Falcons' struggling defense must step up against explosive Packers
With the Falcons D struggling, it's hard not to like the Packers in the Georgia Dome
The Niners will count on punter Andy Lee in a defensive struggle against the Bucs
The Lions' return to MNF has added meaning in surging sports' town Detroit
This is not exactly the way the Atlanta Falcons hoped to go into their rematch with the Green Bay Packers. You remember the 48-21 divisional playoff rout by Green Bay at the Georgia Dome nine months ago, when the Packers scored touchdowns every time they touched the ball in the second and third quarters. And you saw Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff fortify the Falcons for a rematch such as this one by trading a ransom so he could draft wideout Julio Jones, and then signing a pass-rusher, Ray Edwards, in free agency. Now, the Falcons would be able to score with the Packers, and defend against them. Theoretically.
The best-laid plans have stunk so far, basically.
Last year, the Falcons were 16th in the NFL in team defense, averaging 1.9 sacks per game. This year they're 21st, with four sacks in four games, and the Falcons have played three straight games without a sack.
Last year, the Falcons allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 65 percent of their throws. This year it's 68 percent.
Matt Ryan averaged 1.8 touchdown passes a game last year. It's early, of course, but he's throwing 1.5 a game. And getting beat up quite a bit too.
Jones has been as good as advertised, averaging six catches and 86 yards per game. But Edwards, though being a terrific locker-room guy and hard-trying presence, has zero sacks and two quarterbacks hits in four games. ProFootballFocus.com theorizes that the move from strictly a left end in Minnesota to shifting from left to right with John Abraham based on matchups could be affecting him. Based on what I know of Edwards, I believe the point is valid. Last year, Edwards played left end exclusively in Minnesota. This year he's played right end 40 percent of his snaps.
And, ProFootballFocus.com notes, cornerback Dunta Robinson has had a poor first quarter of the season, allowing 79 percent of the passes thrown to the man he's covering to be completed. That's the fourth-worst of all NFL corners.
In other words, it's hard not to like the Packers Sunday night at the Dome, where the Falcons will host an emotional Sunday-nighter for the second time in 22 days. (Week 2: Atlanta 35, Philadelphia 31, in the Return of Vick Bowl.) Atlanta has to hope it'll have the same stadium-rocking verve this weekend.
"We've been up and down,'' Robinson said this week. "We're still trying to put the perfect game together. We're going to be a great defense, but to do that, you've got to be closers, great closers. That's something we've got to improve on.''
I asked Robinson if he liked games like this, when a premier quarterback is on the other side, or whether he prefers to play a lesser quarterback on a bad team. "These are the moments you play for,'' he said. "You dream of playing in games like this, against great teams with a great quarterback. So I love it. You can't run behind Momma and hide. You're out there, yourself. Everybody expects you to dominate an 0-4 quarterback. But Aaron Rodgers? He makes plays. That's the beauty of this game -- why I love it so much. Forty million people watching on Sunday night ... if that doesn't make you want to compete, nothing will. It's why people love this game, guys competing at the highest level. So much adrenaline.''
Some good cover skills would help Sunday night. The Falcons will need that.
This week's guest is writer Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. There has been so much smoke about Los Angeles getting an NFL franchise soon that I had Farmer on to discuss all things Los Angeles football.
On the possibility of San Diego building a new stadium for the Chargers: "San Diego is not going to get a new stadium there.''
On how soon he expects Los Angeles to have a team: "What they [owner Phil Anschutz, front man Tim Leiweke] are looking at is bringing a team to Los Angeles for a couple of years to play in the Coliseum or Rose Bowl while the stadium is being built, for the stadium to be open at the start of the either 2016 or 2017 season. The earliest this can happen, conceivably, is [a team] could say, in February, 'We're leaving and we're going to Los Angeles ...' If I were a betting man, I would say it's more likely by February of 2013, you would see a team announce, 'we're moving to Los Angeles, we'll play there next season.'"
On the percentage chances the city would have a team by 2013: "About 60 percent.''
On which team he thinks will move to LA, if one does: "If it happens, I believe it will be the Chargers.''
San Francisco P Andy Lee (No. 4). Defensive struggle between 3-1 teams this weekend in California (Tampa Bay-San Francisco), and Lee should play a big field-position role. His 52.2-yard gross average in second in the NFL and 46.1-yard net average leads the league, though the Bucs' Michael Koenen is only 2.6 net yards behind him. Lee's been a very good punter for the Niners, overshadowed by the great Shane Lechler across the Bay. He'll need to pin the Bucs back to make Josh Freeman make long drives against the underrated 49er defense.
