The Falcons have reached the midway point in the season at 5-3, one game off the pace set by the division-leading...New Orleans Saints(?) and in position to at least return to the playoffs, if not do some damage once there. The first half of the season has been fairly bizarre, as the Falcons have shown themselves to be fairly inconsistent. On the one hand, they didn't allow a touchdown in the first two games, they dominated Carolina on the road in the opener, and they won a critical game in Cincinnati against a quality opponent. They also beat Pittsburgh in a must-win game for both teams. On the other hand, there's the small matter that they have been dominated in all three of their losses (save for the first half against the Giants) and losing to Detroit by 16 is awfully hard to justify.
Despite the constant focus on the mercurial Mike Vick, the main difficulty for the team is their crappy defense, or more specifically, their crappy pass defense. Since the first two games, the team has been regularly roasted by opposing quarterbacks. The team's two-game winning streak against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati that saved the season was the result of Vick playing two of the best games he's played since 2002, which compensated for a defense that cannot stop anyone. You like numbers? I do:
22nd in total defense
31st in pass defense
24th in yards per pass attempt
28th in first downs allowed
25th in third down percentage
The team is only 14th in points allowed, possibly as a result of the 16 turnovers they've forced (only three teams in the NFL have forced more), but if you buy the Phil Steele hypothesis that yardage and first downs are the true indicator of a team's merit and that turnovers are largely a matter of luck, then there is no reason to believe that the pass defense is going to be any better, at least as the lineup is present constituted. I add in that last clause because there are a couple changes on the horizon that could make the pass defense passable:
1. Bench Jason Webster - there is complete and unanimous agreement among the Falcons' fan base that Webster is terrible. Watching him this season has been like a throwback to the days when the Falcons lined Deion Sanders up on one side and the regrettable Charles Dimry on the other. (One of my Dad's pet routines is to tell stories about how bad Dimry was. It's only when he starts to lump Tom Glavine into that category that I step in. It still boggles my mind that someone who went to all those Braves games with me in the 80s and watched Len Barker and Rick Mahler attempt to pitch would be so critical of Glavines. I digress.) DeAngelo Hall isn't as good as he thinks he is - DeAngelo would need to be able to teleport into passing lanes two counties away for reality to coincide with his self-image - but he's a good corner. However, Hall's ability only serves to magnify how bad the corner is opposite him. Webster's struggles are a major, major indictment of Jim Mora. Webster wasn't merely some free agent that the team scouted on film or a college guy who was drafted because he was hot during the Senior Bowl. Nay, Webster played for Mora in San Francisco and with that base of knowledge, Mora still decided to bring him to Atlanta and start him. I try not to fall in love with the back-up when a starter is struggling, which is one of the ultimate reactionary sports fan cliches, but how much work does Jimmy Williams really need on technique before he sees the field? Put another way, how could he be any worse?
2. Buy John Abraham a new groin - Jet fans have to be laughing their tails off right now, as they were not upset to lose Abraham because they believed he was brittle and a liability against the run. The first part of the statement has turned out to be true and we have no idea on the second part because Abraham has barely played.
It looks as if the Falcons traded a draft pick for a "proven veteran" and that veteran has turned out to be less than advertised. Maybe Arthur Blank's impatience for winning isn't such a good thing after all. (And if Don Banks' article from the Monday after the Steelers game is correct, then we have one more piece of evidence that the owner is too involved and is undercutting the authority of his head coach and GM. If Blank really did feel the need to step in to mediate between Ed Donatell and Greg Knapp without involving Rich McKay or Jim Mora, then that's not a good sign. Everyone still want him to own the Braves?) All that aside, if the team can stay in contention until Abraham gets back, he could make the pass defense significantly better.
Overall, the team has done little to disabuse me of my belief before the season that this is an average football team. They haven't beaten a team that currently has a winning record and they've outscored their opponents by a whopping three points while outgaining them by 15 yards per game. The run defense is a little better, but it looks like the front office overreacted to last year's run defense problems and now, the team has pass defense problems. The starting quarterback is alternatively excellent and poor, which grades out to average and the team didn't make Vick the highest-paid quarterback in the league to be average. (It must be said that the trend line for Vick is good, although he does need to work on his fumbles. Speaking of which, the team has lost only 3 of 13 fumbles, which is another indication that the Falcons were lucky in the first half.) Vick's receivers typically show signs of promise and then get a case of the dropsies. The line is fine at run blocking, but cannot pass protect. Average average average.