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Falcons defense may not be as bad as it appears


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The Atlanta Falcons defense may not be as bad as it appears

September 8, 10:29 AM Atlanta Falcons Examiner Daniel Cox

The alarms sounded in Week 3 of the preseason when the Atlanta Falcons hemorrhaged passing yardage.

The fans called for the secondary's heads--everyone from veteran Erik Coleman to rookie Chris Owens. The performance enthused Head Coach Mike Smith for the wrong reasons. He was seen speaking passionately to his entire defense following a second-quarter, 12 play, 84-yard scoring drive for the Chargers that featured four third-down conversions, the final for a 48-yard touchdown.

Smith wouldn't confess what he told his team, but it was likely a mix of things he'd prefer not to repeat to the general public and something about not being able to win games if you can't stop teams.

"What I say to the players is between myself and them," Smith said following the August 29, 27-24 last-second win over the Chargers. "You guys know that’s always been the way that we operate. Obviously, were not satisfied with the way that drive went because of the third down conversion, but it’s definitely something we have to address. We will address it as a coaching staff and as a defensive unit.”

As bad as the Atlanta secondary's pass defense has looked this preseason, it's potentially by design. With the team's first-string defense on the field for much of the first half in Week 3, the Falcons gave up 255 yards through the air.

Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, with backup quarterback John Beck at the helm, the Ravens offense marched down the field against Atlanta's first-teamers, to score on its first possession, driving 91 yards on 14 plays (converting three third-down attempts).

A number of things have been overlooked in the preseason that says the Falcons aren't as bad on defense as they looked at times.

The cornerstone to every defense is the ability to stop the run. It's the mantra of most defensive coordinators, the idea being that preventing yardage on the ground means team's must take bigger risks moving the ball through the air.

In the Week 1 loss to Detroit, Atlanta struggled against the run, giving up 191 yards on the ground, though only 47 of those yards came in the first half. In the second week against the Rams, they further improved that effort, allowing only 26 yards on the ground. Against San Diego, who did not play All-Pro tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, Atlanta again allowed only 26 yards in the opening half. In the final contest, the Falcons' defense allowed 24 rushing yards in the first half.

The run defense has looked strong and looks to continue to improve. Rookie first-round pick Peria Jerry began to show a capability from the defensive tackle position to fulfill his potential in the final game when he had four tackles, a sack, and one tackle for loss. The sacks will be icing on the cake if Jerry can continue to find himself in the opposing team's backfield to meet the running back.

For a team that finished as the eighth-worst run defense in 2008, they had an encouraging showing in the preseason. Despite the perceived defencies in the air, stopping an opponent's running game will go a long way toward helping the Falcons achieve again this season.

Though Smith won't share what he says to his players, especially when he's admonishing them for poor execution, he has hinted at what his objective for the preseason has been.

"The thing that you have to do is realize that you need to put players in all situations to evaluate them," Smith said following the final game of the preseason. "You're not game planning in a game like this. You're putting players in situations to see how they're going to handle techniques and certain coverages."

The head coach has made comments like this throughout the preseason, essentially saying he wants to see what his team can and cannot do; he wants to see what specific players can and cannot do.

What Smith and defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder would like to do this season is bring a lot of pressure to the quarterback through designed blitzes, with the cornerbacks handling the coverage of the receivers often by themselves. It's a departure from the zone-coverage style they employed last season, a style that sometimes doesn't allow for good pressure on the quarterback. Former linebacker Keith Brooking hinted at reasons why the Falcons did this last season and the results it produced.

"Look at the stats of our linebackers across the board of our defense," Brooking said earlier in the offseason before signing with the Dallas Cowboys. "I think there's one sack, or two sacks total from our linebackers. I think a lot of it has to do with the scheme. We're not a blitzing defense and there are a lot of reasons for that. And I'm not going to go into why because I'm not that type of guy."

Brooking meant he didn't want to single out players, implying that Van Gorder and Smith had to run a scheme that helped the secondary because of a lack of trust it its ability to cover pass catchers.

The Falcons blitzed heavily in the preseason and the pass coverage suffered because of it. One of the goals of the offseason was to get faster, potentially for this exact reason. While they accomplished that, one of the lessons learned in the preseason was that some in the secondary may still be a liability in more man coverages.

In the last week, Atlanta General Manager Thomas Dimitroff brought in two new players at cornerback, moves that could upgrade the unit. Through a trade of a 2010 seventh-round pick with St. Louis, he acquired 2006 first-round selection Tye Hill. On Sunday he signed eight-year veteran Brian Williams, a player familiar with Smith's defense from Smith's time in Jacksonville as the defensive coordinator.

Williams has the advantage in that he knows the system and can get involved quickly. Hill may take a little longer, but the team will want to get the former Ram involved as quickly as possible.

What it all means is that if the Falcons have to run a safer scheme than what they showed in the preseason, they will. They will not be worse than what they were last year, with the talent upgrades they've made. However, the moves Dimitroff continues to make signal that Atlanta will look to bring in players that will allow them to do what they want.

As it stands, in addition to Williams and Hill, the Falcons have Chris Houston, Brent Grimes, Chris Owens, and Chevis Jackson at corner. The team could employ any rotation of those players as starters over the course of 2009 and likely will.

One thing that came out of the first half against the Ravens is that after the scoring drive, the Falcons defense (granted it came against mostly second-teamers) produced three straight three-and-outs. As a team, they didn't allow points on the five possessions following the first quarter score.

