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Join Date: Apr 2004
Falcons Will Have Their Share of Challenges
We as Texans fans recognize the challenges facing the Texans this Sunday. The Falcons and their fans also recognize their own challenges. Theirs may be more difficult to navigate due to the difficulty of sifting through so many unknowns on both their side of the field and ours.
The Falcons have won five of their past six games, but it certainly hasn’t been easy. There seems to be one thing that tends to equalize the Falcons in every game, and that’s halftime. The Falcons talked Wednesday with the Atlanta media about how important it is for them to keep pushing forward in the second half and come out right after halftime and stay on the offensive attack, as it’s something they all addressed as a team Wednesday morning.
The Falcons have suffered a second-half malaise this season in more than a few games, moments where they allow teams back into ballgames.
So far, playing flat coming out of the half hasn’t haunted them too much, but it’s required some unnecessary effort late in games to ensure wins.
Against the Titans in Week 11, the Falcons took a 13-3 lead into the third quarter. With just more than three minutes to go in the game, Atlanta clung to a 23-17 lead, needing a clock-running, first-down-converting offensive effort to end the game.
Last week with the Vikings in town, a 17-point shutout was erased and shortly into the fourth quarter, Minnesota was back in the game, turning two touchdowns into a three-point deficit.
The end of the game became a national story, with chapters that saw a Falcons touchdown, Chris Owens stopping a 104-yard kick return and a four-down, goal-line stand from Atlanta’s defense. When the dust settled, Atlanta had the win, their fifth in six games, but after fast starts there was a sense that things shouldn’t have been so close.
This point isn’t lost on the players that keep getting wins despite the difficult circumstances they find themselves in. Getting close wins will help down the stretch, but when the Falcons have a multiple-point advantage, they want to shut the door.
“We definitely have some room for improvement,” center Todd McClure said. “We’ve talked about it. We haven’t played a consistent four quarters where we’re on our A-game for four quarters.”
The Falcons have shown an ability to quickly identify where the problems are and fix them week-to-week. When sacks were an issue earlier this year, the coaching staff and players scrambled to fix scheme, injuries and the lineup to help better protect quarterback Matt Ryan.
In the first three weeks, the Falcons allowed 13 sacks. In the eight games since, they’ve allowed nine.
After struggles in the redzone in the middle of this season, including a 2-of-9 stint in Weeks 10 and 11, the Falcons scored at a 75 percent rate last week.
Whatever the reason for the shaky play in the second half at points this season, Atlanta is working on it.
“We talked about it after the game,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “It’s something that does need to be addressed and has been addressed. We talked about it today. We’ve got to come out and try to put the game away. In that third quarter we want to come out with a statement, still be in that attack mode. I think that’ll be addressed from (head coach Mike Smith) to the coordinator (Mike Mularkey), to Ryan and our no-huddle offense. We’re going to keep the pedal to the metal and keep going out there trying to put points up.”
One way to look at it is that Atlanta’s talent has still managed to carve out wins. The talent also believes they haven’t put it all together yet, still looking for that peak. They know it’s there and they’d rather have it come later than early, or never.
“The positive of that is that we have room for improvement and we can go out there and do it,” McClure said. “I think it’s just a mindset. Smitty’s talked about. We have to focus when we come out of halftime.”
The second-half blunders in the past two weeks have come against rookie quarterbacks and teams boasting a combined 7-12 record. This week is the Houston Texans, the 8-3 Texans. Although they’re down to their third-string quarterback, the team is loaded with talent and a flat quarter may be too much for the Falcons to overcome.
According to McClure, it’s going to come down to the final moments, a situation the Falcons are used to. They just hope they’re not the reason it’s going down that way.
“This game is not going to be decided early,” the center said. “It’s going to be a game that’s going to go down to the last drive. We know that going in and we’re going to be ready to play.”
The Falcons have only faced one 3-4 defense this season. It came in Week 5 against the Packers.
Against the Texans, they’ll get their second crack at it this year and it’s a tough challenge.
Houston, under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, is one of the best defenses in the game this year. The Texans rank in the top five in virtually every important category, including points allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per game, passing yards allowed per game, turnover differential and opponent’s total offense per game.
It’s not the Texans defense of years past and Phillips has introduced an aggressive unit with the new 3-4 scheme.
“They blitz a lot to force the pass,” Tony Gonzalez said. “They’re aggressive, they don’t quit. Every player from top to bottom is all out, from the whistle to the whistle. That’s one thing that we know we have to go out there with that kind of mindset.”
Phillips held the defensive coordinator position in Atlanta from 2002-2003, so he’s no stranger to the franchise. Center Todd McClure is the player on the roster with the most first-hand experience facing Phillips, practicing against the 3-4 every day during those two seasons.
