The Cincinnati Bengals will head to Atlanta tonight to take on the Falcons in a matchup of two playoff teams from a year ago. I recently had the opportunity to talk with William Huseth, the Editor for Blogging Dirty, Fansided’s Falcons blog. I posed a series of questions to him about the matchup tonight between the Bengals and Falcons and what he thinks the 2012 season holds in store for the two teams:
1. The Falcons are a strong veteran team that’s had several playoff disappointments over the past two seasons. Do the players and coaches feel as though their window for a Super Bowl run is closing?
I don’t think any of the players see it that way, and the coaches/front office wouldn’t talk about it, but it’s obvious that the window is closing soon. We have a lot of talent at skill positions on both sides of the ball that will be productive at least this season, and probably for a few more. However, some of the most important players on this team are aging, and either won’t be back or won’t be productive after the 2013 season. Tony Gonzalez has pledged to retire after this season, John Abraham is slowing down and is bound to stop at some point, and all three of our Pro-Bowl caliber corners are age 30. There are also holes on the offensive line to consider. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the 2013 & 2014 seasons, which is when a great number of those positions will need to be addressed and the window of opportunity will not be really good. However, as we both well know, your fortunes change greatly with a franchise quarterback, and I believe the Falcons have that in Matt Ryan. I think the window is closing soon, and I know we can’t count on it opening again in the future, but I think the Falcons have just the right personnel to contend this season, and with proper drafting, maybe prevent the window from closing in the next couple seasons. I do know for sure that if they don’t win their first playoff game in the Ryan-Smith-Dimitroff era, they sure can’t play for a Super Bowl title.
2. What will be the difference maker in the Falcons breaking through this year and winning multiple playoff games and potentially getting to the Super bowl?
I believe there are three reasons for Falcons fans to be optimistic. The first is health and consistency along the offensive line. Sam Baker, our left tackle, was injured most of 2011 and was absolutely wretched. We also had a sieve playing right guard last seasons, and teams like the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles with big athletic d-lines absolutely carved us up. You saw our miserable playoff game. But Baker is healthy this year, and he is serviceable when healthy. We drafted Peter Konz out of Wisconsin, and I believe he will end up playing right guard for us this season. If he does, our line will be a lot better, and give Matt Ryan protection.
The second reason is the emergence of the passing game. Matt Ryan has been very good on short and intermediate routes, but has been pressured so much when attempting deep passes that they are often off target. Good offensive line play will facilitate the deep route. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is a proponent of a vertical passing game, and while I don’t expect the Falcons to launch it deep every time, that will certainly turn this offense into a more effective, creative, and efficient one. Add in the emergence of Julio Jones running deep down the field and doing all manner of things with the ball in his hands, and this passing game is primed and ready to go.
The third thing is the scheme brought in by new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The past few seasons, our coordinator called a very vanilla defensive scheme that called for a lot of soft cover-2 and rarely won on third downs. The hope is that a little more creativity in the defensive scheme will allow the players to go out and make plays rather than wait for the play to come to them, which is always a bad proposition for a defense to win on third downs. Even though the defensive personnel isn’t vastly different from the 2011 squad, the way it will be used is different, and I believe this change will be good.
3. In our matchup tonight, what matchups will you be focused on the most? Where in the Bengals defense will the Falcons look to attack, and how do they plan on stopping the Bengals offense?
First and foremost is the offensive line, and how well it holds up against the Bengals front seven. Carlos Dunlap will miss the game tonight which is a shame, as I really wanted to see how the offensive line will respond against a good front seven. The rest of the Bengals line, Geno Atkins in particular, are still very solid. I wouldn’t expect to see the Bengals get much pressure on Matt Ryan tonight, but if they do that doesn’t bode well for the offensive line. It will be an indicator that they are really, truly struggling.
Second, can Julio Jones and/or Roddy White separate from the Bengals corners? Y’all have some really good corners over there! Leon Hall is very good, Nate Clements is inconsistent but can make big things happen at any time, and with the addition of Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals have a pretty good secondary going on there. I think Julio Jones can separate from pretty much anyone, but if he gets double covered, we need the other receivers to be able to separate. It’s imperative.
Third, can the first team defense keep up the good look it had against the Ravens? The Falcons were hitting Flacco early and often, and didn’t allow a first down on their first three possessions. I need to see good penetration by the defensive ends, and good coverage by the cornerbacks. I also need DT Peria Jerry, an oft injured former first round pick, to keep up the good work and continue looking like a starter against first team offensive lines. If he can keep generating a push there, this defense can really get going. I also will be looking for Sean Weatherspoon to get in on a sack of Andy Dalton. Finally, who will be covering A.J. Green, and will they dare leave one man on him? It’s a preseason game that doesn’t count for much, so I wouldn’t have a problem trying to cover him one-on-one. You know you can always rotate a safety to him if he gives the corners too much trouble. Those are the big three matchups for me.