by Andy Benoit
The Atlanta Falcons have emerged as the best team in the NFC over the first month of this season. Let’s break them down through the prism of their Week 4 matchup against a Carolina Panthers team that’s looking to rebound from its nationally-televised Thursday night spanking.
1. Safety first
We’ll start backwards and begin with Atlanta’s safeties. The improvements that William Moore and Thomas DeCoud have made mark the greatest difference between this Falcons club and those of recent years. Both players have always been stellar open-field tacklers and in-the-box thumpers, but both have also been liabilities in coverage. That’s not the case this season. Each outsmarted Peyton Manning for an interception two weeks ago, and last Sunday at San Diego, DeCoud picked off Philip Rivers twice.
What’s changed with these two? Mainly the scheme they play in. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has brought a greater emphasis on generating pressure up front. With an improved pass rush speeding up opposing quarterbacks and making offenses more predictable, Atlanta’s safeties have been able to play a proactive brand of football. Instead of reading and reacting to routes, DeCoud, who often plays centerfield, can anticipate and jump them. This newfound confidence has naturally augmented his range. Moore, one of the most violent downfield hitters in the league, has been given more freelance liberties –- particularly prior to the snap. A quasi-Polamalu role shifts the emphasis from his football awareness to his athleticism.
DeCoud and Moore aren’t the only players thriving. Linebackers Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon have been tremendous in nickel packages. Corners Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel have been extremely physical tacklers. (Yes, Asante Samuel. Somewhere in Georgia, pigs are flying.) The Falcons have not completely replaced Mike Smith’s zone-based scheme with Nolan’s. They’ve simply merged the best aspects of both.
2. Carolina’s threat
This Sunday’s game will put the improvements of the safeties to the test, as for the first time this season they’ll be facing an elite outside receiver in Steve Smith. How proactive can they be in rolled coverage assignments?
Dangerous as Smith is, the key to stopping Carolina is containing their run game. As Grantland’s Chris Brown expertly illustrated last week, Cam Newton and heralded young offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinkski have added an array of wrinkles to their already-potent zone-read game. Perhaps the most surprising wrinkle is the speed option. This is a classic college play that supposedly doesn’t work in the NFL. We’ve seen a few pro teams use it before -– the 2010 Titans early in the season with Vince Young and Chris Johnson come to mind -– but Carolina is the only team that has regularly dialed it up in 2012.
The results have been mostly positive. In Week 2 against the Saints, they got the dream scenario: Newton and DeAngelo Williams on the outside against an isolated defensive back. Newton kept the ball and exploded for 40 yards. Of course, later in that game, on a fourth-and-inches play, Newton ran the option and was met by a crowd on the edge. His last-ditch effort to pitch the ball resulted in a fumble. Another noteworthy play: in Week 3 against the Giants, Carolina needed Smith to hold his block on Corey Webster just a half-second longer for their first option pitch to result in a long Williams touchdown run. (Williams wound up gaining seven yards on the play.)
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Besides the zone reads, Carolina’s ground game is unique because so much of it comes out of the shotgun. The shotgun maximizes Newton’s versatility, as defenders must fully honor the run and pass at all times. It also takes advantage of the ability of Williams and Jonathan Stewart to accelerate from a standstill position. Unlike most shotgun ground games, Carolina’s is not just space-oriented. They’re willing to pull their guards for power runs, and fullback Mike Tolbert can be used as a lead blocker in two-back sets.
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3. Atlanta’s ground game
Grinding runs have defined Atlanta’s offense since the Mike Smith era began in 2008. That’s changing under new coordinator Dirk Koetter. The best indicator of Koetter’s priorities can be found in his first-half play-calling, when the first batch of plays are scripted and the game is still too young for strategy to be seriously dictated by situation. In Week 1 at Kansas City, Koetter handed off to running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers on just eight of 33 first-half plays. That netted 27 yards. In Week 2 against Denver, he handed off on 11 of 31 plays, getting 17 yards. In Week 3, he handed off on 11 of 41 plays for a total of 28 yards.
