Behind Enemy Lines: Falcons

Who will cover Jermichael Finley? Have the Falcons gotten away from their roots, as Bill Cowher said? Those answers and more from John Manasso, who helps cover the team for FoxSportsSouth.com.

How will the Falcons cover Jermichael Finley?

Strong side linebacker Stephen Nicholas is maybe the most likely candidate to cover Finley. Nicholas, who stripped Greg Jennings in the regular-season game, has missed the last two weeks with a calf injury but returned to practice this week. If not, it could end up being a safety, most likely Thomas Decoud, who has two interceptions over the last two weeks.

Earlier in the week, Mike Smith might have given a hint when he said this, "We've got to make sure that we win our one-on-one matchups in the pass rush when we get them and we've got to make sure we win our one-on-one matchups out in the secondary and the linebackers."

The Falcons are a Cover 2 team that plays a lot of zone, so it's possible that the nickelback, either Kelvin Hayden or Christopher Owens, could match up against him, as could the other safety William Moore.

None of those players are great in coverage individually. They rely on the team concept to get by.

The other day on CBS, Bill Cowher said the Falcons had gotten away from their identity as a power running team. Would you agree with that? And if so, are the Falcons making a mistake by getting away from Michael Turner and putting more of the game in the hands of Matt Ryan?

Through the first three weeks, the Falcons did get away from the run too easily, but that was a function of two factors. One was that they trailed in all those games and had to pass to get back in.

However, the other was the draft-day trade to move up 21 spots and select wide receiver Julio Jones at No. 6 overall in order to get more explosive.

Last week, the Falcons got back to doing what makes them successful, running the ball 36 times for 121 yards in a 30-28 win over Seattle and dominated time of possession, holding it for 40:10.

The Falcons' offensive line had not performed well in the first three games and Smith opened up the competition for playing spots in the week leading up to that game. Perhaps he lit a fire beneath them.

I'm wondering how the Falcons are 2-2. And then I think back to the free agent losses to the line. How big of an issue is the interior line?

Earlier this week, I heard Mark Schlereth on ESPN Radio saying that the loss of right guard Harvey Dahl, one of the league's nastiest players, to St. Louis via free agency had hurt the Falcons more than most people knew.

Personally, I think the combination of losing Dahl and starting center Todd McClure for the first two games was more telling. McClure had made 144 straight starts entering this season but a knee injury in preseason sidelined him. (McClure has been ruled out for this week with the injury.)

McClure's replacement is second-year man Joe Hawley and Dahl's replacement is third-year man Garrett Reynolds (nephew of Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds.) Reynolds has struggled at times in pass protection.

Together, I think teams have been able to exploit that inexperience at those two spots and left tackle Sam Baker also has struggled. In their first three games, the Falcons allowed 13 sacks – compared to only 23 in all of last season – but went sack-free last week against Seattle.

The Falcons certainly made a splash by moving way up in the first round to get Julio Jones. What did you think of that move then, and has your opinion changed now? From my outside perspective, it seems to me that the secondary was a much bigger need in the draft.

I was not critical of the move to trade up and take Jones mostly because general manager Thomas Dimitroff has done so well drafting. With his record, he could spare some picks – even high ones – on a gamble like Jones and Jones does appear to be a special player.

I felt that they needed to address the secondary and the Falcons did so by signing Hayden, formerly of Indianapolis, and safety James Sanders, who was cut by New England. But they did so very late in the game as both were signed on the same day as the final preseason game, and, as a result, have not been schooled enough on the Falcons' scheme to make a big impact.

They also addressed secondary woes by signing free agent defensive end Ray Edwards from Minnesota but so far Edwards has no sacks.

By season's end, what are the Falcons? Are they a playoff team that's a threat to get to the Super Bowl? Or is the slow start to this season – and last season's playoff loss to Green Bay – a sign that this team is a couple years away from being a true contender?

The Falcons could be a Super Bowl contender by season's end but at present they have numerous big problems to fix. They would do well to get to 10-6.

With their 2-2 start and a tough schedule ahead, they could easily finish 9-7 or worse and miss the playoffs.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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