Midseason Report: Atlanta Falcons
November, 6, 2013
By Vaughn McClure | ESPN.com
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith has talked about his team's lack of consistency the entire season. Many would say the 2-6 Falcons have been consistently bad.
After last year's 13-3 finish and trip to the NFC Championship Game, most expected the Falcons to coast to a No. 1 seed and possibly contend for the Super Bowl this year. Unfortunately, things haven't gone according to plan for Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the rest of the crew.
Injuries, of course, have left the Falcons thin at several key positions. Smith, however, refuses to use that as a crutch.
"There are injuries all across the league," Smith said. "There are teams that have more guys on IR than others, and they've been successful. That's why, from the very beginning, you can't use injuries as an excuse. … There are no excuses. We've got to go out and play every week."
The Falcons simply have to play better in the second half. Here is a midseason review of the Falcons, grading the team, position by position:
GRADING THE ATLANTA FALCONS
Position Grade Analysis
Quarterbacks: Grade B-
Although Ryan posted a career-best 148.4 passer rating against Tampa Bay, he hasn't been as dominant as expected. He threw a few poor passes against New England when he had his full arsenal of receivers and did the same in back-to-back losses to Arizona and Carolina. He threw seven interceptions in those losses as the Falcons played without receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. Those struggles aren't completely his fault as he needs more protection from his offensive line and more balance from the running game.
Running Backs: Grade C-
Steven Jackson was supposed to bring some toughness after coming over from the St. Louis Rams. Jackson has missed four games with a hamstring injury and has set back the rushing attack. He took a step forward and ran with authority in the final game of the first half of the season at Carolina. Jacquizz Rodgers has been productive in the screen game, but the running backs, as a whole, have been unable to grind it out in short-yardage situations. Give Rodgers and Jason Snelling credit for their blitz pickups.
Wide Receivers: Grade C
This grade should be an incomplete grade considering Jones was shelved for the season following foot surgery and White has been held back by hamstring and ankle injuries all season. Before going down, Jones led the league in receiving yards. Then Harry Douglas emerged with a career-high 149 yards his first game as the team's No. 1 receiver. The Falcons need more from inexperienced receivers Drew Davis and Darius Johnson.
Tight Ends: Grade B+
Tony Gonzalez's production at the age of 37, particularly based on the double coverage he routinely faces, is simply amazing. He leads the team with four touchdown receptions. Not to mention how Gonzalez has mentored rookie tight end Levine Toilolo, who showed great improvement from Week 4 to Week 5. Blocking needs to be better as a group, Gonzalez included.
Offensive Line: Grade D-
Maybe the line hadn't given up an excessive amount of sacks over the first eight games, but a lot of that had to do with Ryan taking short drops and getting the ball out quickly. The line still surrendered too much pressure and allowed Ryan to get hit too many times. Equally important is how ineffective the line has been at run-blocking, as well as drawing excessive procedural penalties.
Defensive Line: Grade C
For most of the season, the line has ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks per pass play. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux has been probably the most consistent defensive lineman -- although even he admitted he needed to have more numbers to prove it. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora has been the most productive in terms of numbers, but needs more consistency. Young linemen Jonathan Massaquoi, Malliciah Goodman, and Stansly Maponga should get a chance to grow up quickly in the second half of the season.
Linebackers: Grade C-
This should be an incomplete based on injuries to Kroy Biermann (injured reserve) and Sean Weatherspoon (short-term IR). The Falcons have used seven different starters at linebacker this season, including two undrafted rookies in Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow. Some of the explosive run plays given up to opponents could have been prevented with better tackling by the group. Covering tight ends has also been an issue.
Secondary: Grade B-
William Moore continues to hit hard from his safety position and he and Thomas DeCoud combined for one of the team's two defensive touchdowns. But the defensive backfield has played a part in the 11 plays of 40-plus yards yielded by the defense. Rookie Desmond Trufant has held his own at cornerback, though he still has plenty of growing to do. Trufant and fellow rookie Robert Alford have three interceptions combined.
Special Teams: Grade C
No players had made a bigger impact than Antone Smith, who continues to excel as a gunner despite drawing added attention from opponents. Matt Bryant has taken advantage of the short distances presented to him due to the team's red-zone struggles and punter Matt Bosher has been consistent. But the Falcons continue to struggle in the return game, including two costly fumbles.
Coaching: Grade C
As much as folks want to put the heat on Smith, sometimes there's only so much you can do when you lose your top player (Jones) for the season and place four other starters on the IR. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter took the blame for some bad red-zone play call early in the season, while defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had to move from the coaching box to the sideline to better communicate with his inexperienced defense. Give assistant head coach Terry Robiskie credit for coaching up unproven receivers Drew Davis and Darius Johnson, and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong has done the best with his units despite plenty of moving parts.
"what if there were no hypothetical situations?"