It's official. The Falcons have surpassed all expectations.
No preview out there had projected a record better than 4-12 for the Atlanta Falcons. I have been picking on The Sporting News a lot for their UTTERLY MORONIC 1-15 call ever since their publication hit the newsstands. (And they truly deserve it - all you had to do was look at their projected depth chart to see that these idiots either didn't have a clue or simply weren't paying attention. Ojinnaka as the starting left guard? FRASER as the starting nose tackle????)
But they weren't alone. Athlon, Pro Football Weekly, Lindy's, ESPN, CBS, FOX, etc, etc, etc all said the team would end the year 3-13 or 4-12, listed them #31 or #32 in power rankings, named them as the team on the clock for the first pick of the 2009 draft, etc.
Well, after eight games, these same Falcons are 5-3. That's five wins - more than any publication had projected, and the season is only half over.
Today they did it in convincing fashion. They won on the road for the second time this season. They held their opponents to a shutout. It was the first shutout for Atlanta since they held Carolina scoreless in both games of the 2002 season. They set a franchise record by limiting the opposition to just three first downs for the game. By contrast, the Falcons had 12 first downs in the first quarter alone. They held their opponents to -2 total yards in the first half. It was the first time in 16 years that any team had negative yardage for an entire half.
That's not just a win. That's a statement. These New Birds aren't among the league elite, but they are a legitimate NFL team. They aren't the patsies that the national media thought they would be. Any team playing them needs to be prepared for an all-out war, because that's exactly what the Falcons will bring to the field.
I won't go into the video review in detail this week. General notes will suffice.
The offensive line dominated their direct opponents. The defensive line didn't get overpowered and consistently got penetration. Ryan was accurate, going 17 of 22 for 220 yards, with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions.
With Sam Baker out, Weiner got the start at LT. But for Norwood's TD run on the second drive, Tyson Clabo lined up on the left side - they're still trying to do unbalanced lines and other combinations to get extra power advantages for their special package formations. Also, the recently re-signed Wayne Gandy got some playing time in the final two minutes of the first half and then again in the second half.
Domonique Foxworth got his second game of full time experience with the Falcon defense. Grimes was named as the starter before the game, but Foxworth was out there from the beginning to the end.
The team's OTHER power running back, Jason Snelling, got some action too. He picked up 47 yards on 8 carries during the clock-killing part of the game when everyone on the field KNEW the handoff was coming. He simply ran over people in impressive fashion. He also had a 12 yard gain on a screen pass.
The first time Ryan was sacked, it was an optional thing. The Falcons had a 21-0 lead and were in field goal range. Ryan had escaped the pressure. He could have scrambled or thrown the ball away. Instead, he went directly to the middle of the field (where Elam would have a straight shot on the field goal attempt) and went to the ground without even being touched. He essentially gave himself up and guaranteed the best possible situation for the kick rather than risk turning the ball over while trying to make a play.
Ironically, on the very next drive (at the end of the first half) he had another chance to do the same thing but instead tried to make a play. As he scrambled, the ball was knocked away from him, and the Raiders recovered the fumble. The fumble also counts as a sack - the second of the afternoon for Ryan.
Falcon fans have been brutal on Adam Jennings for letting punts bounce rather than making fair catches - including the one that was botched by the refs last week. Jennings was put on the inactive list this week. Instead, Harry Douglas started out as the punt returner. And in the first half, he let two of them bounce rather than making fair catches. Both ended up costing Atlanta significant yardage. Late in the first half, Brian Finneran was given a shot at it. He was backed up near his 10 yard line (closer to the 15, actually) so he let his punt go too. It bounced and rolled inside the 10.
Bottom line - it's not just Jennings. Unfortunately, Brent Grimes is still banged up with the knee injury he got late in the game against Chicago. If the Falcons are going to have open tryouts for the punt return position, I'd like to see what he can do. He returned punts and kicks in college and also in NFL-Europa.
(There's also one other guy from NFL-E that I'd like to see get a shot at it down the road, but he's not eligible until next season. That would be Noriaki Kinoshita, the Japanese wide receiver who became a sort of fan favorite in camp last season. He's on our practice squad this year under the league's international player development program. That makes him a free extra man for the practice squad, but he can't be promoted to the active roster or signed by another team for the 2008 season. But if PR/KR is still a need, he really might have a shot at it next year. He has great hands. He's fearless. And he has experience, having played NFL-E for three years. The main downside is that his English is still extremely limited.)
I'm glad to see the coaches exploring their options and getting several guys some experience - that's always important in case of injuries. But in minicamp, camp, preseason, and this game I have yet to see anyone do the job any better than Jennings. Might as well stick with him and let him get the experience.
The one thing I didn't care for in this game was some unnecessary aggressiveness by the coaching staff. I know it's easy to say that in hindsight, since both of the questionable decisions backfired. But even if they had both been successful and had created 10 more points for Atlanta, I still wouldn't like those calls in those situations. Both of them can be taken the wrong way and misinterpreted as unnecessary attempts by our coaching staff to run up the score.
The first was near the end of the third quarter. Atlanta had a 3rd and 1 inside Oakland's 10 yard line. They went for the QB sneak, but it was stuffed. No problem there. But then they went for it on 4th down.
What the heck was that about?? If the score is 24-0 and you have the ball at the 9 yard line, just kick the freaking field goal and take the easy three points. You don't need the touchdown anyway. Why try to rub it in? That's the message that a move like that sends - the nearly automatic field goal isn't enough, and you want to put up seven on your opponents. No matter how much you want to give your young line the extra experience in a short yardage situation, that's not a good time to do it.
After the Raiders went three and out, the third sack (and first "real" sack of the afternoon, as the other two were the self-sacrifice job and the fumble) killed the ensuing Falcon drive, leaving Atlanta with 4th and 16 from Oakland's 34 yard line. Atlanta opted to go for a 51 yard field goal attempt. Elam's longest of the season was 50 yards.
This call didn't bother me as much, but I still disagree with it. With 14:25 left in the game, a 24 point lead, and an opposing offense that had managed just one first down in three quarters of play, the situation was just begging for a punt out of bounds inside the ten yard line. At that point of the game, killing the clock is a much higher priority than scoring three points. The best thing Atlanta could do is bury Oakland deep and make them play the long field for the rest of the game.
I also thought the coaches made a mistake in leaving Ryan in for the entire game. They made sure Gandy, Foxworth, and Snelling got valuable playing time, as well as plenty of reps for the young guys in the front seven on defense. I had hoped they'd do the same for third QB D.J. Shockley or second QB Chris Redman, but that didn't happen. Now I can only hope the lost opportunity doesn't cost them later on down the road.
In the meantime, the Falcons suffered no significant injuries today. They will likely be healthier next week than they were this week. At this time of the year, that's a luxury. Baker will be out, and that's a HUGE loss for the offense, but the roster is otherwise intact.