FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — The more Atlanta keeps winning, the more coach Mike Smith keeps tinkering with ways to help the Falcons improve.
The Falcons are 7-0 and the NFL’s only unbeaten team, but the fifth-year coach still sees a club that’s far from perfect.
“You may not believe this, but you’re in a week-to-week cycle in the National Football League,” Smith said on Monday. “It really doesn’t matter what happened the week before. It’s all about the next game, and that’s how you have to approach it.”
Nearly everything seemed to work in Atlanta’s favor during a 30-17 victory at Philadelphia on Sunday.
Quarterback Matt Ryan directed scoring drives on the first six possessions. Atlanta’s defense kept the Eagles off-balance all afternoon.
But Smith pointed back to a rudimentary practice session last week that played a significant role in helping his team beat Philadelphia.
Despite the league’s best record, Smith gave his players an entire week off during the bye before he took them back to the field last Monday to work on the basics of football – blocking, tackling and using proper angles to make the right plays.
Maybe the approach sounds too simple, but Smith said the results were evident against the Eagles.
Smith estimated the Falcons spent 45 minutes of “remedial, eighth-grade football” to help
everyone restart the season.
Defensive players were retrained to take better angles in pursuit, and Smith believes that’s one reason why Atlanta’s run defense, which began Sunday with the league’s 28th-ranked run defense, had a season-best performance that held the Eagles to 92 yards rushing.
“We worked on the approach, the fit, where your eyes should be, things that,” Smith said.
Later in the week, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan installed some hybrid looks that seemed to confuse Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
Reserve defensive end Kroy Biermann, who finished with one sack and seven tackles, lined up at free safety for one play. Nolan also deployed a three-tackle front to start the game in which Jonathan Babineaux, Vance Walker and rookie Travian Robertson were lined up with Biermann – not four-time Pro Bowl selection John Abraham – at end.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter gave his reserve players a bigger role.
Drew Davis, who spent last year on the practice squad, had his first career touchdown pass. Running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling took on significant roles to score touchdowns while two-time Pro Bowl pick Michael Turner had a slow day, averaging just 2.4 yards on 24 carries.
During the “remedial” practice, offensive linemen worked on combination blocks. The fruits of that work, including the debut of rookie right guard Peter Konz, could be seen on Rodgers’ 43-yard run that set up a fourth-quarter field and gave the Falcons a 30-10 lead.
Smith and his staff are mindful, too, that they must keep players fresh, not just for an entire game but for the whole season. Since taking charge of the Falcons in 2008, Smith has routinely given veterans, particularly his “over-30” club, as he calls it, a day of rest during the week.
But monitoring snap counts in games helps Atlanta make better use of less experienced players to take a bigger role on offense or defense and not just exclusively on special teams.
“We’ve got to focus on the game and win the game, but we also have to focus on the entirety of the season. We want our guys to be as fresh as they can possibly be when we get into November and December when you’ve got to be playing your best football.”
Smith and the Falcons know they will be judged more for their play in January than their play in the regular season. Atlanta is 0-3 in the playoffs.
But there’s little argument that Smith is getting his job done in the regular season.
He now 50 career victories to surpass Dan Reeves as the franchise’s winningest coach. Smith needed just 71 games to earn 50 wins. Since the 1970 merger, only George Seifert with San Francisco and Chuck Noll with Pittsburgh won 50 games faster.
Joe Gibbs needed 72 games to reach 50 victories with Washington, Bill Cowher (Pittsburgh) and Mike Ditka (Chicago) 73 games.
Smith says he is too immersed in the task at hand to pay attention to his individual success or his team’s unbeaten record.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a very successful season, play some efficient football, and we’ve made some mistakes,” Smith said. “So I’ve tried not to even think in those terms. Everyone else is going to concern themselves with it. We’ve got to make sure we’re preparing for the next game.”