Each week, Falcons Vice President of Football Communications Reggie Roberts will sit down with an expert and talk about the Falcons, as well as what's going on in the rest of the league. This week, Roberts had a chance to catch up with Sports Xchange national NFL writer Len Pasquerelli
Reggie Roberts: Life in the NFL is a week to week proposition. With that as a premise, give us your take on who the best six teams are in the NFL both in the AFC and in the NFC and tell us why you like each team?
Len Pasquerelli: "Baltimore: Not quite as ruthless on defense without Ed Reed (although Haloti Ngata is having a monster year so far), but much better offensive balance now. Always plays with a chip on its shoulder.
Pittsburgh: Going 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger sets them up nicely. Haven't run the ball as well as they wanted, but getting Roethlisberger back will open that up for them. Secondary still suspect, but play hard and rugged and that makes up for some of the shortcomings.
Atlanta: Keep finding ways to win, the sign of a good, selfless team. Haven't hit their real stride yet, but it's coming.
New York Jets: Might actually be nearly as good as Rex Ryan thinks they are. Especially if Mark Sanchez continues to improve.
New York Giants: Guess the reports of their demise were a bit premature. Excellent people upfront on defense, can really get after teams, took a few weeks but defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is making a difference now.
(tie) Indianapolis and New Orleans: Still quality teams and still enough season left for them to get their problems righted."
RR: You live in Atlanta and know a lot about the Falcons from your days as the Falcons beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. What are your impressions of head coach Mike Smith's team through five games?
LP: "I'm probably a little disappointed in the offense, which I thought would be difficult to stop with all its components (Pro Bowl wide receiver and tailback, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and emerging quarterback Matt Ryan), but that's mitigated by how well the defense has played. This is a well-coached team that doesn't beat itself and, in a league with such parity, that's good enough to win most weeks. And by 'well coached,' I don't just mean Mike, who's done a tremendous job. But I don't know that Mike's staff gets nearly enough credit. One of the best things any head coach can do is surround himself with an outstanding staff and, from Day 1, Mike has done that. Make no mistake; it's still a league that's about talent. But in the last few seasons, it's increasingly become a "coach's league," which is a moniker that used to be associated with the NBA. As good as the players are in Atlanta, the staff is even better, and that just raises the bar for everyone."
RR: Staying in the NFC South, are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers better than everyone expected them to be or are they beneficiaries of a soft early season schedule?
LP: "I'm probably not as big on scheduling as some people, because you've got to play the people that the formula says you play. That said, the Bucs probably are a beneficiary of a relatively tame schedule so far. But I don't want to diminish what Tampa Bay has accomplished so far. I don't know Coach Raheem Morris well at all. But I've known GM Mark Dominik for a long time, and I can tell you, the Bucs are doing things the right way, his way, building from within, with draft choices, and youth. You'd better have a quarterback if you're going to win in the NFL, and in Josh Freeman, the Bucs have a guy with whom they can grow. He's got to be one of the biggest QBs I've ever seen, kind of reminds me of Ben Roethlisberger from a size and movement element, and he'll only get better. The receivers are young and should be with Freeman a long time. And the team is rebuilding its defense through the draft. Are the Bucs as good as their record so far? Probably not. Are they doing things the right way? Definitely."
RR: It's a little shocking to glance at the NFC East standings and see the Dallas Cowboys at the bottom with a 1-3 record. Do you expect them to turn it around?
LP: "There's certainly enough talent — probably as much as any roster in the league — but you wonder what's going on with the chemistry of this team. It's a team that doesn't always play smart, that's for sure. It's a long season, and plenty of time for them to turn things around. But they're in a tough division and, even tougher, they sound like a team that has some doubts about itself. And that's dangerous."
RR: Cinncinati QB Carson Palmer has come under extreme scrutiny over the past few weeks. What's going on with him and the Bengals who have dropped their past two games and are now 2-3 in the always competitive AFC North?
LP: "Terrific question about Palmer. Certainly the numbers suggest he's not the same player. I did a note about this a week ago, so I know something about the numbers. In his first four seasons as a starter, Palmer had a 90.1 passer rating, a 64.1 percent completion rate, 7.32 yards per completion (a number at which coaches pay close attention), and 11.42 yards per completion. Since the beginning of '09, after he rehabbed from the elbow injury which limited him to just four games in 2008, the numbers are 82.01 rating, 60.1 percent completions, 6.63 yards per attempt and 11.03 yards per completion. Those numbers certainly raise suspicions about the elbow. For what it's worth, though, I saw Palmer play at Charlotte on Sept. 26, and the problems seemed to be more than just physical. He didn't have the same swagger, didn't challenge the Panthers deep all day, even with much better receivers surrounding him. He actually had a worse QB rating that day than Carolina's Jimmy Clausen, who was making his first NFL start. Something's missing, you're right."
RR: Defensively, the Falcons are third in the NFL in points allowed surrendering just 14 points per game. How have Coach Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder gotten those young guys to play at the such a high level in such a short period of time?
LP: "Tony Dungy used to always preach 'play fast,' and I'm a big believer in that. When you play fast, you play hard, you don't miss tackles and you raise the tempo of the game. It took a couple seasons for Smitty and Brian to get all the pieces in place, which is understandable, but they've finally got a unit that collectively plays fast. The sum of the defense, as a result, is better than it's individual pieces."
RR: The Chicago Bears received a ton of negative press during the offseason, but have quietly gotten out of the blocks with a 4-1 record which is tops in the NFC North. Will they be able to hold off the Green Bay Packers and win that division?
LP: "First off, kudos to Lovie Smith, Jerry Angelo, and Jay Cutler for tuning out the naysayers. It's early, so I don't know yet if the Bears are as good as their record, or if they can hold off the Packers, who desperately need to find a ground game. But I've always respected Mike Martz — yeah, he's got a little bit of a 'Mad Scientist' reputation — and I like what he's done with Cutler so far. And the defense, which was as much a problem as the offense, has gotten some "chops" back. Watch MLB Brian Urlacher, and it looks like he's playing his best ball in 2-3 years. Like I said, I don't know if it can last, but you don't apologize in the NFL for any wins, and the Bears already have four of 'em."