There is no intramural questioning of Mike Mularkey among the Atlanta players, none of the loud skepticism, at least internally, that publically has swirled around the Falcons' veteran offensive coordinator among those outside the Atlanta locker room the past several weeks.
But in the wake of the Falcons' ugly 24-14 victory over Minnesota here on Sunday — a win of which coach Mike Smith asked rhetorically after the game, "Did we make it interesting enough for you?" — there was some suggestion that the Atlanta offense performs at a notably higher level when it works in a no-huddle mode.
To contend there is a groundswell of support for the no-huddle would be hyperbole. The sentiment, though, is at least simmering.
"We probably do get a little bit more 'juiced' when we do it." said tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had nine catches for 69 yards, responding to a question by repeating the adjective a reporter had employed. "It works, we like it, we feel comfortable in it ... and so, we'll probably continue to use it."
Given the results of the no-huddle offense Sunday — and perhaps even more demonstrably, a week previously, when Atlanta used the no-huddle set for three quarters of its 23-17 victory over Tennessee — the Falcons should consider using it even more than they do.
All three of Atlanta's touchdowns against the hapless Vikings (2-9) came at the end of series in which the no-huddle offense was a critical component of the possession. Wide receiver Harry Douglas scored on a 27-yard catch-and-run to complete a first-quarter drive in which the Falcons used a no-huddle on six of nine possible snaps (the first play of the series didn't count, since the Falcons were coming off the sideline after a punt and went directly to the line).
Fellow wideout Roddy White had a 6-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter to cash in a 10-play march on which Atlanta employed the no-huddle seven snaps. The Falcons' final score of the afternoon, a three-yard catch by backup tight end Michael Palmer, which secured the win with 6:40 to play, culminated a nine-play drive where seven of the snaps originated from the no-huddle.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier downplayed the importance of the Atlanta no-huddle during the week of preparation, and some Vikings players hinted after the game on Sunday that its importance is overrated.
Said defensive end Jared Allen, who was held to four tackles and has now gone without a sack in two straight games after registering at least a half-sack in each of the team's first nine outings of the season: "To be honest, you would think that it's picking the tempo up, but it's really slowing it down. They make the call, then they make 'dummy' calls, and the next thing you know, it's been 30 seconds. Everything they do is methodical."
Still, the Falcons' offensive players seem to feel there is some madness to their methodology in the no-huddle — "It gets everyone going for us and it seems to put the defense back on its heels," White said — and Sunday appeared to validate that.
With the Minnesota defense piling up to slow tailback Michael Turner, who rushed for only 60 yards on 19 carries, the Falcons needed the results that the no-huddle set produced. Atlanta is just 10-10 in games in which Turner has been held to 75 yards or fewer since he signed with the Falcons as a free agent in 2008, so the offense needed a boost.
And the no-huddle provided it.
By unofficial count, Atlanta ran just 26 of its 89 snaps from the no-huddle set, but accounted for nearly two-thirds of its 335 total yards on the three possessions on which the Falcons featured the gimmick. Not counting the Falcons' final series of the game, when Atlanta ran out the final 4:16 of the contest to protect its lead, the offense went three-and-out on all three possessions it didn't use a single snap from the no-huddle.
"I think it gives us all a little get-up," center Todd McClure said. "And, clearly, Matt (Ryan) is a very good quarterback at running it."
The Falcons' 7-4 record, and the manner in which Smith's team has responded to the disheartening overtime loss to New Orleans on Nov. 13 suggests that the club could be very good come playoff time. With a schedule that isn't exactly daunting, Atlanta figures to qualify for a third straight postseason berth, but the Falcons are going to have to play considerably better than they did Sunday to have an impact.
Not surprisingly, given that the Falcons were facing a rookie quarterback in the Vikings' Christian Palmer, the defense surrendered just 226 yards and a dozen first downs. On third down, an area where Atlanta was particularly deficient over the first seven games of the season, the defense permitted just four of 13 conversions. Much maligned nickel cornerback Christopher Owens turned in what Smith called "the pivotal play of the game" in chasing down Percy Harvin at the three-yard line after a 104-yard kickoff return.
Weak-side linebacker Sean Weatherspoon then kept the Vikings out of the end zone, and preserved the 24-14 lead, by stuffing Minnesota tailback Toby Gerhart on fourth down from the 1-yard line.
"I just read a key, took a chance, and got lucky," Weatherspoon said. "We played it real well. We were confident we could keep them out (of the end zone)."
Truth is, though, the Falcons aren't playing with the same confidence or swagger that they did a year ago. Atlanta tends to play down to the level of competition, as it did on Sunday, and noticeably lacks an ability to bury even dubious opponents. And, perhaps most nettlesome, the offense continue to lapse into sleepy lulls when the attack simply stalls out.
Which might be one more reason to expand the use of the no-huddle attack.
Stats show effectiveness of no-huddle
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