That doesn’t include injuries to starting offensive tackle Sam Baker (knee), defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knee), and wide receiver Roddy White (ankle) that caused them each to struggle on Sunday.
The risk of injuries was a major factor in whether the Falcons could repeat their previous success this season. The team has been relatively injury-free in the Mike Smith era, but it seems like things are finally catching up to the team. Having an early bye week may prove very beneficial for the team.
One of the positives that the injuries are creating is that it is giving some young players some opportunities to play. Linebacker Joplo Bartu stepped up in the absence of Weatherspoon, subbing in on the nickel sub-package in the second half rather than Stephen Nicholas. Nicholas held that role last year, but has fallen hard on the Falcons’ depth chart. Akeem Dent has taken the everydown role at middle linebacker opposite Sean Weatherspoon. Bartu is now earning reps on passing downs. And the Falcons appear to be unwilling to pull Kroy Biermann off the field, as he’s been getting work at strongside linebacker. Nicholas did play a few snaps today on defense, but barely. I was happy when the team opted to keep him, but if I knew that they were going to avoid using him this much, then perhaps the team was better served cutting him, saving the $2 million against the cap, and going with a veteran to play special teams.
Bartu does remind me a bit of a younger Stephen Nicholas, showing good aggressiveness and ability to attack the run. He’s probably a step or two faster than Nicholas was even at a young age, which better serves him in coverage. Bartu was beat just as much as Dent was yesterday against the quick Rams wide outs and tight ends, so he’s still a work in progress there. But at least his speed gives him some upside. It wouldn’t shock me if by year’s end he is a regular in the nickel. And if the Falcons can’t get healthy at linebacker, then it might not even take that long.
Another player that also stepped up today due to injuries was defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi. Massaquoi got a few pressures on Sam Bradford in the second and third quarters in the absence of Kroy Biermann. He looked to have a greater impact as a pass rusher in this game than Osi Umenyiora, although the veteran defensive end’s two batted passes and 68-yard return on a pick six were much more instrumental to the Falcons’ victory overall.
But the Falcons need to find ways to generate more pressure. Sam Bradford dropped back to pass 55 times today, and not once did the Falcons sack him. Sure, there were plays where they generated pressure and forced errant passes and throwaways. But the Rams were down three scores for roughly 25 minutes of this ball game. The Falcons’ defense had every opportunity to pin their ears back and rush the quarterback without abandon during that time period, and still could not consistently get their hands on Bradford.
And speaking of the Rams being down three scores, this is another game where the Falcons struggled to finish. There are legitimate excuses why the Falcons couldn’t put the nail in the coffin against the Rams wit the biggest ones being the injuries, their lack of pass rush, and the inability to run the ball.
The Falcons cannot really help the injuries. But the other two things can be fixed, at least in theory. A major concern after this win is whether the Falcons are in for another year where their running game is ineffective for the majority of the season. It certainly was on Sunday as the team generated just three yards rushing on their first nine carries. If not for the two runs by Jason Snelling for 19 yards, the Falcons would have finished with just 17 yards on 14 carries.
I have been the first to take a shot at Michael Turner whenever I’ve gotten the opportunity, but today’s effort makes me think perhaps Turner wasn’t so bad. But to indicate how pathetic a 36-yard rushing effort is, the Falcons have not won a game where they rushed under 40 yards since their season finale in 1999 season, where they had 37 yards on 21 carries against the San Francisco 49ers.
In my lifetime (I was born in 1983), the Falcons have had 25 games where they rushed for under 40 yards. And they have lost 24 of them. That’s not meant to be some meaningless stat either. A runner has to average 62.5 yards per game to reach 1000 yards. And over the past 30 years, when the Falcons have had 62 or less yards in a game they are 8-69. The point is that balance on offense breeds success. The point I’m trying to illustrate is that when you’re as unbalanced as the Falcons were today, you’re not supposed to win those football games.
But the Falcons were able to do so mainly because of the play of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, who were excellent today.
And I don’t mean this to be negative after a win. Look, there are ugly wins and as a fan I’ll take every single one of them. But for all the people out there that expect this Falcon team to win a Super Bowl, this team was far from that caliber of team today.
That doesn’t mean they can’t get better moving forward as things to clicking and (hopefully) players get off the trainer’s table. But people might want to pump their brakes on the Super Bowl talk until we see a Falcons team that deserves to be discussed in that light.
Elsewhere in the NFL…
Sunday was full of a lot of great finishes as several games included major switches in momentum late in their games. And for momentum, I’m going to talk about Win Probability as displayed by Advanced NFL Stats. Using their live Win Probability graphs for every game, here are the highlights from yesterday’s late-game drama:
Buffalo 24, Carolina 23
Buffalo had a 16-percent chance of winning the game when their final drive began with 1:42 left in the fourth quarter down 23-17. That fell to 7-percent by the time 0:47 hit. But E.J. Manuel hit Stevie Johnson on an 11-yard pass to give Buffalo a first down at Carolina’s 35-yard line. Manuel would later throw an interception to Colin Jones on a pass to Johnson a few plays later but the pick would be wiped out by a holding call on Luke Kuechly. That gave Buffalo a new set of downs at Carolina’s 11-yard line with 0:14 left. After Manuel’s nine-yard scramble, a breakdown in coverage left Johnson wide open in the endzone for a two-yard score with six seconds left on the clock.
