I don't know if the Atlanta Falcons are actually a good football team, but I do know they're better than anyone expected. Before the season fans were talking about the Falcons like they'd be lucky to win three games all season. As it is, they're off to a 3-2 start.
Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and the 1-2 running back punch of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood are getting almost all of the credit for the Falcons' fast start, but as I watched the Falcons' 27-24 win over the Packers on Sunday, I came to the conclusion that defensive end John Abraham is the biggest reason the Falcons have a winning record.
Abraham, who leads the league with seven sacks this season, had an absolutely brilliant game in Green Bay, terrorizing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and proving himself more than capable against the run as well. The Falcons' defense as a whole isn't particularly good, but Abraham is a one-man wrecking crew.
Abraham's impact could be felt from the start. On the Packers' first offensive play, Abraham lined up against Packers left tackle Chad Clifton. Even though Packers running back Ryan Grant tried help Clifton by getting a chip on Abraham, it didn't matter. Abraham pushed Clifton eight yards back and into Rodgers, forcing Rodgers to bail out and try to run. As Rodgers ran, Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson met him in the middle of the field and brought him down for a four-yard loss. Jackson gets credit for the sack, but it was Abraham who collapsed the pocket.
Two plays later, on third-and-11, Abraham made a great athletic play. When Rodgers dropped back to pass, Abraham rushed to the inside. But once Abraham dumped off a short pass to Brandon Jackson, Abraham stopped on a dime, turned around, ran Jackson down and tackled him four yards short of a first down. There aren't many defensive ends with that kind of quickness.
Throughout Abraham's career, there have been two knocks on him. One is that he gets hurt too much, and the other is that he's not strong enough against the run. The first is true, to an extent -- he has missed quite a few games over the course of his career, although he's started all five this year and started all 16 last year. But the second? I saw no evidence of that at all on Sunday.
On a first-and-10 in the first quarter, the Packers handed off to running back Ryan Grant, who tried to run to Abraham's inside. Abraham had absolutely no trouble at all shedding Clifton's block and tackling Grant for a gain of a yard. Abraham also uses his speed to make tackles when runs go the other way; on a nine-yard run that Jackson madearound the right end, it was Abraham who ran him down and tackled him.
If there's any truth to the claim that teams can run on Abraham, it's in the way teams use his aggressiveness against him. On a first-and-10 in the second quarter, the Packers gave the ball to wide receiver Donald Driver on an end-around, and Abraham got sucked into the inside, allowing Driver to run past him for a six-yard gain.
But more typical of the way Abraham played against the run was a first-and-10 late in the second quarter, when he lined up at left defensive end against Packers right tackle Mark Tauscher. At the snap, Abraham blew Tauscher up, pushed him back into Grant, and forced Grant down for a loss of four yards.
But Abraham is at his best, of course, at rushing the passer. In the second quarter, the Packers had the third-and-4 at the 20-yard line just before the two-minute warning. Abraham was getting double teamed by Clifton and left guard Daryn Colledge, but it didn't matter. He shoved past both of them and sacked Rodgers easily. That sack and a subsequent penalty took the Packers out of field goal range and kept the Falcons up 17-7 at halftime.
That was Abraham's only sack of the game, although he would have had a second sack in the fourth quarter if Rodgers hadn't decided to take an intentional grounding penalty instead of letting Abraham throw him to the ground. It was second-and-7 in the fourth quarter, and Abraham was matched up with Colledge, who moved to left tackle when Clifton left the game with an injury. Abraham beat Colledge to the outside, grabbed Rodgers' jersey and was about to drag him down when Rodgers lobbed the ball to nowhere in particular. Rodgers' intentional grounding penalty pushed the Packers back 12 yards and was just as good as a sack for the Falcons.
The Packers' offense was at its best when it devoted two or three players to blocking Abraham. On a second-and-5 in the fourth quarter, with the Falcons leading 17-10, Rodgers took a shotgun snap from the 25-yard line and had three teammates protecting him from Abraham: Colledge initially engaged Abraham, Jackson stayed in to keep Abraham from getting to the outside, and left guard Allen Barbre came over to make sure Abraham couldn't cut back to the inside. All that attention to Abraham gave the other defensive end, Jamaal Anderson, a one-on-one match-up, and he almost got to Rodgers. But Rodgers managed to avoid Anderson and hit Greg Jennings in the end zone for a touchdown.
If Abraham's teammates allow opposing offenses to get away with devoting three players to Abraham on every play, his impact will be muted. But if he can get just a little bit of help from the rest of the Falcons' defense, Abraham is a good bet to continue to lead the league in sacks, and lead the Falcons to a more successful season than anyone expected.