There's no easy answers after a game like Sunday's.
The questions do spring right to mind, though. How could the offense let the team down on such a fundamental level? Where the heck did that incredible defensive effort come from? Why do the Falcons seem to lose urgency halfway through drives? You could raise a battery of questions like these, but ultimately what comes back at you won't be satisfying. Not that I won't try.
It was the first game of the season, for one thing, and the Falcons just seemed to lack the kind of cohesive offensive effort we'd like to see. The Pittsburgh Steelers are an incredibly tough team defensively. Wonky officiating and sheer bad luck certainly didn't help the team's cause.
At some fundamental level none of want to touch, the Falcons were exposed. They were exposed as a team who play a nervous sort of game when the defense against them comes out with their hackles up. Does that mean our Birds can't contend for a playoff spot? Absolutely not. Basing that kind of panic on a single game is reactionary at best. It does mean that the Falcons weren't as ready for the season as we'd hoped, and those who predicted that the team would take the division may have to scratch their chins a little this week.
As high as emotions are running out there right now, let's keep in mind that the Falcons were still extremely close to winning this game. Give the Steelers credit for being tough as nails in this one. There's a lot to be proud of and only a 0-1 record to show for it, as hard as that is to swallow. Fifteen games to go.
After the jump, I'm breaking it down. Join me.
- The defense in general. Say what you want about the last three years of drafts, our free agent acquisitions and Brian Van Gorder's inability to maximize pressure. This defense looked mean, nasty and at times, completely dominant. They stuffed Rashard Mendenhall on all but one play. They got in Dennis Dixon's head, sacking him three times and picking him once. They provided one of the finest team efforts I've seen from the Falcons in the last several years.
It's going to be a hell of a lot of fun to watch these guys throughout the year. But they deserve individual attention, too.
- If you saw blue lights and heard sirens Sunday afternoon, don't be alarmed. It was just Curtis "The Police" Lofton punching a Pro Bowl speeding ticket.
Eight tackles. Three assists. One sack. Helping out in coverage and in generating pressure. Lofton did a little bit of everything against the Steelers, and he looks like he's finally ready to take THE LEAP and become an elite linebacker in his third year in the league. There's nobody I'd rather having manning the middle than The Police.
- Kroy Biermann and John Abraham are excellent bookends. They didn't generate the consistent pressure I had hoped for, especially in the first half, but they made life difficult for Dixon at times and each picked up a sack. Even the Steelers' backup linemen are good, so expect them both to have success against the Cardinals next week.
- Mike Peterson with a pick? You bet! Our favorite ancient linebacker has just earned himself a week-long pass from The Falcoholic. That interception was a thing of beauty, and it came at a truly critical moment in the game. Momentum, thy name is Mo Pete.
- Erik Coleman will catch flak for his failures on the climactic Mendenhall run, but he deserves to be recognized for everything else he did. Cheating up toward the line of scrimmage throughout the game, he notched seven tackles and two assists and was critical to the Falcons' success against the run. He may not hold on to his job forever with William Moore around, but he was awfully effective Sunday.
- I know it's hard to quantify on first glance, but I believe Brent Grimes was doing very well in coverage. The Steelers rarely tested him in this one, and it's because he was aggressive in shadowing his man all game long.
Honorable mention to Chris Owens, who is showing impressive physicality for a cornerback. Glad he's not hurt, too.
- In a more general way, let me mention the secondary and interior line. Thomas DeCoud was his usual collected self, and the rotation of Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, Vance Walker and Trey Lewis generated pressure and absolutely stuffed the Steelers ground game for much of the day. Kudos to all.
- I wish Matt Ryan wouldn't lock in so hard on Roddy White—don't worry, we're discussing that further very shortly—but what a receiver this guy is. He whiffed on one pass early in the game and then took advantage of Bryant McFadden's unwillingness to let White get behind him, abusing the Steelers corner for 13 catches and 111 yards. He was the go-to guy today, and he will remain such.
- Both Harry Douglas and Eric Weems flashed ability in this one. It's great to see Dougie healthy and making a difference, but it's really encouraging to see Weems contributing at all in the passing game. The Falcons are going to need that kind of effort from all their receivers to mount an effective offense the rest of the year.
- Congratulations to Tony Gonzalez for notching his 1,000th career reception. A future Hall of Famer and a great guy, for sure. We'll hit this one in more depth later in the week.
- I'm revoking the nickname Matty Ice until further notice.
