ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 13: Trust me, Smitty. I feel the same way. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
I am not going to gloss over how much I continue to be consumed by blind fury and unadulterated rage from the loss on Sunday. And the Falcons didn’t just lose to the Saints--they handed them the ball in field goal range in overtime after failing to convert a crucial, and short, fourth down attempt. Expletives deleted.
But, for some odd reason--possibly the cumulative effects of persistent insomnia, but I don’t think so--I feel more optimistic about the Falcons now than I did at this point last week. And I’m not going to just throw a bunch of platitudes your way, like, "Oh, there’s a lot of football left to play," and "The Saints are a stupid dumb, anyway," even though both of those things are true. There are some legitimate reasons to be encouraged by Sunday’s performance. Hit the jump, and bear with me.Yes, there were things that happened on Sunday that did not necessarily delight me. The penalties, for one thing, are just out of control. A hallmark of the Falcons’ success last year was disciplined football, and 10 penalties for a combined 85 yards is not even remotely disciplined. Roddy White was responsible for a couple of the penalties, dropped a touchdown pass, and directly contributed to Matt Ryan’s only interception, yes. That was frustrating. Ryan’s accuracy, or lack thereof, is disturbing. The playcalling, particularly in overtime, made me want to physically fight Mike Mularkey. The trademark Brian Van Gorder pillowy soft zone defense that left Jimmy Graham way too much room to make a handful of plays made me want to physically fight BVG, too. In addition, our pass rush, which has been solid over the past few weeks, was able to apply zero pressure to Brees. Ugh. And I am still mystified by the lack of strategic intelligence behind the execution of 4th-down-gate. If you line up with Turner in the backfield on a crucial 4th and <1, and then, not surprisingly, the Saints take a time out to prepare for what they observed in your formation, and after the time out you line up in the formation they just prepared for during the time out, you are not going to get the first down. Going for it was the right call in my opinion, but the execution was just woefully inadequate.
So, reading that probably made you feel worse about the loss than you did before. I know that writing it dampened my enthusiasm considerably. Let’s move on to more pleasant observations.
We have excellent running backs. Michael Turner had a good day, Jacquizz Rodgers continues to impress, and Jason Snelling--wow. It was actually a pass that led to his touchdown, but what he did with it after catching it, running through almost the entire defense, left me speechless. If the Falcons remember they are supposed to be a run-first offense, they will be successful. They abandoned the run in overtime for no apparent reason, and if they hadn’t, I believe they would have been more likely to churn up yards, move the chains, and put Matt Bryant in range--and I firmly believe he would not have missed again.
Julio Jones got hurt on Sunday, and Roddy, as we all know, has been struggling in various ways. However, Harry Douglas stepped up in a big way, and Tony Gonzalez proved to be as reliable as ever. Now that we know Mike Mularkey remembers that Harry Douglas exists, maybe we will see a more diverse approach to the passing game.
Matt Bosher is much improved. Poor punting and kickoffs put us at a disadvantage early in the season, and I am encouraged by his progress. Our offensive line has also improved greatly. Ryan was sacked just once on Sunday.
All of the aforementioned issues are well and good, but there are two main reasons for my optimism about the Falcons’ potential this season. The first is the defensive performance they turned in against the most statistically successful offense in the league, and the second was their resolve in coming back from a ten point deficit to tie the game.
The Saints have been averaging 31.3 points per game, 436.9 yards of total offense per game, and 319.4 passing yards per game. Brees was pretty close to his passing yards average in this game, but the key was limiting touchdowns--allowing two passing touchdowns as opposed to the Saints’ average of 3.5 per game was impressive. The Falcons also essentially shut down the Saints’ running game altogether--New Orleans averages 117.5 rushing yards per game, and they managed just 41 yards against the Falcons. The Saints average 24.5 first downs per game--the Falcons let them have 18. The Saints are averaging a 53% conversion rate on 3rd downs, and the Falcons’ defense kept up their stalwart 3rd down performance, allowing the Saints to convert just 30% of their attempts. The soft zone coverage may make us all want to punch somebody in the face, but aside from that, this is a legitimately good Falcons defense.
I’ve already mentioned the discipline our team played with throughout the successful 2010 season, but another hallmark of that season was the Falcons’ ability to come back from a deficit and win games--like they did against the 49ers, the Bengals, and most particularly the Ravens last season. Of course I have not forgotten that we actually lost on Sunday. I’m not delusional. I understand what a win would have meant, and the loss is beyond disappointing. But this was the first time this season I have seen any fight or resolve from the Falcons’ offense under adversity. The Falcons showed some spark in the 4th quarter against Tampa Bay, but that game was so mistake-ridden that it ceased to matter. They had no fight against Chicago, and despite such a strong start against Green Bay, they had no answer for the Packers once they started rolling. This Saints game was different. The Falcons stayed focused despite being down ten points, and made quick work of tying up the game.
And then the offensive playcalling went haywire in overtime, and Michael Turner never touched the ball until it didn’t make any sense for him to touch the ball, and we all know what happened after that. It sucks. That being said, I really thought the Falcons would split with the Saints this season, and they still can.
I don’t think you can look past any team, but we have a relatively easy stretch coming up, with the Tennessee Titans and the Minnesota Vikings at home, and the Matt Leinart-led Houston Texans after that. The Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday Night Football are not particularly scary, and the next game will be the rematch with the Saints in the Super Dome. Since the Jaguars game is a Thursday night matchup, and we take on the Saints on Monday Night Football, we have a nice, long stretch to prepare for New Orleans. Our last game is against Tampa Bay, a division rival that has basically imploded, in the Georgia Dome. Any team can win any game on any given Sunday, but we have the talent and skill to win every game left on our schedule.
I hate losing to the Saints. I hate everything about it. I particularly hate losing to the Saints by three points because of the way we handled that 4th down attempt. But, I love the improvements I’ve seen in this team, I am impressed by our defense, and if we continue to play the kind of football that limited Drew Brees and the explosive Saints offense and forced Sunday’s game into overtime after being down by 10 points, we can be successful down the stretch.