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 Post subject: Takeaways from Last Week – August 26
PostPosted: Mon Aug 26, 2013 8:12 pm 
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Takeaways from Last Week – August 26
August 26th, 2013
Aaron Freeman

Could Lamar Holmes make or break the Falcons Super Bowl chances?
The big story from the weekend is the fact that the Falcons offensive line looked very suspect against the Titans on Saturday.

In fact, calling their performance suspect is about as nice as I can be. They got whooped. And if I could travel back in time and run into myself from a year ago and told him about their efforts against the Titans, my past self would tell the future self, “No duh.”

Frankly, the Falcons front five got whooped quite a bit in 2012. And by quite a bit, I mean that I can count on one hand how many games where they could be considered the victors of the battle in the trenches. And if their performance against the Titans is any indicator, that will not change in 2013.

It’s no small wonder. The Falcons replaced long-time fixtures at center and right tackle in Todd McClure and Tyson Clabo. They are still in a plug and play mode at right guard with Garrett Reynolds, in the hopes that third time is a charm with Reynolds as far as his production goes. If I ran into my past self, he’d call me naive if not downright stupid for thinking there would be significant improvement up front considering what the Falcons did this past off-season.

The offensive line certainly is going to be a work in progress. And in truth it may be several years before things get fixed up front.

Or this Titans game will prove to be an aberration, and the Falcons front will get their act together quickly and will prove to be far from a liability in 2013.

Ouch.

My time-traveling past self just slapped me in the face. “Don’t be an idiot,” he says. He’s right. There’s just too much evidence to expect otherwise. Sure, it’s possible. Anything is possible. It’s also possible that Sean Renfree earns league MVP honors in 2016. But no reasonable person is going to expect that.

The hope is that the other aspects of the offense will mask the deficiencies the Falcons have in their pass protection. If the front can give Matt Ryan a reasonable amount of time to throw, he can pick apart any defense. Dirk Koetter isn’t Mike Martz. He is going to call plays and protections that are going to compensate for a lackluster offensive line, if need be. He’s not going to force Matt Ryan to take a ton of 5 and 7-step drops which are going to expose him to a lot of unnecessary hits. The Falcons have the weapons that if they have to resort to a lot more dinking and dunking, then those guys still can produce. Julio Jones is a monster after the catch. And Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez actually do their best work inside 10 yards. And Roddy White has survived Joey Harrington and Mike Mularkey, so catching the short stuff isn’t going to be a problem for him.

Now whether that is a recipe for the ultimate success (i.e. winning a Super Bowl) is hard to say. My past self is shaking his head that it is not, and I have to concur. But that recipe shouldn’t prevent the Falcons from making the playoffs. And I can tell my past self that once we get into January, things become a bit more hopeful and optimistic. The hope is that the trials and tribulations of sixteen regular season games will make this unit gel enough that by January, maybe the Falcons can open up their offensive attack and potentially catch a few teams off-guard.

Not to mention an improved running game should also take pressure off the front line. It does appear that if preseason is the basis, that the running game is improved under Steven Jackson. Jackson has had 25 carries and been successful on 10 of them, for a solid success rate of 40%. He’s had 4 carries for 10 or more yards, and only been stopped for 1 yard or less on 3 of his 25 carries. Now if you compare that to Michael Turner’s preseason production last summer, you’ll see that Turner was successful on only 6 of 18 carries (33%). He also had no rushing attempts that went for 10 or more yards and 6 times was stopped for one yard or less.

Total yards gained really don’t factor into the evaluation, because running the football is less about accumulating yards, and more about keeping the offense on schedule and moving the chains. Obviously you need to gain yards in order to do those things, but you can’t simply look at a yardage total and tell everything you need to know about a running back. But for those of you that are still stuck in 1994 in how you view running backs, the preseason yardage totals do sum things up perfectly: Jackson has 101 yards on 25 carries (4.0 avg), while Turner had 49 yards on 18 carries (2.7 avg).

Most of that improvement probably has to do with Jackson looking sprier than Turner did a year ago. But the offensive line does deserve some part of the credit. Sam Baker no longer appears to be a weakling as a run blocker (although I don’t think that means he’s a good run blocker). Peter Konz is certainly an upgrade over McClure in terms of pushing the pile from the center position. Just ask Haloti Ngata. Reynolds looks to have improved his ability to get leverage and position as a run blocker, doing so on a much more consistent basis this summer. And Lamar Holmes, when he’s on his game also appears like he might be an upgrade over Clabo as far as run blocking is concerned. While Clabo was a good run blocker, he was never a pile mover, relying more on getting leverage and position to wall off defenders than drive them back. Perhaps Holmes will come into his own this year and be more of the latter.

