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Injuries are Not the Only Factor in Atlanta's Struggles This Season

The Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots are both winning games despite considerable injuries on both sides of the ball. How are they doing it, when Atlanta can't seem to get it together?

Kevin C. Cox

It's been a bad season for injuries around the NFL, with a number of teams missing key players. While Falcons fans may believe that nobody in the league feels these injuries more acutely than the Falcons, the reality is, many teams are really struggling with injury burdens.

Before the season even began, he Green Bay Packers lost left tackle Brian Bulaga for the season with a knee injury, and they had to place running back DuJuan Harris on injured reserve after he suffered a knee injury in a preseason matchup against the Seahawks. Return specialist and key wide receiver Randall Cobb was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return after suffering a fractured fibula against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Packers wide receiver James Jones has been out since mid-October with a knee injury, and tight end Jermichael Finley experienced a scary neck injury two weeks ago that put him in the intensive care unit for a couple of days, and is keeping him off the field indefinitely. On defense, the Packers are missing their best linebacker, Clay Matthews, who has a broken thumb. Nick Perry, the outside linebacker who starts opposite Matthews, is dealing with a foot injury that is keeping him out of practice this week.

It's worse for the New England Patriots. Part of their success last season was dependent upon Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as receiving targets. Gronkowski had 790 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in just 11 games in 2012, but has seen the field in an extremely limited capacity this season, as he continues to recover from a broken arm he experienced last season, as well as a back injury and a hamstring injury. Hernandez, as you know, is sitting in prison awaiting trial for first degree murder.

The Pats are relying on guys like Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman to step up as Gronkowski has been so limited, but Amendola is a constant injury risk, having missed over 60% of games since 2011 due to injury. Edelman is on this week's injury report with a thigh injury. To add insult to literal injury, the Patriots let Wes Welker go to Denver during free agency. The Patriots are also missing key defensive players Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork for the season, and cornerback Aquib Talib has been struggling with a hip injury. The Patriots also placed starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on injured reserve with a broken right leg, which requires surgery.

The Falcons, of course, have been completely overwhelmed with injuries. One of the team's best receivers, Julio Jones, was lost for the season when a screw, used to repair a previous break, broke in his foot. The Falcons' other top receiver, Roddy White, has been basically ineffective after suffering a high ankle sprain in preseason and playing on it as a decoy until he also suffered a hamstring injury on top of it. Steven Jackson, the running back who was supposed to be a threat on the ground and balance out Atlanta's offense, suffered a hamstring injury in week two of the NFL season and just returned to the field last week.

The Falcons lost Mike Johnson, who had all but won the starting right tackle position in training camp, to a horrific broken leg during training camp. Left tackle Sam Baker has spent a few games on the sideline with a lingering knee injury. Fullback Bradie Ewing is spending his second consecutive season on IR with a separated shoulder. Right guard Garrett Reynolds has a knee injury right now that has him limited in practice, and running back Jason Snelling was held out last week with an ankle injury.

On defense, the Falcons are missing Kroy Biermann, out for the season with a ruptured Achilles, and Sean Weatherspoon, who is out with a Lisfranc injury but is designated to return later this season. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent has been dealing with an ankle injury, and Stephen Nicholas is suffering from a thigh injury. Osi Umenyiora and Peria Jerry are both on this week's injury report with a knee and a toe, respectively. Asante Samuel missed some time earlier in the season with injuries. It's been a rough season.

There's no denying that Atlanta's injuries are directly impacting their performance this season. The Falcons' defense has struggled to stop the run and has been susceptible to big plays in general, but it cannot be denied that missing key players defensively has exacerbated their weaknesses. On offense, Matt Ryan's pass protection is not great, he is missing key targets, and there's literally no running game of consequence. The injuries are a factor. So, why are Green Bay and New England able to overcome their injury woes and win games?

For the 5-2 Packers, it's pretty simple. Their offense is balanced. The Packers are averaging 141.4 rushing yards per game, good for third in the league, and their passing offense is ranked fifth in the league, with 300.4 yards per game. In addition, the Packers average score per game, 30.3, puts them third in the league.

Green Bay's defense isn't the greatest against the pass, ranked 20th in the league, and they're middling in terms of points allowed, ranked 16th with 22.6. They are, however, ranked fourth in the league against the run, limiting opponents to an average of 83.6 yards per game. They also have managed to sack opposing quarterbacks 23 times.

