Scheme shifts revitalize Ryan, Falcons

Nolan Nawrocki
Scheme shifts revitalize Ryan, Falcons

Classy, well-run franchises find a way to move out stagnating, complacent employees by promoting them up and out of the organization. Whether that happened when Brian VanGorder dropped down a level to coordinate Auburn’s defense and cerebral, increasingly predictable Mike Mularkey was tabbed as the head coach of the Jaguars’ last offseason will remain a question for Falcons’ fans to ponder.

The bottom line in Atlanta is that since the arrival of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan both sides of the ball have taken on a drastically different look. Koetter has introduced a high-tempo, quick-hitting, precision passing game that takes what the defense gives it and Nolan has added an element of surprise and his stop unit is creating a bevy of turnovers.

The end result through the first three weeks, to the surprise of some league evaluators, has been glowingly positive, with Matt Ryan off to his best start in five years, and Nolan’s defense generating a league-best 11 takeaways, sparked by the opportunistic play of FS Thomas DeCoud.

Against San Diego, Ryan’s mechanics looked precise, with crisp footwork and a snappy release sharpening his accuracy and disciplined eyes and a finely tuned internal clock greatly enhancing the rhythm of Koetter’s new up-tempo approach. Whether it was recognizing Eric Weddle blitzing and hitting Julio Jones over the top of an outsized Quentin Jammer to demoralize the Chargers with a TD pass and 20-0 lead before the half or drilling a deep out with a ball velocity that appears to improve each year, Ryan has been in a zone, hitting on all cylinders and distributing the ball very well to a variety of weapons.

Nolan’s defense has done a very good job of disguising what is coming, showing six at the line and bringing four overloaded to one side and leaving opposing quarterbacks to guess where they will be sieged next. The secondary took a hit when it lost CB Brent Grimes for the year in the season opener, and the cornerbacks remain an area of vulnerability, but they play like they do not know it, as the aging Dunta Robinson still delivered three big hits to keep San Diego’s receivers on guard, and Asante Samuel got in the on the action.

Koetter and Nolan might have struggled to capture and sustain success at the head-coaching ranks, but they appear to have mastered the art of coordinating, with Ryan on track to have his best season as a pro and Nolan’s defense challenging two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers in successive weeks. Carolina will have an extra few days of preparation after last week’s dismantling on Thursday night, and Cam Newton and the reeling Panthers might need every bit of it to keep pace with the NFL’s most red-hot franchise, the only NFC South foe Newton has yet to beat.

• How can the Saints drop a 24-6 fourth-quarter lead at home? It started with losing the battle at the line of scrimmage, where former first-round pick Sedrick Ellis struggled getting cut, knocked off the ball and too easily moved, helping  set up two long runs for Jamaal Charles (a 91-yard TD and a 40-yarder). The soft play of Saints CB Patrick Robinson did not help either. Give the Chiefs credit for showing a lot of resiliency in bouncing back to tie the game and win in overtime. Despite having to move OLG Ryan Lilja to center for an injured Rodney Hudson and plug rookie Jeff Allen in at guard, the offense did not miss a beat. Plus, RCB Stanford Routt and LOLB Justin Houston produced big plays, as a Saints pocket that was once nearly impenetrable is not nearly as stout with Ben Grubbs as it was a year ago with mammoth ballerina Carl Nicks manning the fort at the OLG spot. ORT Zach Strief lacked the feet and power to handle the hard charge of Houston, who tallied three sacks.

• The Texans remain the only unbeaten team in the AFC, and it’s a tribute to owner Bob McNair for staying the course and believing in head coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith when there was reason to have some doubts and Peyton Manning was still making life extremely difficult in the AFC South. Head-coaching continuity is at the core of the most stable NFL franchises, and it’s paying big dividends now that Kubiak has found a way to fix his defense, something his mentor Mike Shanahan still has not been able to do in Washington. The Redskins’ offense is one of the league’s most high-powered with Robert Griffin III at the helm, averaging 404.3 yards and leading the league in points (33 per game). However, the defense, which is tied for second in the league in penalties (27), has regressed.

