Falcons head coach Mike Smith gets a lot of criticism for his tendency to say the same things over and over again in every press conference--things like, "If you play in the NFL, you're tough," and, "Resiliency," and, "We didn't get the outcome we wanted." Last night's post-game press conference was a pretty standard Smitty presser on the surface, but Smith's frustration with the lack of defensive improvement is becoming more transparent.
Smith was asked if the team has the talent to play better than they have, and his response was, "Absolutely." When pressed for specifics, Smith said, "That's a very valid question...when you don't convert on third down offensively, you're not going to be able to sustain drives. When you give up explosive plays--their first scoring drive, they had a big 47-yarder on third down and eight; they also had a 13-yard and another 12-yard play. It was just giving up yardage in quick chunks, and that's not going to get it done. We've got to be more efficient and proficient in all areas of our football team."
While Smith admittedly wrapped up that statement with some coach-speak, the rest of what he said is entirely accurate. Atlanta's defense has been consistently soft against big plays this season, giving up explosive play after explosive play. They're allowing opponents to convert 47% of third down attempts, which puts them 26th in the league. They've given up 20 plays of 20-plus yards this season, which ties them with New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh. That's not good company. They have given up eight plays of 40-plus yards this season, which is the worst in the entire league. These issues can't be narrowed down to one or two players. The problems with the Falcons' defense are systemic.
So what about those big plays? On the secondary, Smitty maintained that he won't discuss specific players, but said, "Obviously, there was some confusion on some deep routes, and we've got to be much better at it. They weren't always the same coverage; they were different coverages, and we have to make sure that we are seeing it the same way." Smith acknowledged that it's a big problem, especially in terms of Chicago's three-play, 80-yard drive. "That was probably the turning point in the game. Absolutely the turning point in the game. You can't fight back from a 10 point deficit coming out at halftime, starting fast and end up giving up the big touchdown that quickly in the second half. We've got be better across the board as a football team." It actually only took two plays for Chicago to get all the way down the field to score. Jay Cutler's first down pass, intended for Matt Forte, was incomplete. A 74-yard pass to Alshon Jeffery made things awfully easy for the Bears on that possession.
Unfortunately, these issues aren't being exposed in practice, apparently. Smith said, "We had a very good week of practice. Wednesday was an outstanding day of practice. I thought the training that we went through this week, not only on the field, but in the meeting rooms was very productive, and we did not carry it to the football field. I think that it is a trend for our football team for in 2014. The consistency is a major concern."
Smith was asked at what point he'll step in and say that what's happening on defense isn't working, and he said, "We've played very inconsistently on defense throughout the entire season, and we haven't played nearly up to our potential on the offensive side of the football either. I don't think anything is off the table in terms of what we've got to get done. These are the guys that we have on our football team. We have to coach them better. They have to play better. We're all in this together." On the surface, especially if you just look at the last sentence, this seems like more coach-speak, but it's worth noting that Smith says that he doesn't think anything is off the table in terms of what they need to do to improve the defense, and then he goes on to establish that the guys they have on the roster are the guys they have to work with. Coaching and execution are the areas where the team must focus on improvement.
When asked what he can do to get the defense playing better, more consistent football, Smith again said that they have to evaluate everything. "We have to look at everything. We have to do a better job of rushing the quarterback. I thought that we moved him some." But Smith noted that the problems are bigger than just a lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, saying, "When [Cutler] moved we weren't good with our rush lanes, so the quarterback was able to extend some plays. We had busted coverage. You don't give up the explosive plays that we have given up without having the mental errors. Very rarely do you see a team make a perfect throw and a perfect catch."
The perfect throw and catch, however, seems to be a theme against the Falcons' defense this season. These are issues that are not confined to any particular player or defensive unit, and coaching isn't solely to blame, either. There are defensive failures at every level.
The Falcons' offense didn't have a good day, either. Smith addressed the drops by receivers and the bad situations the Falcons' offense put themselves in with sloppy play and penalties. This team's only hope is to be carried by the offense, and Smith acknowledged that the offense has not been scoring enough to carry the team of late. When asked about Atlanta's offense only scoring three touchdowns over the last nine quarters of football, Smith said, "We are not playing very efficiently in terms of completing third downs. We were 4-13 on third downs today, and you can't have that type of percentage. We have to protect our quarterback better. We got him hit entirely too many times. I believe he was sacked four times and was hit multiple times. Those are the areas that we have to address. We were outgained in this football game by almost 200 yards--not nearly good enough."
As far as how Smith plans to get his team focused, he said, "[I will] tell them that it's a lot of football to be played, just like I told them before this week. There's a whole lot of football to be played, and the teams that play effectively and efficiently, they're the ones that are going to be in the mix. We've got to play more effectively and more efficiently than we have over the last three weeks."
The Falcons do need to play more effectively and efficiently than they have over the past three weeks. Optimism as to whether they can actually improve with the personnel they have on the roster and the schemes they're deploying, particularly on defense, is becoming scarce.