Under Mike Mularkey, Atlanta’s passing game was often set up by their run game -– not just with play-action, but with dual-tight end or dual-back formations. With Koetter, that’ll likely be reversed. Expect more of the Falcons rushing attempts this season to come out of three-receiver sets, as Matt Ryan and his receivers will only get more comfortable with the system and the no-huddle. The quicker Rodgers should eventually take the No. 1 back duties from the more methodical Turner -- Rodgers has a surprising amount of toughness in his game.
Don’t expect the Falcons to become overly finesse, though. They still have a brutish offensive line, and they’ll still use their power ground game to protect leads. Also, what’s not talked about nearly enough is the run-blocking prowess of wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White. Koetter likes to take advantage of their tenacious physicality by aligning them in minus-splits in base personnel sets. Not a lot of teams are eager to bring receivers closer to the run formation like this, as it only draws more defenders to the box. But Koetter believes his wideouts can be assets in run blocking, and there are plenty of aerial shots that can be sprung on a condensed defense. Don’t be surprised if we see a few of these Sunday. Panthers linebackers Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly, the underneath seam defender in Ron Rivera’s base zone, are both innately aggressive downhill attackers on first and second down.
4. Air Atlanta
Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff traded a king’s ransom to draft Jones because he knew that it’s nearly impossible for defenses to truly double-team two star receivers on a down-by-down basis. Especially when there’s a proficient tight end and powerful ground weapons lining up between them. This week, by simply aligning in condensed base formations, the Falcons will all but ensure single coverage for either Jones or White, as the Panthers have spent a vast majority of their snaps in a single high safety look this season. Last week against New York, with Hakeem Nicks out, Carolina rolled their coverage to wherever Victor Cruz was. Consequently, fill-in No. 2 receiver Ramses Barden wound up having a field day against the soft coverage of fifth-round rookie Josh Norman.
This week, with two star receivers to worry about, expect Carolina to roll coverages towards Norman. That means whoever Chris Gamble is defending -– likely Roddy White, as he plays on the right side in a lot of Atlanta’s packages, including the hurry-up -– will be Ryan’s go-to guy.
Inside, the matchup between Tony Gonzalez and Carolina’s linebackers should be a good one. These days, the 36-year-old Gonzalez runs like he’s playing in deep, dry sand. Beason and Kuechly, as well as underrated pass defender James Anderson and nickel linebacker Thomas Davis, all have a clear speed and quickness advantage over the future Hall of Famer. And yet, no informed fan would bet comfortably on any of those guys winning this matchup.
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In this sort of game a year ago, Ryan would have had to decide as he was dropping back to pass which matchup to exploit. Mularkey’s aerial system was full of rudimentary isolation route concepts. Koetter’s system plays more to Ryan’s strengths. It’s built on route combinations, which allow the quarterback to make decisions based on defensive reads. It also allows the Falcons to create and exploit mismatches through play-calling alone. Ryan has responded marvelously. With three top-flight receiving stars, the way to defeat Atlanta’s passing game is in the trenches. The Falcons have a unified but unathletic offensive line: that’s why Ryan has been confined to so many five-step drops throughout his career. The Panthers, unfortunately, do not have a dynamic pass-rush, as we saw last Thursday night. Charles Johnson is a good power-based end, but few teams feel compelled to send chip-blocks his way. Greg Hardy is long and athletic but still only flashes talent, he's not a consistent down-to-down player. Inside, the defensive tackles do nothing on most downs, though fourth-round rookie end Frank Alexander has shown hints of upside as an interior nickel defender.
5. The battles within the battle
Panthers right guard Geoff Hangartner has had a stellar season thus far after being the weak link up front a year ago. He’ll be fiercely tested in this game, as gap-shooting extraordinaire Jonathan Babineaux is arguably the NFL’s best defensive lineman that nobody talks about.
Next to Hangartner, Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil should be able to handle Peria Jerry and Vance Walker one-on-one, though both fourth-year defensive tackles have stood out this season as energetic rotational players.
In the slot, Falcons corner Chris Owens will be heavily-targeted throughout the season. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell’s newfound fluidity and quickness have made him a drastically-improved route runner, particularly on the inside. But for Carolina to win, LaFell at some point will have to beat the off-coverage of Robinson or Samuel, as the Panthers are at their best in base sets with either fullback Tolbert or No. 2 tight end Gary Barnidge on the field.
