Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 11/30/12
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Mike Smith said that he slept for an hour and a half following Thursdays 23-13 win over New Orleans that pushed the Falcons to an NFC-best 11-1 and so the answer was, no, he would not watch the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game on Sunday at Denver. If the Broncos prevail, then the Falcons would clinch the NFC South title their second in three seasons before they played a game in December. To compare where the Falcons are now to where they were last January after falling 24-2 to the New York Giants in the NFC Wildcard round would suggest that the changes they made have proved a rousing success. The Falcons ultimately will be judged by what they do in the playoffs, which are all but a certainty now for them now, but just to compare their fate to one of their conference rivals, they could have gone backwards in the way that Philadelphia, the loser of seven straight, has. It makes me realize that we have a very good football team and we have had a good football team since weve gotten here, Smith said. Its a maturation process that you go through as you put a team together and you build. Weve got some really good leaders. You reflect back on the 12 games that weve played and one of the things you realize is that were a resilient team. We dont blink. We focus on the next play. When you do that, youre going to have a chance to be successful. The biggest changes the Falcons made were the hires of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, whose defense forced Saints quarterback Drew Brees into a career-high five interceptions on Thursday, and offensive line coach Pat Hill. Personnel-wise, the most notable moves were the selection in the second round of rookie Peter Konz, now the teams starter at right guard, and the trade for cornerback Asante Samuel. Most of the rest of the team is largely unchanged except for the decision to cut defensive end Ray Edwards, who has hardly been missed. Smith singled out the play of his secondary on Friday as the best of any position group. Five interceptions will do that. But defensive backs also came up with 12 passes defended a number that Smith said he could not recall nearing in his five seasons. They achieved that despite Samuel, the four-time Pro-Bowler, playing only three snaps on Thursday before his injured right shoulder flared up. As a result, free-agent Robert McClain, who has proved a tremendous find by general manager Thomas Dimitroffs personnel staff, played 97 percent of the snaps and much maligned Christopher Owens played 78 percent of the snaps, as the Falcons played their nickel (three-cornerback) package the large majority of the game. McClain finished with six tackles (fourth on the team) including a solo tackle that kept the Saints Darren Sproles out of the end zone, forcing a field goal -- and two passes defended while Owens also added two passes defended. Nolan, along with secondary coach Tim Lewis and defensive backs coach Joe Danna deserve credit for turning around a unit that was considered the teams biggest liability coming off a devastating playoff loss to Green Bay in 2010-11. Danna was a defensive assistant with the Falcons in 2008 and 2009 but then went to Miami to work with Nolan for the following two seasons before returning for this season. I cant recall us having that many passes defensed and that many interceptions against a Pro-Bowler or a Hall of Fame quarterback, Smith said. We were very fortunate to make those plays. We had tight coverage. We had a pretty good understanding. I thought our guys, having played them three weeks apart, we had a pretty good idea. The recall was very good on the short week in terms of how they were trying to attack us. Smith also said some changes in the game plan helped. For one, the Falcons put safety Thomas DeCoud, who recorded his fifth interception of the season, on Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, essentially neutralizing a player who badly hurt the Falcons in their only loss of the season on Nov. 11. In addition, the Falcons kept McClain, who plays the inside corner in the nickel scheme and the left corner in the base defense when Samuel is injured, inside even after Samuel went out of the game early. That allowed them to play Owens on the outside.Coaches say it is easier to play the outside corner because defenders have the boundary to their advantage, which is not the case when lining up inside and a receiver can run anywhere on the field. The staff did a great job in terms of what we wanted to do schematically and the guys went out and executed it, Smith said. Smith also credited the job of the defensive line, which officially hit Brees six times. With defensive tackle Peria Jerry missing his second straight game with an injured quadriceps muscle, rookie Travian Robertson filled in ably. Robertson played a season-high 18 snaps and had one of those quarterback hits. Our defensive line put a lot of pressure on (Brees) even though we only had one sack, Smith said of John Abrahams 10th of the season. Youve heard me say many times sacks are overrated. I think this is a prime example of sack numbers being overrated. Its about making the quarterback uncomfortable. Three of those interceptions were directly from the pressure we had up front. As a result, Smith will sleep easily this weekend to make up the deficit he earned on Thursday. He also said he would spend time with family instead of watching the Buccaneers game. At this point, even if the Falcons dont clinch the division title on Sunday, it seems only a matter of time before it is theirs.
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