Takeaways from Week 7

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Lamar Holmes could be a major difference maker next week

The Atlanta Falcons won on Sunday. While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t exactly the stiffest competition in the world, the fact remains that the Falcons won. It seems like it’s been forever since the Falcons won a game.

It’s been five weeks since one of these takeaways columns followed a Falcons win. Such a winless drought hasn’t happened under Mike Smith. And while five-plus years of Mike Smith is small relative to a lifetime, particularly when you’ve been following the Falcons for over two decades like myself, it seems to be forever ago when the Falcons were bad enough where losing three straight games was common.

The hope is that this win against the Bucs is a sign of that things are going back to how they used to be under Smith. It’s certainly easier to be more confident following a win, although I’m not sure what we’ll see in the coming weeks. We’ve really reached the point where you honestly have to take it week by week with this Falcon team. And despite a win on Sunday, the Falcons 2013 season remains on life support. They go on the road against the Arizona Cardinals next week in another winnable game. But with the way the Falcons have played thus far this year, it’s by no means a guaranteed win.

In previous years, you could always count on the Falcons finding a way to win, even if they don’t play their best football. One only has to look at last year’s win over the Cardinals to see exactly that. Matt Ryan threw five interceptions, but thanks to the ineptitude of the opposing quarterbacks John Skelton and Ryan Lindley, who combined for a pathetic 70 passing yards, the Falcons won.

While new Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer isn’t having a great season thus far, he’s certainly more than capable of topping 70 yards should the need arise. And the Cardinals defense hasn’t really dropped off that much from a unit that was among the best in the league a year ago.

How the Falcons match up with the Cardinals could depend heavily on the health of Roddy White and Steven Jackson. If the Falcons can get both veteran players back next week, it will dramatically increase their chances of winning. The Bucs defense was a good unit, but thanks to being the first team to not get consistent pressure on Matt Ryan this season, they didn’t look like it on Sunday. They also had a number of lapses in the secondary that led to a big day from Harry Douglas. That allowed the Falcons offense to score 24 points and having no major issues moving the ball against the Bucs.

The Falcons may not get those breaks from the Cardinals. They will be facing a much more formidable defensive line. Calais Campbell hasn’t had a great season, but he’s still a very disruptive player and a very difficult matchup for the Falcons blockers. Darnell Dockett is also an adept pass rusher, and it will also mark the first time John Abraham has gone against the Falcons in seven years. He’ll likely be facing Lamar Holmes quite a bit in this game if Sam Baker is forced to sit out another game with a knee injury. Holmes has made progress in recent weeks and had a solid game on Sunday, but I don’t like his chances against the savvy vet in Abraham, who had a good performance on Thursday night against the Seattle Seahawks.

They also have Patrick Peterson in the secondary, and a good set of linebackers helmed by Daryl Washington. And I suspect unlike the Bucs, the Cardinals won’t be reluctant to have Peterson shadow the Falcons best receiver. Now that could be Douglas, Tony Gonzalez, or Roddy White. Thus why getting White back could have major impact for the game because it will create opportunities for other receivers depending on who the Cardinals opt to line Peterson against on any given play.

The positive for the Falcons in this matchup is going to be their defense going up against another soft offense. The Cardinals offensive line is very bad, and thus if the Falcons cannot get pressure with their front four next week, then they will likely never get pressure this season. The Falcons dialed up the blitz quite a bit against Tampa Bay to great effect, and I don’t think Mike Nolan should take his foot off the pedal. The more aggressive the Falcons are, the better they can be defensively. Palmer has thrown a pick in every game he’s played for the Cardinals, and thrown multiple picks in his past five games. The Falcons will need to do the same things that better defenses have done in those games and create multiple turnovers to give their offense more opportunities to put points on the board, because it’s going to be a struggle the rest of the season.

While the Falcons were able to generate big plays down the field on Sunday, I’m not confident it will be a regular occurrence the rest of the season, especially if the pass protection doesn’t continue to make huge strides going forward. Going into Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan was tied for 32nd in the NFL in terms of percentage of passes thrown beyond 20 yards among starting quarterbacks. The only player with a lower rate of deep throws was Alex Smith, well-known for his aversion to taking risks. Ryan threw 67 passes over 20 yards last year. This year he’s on pace to throw roughly 45 based off his five-game totals. That’s considering that Ryan is on pace to attempt 698 passes versus the 615 attempts he had a year ago. Of course, those figures will be adjusted once the numbers are crunched for Sunday. But it shows that the Falcons offense has been very conservative this year in terms of generating explosive plays, and without a reliable deep threat going forward, that could become even worse. This is a major reason why I’m in favor of acquiring a deep threat before next week’s trade deadline. It won’t cure the Falcons of this issue, but it’ll definitely help.

