Smart. Fast. Physical.
Coaches across the league often utter those words when describing their ideal vision for their respective squads, but few teams embody that mantra like the Atlanta Falcons.
The Dirty Birds have soared to the top of the NFC by playing fundamentally sound in all three phases of the game. While others fighting for home-field advantage might possess more talent or play with more pizzazz, the Falcons' willingness to adhere to coach Mike Smith's simple, yet effective approach has helped them emerge as title contenders.
In looking at the Falcons' surprising ascension, it has been their commitment to smart football that has given them a leg up on the competition. When coaches talk about having an intelligent squad, they are describing a team that avoids the self-inflicted mistakes that routinely lead to losses. Offensively, those miscues come in the form of turnovers and penalties, and the Falcons have excelled at minimizing both. Atlanta has turned the ball over only 12 times in 12 games, and enjoys a plus-10 advantage in the turnover margin.
In addition to taking excellent care of the ball, the Falcons have avoided drive-killing penalties. They have recorded only 26 offensive penalties, second fewest in the league, and their disciplined play has helped them field the league's sixth-best scoring offense (25.3 points per game).
When looking at their defense, they rarely give up big plays. They have only allowed 37 plays over 20 yards, which is the fifth-fewest total in the league, and their ability to force teams to drive the length of the field has quietly factored in their success. With most offenses unable to sustain long drives without a negative play, the Falcons have routinely forced the competition to settle for field goals in the red zone. Consequently, they rank seventh in scoring defense (19.4) with a unit that has flown under the radar for most of the season.
In looking at the defense on tape, it is obvious that the unit is one of the fastest in the league. They fly to the ball with reckless abandon, and their quickness allows them to overcome their size deficiencies in some areas. Defensive end John Abraham, in particular, is an explosive pass rusher with the burst and quickness to run past blockers. He has nine sacks this season, and provided consistent pressure on the edge. What makes Abraham's success so remarkable is the fact that he plays as part of a rotation designed to keep him fresh late in the season.
While Abraham is the headliner, linebacker Curtis Lofton and corners Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are also playmakers. They flow to the ball well and have shown a penchant for making plays. Grimes, who picked off a pass against the Buccaneers, might be the most explosive and athletic of the crew. He has blossomed into a solid cover corner in his fourth season and he shines in the Falcons' zone-based scheme.
In fact, the team's simple scheme has allowed their athletic defense to play faster, which is one of the reasons the team enjoys a 19-3 record at the Georgia Dome during Smith's tenure. When evaluating the Falcons on tape, it is apparent that their scheme is simple by design. They don't utilize a lot of complex coverage or feature an array of pressures in their base or sub-packages. They attack offenses without a lot of gimmicks or trickery. By limiting the amount of plays in the game plan, the Falcons eliminate the clutter in the minds of their players, which results in faster reactions and fewer mistakes. With hustle and gang tackling often leading to turnovers, the Falcons' opportunistic ways are not by chance.
Given Smith's defensive background, the Falcons are expected to be a hard-hitting bunch, and their offense lives up to the billing. Led by Michael Turner, the unit bludgeons opponents with a downhill running game that thrives between the tackles. As a big, physical runner with nimble feet and good power, Turner runs through arm tackles and finishes his runs falling forward. Though he occasionally flashes big-play ability, it is his hard-nosed, grind-it-out style that drives the offense. With Turner specializing in consistently churning out four- and five-yard runs, the Falcons have worn down opponents with long drives. They lead the league with 30 drives of 10 plays or more and rank second in the league in time of possession at 32:57.
With a physical running game setting the tone for the offense, Matt Ryan has started to emerge as an MVP contender. He has become one of the league's best play-action passers, and his pinpoint accuracy has elevated the passing game. While some would point to his completion percentage (63.5) as a barometer of that accuracy, it is his receivers' ability to gain chunks of yardage after the catch that indicates Ryan's exceptional ball placement. By routinely throwing his pass catchers open (the act of leading receivers into open windows by placing the ball at precise locations), he maximizes the yardage available and makes the offense difficult to slow down.
Roddy White's emergence as a Pro Bowl receiver has also elevated the Falcons into the ranks of the elite. As a big, physical receiver with outstanding speed and burst, he has become nearly impossible to stop in the Falcons' power offense. Defenses are unable to devote double coverage to him on an every-down basis due to Turner's presence (eight-man fronts needed to slow the run), and White has repeatedly took advantage of the single coverage.
In looking at a clip from the Falcons' win over the Bengals, White's 43-yard touchdown reception illustrates his ability to defeat one-on-one coverage. The Falcons break the huddle with 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends and one receiver) on the field in a tight-I formation and White flanked to the right. He started in "Z-in" motion prior to the snap and ran a deep post against Adam Jones. With the run-heavy formation forcing the Bengals to drop an additional safety in the box, White is able to work on Jones without having to worry about a safety helping over the top. With few elite corners showing that they are capable of covering White without safety help, the Falcons can generate big plays in the passing game by using the threat of the run with the formation and use of play-action.
Few expected the Falcons to rule the NFC this season, but following the simple directives of playing smart, fast and physical has pushed them to the forefront.