Don't Look Past the Atlanta Falcons

Don't Look Past the Atlanta Falcons

While the Eagles stormed through St. Louis with relative ease, another post-season favorite from the NFC got their butts kicked on Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons failed spectacularly in a 30-12 road loss against the Chicago Bears, a game summed up quite succinctly in one awful play where quarterback Matt Ryan dropped back to pass, desperately ran around in a circle to escape the pressure, then inexplicably fumbled the ball before anybody even touched him.

It just so happens the Falcons are this Sunday's opponent, in a Sunday Night game where Michael Vick will make his triumphant return to Atlanta. Considering how far on either side of the spectrum both teams fell in Week 1, it might be tempting to write off the Falcons and crown the Eagles as a sure thing to reach 2-0. That would be a mistake.

I was a little perplexed as to how the Bears could so thoroughly embarrass a team that went 13-3 last season, then made significant improvements over the off-season. Funny little aside, it turns out there is a learning curve to watching eight televisions. Last year, I could comfortably tune in to four or more games at a time, but on Sunday I focused on the Birds, a little overwhelmed in my first trip back to Football Central.

In short, I didn't see much of the Falcons at all. However, Bill Barnwell summed up their effort pretty well in his Week 1 Review for Grantland:

The game turned on fumbles. There were five of them, and wouldn't you know — Chicago recovered all five. These weren't meaningless fumbles at the end of the game, either. Devin Hester fumbled on his own 25-yard line during the second play from scrimmage and recovered it. Hester then muffed a punt in the second quarter that would have given the Falcons the ball at midfield. After a Falcons drive at the end of the first quarter was ended in Bears territory by a Michael Turner fumble, the Bears broke the game open with a stripsack of Matt Ryan on Atlanta's second drive of the second half. Brian Urlacher picked up the fumble and took it to the house for a 30-6 lead. The only fumble that really came in garbage time was when Jay Cutler dropped one on his own 22-yard line with 5:31 left, and even that would have given the Falcons a faint glimmer of hope.

If the Falcons recover even one of the first three fumbles, the entire complexion of the game changes. The Falcons were forced to throw for most of the second half and faced an excellent Bears pass rush that teed off on Ryan. The Falcons star was sacked five times on Sunday after taking just 23 sacks during the entire 2010 season, and four of those sacks came during the second half, when there was no threat of a run game. Atlanta was also without center Todd McClure, who makes the line calls and adjusts the protections along with Ryan, and right guard Garrett Reynolds was making both his first NFL start and his first NFL appearance since December 2009.

So in other words, everything that could have gone wrong, did. Any club could have taken advantage in a similar situation. The fact that it was the opportunistic Bears didn't help matters.

Chances are Atlanta won't gift-wrap two in a row, and there are plenty of reasons to believe they can compete with the Birds.

1. The Georgia Dome
Over the past three seasons, including playoffs, the Falcons are 20-5 in their home building. They went 7-1 in the regular season in '08 and 2010. Even though there will be a large contingent of fans who are there to cheer on Vick, who is still considered a hero by many in that region, I don't foresee this swinging the home field advantage in the Eagles' favor.

2. Running Game
The Eagles were ripped for 169 yards by backs on Sunday, good for 4.8 yards per carry. In Chicago, Michael Turner made the most of his limited opportunities, rushing for 100 yards on 10 attempts. He's one of the toughest players to bring down in the league, and has big play potential once he gets to the second level, which the Rams were able to do with some frequency.

3. Passing Game
Unlike St. Louis, even if the Falcons fall behind, they have comeback ability. The Rams receivers looked completely inept, but Atlanta has one of the most complete groups in the NFL, a collection of reliable veterans who won't likely drop every pass thrown their way, a promising speedster who can stretch the field, and a Pro Bowl quarterback who can make all the throws. (We'll go more in-depth on this group in our upcoming Opposition Reports)

There's one more factor I'm not sure how you would classify or quantify, but Atlanta has something to prove on Sunday. The fact that the Bears beat them so handily does not make the Eagles' job any easier. They will be dealing with an angry, focused bunch who are determined to erase the memory of the Week 1 debacle, and know a win against Philadelphia will put them right back on the map.

Yep, this is the first big game of the young 2011 season, and you better believe it's gonna be a test.

Flyers Injury Update: Jordan Weal practices, but won't play vs. Washington

Flyers Injury Update: Jordan Weal practices, but won't play vs. Washington

VOORHEES, N.J. — Jordan Weal participated in the Flyers' full practice Tuesday at Skate Zone, but will remain out of the lineup against Washington on Wednesday with an apparent concussion.

He was nailed in Edmonton by Oilers defenseman Eric Gryba. The hit in the corner came at 13:57 of the opening period.

