FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – With his team remaining the final unbeaten of the 2012 NFL season, Falcons head coach Mike Smith took the podium on Monday and engaged in much hand-wringing over the state of his team’s ability not only to run the ball but to defend the run.
Yet if last year serves as any kind of historical example in the modern pass-happy NFL, it would be that defending the run is more important than being able to run it. Still, being in the top half of the league in those statistics does not seem critical to playing for or winning a Super Bowl.
Consider the two teams that played in last season’s Super Bowl. The New York Giants finished dead last in rushing while New England ranked 20th. In terms of defending the run, both fared better but were not great: New England ranked 17th and the Giants 19th.
Go back another year and one team, Pittsburgh, is an outlier, but the Steelers were not the Super Bowl champion. The Steelers owned the league’s top running defense and ranked 11th in rushing offense, but Green Bay, ranked 24th in rushing offense and 18th in run defense.
Still, no one expects Smith, a man whose first four seasons were mostly built around a ground-and-pound philosophy, to stand up and say it’s not important that the Falcons play those two facets of the game better – even if they are 6-0. In fact, he said those were the two areas in which the Falcons would have to concentrate the most during the coach’s self-scouting process during their bye week.
Coming off their 23-20 victory over Oakland on Sunday in which they totaled 45 yards rushing and allowed 149 on the ground from the Raiders, the Falcons now rank 25th in rushing offense at 86.5 yards per game and 27th in run defense, allowing 143.8 yards per game.
“We’ve got to play more consistently,” Smith said of his top priority going into the bye. “…We have not run the ball consistently and we have not stopped the run.”
Smith said one problem was poor tackling. He said on Sunday the Falcons had twice as many missed tackles as they would expect to have had in a usual game. One of the issues might have been that the Falcons played without one of their two three-down starting linebackers on Sunday. Stephen Nicholas, a strong-side outside linebacker, was active with an ankle injury but only played on special teams, as Smith said the Falcons need to keep him healthy for the coming weeks and, as a result, limited his duties.
In his place, second-year player Akeem Dent, the middle linebacker, played all of the defensive snaps for the first time in his career, which meant being one of the two nickel linebackers for the first time. Smith disputed the notion that Dent did not perform well. Dent had six solo tackles (third on the team) and two assists behind cornerback Dunta Robinson and weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon; Dent had no tackles-for-loss, nor did Weatherspoon while Robinson had one.
“No, I don’t think so,” Smith said. “Akeem did a nice job in his role. It was an expanded role. Akeem has not played that many snaps because he’s only been a base linebacker.”
The Falcons could get some help soon in the form of starting defensive tackle Corey Peters, who has been out since March with a foot injury. Peters is now eligible to come off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and Smith said the Falcons will try to get him up to speed for their Oct. 21 against Philadelphia, but that they might need more time.
“We’re working our tail off to get him going,” Smith said. “You can’t truly simulate a football game.”
Among the defensive tackles, the Falcons normally use a four-man rotation but with Peters out, Smith said that has shrunk to a three-man rotation (Peria Jerry, Vance Walker and Jonathan Babineaux).
One result of the new rotation was that Babineaux played 95 percent of the snaps on Sunday. He was excellent, with three tackles-for-loss and one forced fumble, but Smith said that was far too many plays for the 31-year-old with 10 games left and the playoffs likely.
“We definitely need to get his snap-count down,” Smith said.
So whereas poor tackling and personnel issues have hurt the run defense, the running offense issues remain more of a mystery. Smith said he does not think running the ball less in a philosophical shift under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter explains the lack of success.
“I don’t believe that,” Smith said. “Again, it’s based on — whether you’re running or throwing — looks you’re getting from the defense (over) the majority of the time. There are times you’re going up to the line of scrimmage knowing you’re going to be running the ball, but we’ve got to be more consistent and more efficient when we are running the football.”
One difference between the Falcons of the previous four seasons under former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey when the Falcons had more success running the ball and this year is the formations they use. In the past, they used more power formations (two tight ends and a fullback with one wide receiver) whereas now they tend to use formations that are more spread out. On Sunday, fullback Lousaka Polite and blocking tight end Tommy Gallarda each played only eight snaps (15 percent), whereas wide receivers Roddy White (96 percent), Julio Jones (91 percent) and Harry Douglas (67 percent) played the large majority of the game. (Tight end Tony Gonzalez played 98 percent of the snaps.)
Smith was asked if the different use of formations was negatively impacting Turner.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “When we started the season, we made it very apparent that at the end of the year – we’re not trying to hide anything – that our running back wasn’t going to have 300 carries this year. That’s unheard of to have a guy do it as many years as Mike (Turner) has done it. We feel we’re going to be more efficient as a football team by spreading the touches around to the different guys on our offense.”
“Some weeks it’s going to be skewed towards a certain player or a certain type of offense whether it’s the run game. Other weeks it’s going to be skewed towards the passing game… We have not — it’s been well documented — we have not been as efficient as we’d like in the run game.”
It will be interesting to see which changes the Falcons make during the bye week in that regard on both offense and defense – and, ultimately, whether they even need to be any better in those phases to keep winning.