John Crist: The Bears thought they had Atlanta beat last year when Kyle Orton connected with Rashied Davis for the go-ahead touchdown pass with less than a minute to play. But before Chicago finished celebrating, Matt Ryan hit Michael Jenkins on a deep corner route, and then Jason Elam booted the game-winning field goal in stunning fashion. Was that the moment when Ryan arrived?
Brian McIntyre: Absolutely, it was.
Much of Ryan's success in the early part of his rookie season was predicated on how well Michael Turner ran the ball. When Turner did well, it created opportunities in the passing game. When they faced better defenses, like Carolina and Tampa Bay, which shut down Turner and forced Ryan to beat them, the rookie struggled.
So with Turner a non-factor – his 2.2 yards per carry that day was his lowest average on the season – and only 11 seconds on the clock, it was all up to Ryan to make something happen, and he came through. Before that game, the feeling in Atlanta was that they a pretty good quarterback on their hands. Afterwards, the sense was that Ryan could be an elite, Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback much sooner than anyone thought.
JC: Although he did run for 97 yards and three TDs in Week 5, Turner has seen some tough sledding so far compared to the incredible start he had a season ago. But given Ryan's development in the passing game from Year 1 to Year 2, it wouldn't make sense for the Falcons to be seeing more eight-man fronts, right? What's the inside scoop on the Atlanta running game?
BM: Turner is averaging nearly two yards less per carry this season than he was through four games last year, which is certainly an eyebrow-raising statistic. However, sometimes it's not how you play – it's who you play. And Turner's incredible start last year was, in part, aided by facing two horrendous run defenses: Detroit and Kansas City.
This season, they've faced some of the more physical run defenses – Miami, New England and San Francisco – in the entire league, and as a divisional opponent with a lot of defensive talent, Carolina is no slouch either. Despite Ryan's development and the addition of Tony Gonzalez, opposing defenses still know that the Falcons are going to run the ball first and have been bringing a safety down into the box to stop Turner.
Coach Mike Smith wanted to reduce Turner's workload this year by getting more carries for Jerious Norwood, who has the ability to take it to the house every time he touches the ball, but Norwood suffered a concussion early in their Week 2 win over Carolina and missed the New England game. It's not a coincidence that Turner's best game this season came when Norwood was more involved in the offense.
Fullback Ovie Mughelli injured his leg against San Francisco, and his status for this week's game is unknown.
JC: Roddy White was a hot name heading into fantasy drafts this past summer, and rightfully so after watching him rack up 210 yards receiving and a pair of touchdowns against a good 49ers defense last week. However, the arrival of Gonzalez looks to have helped Ryan and the passing attack tremendously. What's been different since the future Hall of Famer arrived?
BM: As someone who used an early pick on White in his fantasy football draft this year, I was certainly happy to see his 210-yard, two-touchdown effort last week against San Francisco.
Seriously, though, the impact the arrival of Gonzalez has had is that it's forced opposing defenses to pay attention to the Falcons' tight ends again. Last season, with Alge Crumpler gone, the Falcons' tight ends combined for 19 receptions. Gonzalez has already matched that total a quarter of the way through the season.
With opposing teams having to focus on Gonzalez, particularly on third down and in the red zone, starting receivers like White and Jenkins should have more one-on-one opportunities on the outside. With their big-play potential, that could lead to more 300-yard passing days for Ryan this season.
JC: Thomas DeCoud is a player the Bears considered at the free safety position preparing for the 2008 NFL Draft, but he ended up going in the third round to the Falcons. He has worked his way into the starting lineup in Atlanta, totaling 14 tackles and three passes defensed in four games. Best-case scenario, who does he remind you of at safety that's currently playing in the league?
BM: Since the guy I'm going to name is coming off a Pro Bowl season, I should preface this by saying I don't think that, after four starts, DeCoud is anywhere near the same level as the player I'm going to mention. But the current safety he's reminding me of is Nick Collins of the Green Bay Packers.
Both were corners in college, so they have the ability to cover receivers downfield and make plays on the ball, but they're also very physical tacklers and capable of playing inside the box. Smith expects his safeties to be able to do both, which is why he's starting ahead of second-round pick William Moore right now.
JC: This was a franchise in shambles not too long ago, coming off a 4-12 campaign in 2007 and being caught in the middle of the Michael Vick fiasco. Owner Arthur Blank looked like a fool for investing so heavily in Vick and ex-coach Bobby Petrino, yet Smith came out of nowhere to calm the storm. Not many Bears fans know much about him, so what makes Smith a good coach?
BM: Once Petrino tucked his tail between his legs and headed off for Fayetteville, the stormy locker room pretty much calmed down. Nobody liked or trusted him, so when he left and was replaced by the well-respected Emmitt Thomas, the dark clouds over the franchise began to part somewhat.
Organizationally, the franchise really began to cleanse itself with the hiring of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who had worked as director of scouting in the New England Patriots' office. Dimitroff then hired Smith, in part because they share the same approach to building a winning team, and the personnel Dimitroff and Smith have added – from the coaching staff to the locker room – has played an enormous role in the franchise's quick turnaround.
Smith retained Thomas, promoted him to assistant head coach and hired an experienced NFL coaching staff, most notably offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, who may have done the best job of any assistant coach in the National Football League last season, and receivers coach Terry Robiskie.
Part of what makes Smith a good head coach is that he's well organized, he works hard and he isn't anchored down by an enormous ego. So unlike Petrino, he communicates directly and honestly with his players. Those attributes allow him to quickly earn his player's trust, so whether it was when he coached the Baltimore Ravens linebackers (1999-2002) or coordinated the Jacksonville Jaguars defense (2003-07), his players have loved playing for him.
Be on the lookout for Part III of this Behind Enemy Lines series on Friday. To go back and read Part I, where John answered five questions from Brian, Click Here.
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Behind Enemy Lines: Part II
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