Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith is going to be criticized for the rest of the season. Smith chose to go for it on fourth and inches from his own 29-yard line in overtime this past Sunday in a crucial division match up with New Orleans. Michael Turner got stuffed, the Saints kicked the game-winning field goal, and the Falcons are now 5-4 and fighting desperately for a shot at the playoffs.
Let the scrutiny begin.
Personally, I loved the call by Mike Smith. The Falcons had all the momentum in the world heading into that fourth down play. They were riding a three-game winning streak, had just overcome a 10-point 4th quarter deficit, and kicked a game-tying field goal to send the game into OT. The Georgia Dome was rocking. Most of all, the odds were on Mike Smith's side! Since 2008, the Falcons were 18-for-22 when going for it on fourth-and-one under Smith.
Head coaches can send messages to their players without speaking a word. By going for it on Sunday, Smith delivered a crystal clear memo to his team that he believed in them and was going to put the game in their hands. Don't forget, Super Bowl MVP QB Drew Brees was patrolling the opposite sideline. If Smith decided to punt, he was banking on the fact that his defense could prevent Brees and the Saints offense from marching 45 yards to put them into field goal range for the game winning kick. I don't like those odds.
Head coaches are geniuses when they are right and buffoons when game altering decisions backfire. Its incredible how in a 16-game regular season, one fourth and one play can potentially alter a team's chances of reaching the post season. For now, Mike Smith has to live with his costly decision. We'll soon find out just how costly that decision really was.
It's not too early to be talking "perfect season" in Green Bay. With a 9-0 record, the Green Bay Packers are the most dominant team in the NFL. The Packers offense is a juggernaut. Whether or not the Packers can reach Indianapolis and their second straight Super Bowl won't be determined by QB Aaron Rogers and the offense, believe it or not. It'll come down to their defense.
For the first eight games of the season the Packers defense was a liability, allowing too many explosive plays. As a result, the Packers were forced to win games in shootout fashion. This past week, defensive coordinator Dom Capers tweaked his scheme. The Packers became blitz happy versus Minnesota and QB Christian Ponder en route to handing the Vikings their second worst loss in franchise history. The Packers blitzed on 74 percent of Ponder's pass attempts, bringing pressure from all over the field. In fact, the Packers sent defensive backs on blitzes 19 times Monday night, easily the most times they've done that this season.
Defensive players love aggressive schemes because they want to be able to dictate to the offense. As a result of the pressure packages, key players became isolated in one-on-one match-ups. LB Clay Matthews had his first multi-sack game of the year. Former NFL defensive MVP Charles Woodson was all over the place reeking havoc. Packers fans can't get too excited. We won't see this much aggression on a week-to-week basis from Dom Capers. Remember that the Vikings are one of the league's worst pass offenses, led right now by a rookie QB. The Packers D needs to keep a somewhat aggressive mentality for this team to go undefeated.
Looking at the Packers remaining schedule, there are some tough games ahead. The Packers still have to play Detroit twice, as well as Chicago, Oakland and the New York Giants. We know that Green Bay can score on anybody. After all, they are led by this year's MVP at QB. Whether or not the defense can continue to dominate on a week-to-week basis will go a long way in determining just how good this Packers team stacks up versus the all time great squads to every take the field in the NFL.
The Bear Essentials
The race for second place inside the NFC North Division is getting interesting. After the Chicago Bears demolished the Detroit Lions this past Sunday, both teams are currently sitting at 6-3.
The Bears have won four straight and should be on everyone's radar. Chicago has found a new identity on offense within the past four weeks: they are beginning to run the football. Over the first five games, the Bears were only averaging 21 rushing attempts per contest, and as a result were very predictable on offense. QB Jay Cutler was constantly dropping back to pass and was sacked 18 times during that stretch because of it. During the Bears' four-game winning streak, Chicago has averaged 12 more rushing attempts per game than their previous average and as a result, Cutler has only been sacked five times in that stretch. Fewer pass attempts don't necessarily equal fewer sacks.
In the Bears case, defenses are no longer able to just pin their ears back and come after Cutler. Instead, they are now forced to respect RB Matt Forte and defend the run. By playing with seven or eight defenders in the box, Jay Cutler has had more vanilla looks to throw into, resulting in a higher efficiency when the throwing the football deep downfield. In fact, Cutler has only thrown six interseptions this year, the fourth fewest among starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The Bears will play AFC West division opponents in their next four games and if they stay true to their newfound identity on offense, they are in great position to reach a wild card birth this post season.
The Denver Broncos won again with QB Tim Tebow, this time topping division rival Kansas City on the road in a 17-10 win. When looking at the boxscore, you would have to rub your eyes to believe that they won despite Tim Tebow only completing two passes! Certainly the Broncos can't continue to win games being completely one dimensional on offense.
I give a ton of credit to head coach John Fox for simplifying his game plan on Sunday, choosing for minimal risk and maximum ball control in order to outlast the Chiefs on the road in a hostile environment. Running the football was the theme of the day for Denver, although it came under unusual circumstances. The Broncos had lost both of their best running backs in Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee due to injury in the first half, and common sense would then suggest they would have been forced to throw the football. Fox stayed cool, however, and the Broncos were able to rely more heavily on Tebow's running ability, using the plus-1 advantage in the blocking scheme that a running QB provides.
Tebow carried the football nine times for 43 yards and a TD while RB Lance Ball picked up the slack at running back, toting the rock for 96 yards in the win. By running the football, the Broncos minimized the chances for mistakes in the passing game by Tebow while being able to sustain drives and stay on the field, essentially playing keep away from the Chiefs. Moreno has been lost for the season with a torn ACL, so expect Lance Ball to become more involved in game plans down the stretch run. It wasn't pretty but it was effective, and the Broncos are now 3-1 with Tebow under center and are very alive in the AFC West race.