The Falcons probably won’t have a top rushing attack this year, but they don’t really need to. They just need to be a lot closer to league average. The apt analogy is like going from Curtis Painter/Dan Orlovsky to Andrew Luck at quarterback. In the case of the Falcons, they were at or near the bottom of the league in terms of rushing the ball in 2012. Frankly, the Falcons rushing attack was so weak, you could argue it didn’t exist for about 75% of the season. Similar to the Colts quarterback production in 2011 under Painter and Orlovsky. Relative to his status as a rookie, replacing a living legend, and playing with a lackluster supporting cast sans his head coach, I think one can consider Luck to have had the finest rookie season for a quarterback in NFL history. But at least from a statistical production standpoint, he was largely average if not below average in many key areas that measure quarterbacks’ effectiveness. He was far from Peyton Manning in his prime. But in the case of the Falcons, if they can count on average production out of their running game in 2013, it will take a load of pressure off their passing game. It will mean that unlike 2012, the Falcons passing attack this fall won’t have to be special in a number of categories. They won’t need Matt Ryan to be an MVP candidate, nor will they need Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Roddy White all to be as lights out as they were in 2012. Those players will still have to be very good, but they don’t have to be ridiculously good as they were a year ago. And thus that won’t put as much pressure on the offensive line and pass protection to need to pull its weight in order to make those things happen.

Because frankly, I don’t think they’re up to snuff to pull that sort of weight. One only has to look at Aaron Rodgers’ dip in production from 2011 to 2012 to see how declining offensive line production can affect a quarterback. Now Rodgers was still excellent in 2012, but his production did take a notable dip according to advanced metrics:

Aaron Rodgers 2011-12 Advanced Production
Only includes regular season totals.

Metric
2012
2011
Inc/Dec (%)
Times Sacked 51 36 +41.6%
Total QBR (ESPN) 72.5 86.2 -15.9%
Expected Points Added (Advanced NFL Stats) 162.0 250.6 -35.4%
DVOA (Football Outsiders) 23.3% 46.6% -50.0%

And that dip is probably the main difference between being in the driver’s seat for winning a title in 2011 with a 15-1 record than being a third-seed at 11-5 in 2012 that got shellacked by the San Francisco 49ers on the road in the second round.

And let’s not be naive here. The Falcons aren’t exactly built to be a road juggernaut in January. So frankly, if the increased production in the running game can stave off that sort of decline in the passing game from Ryan & Co., it could wind up meaning the difference between the Falcons earning home field advantage and a first round bye, and the Falcons being a wildcard team that will be hard-pressed to be those higher-seeded teams on the road. And if you’re one of those Falcon fans that are embracing the “Super Bowl or Bust” mentality, that is going to be something to watch come the regular season because it could make or break their season.

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 Post subject: Re: Takeaways from Last Week – August 26
PostPosted: Tue Aug 27, 2013 12:48 am 
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Quote:
And if you’re one of those Falcon fans that are embracing the “Super Bowl or Bust” mentality, that is going to be something to watch come the regular season because it could make or break their season.


YES AND WE'VE DONE IT ONCE IN ABOUT 50 YEARS. If we get to the playoffs Everyone needs to play better!! The one time we went to a Super Bowl our defense led the league in sacks. Not rushing the Qb is is what will keep any team out of the playoffs. We've talked about our offensive line but I think their better than our defensive line. Its just hard to get things done without solid line play across the board, I think our lines will define our season either way!!

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 Post subject: Re: Takeaways from Last Week – August 26
PostPosted: Tue Aug 27, 2013 11:32 am 
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INSIDE SLANT
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had a rare agreement with the team to miss most of training camp in order to help entice him out of retirement, is working to get up to speed after missing three weeks of training camp.
He completed the first two days of practice on July 25 and 26th and then did not return until Aug. 18.
The Falcons didn't waste any time getting Gonzalez back involved in the offense in the third exhibition game.
On the second play of the game, quarterback Matt Ryan threw a pass to Gonzalez for a 7-yard gain.
"I felt good," Gonzalez said. "I felt fine. There is room for improvement, there always is."
Gonzalez will continue to work on his conditioning.

"I'm improving my wind," Gonzalez said. "I wasn't winded, but I can get better. I can explode (better) off the line of scrimmage. I like where I'm at, at this point after missing all of that time."
Gonzalez was happy that Ryan called his number so early in the game.

