In the first two weeks of the season, the Falcons have faced two of the tougher front fours in the NFL. This week's matchup with the Tampa Bay Bucs won't get any easier.
They've only produced two sacks so far this year, but they're young and improving. The rotation includes four players taken in the first two rounds of the last two drafts, including No. 3 overall pick, Gerald McCoy, in 2010. The talent is there, it's just a matter of time before they harness it.
“They’re talented guys up front, that’s for sure," quarterback Matt Ryan said Wednesday. "They’re only going to get better because they’re young. When you watch tape on some of the guys from last year to this year, they’ve improved. They’re going to be tough to go against for a long time, that’s for sure. They’re certainly not anybody we overlook because playing them twice a year, you get a pretty good feel for how good they are.”
The Bucs defense has struggled against the run this season, ranking 31st in the league. The young front four will surely be tested by Ryan and the offense with a running attack that has gotten stronger through two games. Ryan doesn't take the young players up front lightly, but he knows there may be matchups they can use to their advantage.
“It comes down to good game planning and Mike (Mularkey) will do a great job with that; putting us in good positions to be successful," Ryan said. "Then it comes down to winning our one-on-one matchups and that’s every week in the NFL. You’ve got win those one-on-one matchups and it’s going to be a good challenge for us this week.”
Reading the Field:Just before Michael Turner broke off a run of 61 yards to put the Falcons in position to take the lead against the Eagles, Ryan, operating out of the no huddle, saw what he needed to see to know that play was theirs for the taking.
Based on film study through the week and observing what the Eagles were doing throughout the game, Ryan knew the run play to Turner would go big. He wasn't the only one to see it.
Turner in the backfield saw what Ryan saw and when he got the play call, he couldn't get the ball fast enough.
“That feeling never gets old when you see a pretty picture out there and see Matt making a perfect play call," Turner said. "Especially when you’re about to get it, you can’t wait for him to snap the ball.”
The play was executed perfectly and Turner's run gave the Falcons the necessary field position to punch it in for the lead-changing score. Ryan thinks over the years he's become more adept at seeing what he needs to see, especially out of the no huddle to take advantage of what's in front of him. It's work that goes well beyond Sunday though.
“You know what to look for," Ryan said. "I think my preparation is so much better than it was three years ago so I can take what I watch during the week and what I think about during the week and apply that to me in the 35 seconds that you have at the line of scrimmage. It’s easier said than done. It took me a while to be able to do that. That was just an example of that, talking about things during the week, looking at linebackers and defensive line positions, and understanding that we can get into good run plays and have some explosive plays that way, too.”
The run game for the Falcons isn't a forgotten weapon with all the explosive players in the passing game. This season the Falcons are in the top ten in rushing in the league and against a Bucs run D that has allowed 156 yards per game, the could continue.
Sidbury Sighting:One of the overlooked players in the discussion on how well the Falcons defensive line has played is third-year man Lawrence Sidbury. Against the Bears in Week 1, Sidbury recorded the second sack of his career.
After playing in all 16 games as a rookie in 2009, Sidbury was only active for six games last season. His emergence on special teams has allowed him to be active so far this season and see time on the field as a pass rusher as well. The early reports are the coaches are pleased with the effort Sidbury is providing.
“Lawrence is contributing not only on special teams but he’s also contributing in our rotation defensively," head coach Mike Smith said on Thursday. "...He’s put some pressure on the quarterback. He’s advanced like you would like your young players to advance; he’s getting better each and every year. We’re excited about having him in the rotation and feel very comfortable with him playing out on Sundays.”
Ongoing Competition:Smith stated on Wednesday that there is an ongoing competition for playing time at free safety and the nickel cornerback.
James Sanders and Kelvin Hayden are veterans the team added just as training camp ended. Sanders started in place of Thomas DeCoud in Week 2 and Hayden started at nickel back in place of Chris Owens in the same game. Smith said they will approach those two positions on a weekly basis based on preparation.
“I would say that it’s an ongoing competition," Smith said. "Again, Kelvin and James, we wanted to get them in. They split time last week."
Hayden's hamstring took him out of the game last week and so far this week he's missed both practices. The head coach said Owens is getting the majority of first-team snaps at nickel this week in Hayden's absence.
Smith said the safety battle will be something they watch day-to-day.
"At the safety position, we’re going to try to work those two guys and have them compete and see how it goes over the next few weeks," Smith said. "...Last week, we worked both of those guys during the week and we made a decision as we got closer to the end of the week.”
Injury Update:The Falcons' injury report hasn't changed significantly from Wednesday. Corey Peters and Shann Schillinger were full participants on Thursday.
Hayden, who continues to nurse a hamstring injury, did not participate and was joined by Jonathan Babineaux.
John Abraham joined Todd McClure, Matt Ryan, Ray Edwards and Roddy White as players who were limited, not taking their typical number of snaps in practice.