The Atlanta Falcons are a perfect 6-0 yet far from a perfect team. While they do most things extremely well and play sound football at an extremely high level, there are three key areas in which they must improve to attain their goal of winning an NFL championship.
The improvements required encompass overall execution. Football at any level is still a game of fundamentals, and executing those fundamentals is imperative for success. If a team is great in their fundamentals, they will have a great deal of tangible success. They won’t have to continually search for answers or change schemes or philosophy midstream.
Atlanta is on the cusp of being a great football team. They simply need to improve in four key areas during the bye in order to stabilize their future as they begin to navigate their chosen path.
Overall, there is no question the Falcons have played phenomenal defense—they just haven’t played consistently great defense. The catalyst behind that fact is the recent occurrence of very poor tackling across the board. It isn’t one person and it isn’t one position group. Defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs have all played a role in the downfall of fundamental tackling.
As the season has progressed, the Falcons have been in some battles that they may not otherwise have been in if team tackling had not let them down. In the three games leading into the bye (against Carolina, Washington and Oakland), the defense missed numerous key tackles that led directly to touchdowns and/or kept eventual scoring drives alive.
The one positive about being bad at tackling is that it is one of the easiest things on which to improve. There is no secret formula to improve tackling skills. It merely comes down to practice and reps. All the Falcons need to do during the bye week is retrain their minds and bodies on the skill of tackling.
Atlanta continues to struggle with protecting Matt Ryan consistently. Compounding the issue is the fact that pressure has come from everywhere throughout the season. There is no one place to pinpoint improvement; no one person to focus on in order to shore things up. The problems are across the board.
While offensive line coach Pat Hill doesn’t have the luxury of a single area or person on which to focus, he does have a great starting point at right tackle, where Tyson Clabo has had some big struggles this season. The vast majority of hits Matt Ryan has taken in 2012 have come from Clabo’s side of the protection.
Clabo’s main struggle is handling the outside-inside double move. Tyson has really had a hard time effectively cutting off defenders’ second move toward the inside pass rush lane. Once set to engage and protect an outside rush, he just hasn’t been able to re-engage to the inside when necessary in one-on-one situations. If Clabo can improve in this area, his protection stats will be drastically improved.
Looking at the unit as a whole, Atlanta’s offensive line needs to improve in protection schemes that require zone principles—schemes in which linemen protect an area rather than protecting against a set defender.
This zone-style scheme gives the linemen the freedom to pass defenders off to other linemen if the defender begins to threaten a different area; such as the defensive end rushing inside, rather than outside. In the zone scheme, the offensive tackle would pass the end off to the guard while his focus remains on the outside pressure threat.
It is in this zone scheme that the Falcons have allowed the most pressure. In most cases, the defense’s stunt has won the battle with a defender or two being virtually untouched getting to Ryan.
Such was the case against the Raiders in Week 6. The Raiders ran twists up front where defensive linemen exchanged rush lane responsibilities. The result was Ryan getting crushed and throwing his third interception on the day.
Defensive Run Fits
Almost every big run play in the NFL is the result of poor run fitting by the defense. It’s not often that big runs come by way of perfect blocking. This fact rings true for the Falcons in 2012.
Opponents have been able to maintain a great deal of success against the Falcons on the ground so far this season due to the Falcons often being out of position—more specifically, poorly executing run fits.
Defensive linemen and linebackers are losing gap integrity. Linemen are rushing too far upfield, and linebackers are not scrapping to appropriate gaps. Additionally, the defensive backs aren’t consistently filling the alleys.
The Falcons have clearly spent a great deal of time improving the pass defense, which has taken away some from their ability to focus on stopping the run. Moreover, the Falcons have played nickel defense almost exclusively through the first six games, and having one fewer linebacker can be a factor.
In the end, as with tackling, it comes down to better execution of the fundamental aspects. Linemen have to read blocks/feel the pressure, recognizing its run and maintain their gaps. Linebackers have to recognize the run key and scrape to fill. Corners have to keep outside containment and filter everything back inside, and safeties have to fill the alleys.
As the season progresses after the bye, keep an eye on theses three areas. If the Falcons show marked improvement, they may very well be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.