Palmer into quality weapons. Coupled with late-round talent like Toilolo and Kerry Meier, the coaching staff wasn’t given adequate material to mold and work with.
It’s not to say that the decisions to draft or sign those players were made independent of the coaches’ input. But I can’t put too much blame on them when limited players like Palmer and Meier don’t work out.
The Falcons’ defensive shortcomings can also be linked to a deficiency in talent. When looking around the league at the top defenses, particularly when focused on their defensive lines, there is comparatively a massive dearth of talent here in Atlanta. Where are the players like Justin Houston, Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus, or Ziggy Ansah on this Falcons defensive front?
The Falcons took players in Soliai and Tyson Jackson that were role players playing less than half the snaps on top defenses, paid them a ton of money, and seemingly expected them to step up to become the playmakers that they never were in previous stints. But those guys were successful on their former teams because they were surrounded by playmakers like Justin Houston, Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson, Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby and Randy Starks. Soliai and Jackson’s jobs in Miami and Kansas City, respectively, were basically to eat up blockers, to free up those others to make plays. Outside Desmond Trufant and healthy versions of William Moore and Sean Weatherspoon, those players don’t exist on this roster.
A much more realistic expectation that Blank could have had for this year’s team given their roster was to finish slightly above .500. Smith won’t reach that, but he’s at least in the same zip code.
Poor Self-Evaluation Proves Achilles Heel for Falcons
I try not to fall into the camp of blaming either Smith or Dimitroff for the team’s problems. It’s an failure on both their parts and of the entire organization from the top down. The Falcons either ignored or failed to address a multitude of holes that existed back in 2012 even when they were on the doorstep of reaching the Super Bowl.
That 2012 team finished 29th in the league in rushing. Their solution to improving that was signing an over-the-hill running back like Steven Jackson.
That 2012 team finished 26th in third-down defense and 28th in sacks. Their solution was to cut their top pass-rusher and sign a declining Umenyiora.
Their solution to improving upon what was deemed an average offensive line in 2012 was to drop their two highest-graded blockers in Tyson Clabo and Todd McClure in favor of a youth movement headed by players like Peter Konz, Lamar Holmes and Garrett Reynolds, who already don’t or soon won’t figure into the team’s future plans up front.
It’s all just indicative of a serial problem with the Falcons’ inability to identify weaknesses and/or properly address them.
I know several of you that are reading this are wondering why I’m discussing these problems rather than basking in the fact that the Falcons just swept the Saints for the first time in nearly a decade. The irony that the worst team that Smith has ever headed in Atlanta happened to also be the one team that managed to sweep the Saints is not lost on me.
Despite the gloating that Sunday’s win will provide this fan base for the weeks and months to come, one cannot ignore the fact that this franchise is still approaching a crossroads in the near future.
If Falcons ownership is of the mindset that this team should be on the cusp of winning a Super Bowl if it only had the right head coach, then that might create a potentially troubling dynamic for the next regime. Will the next head coach be expected to pick up where Smith left off in 2012?
Does Blank Deserve Greater Scrutiny for Falcons’ Shortcomings?
It certainly is possible that an infusion of new and different energy on the sideline can cause this team to potentially go on that “shocking” postseason run January. But that wouldn’t be the first time the Falcons have been down that path. Both Smith and Jim Mora had a high level of success in their first years, and soon after both general managers in Dimitroff and Rich McKay started chasing the sort of players to get the team “over the hump” rather than continuing to concentrate on long-term, sustained success.
Teams like the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots that have had sustained success and multiple Super Bowl wins over the past 15 or so years don’t take shortcuts like the Falcons tried to do in 2006 and 2011.
Instead of all the focus being on whether Smith or Dimitroff are doing their jobs, perhaps Blank should be under greater scrutiny. Is his first priority going to be trying to build sustained success here in Atlanta? Or perhaps is trying to sell personal seat licenses and tickets to his new venue that is ballooning in cost?
But that’s probably a question that needs to be revisited in the offseason. For the rest of the week, the following question feels more appropriate:
Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?
Oh, that would be the Atlanta Falcons, of course. Rise Up.