Commentary

Atlanta's tweaks will be put to the test

Falcons may find out they were more than just a couple pieces away from title

Originally Published: October 6, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Falcons management reviewed the 2010 season and came up with two players they thought could put a 13-3 team over the top.

They put up five prime draft choices to move up in the first round and acquire explosive receiver Julio Jones. Management believed quarterback Matt Ryan needed one more weapon to create more explosive plays for a team getting only 6.5 yards per pass attempt. And Ray Edwards was signed as a second pass-rusher to pressure the quarterback.

A month into the season, the Falcons are the ones feeling pressure. The team is 2-2 and facing the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night. It will be the ultimate test to see whether the team has advanced or regressed. The organization is still in shock over the way the Packers came into the Georgia Dome and ended the Falcons' playoff hopes last season.

A loss Sunday night could make everyone wonder whether the Falcons can get over the top. The Packers know that. As they ride through the league taking no prisoners on their mission to repeat as Super Bowl champs, they know they can put doubts in the Falcons' minds if they can beat them.

Jones has been as advertised. In four games, he has 24 catches for 342 yards and a respectable 14.3-yards-per-catch average. But horrible offensive line blocking has restricted Ryan. His yards-per-attempt number has increased only modestly to 6.9. The defense has been another disappointment. It ranks 21st and has only five sacks in four games. Edwards is looking for his first sack.

Ryan is hoping home can be the remedy for what ails the Falcons. Three of the Falcons' first four games were on the road, and they lost two of them. It's been well noted that Ryan hasn't had an NFL passer rating better than 80 when playing away on a grass field. Overall, Ryan is a 58.4 percent thrower on the road and has a 6.5-yards-per-attempt average to go along with 24 interceptions in 27 road games.

At home, he completes 64.7 percent of his passes, his yards-per-attempt average shoots up to 7.51 and his quarterback rating is 96.7. He's also going against a Packers pass defense that is giving up 335.8 yards a game.

Here are the top trends and matchups for Week 5:

1. Desperation game: It's too early to panic, but the Steelers know they have to start playing well if they want to get back to the playoffs. Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans may not be a must-win, but it's a test to see whether the Steelers are slipping. Much has been made of the age of their defense. They have eight starters in their 30s. In four games, the Steelers have created only one turnover. Because of injuries, though, the defense will be a little younger. James Harrison and Aaron Smith won't play. Defensive tackle Casey Hampton has a bad shoulder and is also out. The offensive line is a mess. A beaten-up Ben Roethlisberger will play despite a foot injury. Coach Mike Tomlin planned to have more physical practices this week to improve tackling. In their base 3-4 defense, the Steelers are giving up 4.73 yards a run, and they have to try to contain Chris Johnson, who is coming off his first 100-yard game of the season.

2. Desperation game, Part II: It is panic time in Philadelphia, and a loss to the Buffalo Bills would put the Eagles at 1-4. Philadelphia left tackle Jason Peters won't play because of a hamstring injury. Michael Vick said this week that the Dream Team idea is dead. Aside from a run defense that can't stop anyone, the big question in Philadelphia is what the coaches are doing with cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Both corners specialize in man-to-man. The Eagles play zone, and it's not working. According to ESPN Stats and Information, opposing quarterbacks are completing 73.2 percent of their passes and getting 11.8 yards a completion against the right side of the Eagles' defense. That's Asomugha's side. Technically, only seven passes for 165 yards and a touchdown have been credited against him, but he looks uncomfortable fitting into the scheme.

[+] EnlargeShonn Greene
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesJets RB Shonn Greene needs 59 rushing yards on Saturday to reach 1,000 for the season.

3. Who's the beast in the East? Rex Ryan heads to Foxborough knowing the Patriots want to ambush his Jets. New England and the Patriots still can't believe the Jets went there during the playoffs and wiped out Tom Brady after a 14-win season. Ryan is 3-2 against the Patriots, but his Jets have problems. They can't run the ball. Center Nick Mangold is expected to be back after missing two games with an ankle injury, but "Ground and Pound'' has been "Sliced and Diced'' in the first four weeks. The Jets are averaging only 71 yards a game on the ground and only 3.1 yards an attempt. Even worse, the Jets are attempting only 23 rushing plays a game. Bill Belichick has problems too. The Pats' defense is giving up 4.8 yards a rush, but overall, the Pats rank 32nd on defense, giving up 477.5 yards a game. Cornerback Devin McCourty, who went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, has been burned for 27 completions for 392 yards and three touchdowns. The Jets might be tempted to throw it.