"I've been happy with my progress since I've been back," Gonzalez said. "I can take a little p ride knowing that I wanted to do that. I took care of myself for those weeks that I wasn't here. I was preparing myself for when I got back here.
Gonzalez finished with two catches for 21 yards. He was only targeted two times.

"I tried to hit the ground running," he said. "I didn't want to let my teammate down, nor myself down."
The Falcons have not played their starters in the final exhibition game under head coach Mike Smith.
"No," Gonzalez said when asked he wanted to play in that game against Jacksonville on Thursday at the Georgia Dome.
But given how the team performed in its dress rehearsal, Smith is going to be tempted to play some of the starters. Certainly, the starting offensive line could use some more work. Given all of the time that Gonzalez has missed, he likely could use the additional work also.

"We never play in the fourth game," Gonzalez said. "But if the other guys go, then yeah I'll go out there. Its football and I have fun when I'm out there. But I haven't done it traditionally."
The Falcons have been picked by many prognosticators to win the NFC South and be a Super Bowl contender. They have not shown many flashes of brilliance during the exhibition season.
"We've got to play better," Gonzalez said. "There is no doubt about it. It's just a preseason game. It is that dress rehearsal, but we have got to play better."

He figures the offensive line will address its issues and the receivers will not drop so many passes.
"We see some weaknesses that we've had," Gonzalez said. "We'll work on them and get them right. We've got to. We've got no choice.

"I know these guys take a lot of pride in what they do from the offensive line to Matt throwing the ball to the receivers and myself catching the ball. It's the little things that we can correct."

NOTES, QUOTES

--After practice Monday Falcons coach Mike Smith tried to put in context the six sacks allowed against the Titans during Saturday's exhibition game.

Smith said it's not always obvious which offensive lineman is to blame when the protection breaks down. He said during the regular season any potential problems with protection would be accounted for when game plans are developed.
Still, no matter the circumstances, there's a bottom line to what happened against the Titans.

"We can't have our quarterback get hit that many times," Smith said. "We've got to get better."
Much of the outside scrutiny was directed at Lamar Holmes, who has started at right tackle since Mike Johnson suffered a season-ending injury early in camp. According to Pro Football Focus, Holmes was responsible for two of the sacks and three other quarterback pressures against Matt Ryan in 24 pass plays.

"We gave up way too many sacks and often times people want to pinpoint it on one person," Smith said. "That's not always the case. It's a unit and the unit didn't play very well."

Holmes practiced with the starters on Monday with Ryan Schraeder occasionally filling in, which has been the typical pattern.

Pro Football Focus assigned left guard Justin Blalock responsibility for two sacks and two hurries, center Peter Konz responsibility for one sack and one hurry and left tackle Sam Baker responsibility for two quarterback hits and one hurry.
The Titans used more defensive line stunts than is typical for an exhibition game, which contributed to the protection issues for the offensive line.

"You look at the tape, it's a half a step here and there, recognizing (the stunts) and bumping back just a hair faster," right guard Garrett Reynolds said.

Reynolds, Konz, and Holmes are playing larger roles for the Falcons this season because of the retirement of center Todd McClure, the teams decision to release Tyson Clabo and Johnson's injury.

"For the most part (the chemistry) is developed," Holmes said. "It's getting better. Week by week and day by day we are starting to communicate and talk more."

--The Falcons have used rookie Joplo Bartu as one of the linebackers in their nickel package for much of the preseason. Against the Titans they used him as the lone linebacker in the dime package and Smith said the results were good.
"I thought he handled it pretty well," Smith said. "He had a nice forced fumble on the quarterback scramble. He did some things in coverage that we liked."

The Falcons are looking for better pass coverage from their linebackers after Nicholas struggled defending tight ends last season.

--Fullback Bradie Ewing played about 15 snaps in his first game since suffering a knee injury during the 2012 exhibition opener. Ewing returned to practice last week after missing three weeks with an undisclosed ailment that he said isn't related to the previous knee injury.

"He did a nice job in his first action coming back," Smith said.

Ewing is expected to start at fullback and also be a key contributor on special teams.
--The Falcons on Monday released rookie wide receivers Rashad Evans, Marcus Jackson and Marcus Sales. All three players were signed as college free agents.

The moves got Atlanta's roster down to the limit of 75 in advance of Tuesday's NFL deadline. Teams must trim rosters down to the regular-season limit of 53 players by Saturday. They can sign players to the eight-man practice squad beginning Sept. 1.

On Sunday, they released tight end Tim Biere, fullback Devonte Campbell, linebacker Nick Clancy, tight end Colin Cloherty, quarterback Seth Doege, defensive end Cam Henderson, tackle Jeff Nady, running back Donald Russell, safety Troy Sanders, center Matt Smith and defensive end Brandon Thurmond.