Bears 31, Vikings 30
The Bears had a 24-percent chance of winning when their game-winning drive started with 3:08 on the clock at their own 34-yard line. That did not change hardly at all after driving the field to the Viking’s 16-yard line with 0:21 left in the game, as they only had a 22-percent chance of winning then. But after Jay Cutler’s incompletion to Alshon Jeffery, he hit Martellus Bennett on a back-shoulder throw in the endzone to score with 10 seconds left.Texans 30, Titans 24 (OT)
Arian Foster scored a one-yard touchdown and then followed it up with a two-point conversion to tie the game 24-24 with 1:53 left on the clock. When the Texans began that scoring drive with 3:08 on the clock at their own 13-yard line, they had only a 3-percent chance of winning. Foster’s score raised that to 34-percent after a drive that saw Andre Johnson knocked out of the game on a Bernard Pollard hit. The Titans with the momentum, had a three-and-out from Jake Locker which made it an even split (50-percent) as the Texans got the ball back with 0:57 left in the game. Keshawn Martin caught a 32-yard pass from Schaub on the second play to get the ball into Titans’ territory. Eventually the Texans would line up with five seconds on the clock to kick the game-winning field goal. Randy Bullock would hit the 51-yarder, but it would be negated by the sneaky timeout Mike Munchak called before the snap. On the next play, Michael Griffin blocked the kick. But he would be flagged for jumping offside, giving Bullock five more yards. But his next kick sailed wide left, but again Munchak called a timeout before the snap. On his fourth try, Bullock’s 46-yard attempt hit off the left upright and sending the game into overtime.
Never to fear, as the Texans won the toss, increasing their chances of winning the game to 77-percent. DeAndre Hopkins stepped up in Johnson’s absence as he caught a 25-yard pass to get the ball down to the Titans’ one-yard line on 3rd-and-10. A few plays later on 3rd-and-goal from the three-yard line, Matt Schaub found Hopkins again on a back-shoulder grab going out of bounds. Hopkins should great body control and reeled in the catch.
Dolphins 24, Colts 20
This was a game where the Colts failed to overcome the odds and win the game. When Brent Grimes picked off Andrew Luck’s pass to Reggie Wayne in the endzone with 8:29 left in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins had a 76-percent chance of winning. But the Colts would get one more opportunity to win it. Miami’s chance of winning was 75-percent when the Colts’ drive started with 3:57 left in the game at Indianapolis’ 14-yard line. And Miami’s chance of winning dropped to 53-percent when Luck hit Wayne on 3rd-and-6 for an 18-yard gain to get the ball to Miami’s 23 with 1:50 left in the game. But Luck failed to complete his next three passes before finally getting sacked on fourth down with 1:27 left in the game. By then, Miami’s chances shot to 95-percent and their running game salted the game away.
Chargers 33, Eagles 30
This game had several back and forth moments at the end. Michael Vick’s two-yard scrambling touchdown gave the Eagles a 27-23 lead with 7:06 left in the game. At that point, San Diego’s chances of winning were only at 28-percent. Fozzy Whittaker would fumble the ensuing kickoff at the Chargers’ 39-yard line. But the Eagles failed to fall on it, and the ball rolled 22 yards further upfield before Darrell Stuckey eventually fell on it at the Eagles’ 39-yard line. That alone increased San Diego’s chances of winning by 46-percent. Eddie Royal’s third catch on the drive was a 15-yard score on a screen pass where he went untouched. The Chargers’ chances of winning shot to 78-percent with 3:11 left in the game.
Vick and the Eagles would get the ball down the field. Vick would find Brent Celek at the goalline, but the tight end couldn’t hang onto the ball. Vick would take a brutal hit on the play from Jarius Wynn and leave the game briefly. On the next play, Nick Foles missed DeSean Jackson on a fade in the endzone. Two plays later, Alex Henery would hit a 32-yard field goal with 1:51 left in the game to tie the game 30-30. At that point, San Diego had a 60-percent chance of winning.
On the fifth play of the ensuing drive, Philip Rivers found Danny Woodhead on six-yard pass, beating Connor Barwin, on 3rd-and-4 with 0:21 left in the game. Their chances of winning shot to 88-percent as San Diego now had the ball at Philly’s 31-yard line, within field goal range. That helped set up a Nick Novak game-winning field from 46-yards a few plays later with seven seconds left in the game.
Cardinals 25, Lions 21
Another failed attempt for the Lions. After a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown to give the Cardinals a late lead with 1:59 on the clock, the Lions had a 22-percent chance of winning. After Tyrann Mathieu tackled Nate Burleson on a quick slant on 4th-and-4 shy of the first down marker, that probability dropped to 2-percent. And Carson Palmer could kneel down to win the game for Arizona.
Saints 16, Buccaneers 14
After punting the ball back to the Bucs with 6:56 left in the game, the Saints had a 42-percent of winning. The Bucs took over at their own 14 and tried to drain clock. That got the ball down to the Saints’ 39-yard line with 1:10, but Rian Lindell missed a 47-yard field goal that could have sealed the win. That gave the Saints a 21-percent chance of winning with 1:06 left in the game. They had the ball at their own 37-yard line, but three passes from Drew Brees, including a 31-yarder to Marques Colston on a seam route put the ball at the Bucs’ nine-yard line with 0:24 left. Before that play, the Saints only had an 11-percent chance of winning. After it, that shot to 94-percent. Two plays later, Garrett Hartley hit a 27-yard game-winning field goal.