4. The "Ground and Pound'' Bowl: The Oakland Raiders visit the Houston Texans in a game that could finish in a little over two hours. Both teams have exceptional running games. Raiders running back Darren McFadden leads the NFL with 468 rushing yards. Texans coach Gary Kubiak has one of the league's best running schemes and gets 100 yards out of his runners, whether it's Arian Foster or his backup, Ben Tate. The Texans will be more reliant on the run because of the hamstring injury that is expected to sideline wide receiver Andre Johnson for three weeks. Without Johnson, the Texans' passing offense drops roughly 32 yards a game. Johnson has missed 10 games as a Texan. During those missed games, the Texans went 4-6 and averaged 216.7 yards per game passing. In games Johnson has played, the Texans are 30-28 and average 248.7.

5. Motown Madness: The Detroit Lions are on "Monday Night Football" for the first time since 2001. This will be a defining game for the Lions. If they beat the Chicago Bears, they could turn the NFC North into a two-way race. It would be hard for the Bears to catch both the Packers and the Lions if they trail by three games after five games. First, the Bears have to figure out which extreme to feature -- the run or the pass. Last week, offensive coordinator Mike Martz called 31 runs and 18 passing plays in a 34-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Jay Cutler has taken a pounding this season behind the Bears' porous offensive line, and life doesn't figure to improve going against the Lions' defensive line. All Lions coach Jim Schwartz is hoping for is a normal game after winning comebacks of 20 and 24 points the past two weeks.

6. Rookie QB Watch: For the second time this season, rookie quarterbacks meet up. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton beat Jaguars rookie Blaine Gabbert in Gabbert's first start. Gabbert goes against Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Sunday in Jacksonville. Gabbert has struggled. He's completing only 47.8 percent of his passes and averaging 129 passing yards a game. Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has done a nice job protecting Dalton with three-step drops and rollouts. Though Dalton started poorly in last week's game against the Bills, Gruden let him throw more downfield in the second half and he was able to beat the Bills' defense. For the season, Dalton has a respectable 58.1 completion percentage and is averaging 217 passing yards a game. The Bengals, who are 2-2, face a string of three possibly winnable games -- Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Seattle.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesRookie Cam Newton will face the Saints -- and their blitzes -- in Week 5.
7. The real rookie watch: Newton is tearing up the NFL as a rookie. He has thrown for 1,386 yards and five touchdowns in four games and has rushed for 133 yards and four touchdowns. On Sunday, he gets his first game in the NFC South, facing the New Orleans Saints. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will blitz Newton as he does other rookie quarterbacks, Since 2008, the Saints have 17 interceptions against rookie quarterbacks. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Newton hasn't done poorly against the blitz. Against five-man-or-more rushes, Newton has completed 28 of 47 passes for 407 yards and has been sacked six times. Amazingly, he hasn't thrown an interception against the blitz.

8. Road kill: Week 5 features some of the worst road warriors in the NFL playing on the road. Since 2002, the Raiders have the worst road record against non-divisional teams in the NFL. They are 3-23 in those games. They travel to Houston. The Seahawks, Cardinals and Bengals are 5-21 in non-divisional road games since 2002. The Seahawks are at the New York Giants. The Bengals visit the Jaguars. The Cardinals visit the Minnesota Vikings. The second-worst road team in non-divisional games is the San Francisco 49ers, who are 5-22. But they are at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a week after an incredible comeback victory at Philadelphia.

9. The "I'll Show You" Bowl: Donovan McNabb has a home in Phoenix, but for the past two offseasons, he couldn't persuade the Arizona Cardinals to acquire him. On Sunday, McNabb faces the Cardinals with a chance to remind them he's still a viable quarterback. Unfortunately, he's done little to help the Vikings, who are 0-4. In fact, the Vikings are rushing for more yards than they are passing (157 to 154.8) and McNabb might be playing himself toward a seat on the bench.

10. Andrew Luck Sweepstakes: What a difference a year makes. The Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts were playoff teams are year ago. Now a 1-3 Chiefs squad visits an 0-4 Colts team that is starting Curtis Painter at quarterback. The Colts haven't been 0-4 since they drafted Peyton Manning in 1998. Last week, they lost two starting offensive linemen to injuries. Chiefs coach Todd Haley lit a fire under quarterback Matt Cassel during a sideline argument that led to a better second-half performance by Cassel. Meanwhile, the 1-3 Denver Broncos have to hold back the fans campaigning to bench Kyle Orton and start Tim Tebow when they host the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Still, the odds are starting to favor the Dolphins or Rams for getting Luck, the probable first pick in the 2012 draft. The Dolphins are 0-4 and will be without quarterback Chad Henne, who has a separated left shoulder. Things are so bad for the St. Louis Rams that they lost cornerback Bradley Fletcher for the season with a torn ACL when he collided with a teammate in practice this week. The Rams are losing during a bye week. Unreal.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer