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's guest is USA Today NFL National Writer Jim Corbett.
Reggie Roberts: The one team that no one is talking about is the Kansas City Chiefs. I know they struggled last season and finished 4-12, but they seemingly are much improved under second-year head coach Todd Haley. What are your thoughts?
Jim Corbett: Todd Haley and a veteran coaching staff have created a sense of disciplined urgency for the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs. That's not a typo. Hail to the 3-0 Chiefs. Make that Haley — general manager Scott Pioli, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, four disciples of former New York Giants, New England Patriots, Jets and Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, now a consultant with the Miami Dolphins. The Chiefs are winning the Parcells way — with a strong, first-ranked run game and a ninth-ranked run defense playing stout, smart, ball control football.
Winning ugly? Who cares? The win-challenged Chiefs are 3-0 for the first time since 2003.
"I'm proud of the guys,'' Haley says. "They're just working hard every day to get a little better.''
Better than anybody could have expected for this season's most surprising team.
There haven't been a lot of personnel changes on defense. Yet Crennel is getting strong play from the likes of converted defensive end Glenn Dorsey, linebackers Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Mike Brabel. Rookie safety Eric Berry and nickel corner Javier Arenas have helped shore up the back end. Cornerback Brandon Flowers has two interceptions, including one for a touchdown in a Week 2 win against Cleveland. Crennel's fourth-ranked defense is allowing 12.4 points per game, covering for a 27th-ranked passing offense that has yet to get in gear.
Haley and Weis are doing an excellent job of juggling carries with their running back timeshare between veteran Thomas Jones and big-play threat, Jamaal Charles, who is averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Jones has handled more of the load, keeping Charles fresh to break bigger gains.
That run game is averaging 160.7 yards and covering for a young defense as it improves. And game-breaking slot receiver Dexter McCluster has teamed with Arenas to provide a devastating one-two, punt-kick return duo. McCluster had a 94-yard punt return touchdown in the Week 1 win against San Diego. And in Sunday's 31-10 trouncing of the San Francisco 49ers, quarterback Matt Cassel joined the party with three touchdown passes, including a one-handed, 18-yard grab by tight end Tony Moeaki that recalled glints of former Chiefs and current Falcons benchmark tight end Tony Gonzalez.
RR: Sticking with the AFC, give us your thoughts on the red-hot start of the Houston Texans. Has Coach Gary Kubiak finally gotten his club turned around and are they a playoff contender?
JC: After leading the Texans to a 9-7, 2009 finish, Gary Kubiak did a great job of self analysis this offseason on how to get over the hump and win close games, according to CBS analyst Phil Simms.
Kubiak decided to get more physical and focus on becoming more of a downhill, balanced team after finishing 30th in rushing last season. Undrafted second-year running back Arian Foster has proven a perfect fit for Houston's zone-blocked run game and his blockers have embraced the pound-it mentality that opened the play-action passing lanes in Week 2 for Matt Schaub, who led the league in passing with 4,770 yards last season.
Now the 2-1 Texans are as balanced as any offense, and were averaging 34 points before a 27-13 Week 3 loss to resurgent Dallas.
Four-time Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson showed why owner Bob McNair stepped up and rewarded him as the highest-paid receiver this offseason at $10.5 million a year. Johnson's leaping, 34-yard touchdown catch over Redskins safety Reed Doughty that forced overtime and set up Neil Rackers' winning overtime FG, proved anew why Johnson is arguably the game's best receiver — great body control, vise-like hands, a clutch playmaker who delivered on fourth-and-10.
The defense is strong in the front seven led by sack master Mario Williams. But the young secondary sorely misses shutdown cornerback Dunta Robinson as it ranks dead last, surrendering a league-worst 368.7 yards passing per game. Still, Schaub has the attacking mentality and the weapons in Johnson, Kevin Walter, tight ends Owen Daniels and Joel Dreesen to cover for that work-in-progress back end. That is, if Johnson isn't sidelined by the high ankle sprain he re-aggravated against the Cowboys.
RR: Let's talk Falcons. You spent some time at Falcons camp during the summer. What are your early thoughts on the Falcons and what are their prospects for the postseason?
JC: The Falcons didn't play their best out of the chute, stumbling against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But there is no shame in that considering that Dick LeBeau's defense is playing at a Steel Curtain-like level.
Matt Ryan offered the best proof yet that he is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in waiting by leading the 27-24 overtime win against the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
"This is a huge confidence builder for us,'' says Ryan, who threw for two touchdowns. "We have a lot of high expectations of ourselves and we fought the entire game to get us in position to win.''
I thought a great sign for the Falcons was the way that Jason Snelling responded with 129 yards and two touchdowns against what was supposed to be a good Arizona front seven. Despite the losses of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood to injuries, the one constant is a physical offensive line that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma compared favorably with a gritty, cohesive New York Giants group that has been viewed as one of the best in the game. With the line paving the way for a second-ranked run game, Matt Ryan can pick his spots against defenses stacked to stop the run. Ryan is doing a good job with that, completing 63.2 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and just one interception.