• Despite a 24-13 loss to the Vikings, the 49ers remain the NFL’s most unique collection of talent. When any team comes out flat, believing all it has to do is show up, it’s going to have difficulty winning, and it was noticeable to trained eyes in the Niners’ win last week over Detroit that the team was setting up for a fall, similar to the Niners’ wake-up call against Dallas early last season. One notable difference from last year — OLB Aldon Smith was coming off the bench fresh on third downs, giving the defense a big spark. The Niners might need to find a way to rotate more waves into their front seven to ignite a unit that looked too lethargic on Sunday.

• Bills DLE Mario Williams might not have been showing up heavily in the stat box prior to facing Cleveland, but he has been disruptive collapsing the corner, as he did midway through the first quarter to flush Browns QB Brandon Weeden off his mark and into the hands of a pursuing Kyle Williams. Very stout at the point of attack, Williams finished with 1½ sacks and had his way with overmatched rookie ORT Mitchell Schwartz.

• The Rams might have lost by 17 points to the Bears, but the game was more competitive than the scoreboard showed, with the Rams down 10-6 with less than 10 minutes to play. Then, following a Bears field goal and with the Rams in position to drive the field to tie the game at 13, Bears DLE Israel Idonije took over, repeatedly beating Rams ORT Barry Richardson and hurrying Sam Bradford. With extra pressure in his face, Bradford tried fitting the ball on a short slant to Danny Amendola. The feisty, gnat-like Tim Jennings, who is perfectly suited for the Bears' cover-2 scheme and already has racked up an NFL-leading four interceptions in three games, jumped the route and tipped the ball into the hands of S Major Wright, who returned it for a TD and opened up a lead the Rams could never touch. In his seventh NFL season and third in Rod Marinelli’s zone-predicated scheme, Jennings has emerged as a Ronde Barber-like playmaker, showing a mastery of pattern recognition and is having his best season as a pro.

• Despite dropping his second consecutive game, Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano should be pleased with the performance of his energetic defensive line, especially DE Michael Bennett, who buried Cowboys ORT Doug Free in the backfield, and DT Gerald McCoy, who could not be blocked by ORG Mackenzy Bernadeau.

• One of Sunday’s most underappreciated plays belonged to Cardinals’ LB Daryl Washington, who allowed James Sanders to score on a fumble return on the last play of the first half in a surprising 27-6 win over Philadelphia. The slow-footed Sanders was chugging up the sideline and likely to be caught by an oncoming LeSean McCoy, who was taking a good angle in pursuit, when Washington turned on the turbo gear and ran past Sanders to wall off McCoy, which allowed Sanders to finish off a 93-yard TD return and give the Cardinals a demoralizing 24-0 lead.

• Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt appears to have imparted some confidence in his still-developing QB Kevin Kolb, who, against the Eagles Sunday, was much more decisive getting rid of the ball quickly than he was earlier this year. In fact, he might be in line to gain his starting job back. The defense, however, is the most critical component to the Cardinals’ success, with impact players at five of the 11 positions, and a coordinator, Ray Horton, who has impressively outschemed well-prepared Bill Belichick- and Andy Reid-led teams the past two weeks.

• The Jets are 2-0 when Darrelle Revis is in the lineup. The All-Pro cover man drastically alters how Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine are able to call a game defensively, allowing the unit to take away the opponent's top receiving threat and be more aggressive dialing up pressure, knowing he is capable of blanketing half the field. Losing Revis for the year with an ACL injury is a devastating blow to the lineup and could wind up costing the Jets at least four wins. Without Revis, the 49ers, next up for the Jets, could have a distinct advantage matching skill talent. Randy Moss does not have the same explosion that he once did, but he is still a vertical threat that needs to be recognized and Michael Crabtree has made more clutch catches this season.