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Recent posts by Nolan Nawrocki
• The Falcons' defense has been the focus of much criticism, and on paper does not look like a top unit statistically, but what does not show up in the numbers is its aggressive playing temperament. The unit flies around the field and plays very hard for head coach Mike Smith. CB Dunta Robinson is not as quick as he once was, but he is still very physical. S William Moore has shed weight this season, is moving around better and offers another intimidating presence. DE Kroy Biermann plays like his hair is on fire. DT Jonathan Babineaux is very active inside with MLB Curtis Lofton cleaning up behind him and stuffing the run.
The one ingredient of the Falcons that really stands out across the board on both sides of the ball is its tenacity. The offensive line does not feature a Pro Bowl talent — it is loaded with a bunch of try-hard, tough guys who functionally pave the way for a workmanlike back. But the Falcons understand the team concept and have strong leadership that paves the way for the franchise.
When great coaching performances are discussed, Smith's name seldom gets tossed into the conversation, but week after week, he has found ways to win close games fielding a defense that stands out for its tough, gritty, blue-collar effort and understands that collective efforts will always exceed any individual performance.
Under GM Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons have assumed a very New England-esque feel, and it's clearly working, as they sit atop the NFC across from the AFC's Patriots and Jets, all tied with 9-2 records.
• The effects of new leadership can be far-reaching and refreshing. The tension was so thick in Minnesota under Brad Childress that it drained all the enjoyment from the game. Players were unhappy. Coaches were frustrated. A game meant to be fun, while still a business, was anything but enjoyable under a rigid, control-crazy, iron-ruling head coach. Enter Leslie Frazier and the Vikings finally appeared to be having fun again. The sideline was loose. Coaches could coach. Brett Favre was even allowed to have input into the play-calling in critical situations and was commended by Frazier after the game instead of thrown under the bus for offering too much input. The chains appeared to be lifted from the prison.
The mistake some rookie head coaches admittedly have made, noticeable after many years on the job, is that they suffocate the creativity of their assistants while trying to keep their finger on every detail instead of training them and turning them loose to do their jobs. When Jason Garrett was offensive coordinator under Wade Phillips and Frazier was defensive coordinator under Childress, both respective units were heavily criticized for not running the ball enough or creating enough pressure. Peel back a restrictive layer and the changes on the field have been drastic. The Cowboys' offense has gained new life, and the Vikings' defense created much more pressure with its front four. The trick for both coaches will be showing that they can sustain their success once opponents have a three-game exposure to dissect. With Garrett now having three games to provide opponents with a strong DNA profile of the new-look Cowboys, the next two contests against Indianapolis and Philadelphia will be the most critical for Jerry Jones to evaluate if Garrett is as good as his 2-1 record indicates.
• Frazier's first year as a positional coach in the NFL came in 1999, the same year that the Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb, and Frazier and McNabb spent the QB's first four years in the league together. So it was no surprise that Frazier knew how to contain the athletic quarterback on his way to his first NFL victory as head coach, as the Vikings did a very good job staying in their lanes and keeping McNabb in the pocket. What also would not be surprising, especially if Frazier keeps the Vikings' job, is if McNabb were to be dealt to Minnesota next season. There had been speculation about a McNabb-Childress reunion, but a Frazier-McNabb pairing would make far more sense.
• Despite being benched two weeks ago and suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the lineup, Dolphins QB Chad Henne played with confidence against the Raiders, especially for not having his top target, Brandon Marshall. What really helped was establishing the ground game early and controlling the clock with Ronnie Brown in the "Wildcat" and Ricky Williams running downhill. Although Williams produced his finest rushing effort of the season, he looks like a shell of his old self and both he and Brown will be hitting free agency, meaning the Dolphins could have to take a hard look at the RB position in the NFL draft or find a contingency plan to keep their power run game alive.
• With WRs Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton out for the season, Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford continues to excel with a hodgepodge group of receivers and has increasingly taken to TEs Michael Hoomanawanui, who powered through a Brian Dawkins tackle on his way to a 36-yard score, and Billy Bajema, who had two TD catches of his own. Bradford had a great rapport with TE Jermaine Gresham at Oklahoma and does a fine job of distributing the ball to many targets and keeping his receivers happy.
• Critics can look at Tampa Bay's success this season and believe that it is a mirage, the by-product of having faced a very weak schedule and winning the games they are supposed to. With the Falcons and Saints in the division, the Buccaneers will have a difficult time earning a playoff spot this season, and for as well as the young team has played, still could see changes coming after the season, despite the strong progress it has shown.
• There are a lot of factors that could play into the Colts' struggles this season. An undersized roster not built to play into November and December has walloped the roster and taken some rhythm out of the passing game as Peyton Manning has had to adjust to younger receivers. The absence of their most complete back, Joseph Addai, has detracted some balance from the run game. But perhaps most notable has been the retirement of respected OL coach Howard Mudd and offensive coordinator Tom Moore, two of the most experienced, demanding offensive minds in football. The duo pushed and elevated Manning to new heights. His play still has been strong this season, but remaining the best of the best is very difficult in any profession, and Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera helped make a case for Philip Rivers as the league's most valuable player with the way he was able to suffocate Manning in the head-to-head matchup Sunday night.
• Giants OLB Keith Bulluck quietly has been a solid run defender for the Giants and is the type of acquisition that has well-defined the team's personnel success of supplementing a strong corps of draft picks with savvy veterans who can still play a role on the field and provide strong locker-room leadership.
• Since starting the season 2-1, the Bengals have dropped eight in a row. While GM Mike Brown is more likely to stay the course than Jerry Jones or Zigi Wilf, opting to give defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer a four-game audition for the head-coaching job for the final quarter of the season could be a worthwhile experiment, especially given the nature of a fluid labor situation. Once an interim head coach is installed in the pros, however, they seldom stick around in the coordinator role they previously occupied, and with Brown tending to protect some of his strongest assistants through regime changes, he may not want to risk moving Zimmer from his current post, even if the defense has outsmarted itself and underperformed this season.
• Bills WR Stevie Johnson came through in the clutch for the Bills last week and sparked Buffalo's offense to a come-from-behind win over the Bengals, but when Ryan Fitzpatrick perfectly placed a ball in the endzone in overtime after Johnson split two Steelers defenders, he double-clutched and dropped what would have been the game-winning touchdown.
• The Redskins gave Brandon Banks several tries operating out of the "Wildcat" formation, but the former Wildcat from Kansas State could not make much happen, as the Vikings played disciplined football. With Banks' rare speed and playmaking ability, opposing defenses can expect to see Banks receive more chances on offense.
• For as immature as Vince Young may be and as frustrating as the competitor could be to manage and coach, he gave the Titans a chance to overcome big deficits and was always a threat to run. With the immobile Rusty Smith in place, defenses can load up the box, as the Texans did, and force Smith to beat them with his arm. The result in Week 12 was that the Titans could not find the scoreboard. The unsettling news this week that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was diagnosed with cancer and would require chemotherapy did not time up well with the challenge brought on by trying to develop an athletic-challenged rookie quarterback with little arm talent. By the end of the game, Titans receivers looked visibly frustrated by Smith's inaccuracy, as too many passes sailed off the mark, and the overall futility of their quarterback. The Titans' four-game skid can be tied heavily to the instability and inefficiency of the QB position.