The 2-5 Falcons may still be talking playoffs - but there's a more immediate concern than the final order of the NFC South: the 5-2 Detroit Lions. Atlanta gave up a home game to host the tenth International Series contest at Wembley, but a lot of ‘home' teams recently have been the recipients of humiliating blow-out losses: the Raiders losing 38-14 last month, the Jaguars losing 42-10 last year, the Rams losing 45-7 the year before.
On Thursday and Friday, various Falcons players discussed the challenges that the Lions face - and what strategies they'll be using to try and prevent being the next ‘home team' to be embarrassed on the international stage.
The challenge of Matthew Stafford
Matthew Stafford, the first overall pick in 2009, looked early on like an injury-prone potential bust; he silenced the critics when, in 2011, he became the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5000 yards in a season. Being able to pressure Stafford is, according to defensive lineman Corey Peters, "going to be critical. The Lions have a very good passing attack, Stafford is a very good quarterback, so we're going to have to try get some pressure on him and move him off his spot. We got to make him as uncomfortable as possible we can have success."
London-born Osi Umenyiora explained what make Stafford, who he described as a ‘gun slinger', so good: "We have to try and keep him in the pocket because he does a very good job of running around to throw the football. He doesn't necessarily run to run, he's running to throw. We have to do a good job of keeping him contained."
HC Mike Smith agrees: "Matt is a guy that can extend plays, and he's done a very good job this year... we have to make sure we have all the lane clogged up. He will step up, and when he steps up he buys them time, and they've got a couple of wide receivers that can make it tough on our guys this week."
Stafford's strong arm means that even getting pressure from the pass rush can't necessarily stop the Lions' aerial assault, according to linebacker Paul Worrilow: "he's got such a big arm... [that] he doesn't have to sit right in the pocket to throw - he can be moving backwards and with a flick of the wrist, still drill the ball in there. We can get some pressure on him, but we have to be good on the back end because he can still make that throw."
Worrilow thinks that the key to being able to stop Stafford, something which he credits for the Atlanta defense being able to generate greater pressure against the Ravens, is to stop the run first: "what helped [against Baltimore] was stopping the run game, in that it gave us a chance to make Flacco sit back in the pocket where we can get some good time and get some pressure. It all starts in the run game and getting yourself into favourable third downs."
That might be easier said than done, because...
The Lions have a two-headed rushing attack
Reggie Bush might still be the ‘name player' in the Detroit backfield, but the team's leading rusher so far is actually Joique Bell. That's a problem for the Falcons, according to Smith:
"It's a challenge because we know they have two different running styles. We know that Reggie Bush is a guy that you have to keep leveraged because he'll take the ball any which way... Joique Bell is much more of a traditional downhill runner. I think you'll see him more on first and second down, not necessarily in their passing formation."
Peters also talked about the two backs, saying that "we have to be prepared based on who's in the game. When Bush is in the game, we know what he can do. He's an explosive player, a very shifty type of back." Umenyiora elaborated on the different strategies needed for the two backs: "With Bush, we want to keep him inside - we don't want to let him get outside the pocket... with Bell, he's an inside, downhill runner, so we just have to be physical with him."
Of course, it's not the Lions' offense who are the scariest proposition on this team...
The Detroit D
"They're playing very well together", Smith said on Thursday. "The defensive line has a penetrating style that they want to creative negative yardage plays, either by them penetrating and making the play, or forcing the ball carrier to run sideways, and their linebackers are run and hit guys," singling out Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy for particular praise."
Steven Jackson, who had previously played in London in 2012 with the Rams, called the defensive front seven "very talented. They have three first round defensive linemen... their linebacking corps has really come on strong as well. They are a very gifted, athletic group that gets downhill in a hurry." Jackson says that defeating them is "going to be up to us. We are a very good offense, it's going to force us to execute and get back to the way we were playing ball earlier in the season."
However, Smith feels that the Detroit defense's aggressiveness can work against them: "Their ability to rush and get upfield is a strength, but you can also create different levels, and you may be able to pop some runs there. It's going to be very important for us to control that front four... we're going to have to slow those guys down."
The best way to win on Sunday, though, is...
The Falcons need to fix the Falcons
All week, the coaches and players have talked about, and been asked about, what Detroit do and what they don't do. On Thursday and Friday, though, the team were mostly talking about what they need to do differently, to do better.
"We've been cross-training our guys all season long," Smith said Thursday about how to adjust for the injuries on the offensive line. "We talk about how important that is, and we've had to do it - in the Minnesota game a few weeks ago, we had one guy play four different positions, and another play three."
James Stone, the newest addition to the starting lineup of that offensive line, could be a big factor in how well (or not) the line plays on Sunday, and he's been receiving a lot of support from his team mates. "All of us, we're talking to Stoney every day", said Roddy White, "but he's been getting into the playbook, getting everything done this week, spending extra time with coach Tice and things like that so he'll be ready for the game." White did admit, however, that "we've got some extra protections to help him out and things like that so he can block people up."
Smith echoed those sentiments around Stone on Friday: "James is a guy that works extremely hard, the older guys have spent time with him, coach Tice and coach Harmann have spent extra time with him, and we believe he's ready to go."
White talked about some of the gameplan adjustments the Falcons have made, saying the team have focused on "getting the ball out a little quicker, find[ing] a way to do 7- and 8-man protections, and get the ball down the field." Adjusting the gameplan is critical, as, according to White, "the last three weeks our third down percentage has been horrible. We've got to get in front of the chains and just execute, it's been unacceptable to go three-and-out, three-and-out, and it puts a lot of pressure on our defense. They've been playing well the last three weeks, but we've been laying those guys out there... I feel the last three weeks on offense we've been regressing, so we've got to go out there and execute, help [the defense] out and keep those guys off the field."
That offense could be helped by the return of Harry Douglas, who had limited participation in practice on both Thursday and Friday: "He does so much for us," said White, "all the different packages we can have when he's out there on the field and the matchup problems we can create when we have our four- and five-wideout schemes."
The defense, with its lacklustre sack numbers, also needs to turn things around. "We have to do a good job of working together," Peters told me when I asked about the importance of heading into the bye week with a better performance on defense, "we have a pretty good plan in place so as the game progresses, we have to get a feel for it, rush as a group and do well to take advantage of when we have opportunities."
The third phase of the game, though, is where the Falcons feel they can really get an edge. "We've been working on our returns this week," White told us on Friday, "that's been a real emphasis for special teams, and trying to get Devin [Hester] loose. We know if we can get him going, and get him a little crease out there, then we can make some things happen for us, and just go out there and eventually put points on the board for us."
Whether it's through a quicker passing attack and an augmented protection scheme, and a more productive pass rush, or success in the return game, Mike Smith needs to show that he's been able to coach some improvements on this team. Earlier in the week, I wrote about how the International Series is becoming a graveyard of head coaches. I asked Smith directly on Friday about this trend in coaches being relieved of their duties following a London game, and whether he was feeling pressure from ownership - this was his response in full:
"This is a very important game for us, again we're one game out in terms of our division and the quickest way into the playoffs is to win our division. That's our goal, it is a must-game win (sic), because it's the next one, and we go into every game with that approach."
It appears that for all the focus on the Lions, Smith's long term focus is on hoping he can do enough to come first in a very weak NFC South - because it may be the only way at this point he can save his job.