1. The Lions hosting their first Monday night game at Ford Field. Ten years ago this weekend, the Lions, on their way to a 2-14 season, lost to St. Louis on Monday night 35-0. The NFL thought so much of that performance that it kept Detroit off Monday night for a decade. Leave it to Ndamukong Suh, in an interview with Peter Schrager for GQ this week, to sum up what it feels like in Detroit right now. "I went to the Tigers-Yankees playoff game on Monday night, and the vibe was electric. Everyone's pumped, man. I had fans coming up to me in between innings, telling me, 'We love you, guys. Just keep ballin'!' It's amazing. The playoff baseball atmosphere is great -- I've never seen a building like that. But everyone keeps saying, 'That's nothing. Just wait until a Lions playoff game.' Growing up, I always thought of Detroit as a basketball town because of the Pistons, but everyone says it's really, at its core, a football town. Monday night should make for an incredible atmosphere.''
2. WWJDWW? What Will the Jets Do on Wes Welker? His average game through four weeks is so gaudy (10 catches, 154 yards) that it has to make Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine think of singling Darrelle Revis on Welker all day in the CBS doubleheader game late Sunday afternoon. They should. Tom Brady has thrown at Welker 34 times in the last two weeks. Think of that. New England's had 21 possessions in the last two weeks (discounting two end-of-half or kneel-down series), and Brady's thrown to Welker 1.6 times per series. Mike Wallace and Vernon Davis lead their teams in being targeted by the quarterback. Combined total: 54. Welker has to get the Revis treatment Sunday.
3. Jimmy Graham to get his due. Cam Newton's going to get lots of iso-camera treatment this weekend. With good reason. When the Saints have the ball, I hope FOX focuses on Jimmy Graham. Not only is he a great story -- more about that in my Monday column -- but also Drew Brees has been finding the second-year tight end from Miami more than anyone in recent weeks. After his second-straight 100-yard game last week, Graham has 24 catches for a 15.3-yard average. I think Brees will look for him a lot against a suspect and beat-up linebacker group in Carolina.
4. Something very close to a must-win for the Nightmare Team. The Eagles are 1-3. Philadelphians are restless. That's putting it mildly;. Without the suspense of a Game 5 in town tonight for the Phils, the pitchforks and torches would be out on Broad Street. Somehow, I expect Mike Vick to take the game over and find a way to win in Buffalo.
5. The first (tear, tear) 13-game weekend of the season. The Jets-Pats will be good late-game theater, and it's always fun to see the Packers in prime time, so I'm not worried about the non-1 o'clock slate. But with six teams on byes (look on the bright side, St. Louis and Miami: at least the Rams and Dolphins can't lose this weekend) and a bunch of early-game clunkers (Chiefs-Colts, Bengals-Jags, Cards-Vikes, Seahawks-Giants), the NFL needs Cam Newton and Drew Brees to have a great duel, or the Eagles to stare down the barrel in the fourth quarter at Buffalo.
6. Quarterback Watch. The quarterback-starved losers turn their lonely eyes to Palo Alto. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck (11 touchdowns one pick) should continue to puff up the stats against 1-4 Colorado this weekend. The other two prime, draftable passers (and I haven't forgotten you, Kellen Moore; I'm just noting what the scouts say about the top guys) are Matt Barkley of USC (idle this weekend) and Landry Jones, whose Oklahoma Sooners play Texas. Interesting matchup. 'Horns allowing 52 percent completion, Jones completing 72 percent. I'd watch that one.
7. Donovan McNabb. Even McNabb's biggest champion in Minnesota, Leslie Frazier, who makes out the lineup card, won't be able to save him if he bombs in the second half again and the Vikes fall to 0-5, at home against the Cards.
8. The Steelers, on the precipice. They should be missing four important starters Sunday against Tennessee (linebacker James Harrison, defensive end Aaron Smith, nose tackle Casey Hampton, running back Rashard Mendenhall), and they already can't protect Ben Roethlisberger. And what looked to be a favorable home game when the schedule came out -- Tennessee -- is now a major pothole. The Titans are 3-1, and they can throw it and defend.
9. Boomer and Rex. I'm actually slightly interested in hearing what the Jets coach says about the Jets' needler, Joe Namath, on the CBS pregame show Sunday to Boomer Esiason. I know I'm in the minority on that and you're all sick of what Namath has to say, but he is Joe Namath.
10. Houston's D. I could be wrong -- it would only be the 984th time -- but I think the Texans defense is on the verge of being good. Maybe really good. If so, Houston will win a playoff game this year. Oakland comes to town for a high-noon start, and with the speed at receiver for the Raiders, and with Darren McFadden testing the interior and exterior of the Houston front seven, it's another good test for Wade Phillips and the lads.