With that balance, the return to health of Turner, the continued growth of Ryan and the dependability and pounding mindset of the offensive line, the sky's the limit for the NFC South leaders. Roddy White is a trusted target and Michael Jenkins is expected back after missing the first three games with a shoulder injury. Given a fly-around defense led by energizing rookie linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and up-and-coming third-year players Curtis Lofton and Thomas DeCoud, the Falcons have the makings of a playoff team.
The key will be whether they can get there as NFC South champions or as a wild-card team.
RR: Do you think the arrow is still point up for Falcons starting QB Matt Ryan and if so, what do you like about his game?
JC: The arrow is definitely pointing up for Matt Ryan, one of the hardest workers and most talented quarterbacks in the game. Ryan didn't live up to his and his team's expectations in Week 1. But he rebounded with a strong, three-touchdown Week 2 win against Arizona and his work ethic and grit paid off in the Week 3, overtime win against New Orleans. Tight end Tony Gonzalez says Ryan is Atlanta's hardest-working player. That's high praise coming from a 10-time Pro Bowler.
Once Turner's groin improves and Jenkins returns to form from his preseason shoulder injury, Ryan will have the full complement of weapons to attack defenses with either Atlanta's second-ranked run game or in the spread, up-tempo passing game.
One thing I liked about Ryan was his offseason self-improvement project. As Coach Mike Smith says, Ryan took it upon himself to study the game's five best quarterbacks and the individual strengths that make Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers so consistently successful. Then, he took those strengths, third-down passing for Rodgers; checkdown passing to his running backs for Brees; taking what the defense gives underneath for Manning and Brady along with Rivers' passing to tight end Antonio Gates and incorporated them into his own ever-expanding repertoire. Smith said it's a project that a coach usually embarks on.
That should tell you everything needed to know about Matty Ice's competitive soul and his burning desire to be included in the conversation with those five quarterbacks.
RR: Which winless team in the league right now still has a good chance, in your opinion, to turn it all around and make a playoff run?
JC: The Dallas Cowboys are perhaps the NFC's most talented team. And now that desperation meets talent with America's Team in crisis mode, they finally ignited and turned their season around with a 27-13 breakthough win against a strong Houston team.
Something about the Cowboys makes them better in backs-to-the-wall mode. It happened last season when they exorcised their December demons and finally won a playoff game for the first times since 1996.
Wade Phillips is a defensive-minded coach and he's been preaching turnovers. The Cowboys finally got two interceptions against the Texans and gave the ball back to Tony Romo and that full house backfield, who played keep-away from Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson.
With the cover of play-action running, Romo fired for two touchdowns and 284 yards against Houston to go with 101 yards rushing and a Marion Barber touchdown. Consider the corner turned in Dallas, where Phillips and his fiesty Cowboys do their best work backed into a win-or-else corner.
RR: NFL experts around the league were extremely tough on the Chicago Bears during the preseason, but Lovie Smith's team is off to a pretty good start. What's your take on the turnaround in the Windy City?
JC: It starts with the belief quarterback Jay Cutler has shown in Mike Martz's attacking, vertical-tilt passing scheme. That and the fact that running back Matt Forte is healthy and playing like a Marshall Faulk clone in Martz's system. Smith made several free-agent signings, but the key one right now is hiring Martz, whom he worked with in St. Louis when Smith was Rams defensive coordinator.
And on defense, the free-agent addition of Julius Peppers has energized a front seven that counts a healthy Brian Urlacher and along with linebacking mate, Lance Briggs is one of the fastest defenses in the game.
RR: Do you think the Steelers will be able to hand QB Ben Roethlisberger the reigns to a 4-0 team?
JC: No. I think they will stumble in their Week 4 showdown with Baltimore. That Ravens-Steelers meeting is going to be a three chin-strapper.
Points are going to be at a premium. But in Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Ravens have enough offensive weapons to put more on the board in what figures to be a walk-off, field-goal game.
Despite their spinning quarterback carousel, the Steelers have so far survived the four-game suspension of Ben Roethlisberger for violating the league's personal conduct policy. That's because the second-ranked defense has played with a vengeance. Safety Troy Polamalu has so far looked like the leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, intercepting both Matt Ryan and Vince Young. And the linebacker group is arguably the best in the game with leading tackler Lawrence Timmons joining the party. LeBeau dropped linebacker LaMarr Woodley in coverage against Young, surprising the Titans quarterback, who threw an interception right to Woodley.
The way the Steelers' D is playing out of their collective minds in their bid to atone for last year's defensive slump when Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith were out with injuries, it doesn't matter who plays quarterback.
The perception is that the Steelers will really kick it in gear when Roethlisberger returns. That all depends on how hard Roethlisberger has been working on his craft, throwing to high school receivers and running the Steelers route tree away from the training complex, which he is banned from under terms of his suspension.
Point is, if the Steelers continue playing championship-caliber defense like this, it won't matter whether Roethlisberger can step right in and be Roethlisberger behind a line missing both its tackles. But I'll take my chances with Baltimore that figures to play with more urgency following Flacco's four-interception wake-up call against Cincinnati in a Week 2 Ravens loss.