To echo the famous words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!” And the Atlanta Falcons with their abysmal performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday fell right into it.
This loss was by no means an anomaly. This has been a steady trend of this team over the years. Whether against T.J. Yates in his first NFL start in 2011, or the Carolina Panthers after a 10-day layoff in 2012, or even the Arizona Cardinals after an impressive win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers year ago, whenever you go into a week highly confident about the Falcons emerging victorious, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Ultimately, the Vikings loss serves as a reality check for the fan base and better yet, the team itself, that they aren’t that good. The Falcons were a team that is going to have to scrap and claw for every yard, touchdown, stop, and win it gets this year.
They may have had it easy last week against the Buccaneers, but that win was a statistical outlier. It marked the second biggest scoring output and margin victory in the team’s nearly 50-year existence. To think that was somehow representative of the “real” Falcons was foolhardy. It was the perfect storm as it were, a confluence of events to create an extremely rare phenomenon.
As I said last week, it made for an entertaining watch for us fans, but it by no means should have been considered meaningful. In fact, it was probably one of the most meaningless games this team has ever played.
Yet this most recent loss to the Vikings could be profoundly more meaningful than last week’s win because it could become a rallying point for the rest of the Falcons season.
Again, this Falcons team isn’t going to be able to show up and win every game. They are a highly flawed team, that will have to do their utmost to keep those flaws from being exposed each week as they were this past Sunday.
Mike Nolan and his defense have deservedly drawn a lot of ire and will continue to do so until we reach a point where the defense is performing up to whatever fluid standards placed on them. But the loss to the Vikings should serve as a reality check that this defense is bad, and just because the Falcons opponent was missing arguably their two best skill-position players in Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph on Sunday didn’t mean that the Falcons defense should have been expected to clamp down their offense.
As I stated in my preview this week, the move to Teddy Bridgewater was very likely to be a significant upgrade for the Vikings offense. Matt Cassel was simply atrocious the past two weeks under center, and even if Bridgewater is just a league-average quarterback from this day onward, that offers a significant boost to their offense. And history tells us that simply going from a bottom-rung quarterback to a midlevel one can have a dramatic positive effect on any football team. We certainly saw that on display Sunday as Bridgewater looked poised on his way to a 317-yard passing performance in his debut as an NFL starter.
And in this past week’s preview, it was stated that the Vikings key for success was their ability to keep their running game in the contest for all four quarters. As is the case in many sports, the outcomes of football games often comes down to which team can dictate to the other.
It’s obvious in a sport like basketball, where if two opposing styles square off against one another, the team that can force the other out of their comfort zone can often win. If one team likes to run and utilize the fast break, while the other tends to like to slow things down and play a half-court style, whichever team can impose their will on the other is usually going to be the victor.
Football isn’t any different. And the Vikings got off to a strong start and were able to impose their will on the Falcons from the get-go, by running the ball effectively and forcing the Falcons into playing from behind. The Falcons needed to start strong, get an early lead and force the Vikings to play a style they didn’t want to play: which was forcing Bridgewater to have to drop back over 40 times behind a porous offensive line.
Such a start would have been far more effective staunching the Vikings ground attack than anything their defenders could have done. As I noted two weeks ago, the Falcons run defense showed nothing against the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals the first two weeks of the season to indicate that they could stop anybody, even a rushing attack as weak as the Vikings appeared to have going into this game.
The biggest flaw of this year’s Falcon team is that their defense isn’t going to get very many stops this season, and every game will be about the offense’s efforts to try and mask that flaw. Against a disciplined, tough and physical defense like the one the Vikings possess, that will be a lot harder. Especially given this Falcons’ road woes, discussed extensively last week.
Facing a good defense on the road, that’s a great recipe for the Falcons to lose any given Sunday. The positive for the Falcons is that outside the Vikings and Bengals, the best defenses they will face this year likely belong to the Ravens, Bears, Lions, Cardinals, and Panthers, at least based off advanced metrics like Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. Unfortunately, the Falcons will have the face the Ravens, Lions and Panthers away from the Georgia Dome.
The positive for the Falcons is that other road matchups against the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Buccaneers and Saints should see the Falcons have much more favorable results since none currently appear to be defensive juggernauts. So if the Falcons get into a shootout where they have to score 40 or more points in those games, they at least stand a plausible chance of prevailing.
The Falcons are entering a tough stretch of games where they will be playing on the road in five of their next six games. Technically their Week 8 game in London against the Lions is considered a home game, but it’s really a road contest for both teams. The positive is that the Lions historically tend to struggle on the road as well, despite beating the New York Jets yesterday. But that marked their first road win in their last five such games, and no team has posted a worse road record than the Lions since 2000.
Of course, one of the biggest obstacles the Falcons face isn’t necessarily their road woes, it’s the war of attrition that occurs annually for every NFL team. As of this writing, the early word is that safety William Moore might be out for an extended period of time, perhaps even the entire season with the shoulder injury that caused his early exit from Sunday’s loss. If that is the case, then the Falcons depth at safety will be tested this year and we’ll see if the team’s decision not to add a veteran at the end of camp was a smart one. Kemal Ishmael has shown himself to be a capable tackler, which was Moore’s greatest strength, so there shouldn’t be a huge drop off there. But while Moore was often a liability in man coverage, he often made up for it with his opportunistic nature to create turnovers. It remains to be seen if Ishmael can provide that sort of impact in coverage and whether his skills there are even more limited than Moore.