The Patriots are 6-2 despite their injuries, and their offense is not the reason. Tom Brady has definitely been negatively impacted by his limited receiving options. The New England offense is 23rd in the league right now for passing yards per game with 209.4, a departure for a team that finished the 2012 season fourth in the league with an average of 291.4 passing yards per game. New England has also experienced a steep decline in scoring offense, finishing 2012 at the top of the NFL with an average of 34.8 points per game, and currently sitting at 17th, below the Falcons, with 22.4 points per game on average. The Patriots are faring a little better in terms of rushing, ranked 12th in the league with an average of 120.6 yards per game, which is contributing to their ability to win games.

New England's defense has been their greater strength this season, however. The Pats' run defense is not good, 31st in the league with 130.8 yards per game allowed, but their pass defense is currently ranked fifth in the NFL with an average of 215.5 yards per game. Most importantly, the New England defense is allowing only 18 points per game. They can afford to average just 22.4 points per game if their defense is that stingy. The New England defense has also been opportunistic, with ten interceptions, and six forced fumble recoveries. The Pats also have 24 sacks on the season.

Despite their record, and injuries to top receivers, Matt Ryan has still managed to get the Falcons near the top of the league in passing yards. The Falcons are ranked fourth, averaging 300.4 yards per game. The rushing game has been a disaster, though, and the Falcons are ranked 32nd in the league with 62.4 yards per game. That's dead last, in case you were wondering. Atlanta's average points per game puts them at 15th in the NFL with 23.7.

And the Falcons certainly aren't getting much help defensively. Atlanta is ranked 21st in rushing defense, allowing an average of 114.1 yards per game, and they are also ranked 21st against the pass, allowing 249.6 yards per game on average. The Falcons are 22nd in the NFL for points allowed, averaging 26.3 points per game--more than the average points scored by the offense this season. The Falcons are not particularly opportunistic, with four interceptions, and two of five forced fumbles recovered by Atlanta. They've managed to sack opposing quarterbacks just 17 times.

The difference between the Falcons and the Packers, which is allowing the Packers to win despite significant injuries, is Green Bay's balanced offense. Their defense is doing enough, and with the offense functioning well whether the Packers are passing or rushing, they are difficult to stop.

What sets the Patriots apart from the Falcons and allows them to overcome their injuries and win games is the New England defense. The Patriots have stepped up on that side of the ball, being opportunistic and really limiting opponents in terms of scoring, and that has allowed the Patriots to win despite their offense being less dynamic due to injuries.

As far as the Falcons, the injuries are not limiting the passing game, as Matt Ryan has continued to put up stellar passing numbers despite losing his top two receivers. One can argue that injuries have hindered the rushing game, however, Steven Jackson didn't do much in week one against the Saints, and the offensive line seems to be truly unable to do much in terms of run blocking.

On defense, the Falcons are struggling with something that was apparent in preseason--a lack of quality depth. While I'm a firm believer that preseason is pretty meaningless, the drop off from Atlanta's starters to the second and third teams against each opponent was pretty obvious.

Atlanta's defense was not great last season, but because everyone stayed relatively healthy, it was manageable. Losing two key players--Biermann for the season, and Weatherspoon until mid-November at the earliest--has created holes that the depth on the roster cannot adequately fill. In addition, the Falcons are significantly less opportunistic than they were last season. This does not look like the team that picked off Peyton Manning three times, and Drew Brees five times in one game in 2012.

So, are the injuries an adequate excuse for the Falcons' poor record in the 2013 season? Yes, and no. On defense, the depth is such a drop-off in ability from the starters that even one injury to a key player would throw off the tenuous balance. Because the Falcons are intentionally not built to be a defensive powerhouse, but rather an offensive team that should be able to outscore anyone, losing two of their best defensive players is difficult to overcome.

On offense, however, the problems are bigger than the injuries, as crazy as that sounds considering the big names on the injury report and injured reserve list. Matt Ryan is making the receivers down the depth chart look excellent, and is the passing game is functioning at a high level because of Ryan's skill. If the Falcons could get anything going on the ground to balance out their offense, which was the whole point of bringing in Steven Jackson, they would be faring better. Yes, Jackson has been injured, but the offensive line is a train wreck when it comes to run blocking, and even when Jackson was healthy, he wasn't particularly effective behind that line. Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling have both had more success as receivers this season than running the ball, also.

Atlanta's red zone offense cannot be blamed solely on injuries, either. There have been some weird play calls, some complete failures in execution, and a whole lot of pressure on Matt Ryan disrupting their process in the red zone. The injuries aren't helping, but they aren't the only factor.

Getting Sean Weatherspoon back later this month will likely give the defense a boost, and as the young players forced into action on defense continue to adjust to the speed of the game, the defense should improve somewhat. If the Falcons would establish some run blocking and some kind of effective ground game, and tighten up on defense a little, particularly limiting the big play, things could get easier for them. But, unless they balance out their offense--a factor that is not definitively linked to injuries--they're still going to have a difficult time winning games.