Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Falcons pre-playoff 2010/2011 assessment: my two strongest impressions of a 13 - 3 team linger in one of three losses

Brent Grimes

Given that the 2010 NFC South Champion Atlanta Falcons just clinched the top seed in the NFC this past Sunday, I had it in mind to write something anyway, but an e-mail seeking fan comments from contributing writer J. Daniel Cox clinched it. So here goes, what I’ve liked, disliked and loved most about the Falcons 2010/2011 campaign.

LIKE: Any NFL fan would love to have the Falcons GM and head coach lead their team. Can you identify a bona-fide bust or string of poor decisions, either on the field or off, either of those team leaders has made? Other than perhaps Chevis Jackson, I don’t think you can. Offensively it’s obvious: Ryan, Gonzalez, White, Turner, Mughelli, Snelling, with strong contributions from a cohesive offensive line and enough quality threats elsewhere (Jenkins, Finneran, Douglas, Peelle, and even Weems when necessary). Dimitroff put them in place and Coach Smith’s leadership has the entire team focused and hungry. But the real difference in this team has been on defense.

My pre-season prediction was that the defense would start about average, but improve every week. This has indeed happened. The Falcons finished the regular season fifth in the NFL in points allowed. Somewhat surprisingly, the best defensive effort of the year came in a losing effort against New Orleans at home in late December for which the defense was solely responsible for keeping the team in the game. They held Drew Brees to a passer rating of 77.2 and generated two picks, returning one for a touchdown. It was hopeful and inspiring, even in defeat. Here are some individual player thoughts.

Jesus H., Brent Grimes, HAVE A YEAR!

Sean Weatherspoon, stay healthy and you’ve got many a Pro-Bowl appearance in your future. Same to the rest of the linebackers.

Proper comeback year, John Abraham. Fantastic.

Big Play Bill Moore, keep earning your nickname.

Thomas DeCoud, run tackling is great, just watch out for the headshots.

Kroy Biermann, your drive and QB disruption have not gone unnoticed.

Dunta Robinson, you’re not getting the side eye from me. Yet.

Special teams note: Thank you Eric Weems. Keep protecting my football. Matt Bryant and Michael Koenen, please just keep doing what you do.

Speaking of the December 27th Monday Night game, I still don’t know if New Orleans’ defense played particularly well, if the Falcons offense played particularly poorly, or a combination of the two, which brings me to my biggest criticism: one which hasn’t changed in three years.

DO. NOT. LIKE. As my poor fan friends in section 304 and my home pub know all too well, much of offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s personnel packages and play calling drive me absolutely bat-shit-crazy. Why would you run an aging and slowing Michael Turner off tackle out of a single set backfield so often? If you’re committed to running the ball (a Matt Ryan audible notwithstanding), Turner needs to see his carries cut by about one-third, with 75 percent of the remaining two-thirds with either Ovie Mughelli lead blocking from an offset eye, or with Tony Gonzalez or Roddy White motioned in the intended direction of the run to lead block.

And coach, can we please see a LITTLE misdirection or quick hit running? Are you saving a reverse as a surprise for the post season? Ovie Mughelli and Jason Snelling need their snaps on the field increase 10 percent.  Between the two of them, they have made many big plays on third down and pass protected well when asked to do so. An inside handoff to Mughelli at LEAST once a game or a counter to Snelling would suffice. And have you noticed that swing passes to Jason Snelling (third on the team in receptions in 2010) pickup around eight yards per attempt?

Also, why the insistence on avoiding the long pass attempt, coach? When Ryan is committed to throwing the deep out he’s one of the best in the league throwing it, and it’s almost always to Roddy White. Smart.

Maybe it’s by design that we hardly ever see a straight “go” route or deep post. Those are dangerous routes. But if you’re going to insist on a vanilla off tackle run game, you need to free up some space and keep the linebackers and safeties honest. One or two more deep shots per game would help. I don’t think we saw that until week eight.

To balance my criticism of Coach Mularkey, it bears repeating that this team has 13 wins. Not 10, not 11, not 12, but 13. My personal feeling is that number has more to do with the defensive improvements and overall talent in offensive personnel. But still, he’s the offensive coordinator for a team that has 13 regular season wins.

I will give him mad props for the masterful game he called against Baltimore. Normally a 50+ pass attempt game for Ryan would guarantee a loss. No matter how good you think the Falcons offensive line and running games are this team was not going to run off tackle or up the middle against that defensive front seven. I should have, but did not, understand before the game that the best way for the Falcons to put enough points on the board and control the clock to win was throwing: a lot. Game balls to Mularkey and Ryan. It is entirely possible the Falcons have to go back to that formula to pull out a win in at least one playoff game.

LOVE. LOVE. LOVE. One more note on December 27th, and perhaps my favorite attribute of the Falcons 2010/2011 campaign: The Georgia Dome crowd. In seven years of attending home games this year’s crowd has seemed both markedly louder and more consistently loud than any other year, especially on defense. There are an extra dozen or so fans in section 304 alone that are bringing more noise. It’s tough to tell because I’m busy screaming my own head off when the defense is on the field, but I KNOW it’s making a difference to the team and the outcomes of the games.

At the beginning of this year I thought success for this team would be earning the right to host a home playoff game. Well, we have it: in round two. I will try to remind myself of that. And while some part of me thinks this team is still a year away from reaching its true potential, there is a growing part of me thinking, hey, why not us?

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