Kevin C. Cox
I voted for Matty Ice. You should too.
With eight games in the books, the Falcons are still making adjustments and finding ways to emerge victorious each week. It hasn't been the easiest journey to 8-0, but they're 8-0. That's all that matters.
A tough road lies ahead on their journey to the playoffs, so the Falcons will have to take this season one game at a time, figuring out how to improve as they venture deeper into the regular season. The team as a whole looks solid. They've made history. They're setting records. Let's go ahead and grade each unit's performance at the halfway point.
Matt Ryan is an MVP candidate and the offense is on pace to potentially set a few impressive marks. As Daniel Cox recently wrote, at their current rate the Falcons will finish with a 4,500-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers, the first time ever in franchise history. Michael Turner experienced his share of struggles throughout the first eight games, but he still has a chance to add another 1,000-yard season to his resume. Jacquizz Rodgers is also starting to see more playing time, which is a positive sign for this offense. The Falcons need to utilize his playmkaing abilities, especially in the passing game (see: Week 9).
Roddy White and Julio Jones form one of, it not the most elite receiver tandems in the NFL. They've combined for 87 receptions, 1,337 yards and nine touchdowns. Not a bad season so far. Tony Gonzalez has also proven he's still a force to be reckoned with. He doesn't look like he's lost a step at 36 years old.
Now, the offensive line is an ongoing project. Defenses have recorded 18 sacks, 19 hits and 71 hurries against this front so far. The loss of Garrett Reynolds puts Peter Konz in a "learn as you go" situation, as he has just two starts under his belt. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons allowed 93 hurries in all of 2011. This season started out with promising play, but it's clear Pat Hill and his group need to continue to improve. We can't see anymore of this:
Ryan took the blame for not shifting the line. Whatever the case, he's not going to last long against a 250 lb. linebacker crushing him from the blindside.
The offense is converting 47.1 percent of third down opportunities, ranking third overall in the league. That's something to be proud of. Overall I get them an A. Certain areas can be rectified, but 8-0 doesn't happen without this side of the ball making plays and moving the ball well throughout each game.
Heading in to Week 10 the pass defense is ranked 14th (228.8 YPG) and the run defense sits at 24th (127.5) overall. There are two telling stats you need to look at to understand this group so far.
- 17.9 points allowed per game, fifth-best in the NFL.
- 41.1 percent of third-down opportunities converted by opponents, 22nd overall.
What does this tell us? Opposing offenses are moving the ball relatively well at times, but they aren't putting a ton of points on the board. We've seen blunders here and there. We've seen chunks of yardage broken off repeatedly. No one expected the second coming of the Grits Blitz. Pro Football Focus rates the Falcons defense at 14th overall. Not terrible. Not outstanding.
Mike Nolan started using the Big Tackle Three to counter opposing run games. It kept LeSean McCoy in check. It kept the Cowboys run game in check, for the most part. Felix Jones sort of does that himself, though. Week 10 will be a real test as they head to the Superdome to face off against Drew Brees. The Saints ground game looked like it was finally starting to materialize on Monday night, but the Eagles defense is in shambles. We'll see what Nolan does to prepare this time around.
Special Teams: A-
Matt Bryant's two missed field goals against the Cowboys caused a little concern to ripple through Falcons nation, but he's still coming up clutch when needed. Matt Bosher's net average ranks 15th in the league. He looks much better than last season. Well, the beginning of last season. Return coverage again paves the way like we've become accustomed to in Atlanta. The Falcons special teams unit allows just 7.8 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kickoff return. Think they deserve more praise?
Obviously the biggest issue at this juncture is the ongoing search for the next Eric Weems. Dominique Franks does not seem to be getting the job done with punt returns, and Mike Smith has openly discussed this position recently. If someone creates a splash in the return game for Atlanta, this grade will easily jump higher.
I'm not sure what negative aspects you can point out for Smitty and the gang. Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan are clearly upgrades from the prior regime. This team is more aggressive, more confident and more successful (so far at least). They aren't perfect. We could see better play calls. We could see aspects of the game plan altered. But 8-0 is 8-0, and you can't argue with an undefeated record. Going forward, I would like to see Ryan continue to take shots downfield often. At times the offense will hit a lull, constantly checking down to short out routes or simply running the ball with nowhere to go. Ryan and the passing game picked up the pace down the stretch against Dallas, completing 10+ yard passes left and right. These receivers can get the job done against any secondary. Let them go to work.
How are you feeling after eight games? What grades would you give the Falcons?