But again, it should be noted that wasn’t a problem on Sunday, namely because the Falcons protected Ryan well. They have some tough matchups against the Cardinals, followed by the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks, who have the sort of pass rushes to really wreak havoc on the Falcons front line. How well the line plays against Arizona could be a major litmus test to see if they are up to the challenge against Carolina and Seattle.

Elsewhere in the NFL…

  • It was an interesting Sunday where a number of defensive touchdowns occurred outside of Atlanta.
  • The NFL is going to have to consider allowing teams to activate all 53 players on their roster on game days. The new sensitivity to the concussion protocol basically now means that any time a player takes a hard blow to the head, he’ll be done for the rest of the game. There may be plenty of evidence suggesting that head-ringing hits are down in the current NFL, but the potential of “friendly fire” could easily knock out a pair of teammates on a single play. Imagine if you activated five cornerbacks on any given Sunday, and two of them converged on a tackle and knocked each other out. That would leave you with three corners for the rest of the game, meaning one misstep could put you at a major disadvantage against the spread attacks in today’s NFL.This issue also came up in the Chargers-Jaguars game, where the Chargers lost two offensive linemen in tackles King Dunlap and Mike Remmers. That forced them to continue forward with their five remaining linemen that were active, albeit with a major reshuffling. The injury to 49ers left tackle Joe Staley a few weeks ago should also have shined a light on this issue. The 49ers, up late in a game, pulled many of their starters, but because teams only normally activate seven offensive linemen, it meant that three starters remained in the game. Staley went down with a leg injury that ultimately proved okay. But the league should allow all 53 players to dress for every game, to avoid these potential situations. The Lions were forced to put an injured Riley Reiff back into their game after an injury to Corey Hilliard. In a league that preaches player safety, they need to practice what they preach and have the competition committee change the roster-limit allowances in 2014.
  • John Harbaugh made an interesting decision late in their game against the Steelers. The Ravens scored a touchdown to Dallas Clark with two minutes left in the game to cut the Steelers lead to 16-15. Then Troy Polamalu lept the snapper on the extra point to draw an offside penalty. If Harbaugh had accepted the penalty, that would have put the ball at the 1-yard line and made it easier for the Ravens to convert on a two-point conversion to take the lead. My initial gut instinct was to go for two and try and win the game there. But I realized later even if you successfully convert on a two-point conversion, you still need to get a defensive stop on the ensuing kickoff to prevent the Steelers from winning with a field goal. Deferring the offsides penalty to the kickoff meant that the chances that the Steelers start their drive at the 20-yard line are dramatically increased. Had that happened, the chances the Steelers win the game is 59-percent according to Advanced NFL Stats Win Probability calculator. But Emmanuel Sanders was able to get a 44-yard kickoff return (he actually scored, but stepped out of bounds), starting the Steelers at their 37-yard line and increasing their chances of winning to 70-percent. The Steelers did ultimately drive the field, leading to a game-winning field goal from Shaun Suisham in the final seconds.

    Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

    Robert Mathis is poised to strip Peyton Manning

  • I will once again applaud the Indianapolis Colts for their excellent 2013 season. I have no shame over the fact that the Colts are quickly becoming a team that I’m rooting for this year. They are in the AFC and the Falcons don’t play them this year, so their success does not negatively impact the Falcons in anyway. But they were the first team to beat the undefeated Denver Broncos thanks to a strong defensive performance (despite giving up 30 points). They kept the Broncos offense in check for most of the night, with strong first half play from their secondary which shut down Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker. And frankly outside an early bomb and score by Eric Decker, marginalized him as well. In a year where Peyton Manning was on pace to throw for 5,810 yards off his six-game totals going into Sunday, the Colts holding him to 110 passing yards at halftime is a huge accomplishment.I really did not expect the Colts defense to be so good this year. I’m starting to realize that maybe the reason why the Colts were so bad defensively last year was because of the absence of Chuck Pagano. Many people criticized their free agent signings (myself included) which included signing Greg Toler, Ricky Jean-Francois, LaRon Landry, Erik Walden, and Lawrence Sidbury to try and bolster a lackluster defense. But several of those moves are paying off with solid starts this year for Jean-Francois and Landry, and Toler having his share of moments. But the real difference has been how much more comfortable Robert Mathis has been in the scheme in his second year. He’s been a force of nature with 11.5 sacks through seven games, including a pair on Sunday night. One of which gave the Colts a much-needed two points off a safety that ultimately proved a major difference in the game. He harassed his former teammate in Manning throughout the night. And Mathis shows how much one really good pass rusher can effect even a defense that isn’t overflowing with talent at the other positions. Something that the Falcons brass definitely need to take notice of when the offseason comes around.

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Aaron Freeman
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