A year ago, the Falcons were a lousy football team. In the offseason, this was a team that focused on improving its dismal run defense, upgrading on Thomas DeCoud at free safety, building a better offensive line and getting healthy. With Matt Ryan, a gifted group of wide receivers and a promising young secondary, plus one of the better special teams units in the game, there was already the skeleton of a pretty good football team here.
Through two games, these Falcons have won one truly great, thrilling game against the Saints and lost one excruciating game against the Bengals. The team is mostly healthy now, but other than that, the jury is very much out on those improvements we were supposed to see from this football team. The question is how worried we ought to be about this team's 2014 fortunes.
I want to take a quick look at the offense, defense and special teams for two games, see where the concerns and reasons for encouragement lie and, as usual, try to balance the scales and figure out where this team is headed
Obvious disclaimer: Trying to glean major lessons and predict the course of a team after two games is a fool's errand. Do not ingest this article.
The offense was mediocre against Cincinnati, putting up 309 combined yards and 10 points against a stout Bengals defense. Receivers struggled to get open, Matt Ryan made some bad decisions, the pass protection was dismal at times and the play-calling on the ground was borderline nonsensical.
We still need to put that in context. The Bengals are one of the NFL's best home teams, one of the league's better defenses and a rough matchup for anyone. You're not going to face that situation every day, and the Falcons really only have a handful of above average defenses left on the docket, in the form of Minnesota, Arizona, Carolina and perhaps Tampa Bay. They're facing more Saints than Bengals, in other words, and against the Saints the team went off for over 600 yards. The talent is obvious.
That's why I'm not down on the unit. Dirk Koetter needs to stop giving Steven Jackson up-the-gut runs on first downs, but Jackson is averaging over four yards per carry. The team still has a stable of four backs they need to do a better job of distributing the ball too, not to mention plenty of weaponry at receiver, their bizarre disappearing act against the Bengals notwithstanding. And the line is going to be improved when Jake Matthews returns and they're not facing the likes of Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins.
The major concerns at the moment revolve around the team's ability to keep Ryan's pocket clean—he did scramble well yesterday, but he certainly made some poor throws—and the ability to stay balanced. Honestly, I'm not tremendously worried about either going forward.
Obviously, the Falcons aren't going to put up 37 points and 600+ yards each week. They're also extremely unlikely to be limited to 10 points and just over 300 yards per week. They did better than that in 2013, when they were down Julio Jones, Roddy White and any semblance of an effective offensive line. An offense that puts up numbers right in the middle of those two opposing poles is plenty of capable of winning NFL games, presuming the defense holds.
Oh yeah, the defense.
These are the defensive rankings for this football team through two games, so you know:
Yards Per Game: 472 (32nd)
Points Per Game: 29 (26th)
Sacks: 0 (tied for 31st)
Rush Yards Allowed: 309 (28th)
Pass Yards Allowed: 635 (31st)
We know—we know—that this defense won't be great this year. This offense is capable of wreaking havoc on most defenses in the NFL, so all that the unit needs to be is average to give this team a fighting chance. Thus far, they are indisputably not within a one hundred mile radius of being great.
It's not difficult to figure out why. The team hasn't amassed a single sack—they'd have one thanks to the immortalt Jonathan Babineaux, if not for a penalty on the play where he took down Drew Brees—and rarely does any pressure materialize. When it does, quarterbacks are able to escape by dumping it off to a nearby receiver or running back, or even randomly finding an open receiver down the field, thanks to blown assignments and coverage mistakes. Outside of Desmond Trufant, a secondary that should be an area of strength has not been. Teams have found early success by just getting quick players into space and letting them outrun or juke past the defense, i.e. Brandin Cooks and Giovanni Bernard.
You can, perhaps, still survive with a lousy pass rush and a secondary that will be better than this, but that hinges on the ability to stop the run. Unfortunately, that's where the biggest disappointment of the 2014 season has come thus far.
Consider Cincinnati. Dalton threw for just 252 yards, and 101 of those were on dumpoffs to Bernard and rookie back Jeremy Hill. The struggles I mentioned above were a major factor with that, but the Falcons also allowed 164 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 42 carries. Dalton only threw 23 passes, and that's because the Bengals realized they could pound the rock and let Dalton mostly manage the game. That's a gigantic, stunning disappointment for a defense that made stopping the run its big priority, adding Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai, grabbing a sound-tackling safety in Dwight Lowery and generally increasing the bulk and strength of the defense.
You have to blame Mike Nolan here, to an extent. The Falcons are, as Scott Carasik noted, running a ton of nickel, at times with as many as three defensive tackles up front. The net effect of that is that the Falcons don't have enough pass rushing push up front, but they're still not stopping the run, and once backs are in the second level there's only two linebackers and a bunch of dudes from the secondary chasing them down.
There's no denying the new acquisitions and some familiar faces have been disappointing. Aaron Freeman at FalcFans has been beating the drum for benching Kroy Biermann and Tyson Jackson since preseason, and aside from a couple of nice run stops, Biermann's been ineffective and Jackson has been invisible. The linebackers have generally been quiet if sure-tackling, and it's fair to wonder if the Falcons shouldn't be taking a harder look at some of their young depth players like Stansly Maponga, Malliciah Goodman and even Ra'Shede Hageman, who may have infinitely more upside than the guys who are dominating snaps. As illustrated by the stats above and even a cursory viewing of the last two games, it's either shake up the unit or wait for the improvement many of us saw coming from the defense. You can obviously wait a little bit longer, so long as they start trending in the right direction.
So where's the silver lining for the man who always tries to find one? T-Jax and Soliai have been effective run defenders for years now, so unless they both spontaneously lost it, we should see improvement there. The secondary is larded with real talent, and Lowery can at least tackle, if nothing else. Even modest gains at stopping the run and rushing the passer will lead to fewer yards and perhaps turnovers, which in turn should make a difference on the scoreboard. We know the Falcons aren't going to be great on defense, but I'm still convinced average can carry this team a long way.
Average is, at least, attainable. Putting up zero sacks and actually playing worse against the run than you were a year ago? Thankfully, that doesn't seem sustainable.
I don't have any quibbles here. Matt Bryant has been nails, Matt Bosher continues to be one of the best punters in the game, Josh Harris is as reliable a long snapper as you'll find in the NFL and Devin Hester has been effective, if not stellar. The coverage units aren't causing Keith Armstrong's head to explode on the sidelines. Special teams, at least, has played clean football thus far.
It's also worth noting that after not being able to return the football at all the last two years, Hester has been a key addition in that regard.
Despite the dour tone of the article, I see no reason to change my 9-7 prediction just yet. We knew the defense was going to struggle, we knew this team would have its ups and downs as the team , and I actually had the Falcons beating the Saints and Bengals. None of that is surprising. It's just that the Bengals game was so grim that it taints any discussion of this team's future at the moment.
Ultimately, what we have to remember is that this team shouldn't be playing as poorly as they are at the moment, and it may just take nudging the needle back north of mediocre to walk away from the Thursday night game against the Buccaneers at 2-1 and close to the NFC South lead. I'm a firm believer that this is a better Falcons team than we saw in 2013, and we'll see that in earnest this week and beyond.
What say you?