Game 11 Preview: @Atlanta

Opponent Profile: Since I like team president Rich McKay and feel he got a bad deal in Tampa, I’ve been rooting for Atlanta, Soon-to-be-former Head Coach Mike Smith is also a very nice guy. It’s always sad to watch talented people fall short and then lose everything.

But that’s what is in the process of happening. Smith is currently 64-42, with five winning seasons in seven years– four years where he hit double-digits in wins and went to the playoffs. But he’s 1-4 in the playoffs, and looks to be on his way to his second straight losing year

He has a chance to end up at 8-8 (four wins better than last year’s 4-12 record), since he plays the Browns, New Orleans and Carolina– and wins against Green Bay and Pittsburgh are possible.

It’d be better if that didn’t happen. Guys who win reprieves often collapse the next year (like Rex Ryan, currently 2-8, has). This incarnation of the team is dead, and It’s time to start constructing the next.

The problem with the Falcons has been two-fold:

  • The offense is gifted, but erratic. Some weeks it lights up the scoreboard; others it struggles to score. Because Atlantra produces so many points on its good weeks (when it’s beating up some weak sister), it finishes high in the stats categories. But in reality, it’s beating up on the weak teams and struggling against the good ones and isn’t nearly that strong.

The simplest way to measure how consistent a unit is: calculate the average, then  count the number of games whee the team is within a touchdown of that average. In 2010, they went 13-3 and averaged 25.9 points (fifth in the league). But the number of games they were within 19 and 33 points? Only 8 times. Four times they scored 34 points or more; four times they scored 18 or less.

When a team like that gets in the playoffs, it runs into a critical shortage of teams that will let it score 41 points and makes an early exit.

  • The defense has been bad. There’s no reason it should be. Smith broke in as a defensive line coach for Baltimore and then linebackers coach. He ran Jack Del Rio’s defense in Jacksonville; (which was always strong.

But there’s no denying the fact: it’s only been in the top 10 in points twice (2010 and 1012 fifth). Then 11th, 14th and 18th– and in the bottom 10 the last two years.

The other issues holding Atlanta back have been the conscious, “win now” moves

  • Willingness to take on aging veterans, hoping they had gas left in the tank. Worked well with TE Tony Gonzalez, but RB Steven Jackson has been a disaster, as have CB Asante Samuel, SS Chris Hope and DE Osi Umeyniora. And these guys hold down a job for a year or two, as Atlanta realizes they can’t help.
  • The Julio Jones deal do much for Cleveland, certainly. The Browns got:
    • A #1 pick in 2011, which Tom Heckert traded– with a #3 pick, which Kansas City used to draft LB Justin Houston– in exchange for DT Phil Taylor.
    • A #2 pick in 2011, which they blew on WR Greg Little.
    • A #4 pick in 2011– which Cleveland wasted on FB Owen Marecic
    • A #1 pick in 2012– busted on QB Brandon Weeden
    • A #4 pick in 2012– traded with a #1, a #5 and #7 for another flop, RB Trent Richardson

But two #1s, a #2 and two #4s is a lot to pay for a receiver. They could have rebuilt the defense instead.

Atlants is 4-5 this season on merit. They’re scoring 23.8 points (12th) and allowing 25.5 (23rd). They’ve played only three games decided by 7 points or less, and are 2-1 in those games.

Their record against common opponents comparable to Cleveland’s. Atlanta is 3-2, and has outscored their opponents 137-118. Cleveland is 3-1, outscoring them 103-67.

  • New Orleans: Atlanta won 37-34 in overtime, after Saints Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan screwed up a couple of play-calls and let them score late in regulation.Cleveland beat them 26-24 in regulation, when Rob Ryan screwed up a couple of play-calls and let them score late in regulation.
  • Baltimore: The Ravens stomped Atlanta 29-7 at home, and squeaked by the Browns (who screwed up on kicking teams) on the road 23-21.
  • Cincinnati: In a game that was not nationally televised, the Bengals beat Atlanta at home 24-10. In a game that was on in prime time (when Andy Dalton folds), they lost to Cleveland 24-3.
  • Tampa Bay: Atlanta won by 10 on the road (27-17) and by 42 at home (56-14). The Browns won by 5 at home (22-17)

You could view that numerous ways. I think the correct take is “Each team beat their divisional rival and struggled with the out-of-division teams.”

Cleveland: On paper, the Browns appear to be the better team– a 6-4 record, scoring 21.6 points a game (8th) and allowing 19.5 (7th). But the key word, I think, is appear.

The Browns are done with their cakewalk (Jacksonville, Tampa, Oakland, Andy Dalton in prime time) and they gave a good chance to lose out. and go 6-10.

The defensive stats are colored , I think, because six of the QBs in the last seven games aren’t world class players (not yet, at any rate):

  • Last week was Ryan Mallett‘s first start
  • Andy Dalton in on national TV makes Brandon Weeden seem like Otto Graham
  • Tampa’s Mike Glennon is a second-year player who isn’t very good.
  • Oakland’s Derek Carr is a rookie.
  • Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles is a rookie
  • Tennessee used Charlie Freaking Whitehurst.