Up front, the Falcons face several injuries with Joe Hawley, Lamar Holmes and Justin Blalock all exiting the game with various injuries, heavily contributing to Atlanta’s offensive stagnancy in the fourth quarter against Minnesota. While the early reports suggest that none should be lost for the entire season, it does likely mean that in the immediate future the Falcons might be forced to rely heavily on backups Peter Konz, Gabe Carimi and Ryan Schraeder.
At least in the cases of Konz and Carimi, their play can and will make or break what remains of their NFL careers. Both players could easily be labeled early-round busts, and frankly need to perform well off the bench in the coming weeks to justify not only their retention of roster spots for the remainder of this season, but will be hard-pressed to find gigs with the Falcons or any team elsewhere after this season if their play is subpar.
The Falcons will have to find a way to wade through such adversity and find a way to put their best foot forward in the coming weeks.
That will be difficult to do without significant improvement from the Falcons defense. Optimism suggests that the Falcons will certainly focus on it this week, probably a lot more than they did in the aftermath of the Bucs annihilation. It’s possible that like much of the team’s fan base, both the Falcons coaches and players didn’t take the Vikings offense as seriously as they should have this past week.
Again, the Falcons received a reality check on Sunday. Their complacent and entitled approach to their defense this season appears to be blowing up in their face. But that certainly isn’t a surprise.
The Falcons essentially adopted a plan this past offseason that Nolan would be able to make up in scheme everything that the team clearly lacks in talent. Such a plan, unsurprisingly has blown up in the team’s face.
Offseason investments in their run defense ignored the obvious lack of pass-rush that made this defense unable to get off the field on third downs last year and really any year under Mike Smith for that matter.
Certainly an argument can be made that Nolan likely had a significant hand in the team’s decision to ignore that obvious need, given previous statements about his preference for a multitude of mediocre pass-rushers versus premium players.
But it’s hard to imagine the Falcons being able to look fairly at the current state of their defense, and believe that they can stay the course and get better. Certainly increased reps for younger players like Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga will help matters, but it’s not a problem solver.
The Falcons simply lack talent in their front seven and it’s the main cause of their defensvie struggles as opposed to anything Nolan could possibly scheme. Compare them to a team like the Vikings, who feature several “premium” talents across their defense.
A simple litmus test for what is a premium talent is looking at how many players either going into or exiting their final collegiate seasons were considered strong bets to be Top 50 selections.
Everson Griffen, the Vikings highest-paid defender in their front, was considered a possible selection by the Falcons in the middle of the first round way back in 2010. Sharrif Floyd was considered a top five talent that fell in the 2012 draft. Anthony Barr, Chad Greenway, Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes’ first-round credentials don’t need to be explained too much. Scott Crichton was at one point projected to be the Falcons selection at the top of the second round this past year. Even backup Corey Wootton was considered by some as a potential first-round pick until an ACL tear limited him his final year in college. Linval Joseph was a Top 50 selection by the Giants when he came out and nickel cornerback Josh Robinson was considered a possible late-first round sleeper back in 2012 before ultimately being selected in the third round. That gives the Vikings six players with definite premium talent, and four others that an argument can be made for. Greenway is the only one among those ten that isn’t amid or approaching the prime of his career.
What about the Falcons on the other hand? Desmond Trufant, William Moore and Ra’Shede Hageman certainly have premium credentials coming into the league. Tyson Jackson was a top pick when he came out but failed to live up to such lofty expectations in five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Jonathan Babineaux and Josh Wilson were both taken at the end of the second round in 2005 and 2007 drafts, respectively. Osi Umenyiora was also a late second-round selection in 2003, but was considered a bit of a small school reach at the time by the Giants. Robert Alford could be called the same back in 2013 as the 60th overall selection, but never really ever entered the picture as a potential late first-round pick at any point that offseason.
Thus the Falcons really only have four definites in terms of premium talent and potentially four more that an argument can be made for, but three of the latter have long passed their primes. A healthy Sean Weatherspoon would bolster the Falcons number but his injury coupled with the possible loss of Moore, Hageman’s youth, and Jackson’s ineptitude, means that the 2014 Falcons are essentially trying to win with only one premium defensive player: Trufant.
Compare that against a team that certainly has a formidable defense in the Cincinnati Bengals. While players like Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Vontaze Burfict weren’t highly drafted, that wasn’t because of a lack of talent. Their falls in their respective drafts had to do with character question marks as opposed to a lack of talent. The Bengals pounced on each and have gotten a significant return in their investments for it.
Margus Hunt, Devon Still, Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman, Reggie Nelson, Leon Hall, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Darqueze Dennard are other players on their defense that were highly rated coming into the NFL and most are in their primes.
Simply put, there’s only so much “scheme” can do for a defense, while talent can do a whole lot more. Nolan deserves more than his fair share of criticism for the current ineptitude of the Falcons defense, but essentially he’s been asked to make lemonade out of lemons.
If the Falcons don’t make a significant move ahead of the trade deadline, then that failure no longer is on Nolan, but on Smith, Thomas Dimitroff, Scott Pioli and whoever else is in charge of making the “big picture” decisions.