Saints offense vs. Packers defense
Want to know what else is wrong with the Saints? Their receivers aren’t beating man coverage. Kansas City’s dime defense absolutely stifled New Orleans’ three-wideout packages last week. The loss of Robert Meachem’s vertical speed shrinks the field for Drew Brees. Things could get worse before they get better. The Packers have two excellent man-to-man corners in Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. With Clay Matthews, plus Dom Capers’ interior and slot blitzes, the Packers have a potent pass rush. (Matthews against Jermon Bushrod? Yikes.) Brees, with his near-perfect progression read acumen, compensates for bad protection extremely well –- especially against zone coverage -- but man coverage makes the battle less mental and more physical. Brees’ intelligence won’t matter if his receivers can’t shake free.
Packers offense vs. Saints defense
Randall Cobb isn’t the only second-year player seeing a bigger role in Green Bay’s offense. Tight end D.J. Williams played 37 snaps at Seattle. Some of those snaps came at the expense of Jermichael Finley, who has been dropping passes the way Jay-Z drops rhymes this season. Williams doesn’t have Finley’s size or sinewy athleticism, but who does? He’s still a very good athlete. He moves with fluidity in short areas and has an ability to adjust his tempo on the fly. With the Packers making a concerted effort to be balanced, expect Williams to see more playing time as a motion run blocker and play-action receiver. The Saints, with their reeling front seven, and shaky pass defending strong safety Roman Harper, would be a great team to expand Williams’ workload against.
Bills offense vs. Patriots defense
An intriguing individual matchup to watch in this game is Bills left tackle Cordy Glenn against Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones. Both rookies are off to good starts. Glenn is an impressive run-blocker who uses his size to dictate angles in a phone booth. Jones, with his lanky athleticism and explosive strength in confined areas, has been outstanding against the run. He also has the speed to turn the corner on passing downs -– something Glenn hasn’t had to face a whole lot this season. Glenn went up against the Jets in Week 1 and the Browns in Week 3; his only significant test came in Week 2, when he held Kansas City’s Tamba Hali sackless. The Bills' quick-striking spread passing game should keep Glenn from having to dance too long on an island with Jones. But with the statuses of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson up in the air, and with New England’s linebackers playing so well against the run in the first two weeks, Glenn may have to execute a drop-step 40-plus times on Sunday.
Patriots offense vs. Bills defense
After two weeks, it was looking like Steven Ridley would become a featured part of New England’s offense. The second-year running back had 21 carries for 125 yards in Week 1 and 18 carries for 71 yards in Week 2. However, against a stingy Ravens front in Week 3, Ridley ran the ball only 13 times. He sat behind Danny Woodhead for much of the night, as the Patriots went to their three-receiver and no-huddle packages.
What will Ridley’s role be this Sunday? Buffalo’s run defense doesn’t have Baltimore’s reputation. But last week, it was flawless, limiting Cleveland’s Trent Richardson to 27 yards on 12 attempts. In recent history, the Patriots have been aggressive attacking Buffalo’s interior defensive backs. However, with Aaron Hernandez out and Julian Edelman dealing with a hand injury, Tom Brady’s inside options are somewhat limited. Yes, there’s still Rob Gronkowski. But for a counterpart? Wes Welker is great underneath, but in a single tight end system, he’ll need Brandon Lloyd to lift coverages. The Bills have a pair of corners, Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Williams, who should be able to run one-on-one with the acrobatic Lloyd.
Chargers offense vs. Chiefs defense
Everyone, including yours truly, has put J.J. Watt’s name in the early discussion for Defensive Player of the Year. (If you think that’s a bit premature, prior to this season, Watt’s defensive coordinator brought up the Hall of Fame. Seriously.) Since the topic is open, we might as well put other deserving players on the radar. Here’s a nomination for Derrick Johnson. The eighth-year inside linebacker was sensational in Kansas City’s comeback win at New Orleans. Johnson’s downhill swiftness makes him a tremendous gap-shooter and green dog blitzer. His fluidity and alertness are also prevalent in the open field, where he can play sideline-to-sideline or drop into all forms of pass coverage. Johnson’s versatility allows the Chiefs to play their dime sub-package on early downs, which expands Romeo Crennel’s disguise capabilities and makes his group viable against spread offenses. The Chargers don’t spread much; they tend to stay in base formations. No problem, Johnson thrives there, too.
