Falcons ramping up the intensity after Sunday win
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — In his six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, head coach Mike Smith has demonstrated a great knack for self-scouting and making changes coming out of the bye week.
In fact, it might be among the Falcons coaches' greatest assets, as a group.
With their Sunday win over Tampa Bay, the 2-4 Falcons improved to 5-1 after the bye under Smith. In preparation for the victory, the coaching staff presumably focused on the defensive side, notably their rookie draft picks and defensive linemen who hadn't played much earlier in the season.
While undrafted rookie linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow have been pressed into roles with injuries to veterans Sean Weatherspoon and Akeem Dent, rookie defensive ends Stansly Maponga (fifth-round pick from TCU) and Malliciah Goodman, a fourth-round pick out of Clemson, had played somewhat sparingly until Sunday.
Maponga, who was still recovering from March ankle surgery during training camp, had played only one snap on defense, while Goodman played 42 percent of the defensive snaps on Sunday — a substantial increase over the 11 percent from the previous week.
Asked if it were a decision to run with the rookies no matter what the outcome, Smith disagreed to an extent. Nonetheless, the numbers tell a different story. Rookies played 37.9 percent of a monstrous 913 individual defensive snaps.
The previous two weeks, rookies played roughly a quarter of the defensive snaps: 24.6 percent against the New York Jets and 24.9 percent against New England — both losses.
"I don’t think it was to run with the young guys," Smith said. "I think that we felt like these guys had practiced hard. We were playing some young players because of injury and these guys deserved the opportunity to go out and play. Statistically, you can look. We were not where we wanted to be on third down at the bye" — the Falcons ranked last in the NFL.
"There were other markers that showed we were not where we were at this point in time last year (when the Falcons went 13-3).
"You’re not just going to continue to do the same thing when you’re not getting the results you want. That’s what coaching's all about. That’s what we do as a coaching staff and we did, I think, a nice job during the bye week.”
One more significant change on defense, aside from the line rotation: Moving defensive coordinator Mike Nolan from the press box to the field.
After the win, Smith said being on the field enhanced Nolan’s communication with the players, especially with the Falcons offense on the field. Nolan could better explain what he wanted to the young players.
Smith said the coaching staff takes a "holistic" approach during the bye week.
That improved communication might have helped with so many rookies playing a larger role.
Another key move was to bench Robert McClain, who had played the nickel corner for most of last season and the 2013 games, entering Sunday.
In his place, the Falcons used rookie Desmond Trufant, the starter at right corner, and brought in second-round draft pick Robert Alford as the right corner in nickel situations.
Among the most significant changes, however, came on the defensive line. In the past under Smith, the Falcons have used a rotation of players.
However, with the loss for the season of defensive end Kroy Biermann (torn Achilles) in Week 2 and the departure of tackle Vance Walker via free agency to Oakland, Smith said the coaching staff did not enter the season with as much confidence in the young players.
Smith said he thought the defense’s front seven was more aggressive on Sunday.
"We didn’t we feel like we had the young guys quite ready to go at the beginning of the season,” Smith said. “If you recall, Maponga was not participating in training camp.
We felt like by the time we got to our bye week that we would have him really ready to roll. He did a nice job in the game yesterday and we thought Malliciah had some pressure on the quarterback, as well, so it’s good to see those young guys stepping up.”
Among the Falcons’ strengths as a defense last season was producing turnovers, which they have struggled to do this season.
Against Tampa Bay, Smith said Atlanta had more ball disruptions — tipped balls, forced fumbles, etc. that lead to turnovers — than earlier this season. They recorded their second defensive score of the season on a fumble-return TD.
The Falcons also had three sacks against the Bucs, which Smith said was partly the result of tighter coverage. Also, their third-down defense, which was allowing opponents to convert at 50 percent, improved dramatically to 29 percent (Tampa Bay converted 5-of-17 tries).
"We were attacking the football, which we needed to do, and we needed to play more aggressively on defense," Smith said, "and I think that you saw that in the ballgame (Sunday).”
Whether the changes continue the defense on an upward arc remains to be seen. But they definitely represent a step in the right direction.