Video replays show Gryba sandwiched Weal hard on the boards with Weal striking his head and right shoulder, then falling to the ice. Actually, Gryba hit him earlier in the period, as well, but it was the second hit that seemed to go the most damage. 

Weal said both he and trainer Jim McCrossin agreed it was better to not return to the game after the second hit.

“He kind of drove me in pretty good there,” Weal said. “It’s a hockey play, though. Not much you can do.” 

The Flyers are being cautious with the head injury.

Coach Dave Hakstol was vague as to when Weal would re-enter the lineup. Weal had just been called up last week to replace Travis Konecny, who was placed on IR.

“I feel good,” said Weal, who took extra practice on Tuesday. “It definitely has been progressing every day ... I’m day-to-day and as soon as I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go.

“It’s one of those injuries you just have to take your time with. I think when I feel I’m ready to play, I’ll be in.

“It’s frustrating. But it’s part of the game. With these injuries, it’s tougher than if it was, say your finger or your shin or something where you could put ice on it and get it better. You just have to treat it right and get back as quick as I can.”

Gudas’ departure
Defenseman Radko Gudas left early during what was a brief but long-delayed 45-minute practice on Tuesday.

What was noteworthy about Gudas’ departure, however, was that he picked up his gear and headed back to the dressing room while both trainers remained on the bench.

So he wasn’t injured.

Immediate speculation was that he might have been traded. An hour later, general manager Ron Hextall announced Gudas had a dentist appointment to fix a broken tooth, incurred during the recent road trip.

Needless to say, Gudas’ leaving blew up Twitter with trade rumors.

Lower, lower body
Jake Voracek took a shot below the belt line and couldn't stand for a few minutes near the end of practice. He remained in obvious pain in the dressing room and did not talk … as if he could. 

Michael Del Zotto on trade watch as NHL deadline nears

Michael Del Zotto on trade watch as NHL deadline nears

VOORHEES, N.J. — Michael Del Zotto knows the score.

With the NHL trade deadline just a week away, this can be a very uncomfortable time of year for an unrestricted free-agent-to-be.

Players who are expecting a pay day on a club where there are at least two or three younger and far less expensive rookies anticipating a promotion, know what that implies.

They’re on trade watch.

“It happens every year,” Del Zotto said. “It’s not like it’s the first time. I’ve been traded before. It is what it is. It’s a business.

“You realize that pretty early in your career. I understand where I’m at as far as my contract, being a UFA this summer.

“Same thing with taking each game one day at a time. You take each day one day at a time. Go home, make dinner, get ready for tomorrow and whatever happens, happens.”

The 26-year-old Del Zotto was traded in 2013-14 from the New York Rangers to Nashville. That trade occurred in January, well before the deadline, during a season after which he was about to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.

That same summer, Del Zotto signed a one-year deal with the Flyers for $1.3 million. His current deal pays him $3.875 million. He’d have to take a pay cut to stay here given the long line of prospects ready to step in at a first-year NHL salary and that fact he has struggled defensively this season.

Del Zotto averages 19:23 ice time. He has 10 points in 32 games and is second among Flyers defensemen with 113 hits. He’s missed a total of 22 games this season with two different injuries, one to his left knee, the other to his left leg.

If you had a chart ranking of Flyers likely to be dealt at next Wednesday’s deadline, Del Zotto would be No. 1, with Mark Streit and one of the Flyers’ two goalies right behind him.

If possible, general manager Ron Hextall would like to add draft picks at the deadline.

“It’s a business and these things are out of your control,” Del Zotto said.

When he was traded to Nashville a few years ago, Del Zotto said he saw it coming.

“Anytime it does happen, and for the first time, it hits you hard,” he said. “Being in New York, I had my brother and wife living with me, it made it extra tough. With our schedule being tough, you don’t get to see them very often, but with them living with me, it was pretty special.

“That’s what hurt the most. Leaving my family. I decided, it’s a business and you never know when it can or can’t happen ...”

The line behind him in Philadelphia includes Robert Hagg, Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim, Philippe Myers, etc.  

Del Zotto laughed and admitted he’s aware of those waiting.

“That’s the part of the game that is out of my control,” he said. “That is why you have the GM and coaching staff. To make those decisions. My job is to come into work every day, give everything you have.

“That’s one thing. I can always look myself in the mirror. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I give everything I have every day. At the end of the day, if I can look myself in the mirror, I’m happy. That’s all I can control.”

The Flyers host Washington on Wednesday before going to Pittsburgh for their Stadium Series outdoor game this weekend.

"[Those] are huge four-point games for us," he said. "We can't overlook that. We know where we are in the standings."