Aug 24, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith on the sideline against the Tennessee Titans during the second half at LP Field. Tennessee won 27-16. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Panthers and Falcons Not so Opposite; Headed Same Direction


Heading into the NFL’s sixth week, the Carolina Panthers are in second place in the NFC South’s “hot potato”-style division.

We’ve got the Saints at a perfect 5-0, while no other team in the division has won more than a single game.

“I’m not gonna take it…YOU take it!”

“I’m not gonna try it…let’s get Mikey! Yeah, he’ll eat anything!”

Okay so an ancient commercial for cereal may not be the best metaphor, but it’s close enough. The Atlanta Falcons proved that last night, losing at home to the surprising New York Jets.

“Mikey” in this case is the Head Coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Funny how when things go bad, it’s “WE felt WE needed a touchdown at that point.”

The Falcons showed a solid offense – considering they faced a very, very stout Jets defensive unit – while fielding a bungling defense that couldn’t stop a lazy cat from sleeping. That, would take at least 3 plays for them.

Sure, they made a few nice plays. Osi Umenioyra came in untouched – albeit on a 6-man pass rush – and sacked the rapid-learning Geno Smith to stop one drive from starting but that was the exception and Geno’s own fault for not completely understanding his protection.

Oct 7, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora (50) celebrates a sack in the second half against the New York Jets at the Georgia Dome. The Jets won 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons also had a chance to kick a 19-yd FG with time running out in the first half after TE Tony Gonzalez was mugged by half the Jets’ defense in the end zone, but the running game couldn’t punch it in as time expired.

Bad, BAD move by Head Coach Mike Smith to give a young team on the road with a rookie QB a lift going into halftime. Smith should know better. Add the 3 points, and the Falcons likely win the game, 31-27.

The Falcons lost the ball game and fell to third place at 1-4. The Panthers are only in second because they’re 1-3 due to an early bye week.

At first glance, the teams look to be polar opposites. After all, the Panthers have a horrible offense and the Falcons have a very talented one. The opposite is true on the other side, where the Falcons struggle where the Panthers scare opponents.

But are they really all that different – at least this season?

Not really. Fans have been blowing hot and cold for weeks over the coaching in Carolina and Ron Rivera. He started getting heat after the last-second blown-coverage play against Buffalo, allowing a rookie QB to beat them. Last night, Smith blew the play-call, got greedy at home, and frankly, he gambled. He gambled that the running game, minus their star RB Steven Jackson and struggling on the interior line could run the ball in against one of the NFL’s top defenses.

*ANNNNK!*

It’s one of those plays where you look like a genius if it works, but is too risky to even try. A failure and…well, many of you saw how Geno Smith drove the Jets far enough for the game-winning field goal in the two minute drill.

Hmm. A rookie QB defeats you on the final drive of the game – imagine that!

With the Panthers blowing coverage to EXACTLY the wrong QB on the particular throw – if you believe John Brenkus of SportScience – E.J. Manuel was BORN to make the type of throw he made to beat the Panthers. Whether the Panthers were in possession of the knowledge of Manuel’s prowess in accurately throwing the fade-away feather-pass or not is irrelevant when you consider the receiver was as open as the Titanic after hitting the iceberg.

Mike Smith’s mistake was in tempting fate with his end of the half play-call. Failing that, those young Jets went into the locker room on an emotional high and “believing” they could win – at a place most GOOD teams go to die for a week, the Georgia Dome – let alone a young team with a rookie quarterback.

Sep 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Falcons 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

He made the call knowing of the sorry state of his offensive interior, as I said – interior line not playing well and a backup RB. The Panthers have an offense that is as hit-or-miss as they come and have the same issues on their line as well.

RG Garry Williams, a desperation starter if there ever was one, was injured early in the season and gone for the year. LG Amini Silatolu has just been diagnosed with a torn ACL and is likewise gone for the season. RT Byron Bell is good enough in run-blocking but a turnstile offers more resistance to pass rushers. I saw Ryan Kalil whiff a block to cause a safety, so I wonder about his returning All-Pro form. LT Jordan Gross looks okay, but is obviously on the downside of his own career.

