Atlanta has struggled through the season, dealing with injuries, lack
of depth, and lack of production from the remnants of the offense and
defense. Mike Smith has his work cut out for him longterm if this
continues past the year.
So while Atlanta still has a passably talented team, they lost a bit of
heart and soul when they dumped John Abraham and Michael Turner,
building more around Matt Ryan and then seeing some of those pieces
crumble mid-season. It's not that moving on from that pair specifically
hurt them, but it's hard to suggest that Osi Umenyiora or Steven Jackson
have been better or provided any spark.
OC Dirk Koetter's numbers-based system works somewhat similar to
Carolina's - apparently from the Joe Gibbs side since Koetter's only
notable Coryell time was as Dan Henning's OC at Boston College. He was
mostly a college coach until his time with Smith in Jacksonville. It's
worth noting that Mike Shula served 2007 with Smith, on his way out to
take this Falcons job, and 07-10 he QBs coach under Koetter until he
wisely jumped ship for Carolina. So there's some shared knowledge
offensively - Shula may be able to provide insight on Koetter, and vice
versa, but none of that is new knowledge by now.
Koetter has been tremendously pass-happy, though injuries at RB and
getting behind early haven't helped. Consequently, the Falcons lead in
pass attempts, and are last in run attempts (and yards). Ryan was their
leadng rusher, but for no reason other than abject failure in the
running game overall. Steven Jackson's return to the lineup netted a
long of 4 and a total of 6. They don't really establish the run, but
lately the quality isn't up to par and the game is over quicker than
That throws a heavy burden on Matt Ryan. Weighing that more heavily
includes Roddy White's bad ankle, and the absence of Julio Jones, and
you end up putting even more on Ryan. Without a run threat, it's tough
to use the hurry-up, and by the time they need it, they're down enough
and desperate enough that it's more of a scurry-up offense.
Ryan's completion percentage remains fine, his TD/INT/sack rates
roughly in line with years past, but he's doing a little more short,
playing small-ball in an effort to replace the run. The net result for
Ryan isn't a major change (the run/pass ratio isn't even much different)
but the yards are down slightly to 11 and points have dropped to a very
average 15th. Net yards passing go from 4th to 11th.
Statistically, again, not an incredible change. When you consider the
defense changing only slightly in yards, you wonder what Atlanta's
problem is - but then you see points going from 5th to 22nd; turnovers
going from 5th to 28th. Field position isn't there, the defense is on
the field more, and now a thin, under-talented defense starts showing
But the defense will get theirs soon enough. Carolina's going to face
Jackson in a minimally effective rush game, one that gives way to
Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling for more catches than anything else.
There's a screen game there, necessary given the number of attempts.
The modestly effective White may return to WR (currently doubtful), but
Harry Douglas has gotten a lot of the remaining targets at the Z
receiver. Douglas burst in two weeks ago, but his yards per reception
dwindled last week while still getting a lot of attention.
Absent White, you get young and non-descript young receivers Kevin
Cone, Drew Davis, and 5th year Broan Robiskie. Davis has shown a little
longball ability but otherwise, who knows what you're getting from the
youth; Robiskie hasn't provided value on the field since 2010.
So, with White potentially out, you have to pay significant attention
to Douglas and Tony Gonzalez, and just keep the rest in front of you.
Ryan will be accurate, the pass offense will get first downs, but keep
them from making big plays and the rest stays manageable hopefully.
There's no doubt that the run defense is ready for this distinct lack of
challenge, and most matchups are to Carolina's favor in the trenches.
So it's Ryan against the secondary.
Falcons DC Mike Nolan used to have a reputation in the league - the
former head coach just hasn't connected here in Atlanta, however. The
hard-nosed coach has adapted to the 4-3 to a point but the bigger issue
is a lack of depth or dynamic talent. For years, even befoe Nolan, it
was mostly Abraham here; bigtime pushes to get guys like Gonzalez and
Jones onboard have left them, as I cautioned at the time of the
blockbuster Jones trade, talent-poor on defense. They've never been
good under Smith, but with a few key injuries, they stand to be worse
than normal this week.
Their rush defense hasn't moved much from last year - which is to say
they tend not to get a lot of rushes, but they're not doing a good job
of stopping it (21st, 27th in yards per attempt). Corey Peters is an
allright DT; Jonathan Babineaux and former first Peria Jerry combine for
a 3-man rotation of redundant mediocrity. They move Jerry around and
get him some rush opportunities, but he's not as productive as Peters.
2nd year Jonathan Massaquoi is opposite Umenyiora for what I'd
consider a perfect storm of being unadaptable to the run and losing
contain. This is a quicker front, so you have to hit the hole (attn:
Deangelo Williams). Not a large front, this might be a good
season-opening game for Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Tolbert has momentum.
This is a defensive front that, as a 4-3, doesn't instill fear; you
block it for what you want to do, you don't have to account for anyone
Behind that, it's a smaller second level with Akeem Dent in the middle,
who's been missing WLB Sean Witherspoon (injured). Undrafted,
undersized rookie Joplo Bartu is his replacement, oddly having 2.5 sacks
and putting up allright tackle numbers. Dent has 1.5 sacks, and the
front gets 35% of its sacks from the blitz (2 of which are from DBs).
They'll bring players, but it seems to ratchet up when Atlanta is down,
where DC Mike Nolan gets either more brazen or more desperate. Atlanta
does go to a man-1 look for most of those opportunities, where FS Thomas
Decoud is asked to handle more real estate.
Atlanta has thrown effort into cornerback, where Robert McClain and
Desmond Trufant filter around Asante Samuel for an allright trio. Yet
they are 22nd in pass yards - actually not bad given that they haven't
finished better than 20th in Smith's tenure, but definitely exploitable.
I would expect, for Carolina against a small front, more 2 TE sets and
a significant amount of running. Carolina will throw out some 3 WR
sets, sure, and it's not that that's a terrible matchup either. Their
nickel isn't much worse than base; their injury replacements aren't a
major weakness, they just aren't that good either. You simply go out
and play a fairly conservative offense to safely beat them, though they
don't pick up turnovers enough for it to matter.
Newton had a cumulative 4 TDs, 500 yards against Atlanta last year.
Charles Johnson had 3.5 sacks in the first Falcon game, which Carolina
definitely should've won. Both are Georgia guys who play big in these
games - and both should. Expect Atlanta to put up a fight, but I
believe Carolina's momentum and being the better team will prevail.