Ryan is so frustrating for Falcons fans, I think, because of our disparate expectations for him. Some have decried drafting him since the beginning, and every failure is another shell for the shotgun aimed at his reputation. Others have believed, sometimes fervently, that he's going to be an elite NFL quarterback. For those people, the way he launches passes over receivers' heads, refuses to set his feet and wilts under pressure are maddening and inexplicable.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. Right now, Matt Ryan is an above average quarterback who isn't taking the strides forward he needs to. I'm taking away Matty Ice because despite his protestations to the contrary this pre-season, he isn't ready. Time after time, the Steelers sent creative blitz packages at Ryan and you could almost see the fear creeping from his pores. His 27 for 44 performance is fine on paper, but there were at least a dozen of those missed passes where he appeared to forget all the fundamentals he ever learned.
Then there was the Troy Polamalu interception. It's fine to defend Ryan here and say that Polamalu came out of nowhere for that pick, and it's not entirely inaccurate. It's a little dishonest to pretend that it didn't arise out of Ryan's frustrating tendency to stare down a receiver, or at the very least lock on well in advance of when he's throwing. The great NFL quarterbacks have a kind of all-encompassing field vision that allows them to find the open man. Ryan's just not there yet.
As harsh as that all sounds, he's not going to look this bad every week. I'm hopeful this game will serve as a wakeup call to a burgeoning young talent who seemed unconcerned by the team's vanilla performance in the pre-season. As Michael Turner showed today, sometimes the Falcons are going to have to lean on Ryan to win games.
- Speaking of Turner, he was godawful today. Slow to the line, too hesitant to truck people over and looking miserable under constant pressure from the Steelers D, Turner barely average over two yards a carry. We're going to talk about Mike Mularkey next, because he shares in the blame for this, but aside from a handful of carries and one nice catch, this didn't look like the Michael Turner we know and love.
Again, too early to panic. The Steelers have historically been very hard to run on, so we'll need to see how The Burner bounces back against the Cardinals.
- Mike Mularkey is the bane of my existence as a Falcons fan. The team wagged its fingers at doubtful fans after the pre-season, explaining that it was just vanilla scheming that made the offense look so bland. Sorry, gents, but you can't drop a single chocolate chip in a bowl of vanilla ice cream and expect it to make a world of difference.
If Mularkey were an artist, he'd be one in a fine studio, surrounded by high quality canvases, paints, and brushes. He'd thoughtfully stare at a canvas for a while, take out a plain brush and some black paint, draw a line on said canvas, and end his day. Except in small doses, he seems to entirely lack imagination. It's unforgivable to give Turner nineteen carries when so many of them are lazy up the gut runs or off-tackles that make not effort to confuse a sharp defensive front seven. That's to say nothing of his unwillingness to go for it on fourth down, and Mike Smith has to be included in the blame for that. Smith also earns anti-kudos for diddling around at the end of the first half.
But Mularkey also shares a blame in Matt Ryan's struggles. There's just not enough going on downfield, and when the team attempts to go for the long pass, the routes guys are running underneath aren't putting them in a position to bail our quarterback out. Mularkey has to go back to the drawing board and add some splashes of color to his gameplan. He's got the personnel and, as we've seen from a handful of jaw-dropping offensive efforts over the last two season, the intelligence to make great things happen.
I just want to see them.
- It's not really fair to put Matt Bryant here, because he did nail his three other field goals. He even banged one in from 49 yards out, which is impressive. But I can't help but wonder what would have happened if he had made his first attempt, which could have potentially given the Falcons a 12-9 lead at the end of the game, when the rejuvenated defense was making life miserable for the Steelers. Tough break.
- The block was occasionally terrible, generally mediocre. It's not time to kick Sam Baker to the curb just yet, but he sure didn't look good out there today.
- I told you all to keep an eye on Dunta Robinson, but it's more likely you were covering them by the end of the game. Dunta got abused by Hines Ward on more than one occasion, and he just didn't finish some plays out. We were promised a return to form from a once-terrific cornerback, but the Falcons certainly didn't see that guy today. Cross your fingers for this one being a fluke.
- Gah! The offense. The offense. So many chances to win, including getting the ball in overtime, and the team blew every single one. I managed to calm down over the course of several hours last night, but I'm getting pissed off just thinking about it again. Time to self-medicate!
Game MVP: Curtis Lofton. The entire defense deserves an honorable mention for a superlative effort.
Game Theme Song: Since this song title sprang to mind so many times during the game, I give you Is This It by The Strokes.
One Thing To Take Away: This might be the best Falcons defense in several years. Let's focus on that positive, at least.
Final Word: Damnit.