The Falcons come to town on Sunday in a key game. Do you remember last year's Falcons? They showed no heart, were completely dysfunctional and, simply put, a bad football team. I'm sad to report that the 2008 Falcons are just the opposite.
Back in August, I would have sworn there was no way Atlanta would have more wins than the Eagles in mid-October. That's the beauty of the NFL. Each season a team gets a chance for redemption. Preseason predictions become meaningless after the opening kickoff in early September.
The 2008 Falcons have a new coach, Mike Smith, and a new general manager, Thomas Dimitroff. Smith was the defensive coordinator with Jacksonville last year. Dimitroff worked for the Patriots. These two men know about winning and it shows in the team that they have built.
Atlanta is ninth in the NFL in total offense and second in rushing. The defense is only 25th in yards allowed, but they are tough to score on. The Falcons are 12th in points allowed.
The key offensive player is running back Michael Turner. He came over from San Diego in the offseason. Turner is third in the NFL in rushing. He averages almost five yards a carry and has six touchdowns. He has produced several long runs as well as pounding out the short and solid gains. I wondered how Turner would fare as a workhorse runner after sitting behind LaDainian Tomlinson all those years. Turner has been great for the Falcons.
Backup running back Jerious Norwood is also helping with the running attack. He has 280 yards so far and is averaging almost seven yards a pop. He is fast and offers big-play ability. Norwood is also dangerous on kickoffs. Fullback Ovie Mughelli is a good blocker.
Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan is having a really good year. The best compliment you can pay him is that he doesn't look like a rookie. Ryan isn't making the kind of bonehead mistakes so many young passers do. Not only is Ryan playing mistake-free football, Ryan is actually making positive plays and helping Atlanta to win games. He made a clutch throw with less than 10 seconds left in the Bears game to set up the winning field goal. His quarterback rating is just under 83. He only has three interceptions and he's only been sacked seven times. Young quarterbacks normally hold the ball too long or make dumb throws. Ryan is doing a good job of avoiding those problems.
The best receiver is Roddy White. He has 35 catches and three touchdowns. Michael Jenkins and rookie Harry Douglas also factor in. All three receivers have the speed to get deep. Douglas has been used on end arounds a few times. He has five carries on the season. It is funny to see the Falcons with so little production from the tight end position. Alge Crumpler was their passing game for a long time, but things are very different now. Their tight ends have a total of six catches in six games.
The offensive line is a mixture of young guys and veterans. They are playing pretty well right now. I wasn't sure about rookie left tackle Sam Baker being able to handle that spot in the NFL, but he's been solid so far.
The defense is still a work in progress. End John Abraham is off to a great start with seven sacks and a couple of forced fumbles. He is really bringing the heat off the edge. Unfortunately the rest of the team only has three sacks on the year. Getting to the quarterback is not something they have done well.
Massive defensive tackle Grady Jackson clogs the middle (and then some) and that allows Jonathan Babineaux to get penetration and make plays in the backfield. Babineaux already has six tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The linebackers are pretty good. Michael Boley is underrated. He isn't making many plays yet, but had a great season in 2007. Rookie Curtis Lofton is in the middle and leads the team in tackles. Veteran Keith Brooking is back on the outside. The group needs to make more plays, but is solid overall.
The secondary features a pair of young corners in Chris Houston and Brent Grimes. They have talent, but are inconsistent. The lack of a strong pass rush doesn't help matters. Safeties Erik Coleman and Lawyer Milloy are OK, but should be upgraded in the offseason.
The Eagles match up pretty well with the Falcons. Donovan McNabb will have a full stable of weapons to work with. The Falcons aren't strong in coverage or getting pressure on the passer. On paper, at least, that is a decided advantage for Philadelphia. As I mentioned earlier, the Falcons don't allow many points. The Eagles offense has had serious red zone issues. That favors Atlanta.
Both teams are coming off the bye. That means that both coaching staffs had time to review weaknesses and make changes. The Eagles' problems are more execution than lack of talent. If Andy Reid and his staff did a good job in the off-week, this will give a good boost to the Eagles. The Falcons are in the first year of a new staff and have played surprisingly well. They still have adjustments to make, but the major factors for them to improve are getting more talent in the offseason and having the young players get more experience. I don't think the Falcons will gain as much from the bye week.
We have to hope that Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg were able to find some ways to improve the red zone offense. Adding Brian Westbrook and Kevin Curtis will certainly help. There were also issues with playcalling and execution. The team must improve in this area. Score touchdowns and the Eagles go to the postseason. Kick field goals and the team can make vacation plans for mid-January.
Hopefully the offense will feed the ball to Brian Westbrook and DeSean Jackson. Those guys are the key playmakers. It would also help for the coaches to make a concerted effort to get the ball to L.J. Smith and/or Brent Celek, especially in the red zone. It will be interesting to see how much Curtis plays and if they try to feed him the ball specifically or just work him into the offense slowly. If he plays anything like he did last year, the offense could take another step forward.
The Eagles defense gets a major challenge. They have to control the Falcons running game, especially Michael Turner. Take away their running game and the offensive burden completely falls on a rookie quarterback. Ryan has played well, but he's not going to carry that team against a good defense. Atlanta has faced two good defenses, two marginal defenses and two bad defenses. They lost to the two good defenses and didn't score a touchdown in either game. Philadelphia enters the game ranked seventh in the league in total defense.
Both Washington and San Francisco were able to run the ball on the Eagles defense. The teams did different things to have success, but mostly it boils down to players not getting off blocks and making clean tackles. Turner doesn't have the kind of power that Clinton Portis or Frank Gore have, but he does have excellent speed. That is something new for the Eagles to worry about.
The defense did come alive late in the win over the Niners. Jim Johnson needs to figure out what button he pushed and re-create that on Sunday. Part of it was guys just winning individual battles. Brodrick Bunkley was dominant at times in the fourth quarter. We need to see more of that, but over the course of a whole game. Bunkley has the talent to be that kind of player.
The Eagles have a lot of things on their side in this game. It is a home game. Andy Reid has never lost the game directly after the bye. They are facing a rookie quarterback, and on and on. All that stuff means nothing if the team doesn't go out and play well on Sunday. This is a key game. The Eagles need to get back above .500 and get some momentum going.