He’s been in the league since 1976 and has had plenty of time to develop his blitz-heavy scheme. He’s credited with turning around numerous defenses and the Texans are just the most recent benefactor of his experience. His system relies on intelligent and aggressive players that can play within the system and gameplan he creates each week.
“We know a little bit about him,” McClure said. “He’s always coming up with new blitzes and new schemes. They are pretty simple. They line up and try to play man-on-man, see who is better. We definitely have a challenge going into their place.”
The Texans 3-4 employs a man-to-man approach, depending on the corners to hold down the coverage while the front seven blitz the passer. They have an urgent style that matches up well with Atlanta’s offense, especially in the no huddle. They know they have a tough draw this week and they’ll have to match Houston’s energy.
“There’s no one taking a play off out there. It’s to the whistle,” Tony Gonzalez said. “You better be prepared because you’ll get embarrassed if you try to take a play off.”
While everyone on offense has to adjust to a 3-4 look, the offensive linemen have the most work to do.
“For us it’s going to be really important to ID the front and communicate from that standpoint, know where they’re going to be and know where they’re going and be on the same page,” left tackle Will Svitek said.
Having faced only one 3-4 this season means the lineman have some adjusting to do against the unfamiliar.
“It’s definitely different,” Svitek said. “You try to break it down into simple terms, but it’s definitely different. We face a 4-3 in our defense every week. You’re comfortable with that 4-3 so when you switch it up, there’s different rules. We’ve played 3-4s in the past so we know those rules. During the week we try to hone in on those techniques and know where guys are going to be.”
The Curious Mr. Yates: The Texans have had a tough week.
They lose their starting quarterback, Pro Bowl candidate Matt Schaub in Week 11, and then lost their backup last week.
Houston now turns to rookie and former third-stringer T.J. Yates.
When asked what he knows about Yates, linebacker Curtis Lofton said he knew nothing.
“I don’t know anything about him,” Lofton said. “I’ll probably have to go back and see if I can find him in preseason.”
Yates is an unknown not because he’s a rookie, though it has something to do with it. The former UNC starter wasn’t in the plans for Houston this year. With the injuries to the guys in front of him, he’s now the most important player in Houston.
But don’t expect the Texans to put much on his shoulders.
“They’re not going to do too much to put him in opportunities where he’ll make bad decisions,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “They’ll try to keep the game simple for him to make sure he doesn’t get lit up, so to speak. We’ll have to be sound in the run game and do what we’ve been doing.”
Houston has an advantage in that they have a top running game as well. Their 151.7 rushing yards per game is good for the third place in the NFL. Running backs Adrian Foster and Ben Tate have added a new dimension to Houston’s high-flying attack and with the balance came more danger earlier in the season.
Now, Foster and Tate will be expected to help carry the limping Texans past the Falcons and into the playoffs.
“I would say they’ll open the running game more,” Lofton said. “They’ll lean more on the running backs than the quarterback. They have two talented backs.”
Lofton won’t see much of Yates from the preseason either.
In Week 1 of the exhibition season, Yates was 6-for-12 passing with 97 yards in a win over the Jets. He threw one pass in Week 3, and in Week 4 he was 6-for-13 with 77 yards in a 28-0 loss to Minnesota.
Cornerback Chris Owens said Atlanta won’t look at Yates’ college film, instead relying on what he showed last week, in addition to his preseason work.
Last week against the Jaguars, he was 8-of-15 for 70 yards.
With Jacksonville and Carolina and their rookie quarterbacks coming up soon, Atlanta will face four consecutive rookie quarterbacks. Although that seems like an advantage, no one is taking these young guys lightly.
“It’s a little bit out of the ordinary,” DeCoud said. “You’re not used to seeing this many backup quarterbacks in a row. Still it’s professional football so we’ll have to prepare as if we were going to see their starter.”
Injury Report: Smith often says the game is a battle of attrition with injuries coming at all points of the season. This week’s injury report is a sign of that.
Smith announced on Wednesday that Brent Grimes will have surgery on his knee and will miss some time.
“He’s been doing everything in his power to get back out on the field,” Smith said. “He’s been playing with it. Right now, he will be out for a couple of weeks. He’s going to have a minor procedure done on his knee. We don’t know the time frame in terms of getting him out. Brent’s been fighting through it for some time.”
In addition to Grimes, Kelvin Hayden, John Abraham, Tony Gonzalez, Todd McClure, Stephen Nicholas, Julio Jones, Michael Turner and Vance Walker missed practice Wednesday.
Sam Baker was limited in practice.
“Kelvin Hayden is probably very doubtful for the game this week with a toe injury that was sustained two weeks,” Smith said. “He was inactive this week.”
Abraham, Gonzalez and McClure’s inactivity was not injury related.
Smith said he hoped to have Nicholas back by the end of the week.