John Crist: The Atlanta Falcons invested a very high draft pick and a boatload of money on a quarterback not too long ago, but it's safe to say the Michael Vick experiment did more harm than good since he's currently slinging footballs in a prison yard. How difficult was it for Atlanta to pull the trigger on Matt Ryan, and was this a P.R. move more than anything else?
Doug Farrar: It wasn't difficult at all. After the Vick fiasco and their game of QB-go-round in 2007, the Falcons knew that they had to bet on another franchise quarterback as they started the rebuilding process. Was it a P.R. move? No. Alex Smith was a P.R. move. Matt Ryan is a good player. Ryan was by far the most pro-ready at the position in this year's draft, and he's validated general manager Thomas Dimitroff's faith in him by displaying all the tools needed to perform at a high level in the NFL.
Ryan has shown unusual pocket presence early on – he's especially adept at knowing when to step up out of pressure, and he's able to make all the throws. Perhaps most important of all, there isn't a blemish on this guy's character profile. He's a natural leader and a tireless worker. The Falcons are learning the difference between athletes and football players. Vick was the former. Ryan is the latter.
JC: I for one was not sold on Michael Turner in free agency because he had yet to prove himself as a primary back, but he's making me look foolish five weeks into the season – he's currently leading the league in rushing. Is this a testament to low-mileage running backs across the NFL looking for a place to call home? And how's Jerious Norwood handling this?
DF: I wasn't either – I actually wrote an essay about the starting success of backup running backs for Pro Football Prospectus 2008, and Turner was the centerpiece. The odds are generally not good when a back goes from a situation in which he's a breather for the defense behind a star to his own starring role. Turner's primary advantage is that he's got the right build for his physical play – he may have the biggest legs, pound-for-pound, in the NFL. Unlike a lot of former reserves, Turner isn't one of those backups who's halfway decent at everything. He appears to have what it takes to be a major-league starter – before, he was just hidden behind the NFL's best running back in San Diego.
Norwood is a great complementary back – not a guy who can take the pounding of a 350-carry season. The Falcons will use him in the backfield on certain plays, as a receiver split wide, and as a return man. He's the lightning to Turner's thunder, and it certainly seems to be working well.
JC: Roddy White may be the best wide receiver nobody outside the Peach State has ever heard of, quietly racking up 1,202 receiving yards this past season and among the league leaders with 454 already in 2008. How's he been able to do it with a rookie under center, no reliable complementary target, and Alge Crumpler currently suiting up in Tennessee?
DF: In a word: speed.
White is a pure burner who can get downfield past most any coverage, and he's developed enough moves to be dangerous in traffic. Last week, the Packers tried man coverage on him early, which didn't go well for them at all. If the Bears commit to safety help and rolling coverage to White's side, they should be okay – forcing Ryan to check down to other options, as you intimated, is a sound strategy.
JC: Atlanta's two top tacklers so far this year, Lawyer Milloy and Erik Coleman, are both safeties, which usually isn't a good sign on D. Nevertheless, the Falcons are only surrendering 21.4 points per game (14th in the league) despite the fact that this unit hasn't stopped the run (21st) or the pass (22nd) particularly well. What are the stats not telling us?
DF: Well, the primary problem with Atlanta's defense is that their secondary is young and mistake-prone, which forces playmakers like linebacker Michael Boley – one of the game's underrated defenders – to drop into coverage too often. This places pressure on a front four that isn't playing at an elite level, John Abraham aside.
Regarding points per game, you have to look at the opposition. The Falcons gave up 21 to the Lions and 14 to the Chiefs. That's like 42 and 28 against real teams. Between now and mid-November, they face the Eagles, Saints and Broncos, so we'll see how that holds up.
JC: 2007 first-round draft pick Jamaal Anderson looks like a bust and is still yet to register his first career sack in 21 games. But Atlanta 's other defensive end, John Abraham, has been just about unstoppable and leads the league with 7.0 sacks. Is Abraham a one-trick pony as a pass rusher – the numbers suggest he is – or is he valuable in other ways?
DF: The Falcons don't seem to know what to do with Anderson, or how to jumpstart his productivity. They've talked about moving him inside on passing downs, Justin Tuck-style, but it helps if you have an actual Justin Tuck when you're doing stuff like that.
Though Abraham has been known more as a pass rusher in the past, he's playing the run pretty well this season, too. Any pass-rushing end will have instances in which his aggressiveness is used against him versus the run, but Abraham strikes a good balance. I do not envy the Bears in having to deal with him – Abraham is performing at a level that few NFL players can match right now.
To read Part II of this three-part series, where John answers five questions from Doug, Click Here.
Behind Enemy Lines: Part I
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