Finally, the Atlanta defense will get a significant boost from the team's offense. Led by quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons offense, which features numerous playmakers, will not only score a lot of points, but the game plan will also include controlling the ball as much as possible, to keep the defense off the field.

What is all means is that for Smith and his staff, the preseason was a trial-and-error period of evaluation and seeing what sticks. The Falcons have an excellent staff of coaches and they managed to win despite the defense last season. They made improvements over the course of the season and took advantage of some opportunities. A younger and faster team should do no worse.

Atlanta's fan base has a right to be worried, but shouldn't overlook Smith's ability game plan and put the right players in the right situations. He's learned in the preseason who can handle what.


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Great read and this is what the sensible fans have been saying, our defense was put in adverse situations during the preseason to see what they could, and couldn't handle. Houston was a solid corner last year and there is absolutely no way he has regressed as much as the preseason seemed to show. I believe we are going to have a very solid defense, the secondary may be a little suspect but it is every year and most of the time we seem to do fine.

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Sounds about right from what I have been hearing. That the coaches put the corners on an island to see how they handled the heat. Obviously they didn't do to well, hence Hill and Williams. I am excited as to what we will be doing defensively once we get our corners secure in man coverage. Looks like lots of blitzes...

Thanks for the post Prof...

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Great read and this is what the sensible fans have been saying, our defense was put in adverse situations during the preseason to see what they could, and couldn't handle. Houston was a solid corner last year and there is absolutely no way he has regressed as much as the preseason seemed to show. I believe we are going to have a very solid defense, the secondary may be a little suspect but it is every year and most of the time we seem to do fine.

Good points but what we know that Houston is ok in zone but still struggles in zone, but he also struggled with the scheme that the Coaching staff hopes to implement going foward which doesnt look good for Houston. I do think that we were trying to be more aggressive than last year, so I can wait to see when we have the players that will allow us to play the type of Scheme that BVG and Smith want to play.

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I like to think that what we showed the op this off season was really nothing of what we plan to implement in the season. I know this article is saying basically the same thing, but if what we saw out of the talent on the line was from a very "vanilla" defense (if you will), then I think theres going to be a lot of trouble for other teams to run and they wont have very long to go through their reads. Im still not sold on our DBs but we all know it starts up front anyways.

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Good article. Here's how I look at it: Houston is a decent but not great corner in zone coverage. But he is bad at man to man when it is all up to him. It's hard to tell whether he regressed at man-to-man, or whether he has always been this bad at it. (Remember, he's only been playing 2 years).

Either way, with Houston (and Grimes to a degree), we cannot be aggressive. That leads to bend-but-don't-break, giving up a lot of yards, but hopefully still keeping teams out of the end zone (which is how we wound up 11th in points allowed last year).

It definitely looks like we CAN be aggressive with Tye Hill and Brian Williams. Williams is good in man-to-man, except that he doesn't have top speed. So we need to keep Hill on the fast receiver.

Grimes might also be good enough at man coverage to allow us to be aggressive. He seems to stick to his man most of the time. The height and weight is a disadvantage for him, but sometimes he is able to overcome it.

Anyway, the upshot is, if we play the same conservative scheme we played last year, we should be about as good as we were last year. Maybe slightly better due to improved defensive line, maybe a little worse due to Foxworth being gone. But throw in Tye Hill and Brian Williams, and we can be more aggressive, which should definitely make us better than last year.

I think we're in good shape. I'm now thinking 10 wins or more.

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I've been saying the exact same things over and over for the last month here. Glad someone else said it more eloquently than I have been so perhaps more people will hear the message and let it sink in. This preseason has been about trial and error for us. Putting people in all kinds of situations and making determinations on which players can handle which roles. And in the case of the secondary, going out and getting 2 new players to fill roles that our current players showed they couldn't handle. No way is this defense going to be worse than the one we fielded last year. And you know the offense is going to be even better.

The defense may (I emphasize MAY) keep us from a deep playoff run this year; but at least it is headed in the right direction under some good leadership, finally.

The fact that we tested our CB's under a ton of man to man schemes this preseason, they failed, and we went out and made two roster moves at CB because of it. That right there should tell anyone with a brain we want to be an attacking, blitzing defense that gets after the QB and plays far more man to man coverage than the Cover 2 we were forced to use the majority of the season last year. I can't wait to see what this defense is going to look like when we finally get the personnel to run the schemes that Smitty and BVG really want to run.

Anybody that says we are a cover 2 team becaus thats what Smitty and BVG want and prefer to run just isn't paying attention. If we run that scheme predominantly this year, it's because they are covering up for weaknesses in the secondary, not because thats the scheme of choice.

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Good Article:

The only hole I see in his theory is all of our existing starters were on the team last year so the coaching staff had ample time to assess there skill sets and deficiencies. Granted the new draft class are unknown quantities but Houston, Grimes, Jackson, DeCoud and Coleman were not.

I think the coaching staff was as surprised as anyone of how poorly the secondary performed.

The thing I really like about this coaching staff and GM is there wiliness to address issues and weaknesses

I remember two years in a row under the Mora regime when we failed to secure a proven kicker before the season started and as a result we lost early games. We may not be a top 5 defense this year, but I do think this organization is finally moving in the right direction.

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Not sure how they didn't know the CB's weren't an issue after last year but I hope the two new guys can bring something to the table, still not as big as I'd like but do have some experience.

I think they knew CB was going to be a need, but they weren't sure if Grimes or Houston could handle man coverage. Apparently they can't. So thats when TD decided to bring in some players he thinks can.

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