The Panthers have no linemen to do the job – none. Kalil and Gross are the only ones that belong as starters, despite their regressive play, and while Gettleman did pick up a guard in the middle rounds, Edmund Kugbila was never considered ready-for-Prime-Time from the beginning…or if he was penciled in as a starter after being drafted, injuries and his small-school background have limited his ability to contribute so far.

The big edge that the Falcons have offensively over the Panthers are their veteran skill position guys who have years of experience together. “Matty Ice,” Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Julio Jones have enough time together where they know each others’ nuances and routes and can communicate with a wink or a passive gesture.

Oct 6, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera reacts during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps Newton, Steve Smith, and Greg Olson have gotten to that point, but the continual coaching errors even I see means they may not.

Cam still is making rookie mistakes in staring down primary receivers, holding the ball too long, and throwing off his back foot. It’s obvious enough for the casual fan to see those things in games. Yes, Cam has the arm strength to make any throw off his back foot, but any such throw is made at the cost of accuracy.

Watch a guy like Drew Brees or Tom Brady throw and you’ll know what I mean. They align their bodies the right way, plant that back foot, step TOWARD their target, and follow through. That’s the basic anatomy of an accurately-thrown ball.

Cam shows little of that in his third year. Either Rivera, Shula or departed offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski should have fixed that in 2011. They haven’t.

The thing that gets me is I think Ron Rivera is a capable coach in many ways. He sure can give a look that would make you cringe when he wants. He’s a hard-nosed, old-school guy in a lot of ways but having been a player himself for a good career (recall that 1985 Bears team?), he also knows when to back off of pushing his players.

There IS a time to push, and there IS a time to back away a bit. I think he’s pushing that defense just the right amount, and he’s a defensive coach. The product on the field shows it. I just wonder if Defensive Coordinator is where his best talents lie now instead of Head Coach.

True, when Cam was drafted, they went from awful to spectacular on offense while the defense took a couple of years to get into shape. I think that was as much teams bunching up to the line and daring the Panthers to beat them in the air.

Two 400+ yard games later after his first two games as a rookie probably torpedoed THAT approach as quickly as anything else and Cam has largely fallen back to earth after his record-setting rookie season both passing and running.

Teams just weren’t prepared to deal with a QB that had Randall Cunningham’s agility and moves, Tim Tebow’s physical power, and a top-5 NFL arm in terms of upside and strength. A season later, Newton improved a little in some different ways, but mostly with his ability to take care of the football. Remember, he DID set a franchise-record for consecutive passes without an interception, and that’s no easy task. I applaud him for that – and the coaching staff.

Sep 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) throws a pass during the second quarter against the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

But this year, he seems to have regressed. A “junior” slump, if you will. Part of that can be blamed on the O-line issues for sure, but by now he should know when to pull the ball down and take off or run to the sideline to extend a pass play…even if it means throwing it away after all.

When you put it all together, both Ron Rivera and Mike Smith have made their share of mistakes in 2013. The difference is that Smith has some time on his side and a fan base that’s behind him. Division titles and playoff runs tend to give you a bit of a Honeymoon with the fans.

Rivera has none of that on his side. In fact, the defense STILL isn’t able to help win games down the stretch – even if it largely is because the offense is so ineffective. Smith has some of that same problem, but should adjust.

Both teams have won but a single game and it’s the Atlanta Falcons that are much more surprising in that statistic than the Panthers. Rivera-led teams have a history of starting slowly. Smith teams start fast, but have lost three consecutive games in a season for the first time in six years.

Atlanta’s issues? Injuries, thin interior line, no pass rush. Carolina’s issues? Injuries, thin interior line, thin at offensive skill positions.

The issues are remarkably similar and unsexy. The biggest differences on the field are that the Panthers have the pass rushers but not the pass-catchers. The reverse is true for the Falcons. Otherwise, the problems are similar.

The end result, however, is exactly the same…a single victory for each team.

Oy!

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Tags: Atlanta Falcons Carolina Panthers Featured Mike Smith Ron Rivera