The only QB who was any good in that range (again, Dalton is worthless on national TV) was Ben Roethlisberger.That can really improve your stats.

Another factor in the defense not allowing many points: The Browns are running the ball a lot (they’re second in the league in attempts), and the best way to beat them is to run the ball. Hence opponents are have run 309 times (the fifth-highest total).

That eats up a great deal of clock time– there isn’t time to score a lot of points.

A point to consider: In the first three games, facing Joe Flacco, Drew Brees and Roethlisberger, Cleveland allowed 25.7 points and 426 yards. And they did that with a unit at full strength– this team will be missing Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Armonty Bryant and (if the Browns have any sense) Karlos Dansby and Jabaal Sheard.

Atlanta QB Matt Ryan is not one of my favorite players. The nickname “Matty Ice” is appropriate, because when you need the guy, he goes cold on you.

That said, he’s a great guy to have on your fantasy-league team, because he can go nuts on a bad defense. H’s had three games with a passer rating over 100 and his last three games (against Detoit, Tampa and Carolina) have all been big days.

WR Julio Jones is 6’4″ and 220; the Browns, as I mentioned in the Game 10 review, don’t have anyone who can cover him. Big receivers have been tearing their small corners to shreds all season. That’s the reason that they took Justin Gilbert with the #1 pick; since he hasn’t played well (didn’t play any snaps on defense last week), they’re stuck.

Roddy White is 6’1″ and 201; in the only two games he’s played against Cleveland (Jones has never faced them), he’s 10-14 for 200 yards and a score.

The #3 receiver, Devin Hester is 5’10 and 185 pounds– this secondary shouldn’t have any trouble covering him (it never has). But Chris Tabor’s kicking teams (which have been playing terribly) will probably get burned.

The Falcon’s don’t run the ball often. Primarily that’s because Jackson (who’s 31 and can’t stay healthy) has been a bust, and partly because they’re trying to save their season and are going with what they do best (throw).

If Atlanta has the sense to use their two scatbacks, they could gut the Browns Their #4 pick, Devonta Freeman (4.2 yards a carry; 5 games where he’s averaged 4.7 or better in limited time) can motor. Antone Smith has only 36 touches, but 6.3 per carry and 17.3 receiving.

If the Browns leave the kinds of gaps they’ve left open against Houston Tampa and Jacksonville, those waterbugs can shoot through them. Especially since LB Chris Kirksey will be playing for Dansby alongside Craig Robertson (who is also undisciplined), and Meowkevious Mingo will have to do Sheard’s job.

But I don’t know whether Atlanta beleaguered coaching staff will do that– they might overlook the fact that the Browns are 29th in rushing average allowed and 30th in yardage allowed.

The Browns do have a few things going for them:

The Falcons’ defense always tries to go for the turnover. They’ve succeeded occasionally, but given up a lot of big plays.

Of course they could also pick QB Brian Hoyer four times and run some balls back.

Atlanta’s front line can’t dominate the way Jacksonville and Houston did. They don’t have the players and they use a “read and react” scheme.

If their defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan, has looked at recent tape of Browns games and adapts the scheme,they might shut Cleveland down. But Nolan usually doesn’t create a game plan for each opponent– that’s why he’s been unsuccessful.

WR Puff Gordon will be back.  I wouldn’t expect much from him, though.

Yes, I know he caught 10 passes (on 19 targets) for 146 yards and a score, but there’s a big difference between sitting for 2 games and sitting for 10. Nobody whop has missed more than four games due to a suspension has performed well in his first two games back. But he can at least be a decoy.

RB Ben Tate will not be in uniform.  He can’t waste touches, maybe Terrance West or Isaiah Crowell will produce.

Atlanta has allowed a lot of yards (they’re 24th) on the ground, but their average is OK (4.0; 14th). I wouldn’t expect much, but you never know what will happen when you remove a distraction.

The Falcons aren’t suited for their home pack. The Georgia Dome is a very fast track. It helps the offense score, but the defense gets overwhelmed by it:

  • Atlanta’s defense, on the road, allows a QB rating of 80.0, and a TD-INT ratio of 2-2. Both are very good.
  • At home, opposing QBs have a 107.8 rating, with 3 TDs and 0 INTs

Prediction: It’s going to be a shootout, and the question is how many bullets are in Brian Hoyer’s gun. The league average for points scored is 22.9 per game:

  • Atlanta is 3-1 when they keep opponents under the average.
  • They’re 1-5 in games where the opponent scored more.

The Browns have scored between 21-27 points (that is, plus or minus a field goal of the average 6 times in 10 games. That’s where they’re likely to be.

Atlanta is at home and has won the last two games since the bye week. I expect them to make it three– and there’s a good chance Hoyer will get pulled for Johnny Football. Falcons 24-10.

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