Coming into the 2015 season, many questions were surrounding the Atlanta Falcons. A very successful era had just ended under former coach Mike Smith. It ended in an ugly and unfortunate way after two very disappointing seasons with a talented roster. The team had begun to lack toughness, attention to detail, schematic adjustments for opponents and leadership from the top. A new staff headlined by Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan have now been entrenched for nearly a year with the organization. Speed and toughness, mobility and balance all have been preached endlessly. “Do you feel you are a better player now than last week?” , “How can you be better on Sunday than you were on Monday?” these are the types of questions the Falcons are challenged with every day. If players can ball and they are working hard, no names or status effects the coaching decisions that go into them playing. The culture has completely changed, and the players are sulking in the opportunities afforded to them.
Atlanta came tearing into the season with a red hot 5-0 start. They had the league’s number one passer, rusher and receiver in Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones. But then something happened. The best team in football at protecting the ball, third-down efficiency, and red zone efficiency began to slip away and over think themselves in those very situations.
Week five versus Washington (although a win) and week six against the rival New Orleans Saints were very telling of what was happening to the Atlanta squad. In the Redskins game, the Falcons began to get pass-happy in the red zone and over aggressive. Causing them to feel the heat of the Skins pass rush and toss a pair of uncharacteristic interceptions, falling to 50% in the red zone on the day. If not for an incredibly clutch play by Falcons under appreciated stellar corner Robert “Rocky” Alford in overtime this may have been the beginning of a terrible losing streak. Rocky intercepted a Cousins pass and took it to the house to seal the win and end the game.
Against the Saints the following week it was even more daunting. But not in the sense that the Saints were ready to knock off the undefeated bitter rivals. The Atlanta Falcons truly just shot themselves in the foot, over and over….and over. On a day where everyone was playing lights out, at the same time something just wasn’t right. The Falcons could rip up the Saints defense for an easy 70 yards on any given drive but then cough up the ball inside the red zone. They were even continuing their top five rush defense that is becoming this new Falcons team’s defensive trait. Completely halting the Saints’ rushing attack.
Atlanta was playing fantastic throughout the entire game, yet, fumbled five times losing three of them (two in the red zone!). They were overthinking third downs and becoming oddly conservative (as opposed to over aggressive the prior week), calling plays reminiscent of the regime no longer in power in Atlanta. This led them to their worst third-down performance of the season going 3/12 25%! The Saints didn’t give up a single turnover, had the possession advantage of five more minutes and received three turnovers from Atlanta yet they still only won by 10 points. It was clear the Falcons had beaten themselves so badly it was absolutely unbelievable. The team statistics for this game would reveal an absolute blowout for New Orleans. Atlanta had to get back to the practice field, wallop the film room and focus.
But in weeks seven through nine the same trends were happening. Atlanta went 1-2 during that stretch. Where did the Atlanta Falcons team we couldn’t get enough of the first quarter-plus of the season go? Was it a fluke? No, we know it was no fluke because the film does not lie. They have been destroying themselves for over a month now. And they had lost ten starters to add to the growing fire. The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time.
While limited participation for some, everyone was back at practice in Flowery Branch Georgia this past week. The team is incredibly invigorated and prepared to blow the dome off for the last half of the season! Entering week ten, the Atlanta Falcons still (even after the lackluster month of beating themselves) possess a top five NFL passer, rusher, receiver and are in the playoffs. Julio Jones leads the league in yards per game and receptions. Devonta Freeman is the greatest running back in football right now on pace for over 2,000 total yards and over 20 touchdowns! The defense still ranks in the top three for rush defense as well.
So let me get this straight the Falcons can absolute torch you through the air (if Matt Ryan looks elsewhere than the middle of the field each play) and trample you on the ground? Can they stop any run game and make any offense one-dimensional? That sounds like a coach’s dream. It is, and these dirty birds have had a few very important “Dirty Dozen” (as they call them) meetings as of late. The leaders of the team and coaching staff have come together to get really back to what they can accomplish and were accomplishing in the beginning.
With the final stretch, Atlanta faces a few challenges outside of themselves. They start with two tough games against the talented Colts and the very strong, consistent, balanced and NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings. While the Vikings looks like a real test, it is at home, and the strength of their team plays off of the run game. This is the one strength Atlanta’s defense possesses. They should make out 2-0 here, becoming an 8-3 team heating back up.
The real challenges come when they go to three straight road games and four division games within the final five matchups. They absolutely must prove they have learned from their mistakes and will not allow the inferior rivals of the Buccaneers and Saints to win the next games. The big showdowns will be against the currently undefeated (9-0) Carolina Panthers, twice. A team that boasts an incredibly gifted and stout defense as well as a wild card offense. Splitting the games 1-1 will be a fantastic accomplishment and is extremely feasible. But, a sweep may be necessary if winning the division is the primary goal of Atlanta.
Worst case scenario these Atlanta Falcons could end up finishing this stretch 9-6 and still in the playoffs. However, I don’t think the new staff or the veterans on this team will allow such unacceptable play to continue. The Falcons will storm into the playoffs going 11-5. Nobody can say for sure that is enough to win the division; only time will tell.
This week look for the biggest mismatch to be the passing game against the Colts porous secondary. The Falcons offensive line is completely healthy again which will allow for Matty Ice to scorch Indianapolis in the way we are used to seeing from him. Vontae Davis is an absolute stud, but he is more of a physical corner that plays with a lot of space against opposing wideouts. Julio Jones feasts off of space and is too fast (especially for a non-speed CB like Davis) to be given room to create and break free. There is no cornerback in the NFL with enough recovery speed for being completely burned. Devonta should have an absolute monster day as usual, given the Colts defense ranks in the bottom half in every other category as well. Though, there is nothing that could really keep this from a shootout. Apart from the Falcons listening to me (and others) and finally standing up Vic Beasley and magically finding a good pass rush on defense. Expect fireworks and a Falcons win! Let’s put a score of 37 to 24 on this one.
Will they “Rise Up!” to the top of the NFC South? Can they channel the strength that drove them to start the season 5-0 again? Or, will they be even better than we’ve ever seen in this final stretch? One thing that is well known throughout the league is if this new era Atlanta Falcons are clicking on all cylinders and not defeating themselves, the “dirty birds” are nearly impossible to beat.