QUOTE TO NOTE:"When we go down to 53, those are some very difficult decisions. There are a lot of young men who have worked their tails off for us since April that are not going to be on our team. ... it's always a tough time." -- Falcons coach Mike Smith

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: The Falcons appear ready to go into the regular season with Lamar Holmes as their starting right tackle.

He has been able to beat out Ryan Schraeder, an undrafted rookie from Valdosta State. However, if Holmes continues to get beat, the Falcons may be faced with playing Schraeder, a undrafted rookie who has shown some nimble footwork.
BIGGEST QUESTION TO BE ANSWERED: Can rookie cornerback Robert Alford, who took over for Asante Samuel at left cornerback, recover for a poor performance against Tennessee in time to help in pass coverage early in the season?
Alford was beaten for three touchdowns passes, was called for an illegal-contact penalty that wasn't accepted and was beaten by Titans receiver Michael Preston for a 56-yard gain in the third quarter.

Alford nearly came up with an interception late in the second quarter and did get one in the third quarter. He talked after the game and was determined to study film to improve.

MEDICAL WATCH

--CB Asante Samuel didn't practice Monday after leaving the Titans game with what the team reported as a thigh injury. But Smith said he anticipates Samuel will be ready to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at New Orleans.
--PK Matt Bryant, who sat out Saturday with a sore back, did not kick during practice Monday. Smith said Bryant also would be ready for the season opener.

--WR Roddy White (ankle) has been out since leaving the second exhibition game. He did not practice on Monday, but is expected to be ready for the season opener.

--LB Stephen Nicholas (leg) was injured during practice last week. He did not practice on Monday, but is expected to be ready for the season opener.

--DT Peria Jerry, who left the game Saturday with what the team said was a jaw injury, practiced Monday.

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--FB Mike Cox (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Mike Peterson (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED (all picks signed)
--CB Desmond Trufant (1/22); $8,166,096/4 yrs, $4,318,980 SB/$6,647,538 guaranteed/$600,000 RB 5th day 2016 league year.
--CB Robert Alford (2/60): $3,401,398/4 yrs, $853,744 SB/$1,077,744 guaranteed.
--DE Malliciah Goodman (4/127): $2,557,088/4 yrs, $397,088 SB.
--TE Levine Toilolo (4/133): $2,460,584/4 yrs, $300,584 SB.
--DE Stansly Maponga (5/153): $2,346,740/4 yrs, $186,740 SB.
--S Kemal Ishmael (7/243): $2,205,896/4 yrs, $45,896 SB.
--S Zeke Motta (7/244): $2,205,896/4 yrs, $45,896 SB.
--QB Sean Renfree (7/249): $2,205,896/4 yrs, $45,896 SB.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED
--T Sam Baker: UFA; $41.5M/6 yrs, $18.25M guaranteed.
--TE Tony Gonzalez: UFA; $14M/2 yrs, $3.5M SB.
--S William Moore: Potential UFA; $29.512M/5 yrs, $8.25M SB/$14M guaranteed.
--G Garrett Reynolds: Potential UFA; $2.58M/2 yrs, $500,000 SB/$700,000 guaranteed.
--RB Antone Smith: Potential RFA; $1.425M/2 yrs, $65,000 SB.
PLAYERS ACQUIRED
--FB Patrick DiMarco: FA Chiefs; terms unknown.
--RB Steven Jackson: UFA Rams; $12M/3 yrs, $3.5M SB/$4M guaranteed.
--DE Osi Umenyiora: UFA Giants; $8.5M/3 yrs, $2.5M SB/$5M guaranteed.
PLAYERS LOST
--DE John Abraham (released).
--T Tyson Clabo (released/post-June 1 designation).
--CB Brent Grimes: UFA Dolphins; $5M/1 yr, $2.25M SB/$3M guaranteed.
--S Chris Hope: Not tendered as UFA/Lions; terms unknown.
--C Todd McClure (UFA; retired).
--QB Luke McCown: UFA Saints; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Kerry Meier (released).
--CB Christopher Owens: UFA Browns; $1M/1 yr.
--TE Michael Palmer: Not tendered as RFA/Giants; terms unknown.
--CB Dunta Robinson (released.
--DE Lawrence Sidbury: UFA Colts; terms unknown.
--OT Will Svitek: UFA Patriots; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--RB Michael Turner (released/failed physical).
--DT Vance Walker: UFA Raiders; $1.3M/1 yr.

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