Chiefs offense vs. Chargers defense
What will scatback Jamaal Charles do for an encore? Some might say, not much. Charles touched the ball 39 times en route to claiming AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors last Sunday. Considering that he missed some snaps against Buffalo due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee, will the Chiefs monitor his touches this week? That will take substantial self-discipline from Crennel and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. The way to run on the Chargers is outside. They’re too big and deep at nose tackle, and Donald Butler's quickness and Takeo Spikes' veteran instincts are tough to beat between the numbers. Outside running isn’t necessarily easy either, as Jarret Johnson is one of the league’s best at setting the edge, and willowy Shaun Phillips is explosive in all facets. But Charles, as the Saints know, is one of the game’s fastest players. The Chiefs have to decide how much to use him.
Rams offense vs. Seahawks defense
Legitimate question: will the Rams have more points scored than sacks allowed in this one? They were held to six points by the Bears because their outside receivers simply couldn’t find voids in the Chicago's zone coverages. Those receivers -– Brandon Gibson, Chris Givens and Steve Smith –- match up even less favorably with Seahawks corners Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Sam Bradford has had a tendency to fixate on his initial reads in Brian Schottenheimer’s new offense. He’ll be fixating on suffocating coverage this Sunday. What’s more, he’s facing a Seahawks team that sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times last Monday night. Green Bay’s line is somewhat iffy; St. Louis’s is downright awful. Starting left tackle Rodger Saffold and center Scott Wells are still on the sideline, while starting right tackle Barry Richardson and left guard Quinn Ojinnaka would be if they played for any other team.
Seahawks offense vs. Rams defense
The Rams will need more from their linebackers in run defense this week. The activeness of St. Louis’ defensive line was enough to contain Chicago’s ground attack last week, though the Bears gouged a few Rams stunts with inside counters. The Seahawks present a different style: they’re a zone-running team. As long as they can contain end Chris Long (no small feat), they should be able to slide east-and-west to set up lanes for Marshawn Lynch. That puts the onus primarily on middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to exhibit the improvements in lateral agility that earned him a new contract this past summer.
Bucs offense vs. Redskins defense
Jim Haslett has, at times, shown a peculiar willingness to put his pass defenders in unfavorable man-to-man matchups. Part of this is because Haslett is committed to making DeAngelo Hall the second coming of Charles Woodson. The "popular" veteran has handled his variegated slot duties well so far, though Skins fans may soon be nostalgic for Hall’s multi-interception/multi-blown coverage performances on the outside. That’s because the other part of Haslett’s scheme is strong trust in his pass rush. Haslett gambles with linebackers on receivers or safeties on better receivers because he sees it as part of the cost of bringing pressure. But the pressure may not come with Brian Orakpo out of the lineup, which means Redskins’ defenders may not hold up on the back end. Time will tell, though maybe not this week. These days, Josh Freeman is dropping back and holding the ball long enough for television viewers to hit the bathroom and get back in time to see him throw a duck under duress.
Redskins offense vs. Bucs defense
Tampa Bay has pass-rush problems of its own. They struggled early in the season to generate pressure with a four-man line. Last week, they lost their best edge force, Adrian Clayborn, for the season. That has led to unfoundedly wishful stories about Da’Quan Bowers’ possible return from an offseason Achilles injury this November. Problem is, the Bucs defense may play itself out of contention by then. Who can step up and bring some heat? Left end Michael Bennett has gotten markedly better over the past 18 months or so, but he hasn’t had to face double teams yet. Backup linebacker Dekoda Watson is used as a pass-rush specialist, but a job title and job performance are two different things: Watson has one sack in 32 career games. Tampa’s pass-rushing futility should come as a relief to the Redskins. Impressive as Robert Griffin has been, he’s taken way too many hits this month.