There's a lot of talk about the defensive line of the Detroit Lions and whether it's the best in the NFL.
While the Falcons may not boast to have the best front four in the league, they've spent a lot of time and draft picks to put together a line that can at least argue that each week based on their play.
After a slow start this season, the Falcons front line on defense has begun to come together, producing four of the team's six sacks in the last two games. Falcons head coach Mike Smith said the play of the defensive line has been much like the play of the entire team this season: inconsistent. But the return of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux in Week 4 has coincided with improved play, which isn't a surprise to Smith.
"We've been inconsistent through the first six games," Smith said. "... It's good to have Jonathan Babineaux back. He's still battling a knee and ankle injury that kept him out for those three games. We need to get him back healthy. I think if we can get through this week and get him through the bye week we're going to see more production coming out of Jonathan."
The offseason's free-agent prize, Ray Edwards has come on strong in recent weeks as well, elevating the play of the entire line. He has two sacks in as many games and his run defense has been stout. He's showing up on plays more consistently and is generally all over the field.
"It's good to see Ray (Edwards) having a better comfort level in terms of what we're doing in terms of our scheme," Smith said. "He's really making plays. He plays extremely hard and his production has increased the last couple of weeks."
The offseason knee surgery that Edwards had kept him out of much of training camp and may have slowed him down some. He said on Wednesday that he's feeling better heath-wise and improving within his place on the team.
"I'm definitely getting healthier and being more comfortable in the scheme," Edwards said.
The emergence of Ray, and his improved health, has made everyone on the defensive line better. Defensive tackle Corey Peters had a sack in Week 5 and an interception in Week 6, aided by Edwards' pressure on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Peters' thinks Edwards' injury may have slowed him early on, but what he's done lately has made everyone better.
"I think that's definitely something that has bothered him, but I don't know," Peters said. "He's definitely an energetic player who's brought a lot of defense even if it hasn't been in the form of sacks. I think his presence has made it a lot easier on particularly myself and the rest of the defensive line."
Life on the D-line is all about pressuring the quarterback. Every week it's their mission and this week's matchup against the Lions presents just another quarterback who the Falcons' front four rotation will want to devour.
Pressuring Detroit's Matthew Stafford will be key for Atlanta. The 49ers showed last week what can happen when Stafford is pressured. The San Francisco defense hit Stafford ten times and sacked him five on the way to a win. It's a winning ingredient and the Falcons believe they can do it, much like they did against Newton last week.
"It's always important," Edwards said. "The quarterback is the focal point of the offense. It's important to get pressure on him. If you scramble him the body will fall. That's the main emphasis on any team we play."
Another Loud Place:The Falcons will add Detroit's Ford Field to to their list of ridiculously loud places they've played this season.
The Falcons hit the road to Detroit this weekend and waiting for them is the Lions, a surprising 5-1 team that have The Motor City in a frenzy over the play of their young and exciting team.
Detroit's fans are often called "long-suffering" and while they've lived through a lot of losing seasons, that all appears to be changing.
One of the keys to Detroit's fast start this season has been their fans and the loud environment they've helped create at Ford Field. They've been central to the team's forcing 14 false starts on defense. When the opponent's offense is on the field, Ford Field explodes into a frenzy.
The team tracks the penalties inside the arena, in an effort to show the fans what their contribution is. It's a tough place to play these days.
"It's going to be loud," Tony Gonzalez said. "It's going to be like New Orleans or any stadium where they have a good home team. They have a lot to cheer about. They're a good team and they're playing well right now. That's something we'll deal with all week. We've already started it with the walk-through. I'm sure the noise will be going. We'll be prepared for it."
The Falcons will spend the week piping in noise at practices, getting used to running their offense in an environment that prevents hearing very easily. The familiarity the Falcons have with stadiums like that will help their preparation.
"We play in those type of situations a couple of times a year, in some loud environments and we just have to be on top of our game plan, prepare the same way that we do every week when we're on the road and be on top of our communication with our hand signals in the huddle as well," quarterback Matt Ryan said.
The silent count by the offensive line to properly time the snap will be critical as well. Center Todd McClure didn't want to give away any details of his line's cadence, he did provide insight into how they work together to make sure they're together on the snap of the ball inside a loud environment.
"There's no cadence by the quarterback," McClure said. "It's all off of head movement and different things like that. Every team in the league has a silent count. We've got to be able to go up there and use it effectively."
Putting It Together:The Falcons are still seeking their first winning streak of the season.
The only string they've experienced this season is a win-one, lose-one stretch and this week on the road in Detroit they'd like to put that to an end.
A win against the Lions will bring the Falcons to 4-3 and heading into the bye with a two-game winning streak before heading to Indianapolis. There'd be some momentum with the Falcons heading to face the Colts if they can win on Sunday.
"I feel like we've got to get off this up and down streak and put consecutive wins together," wide receiver Julio Jones said. "That's a good thing that we did last year. We won a lot of games in a row. This year we've been up and down. This is our opportunity, right before the bye week, to get ourselves going and get above .500. It's a good opportunity against a good team. We've got to go out there and play hard and get us a W on the road."
Though they've not won back-to-back games this season, they've also not lost back-to-back games, something they never did last season. Being able to rebound as helped the Falcons through their early-season struggles.
The Falcons may also begin to benefit from a more regular schedule as they enter this stretch of the season. In the first four weeks of the season they played two night games, a 4 pm road game, and a a 1 pm road game. Last week's win was the first time they've played an early-start game at home all season.
Injury Report:On Monday Smith cautioned the Falcons faithful that they'll be entering the part of the season where some of his veterans will enter a "maintenance program" to limit their reps during the season in hopes of keeping them more fresh for games.
The first Falcons injury report of the week came out on Wednesday and it was lengthy.
Vic Beasley Jr. (groin), Sam Baker (back), Julio Jones (hamstring), Todd McClure (knee), Chris Owens (concussion) and Garrett Reynolds (ankle) were all did not practice players on Wednesday.
Smith described Reynolds' missing practice as "more of a precautionary day off".
James Sanders returned in a limited role and Roddy White, Jonathan Babineaux and Tony Gonzalez were full participants.
Smith was not ready to say what Jones' status would be for Sunday, only that the rookie receiver is working hard to get ready.
"Julio is the kind of guy that will push the envelope," Smith said. "He wants to get back in and play. We have to make sure the people in the athletic performance department and the doctors make that final decision. Julio's been working extremely hard since his injury. We'll have to see how the rest of the week goes in terms of his availability for the game."