Perhaps I’m giving my intuition too much credit, but while Matt Ryan‘s body is celebrating, his tensed face and glazed-over eyes are an indication that his mental motor was on overdrive as he was getting his first real taste of NFL pressure this season courtesy of the New Orleans Saints.
Coming into the Atlanta Falcons‘ opener, everyone was worried about the rookies holding up, especially in the secondary with veteran ball hawk Asante Samuel inactive. However, the secondary was more than adequate against the prolific Drew Brees. The rookie corners held up fine, and Robert Alford was more than fine as he stole a catch away from Marques Colston for an interception. Meanwhile, the veteran safeties nullified the Saints’ running game. The defense was ready because it relies far more heavily on athleticism than the offense.
The fact that the Falcons under Mike Smith are looking worse and worse every preseason, while looking better and better every regular season, may have driven him just a bit overboard this season. The Falcons play to win every time they take the field, but the offense looked so woefully unprepared that perhaps Smith bought into the Atlanta media’s almost universal opinion that the Saints would be unstoppable in Sean Payton‘s triumphant return to the Superdome. It was being billed as the sequel to their first post-Katrina home game when the Saints steamrolled the Dirty Birds with their
evil U2 voodoo magical play.
Over the past few years, it’s been a great strategy. Every time Smith saw another torn ACL or “mangled knee,” as Peria Jerry’s torn ACL is now being referred to, in the preseason, he babied the team a little more, especially the veterans. That’s why the Falcons’ special teams looked so much better than the rest of the team. They had been fighting all preseason for their position on the depth chart or to simply make the team.
The offense, on the other hand, is full of marquee players who I’m sure took it easy during the preseason contests, with Tony Gonzalez being the blatant example as he was allowed to be absent for the first three weeks. Let me be clear here, though, this article is explanatory as opposed to critical, as the Falcons were about as healthy as possible going into Game 1. However, that is also why the offense looked so off. The offense has to think about so many things because there is so much choreography and pre-snap adjustments that the Falcons offense played slow, sloppy and at about the level you’d expect by the third preseason game.
The defense, however, can be physically present on the field, but are able to take plays off mentally by simply chasing the ball carrier with bad intentions if they should happen to catch him. Gonzalez didn’t have a bad game, but he did reveal that even the savviest of veterans develop rust in the offseason by allowing only the second sack of his career, and while the final play of the game was hardly his fault, if he had not missed those three weeks, he might have been in position to catch the ball before or in spite of the fact that it was tipped. On the other hand, he could have developed turf toe in those weeks off and missed half of the season.
As for the line, the youthful center and right side were supposed to struggle. However, Sam Baker and Justin Blaylock have played together for years on the left side, but Baker has dealt with injuries his entire career and who could blame him if he was extra cautious in the preseason? This is probably the reason why he allowed a sack and played poorly in general.
Finally, is this the reason Steven Jackson had two drops, one minor and one major? Had he caught that ball in the end zone, that literally hit him in the hands and put the Falcons up by one with about 30 seconds to go, he would have attained fan-favorite status faster than Evan Gattis did here in Atlanta earlier this year for the Braves. However, I would still be having this conversation with you because the offense didn’t pass the eye test. They lacked the polish and crispness that only comes with playing at full throttle, because that’s the only thing powerful enough to literally shake out that offseason rust that lies more in the mind than the body.