Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith addresses the New England media during his conference call on Wednesday, September 23, 2009.
Q: What's been the biggest key to getting off to a really solid start?
MS: Well, it's something that we talked about for our team. It was something we wanted to do last year, not only in games, but also in the season. Last year, we were the number one team in points scored in the first quarter and that's something we've been able to carry over. We want to start fast, and in all three phases. Our special teams have done a really nice job with their coverages, so we've had some field position success. We've moved the ball offensively, and we've been able to slow them down on defense. I really think it's been a team effort.
Q: With Matt Ryan, what were some of the areas you wanted to see him improve on from his rookie season?
MS: Matt, like all of our players, we ask to do a self-evaluation and the two things we agreed upon in areas he wanted to improve were accuracy and decision making. I think all great quarterbacks, like the quarterback you guys have on your team up there...that's the two traits that separate them from the other quarterbacks in the league is the accuracy - being able to put the ball into tight spaces - and then of course their decision making. Because more and more defenses are getting more complex with their disguise packages, I think those are two things that Matt wanted to improve on. And through the first two games, I think he's done a very good job. His completion percentage is up and we've been very pleased with the decisions that he's made out there on the field.
Q: In his first two games, is there one play that stands out to you pertaining to his accuracy and decision-making?
MS: Well, there were a number of throws in both games. There were a couple of times with throws to our tight end where either he was going to catch it, or no one was going to catch it. That's the thing that Matt and all the outstanding quarterbacks do, and there were two on third down conversions this past week. One was a challenge play, but it was a catch to Tony [Gonzalez] and it was on third down and it was thrown low and outside. There was some really good coverage and he threw it away from the defender. I think that's the thing that stands out with all the quarterbacks in this league.
Q: Has there been a key to your defense creating as many turnovers as it has in the first two games?
MS: Well, we are improved in that area. Last year, that was one of the things as a staff that we felt we had to improve on, and we have done a nice job emphasizing it. Our coaching staff, not only in practice, but was also creating situations in drill work to help create turnovers. I think that to this point, it's carried over onto the field, and our guys have really bought into it. Like anything, you have to mentally believe it first before it physically happens. I think our guys have really bought into it and our guys have done a good job in creating an atmosphere in practice and in the meeting rooms that turnovers are going to be a very important part of our success.
Q: Did you learn something watching how the Jets played defense?
MS: Well, it was a fun game to watch for all NFL fans. It was a hard-fought game that came down to five or six plays, as many games do. Watching how it played out strategically was interesting to watch from a coaching standpoint. And I know the fans certainly enjoyed a hard-fought game as well.
Q: Does it appear Brady's footwork in the pocket is any different since he had the surgery, and can you guys exploit that by bringing more pressure than you normally would?
MS: No, I don't see anything there. And again, when we are evaluating our opponent, we don't evaluate on one or two games; we evaluate on the whole piece of work. I'm very familiar, having had the opportunity to play against the Patriots and Tom [Brady] over the last five or six years. He doesn't look any different than he has from when we played him while I was in Jacksonville. I think he's doing a very good job of distributing the ball and getting it into the guys that can make plays and I don't see any difference.
Q: Strategically, having watched him over the years, is pressuring him the way to go?
MS: Well, I think that Tom's seen it all, and that offense has seen it all. It's really going to come down to who makes plays when they're put in a situation to make it. I don't know if you want to say there's one way to attack or one better way. It's going to come down to those defensive players competing against the offense of the Patriots on Sunday.
Q: What is your level of concern, if there is any at all about Matt Ryan coming back to where he played in college? Maybe that's a distraction? Or maybe that keys him up a little bit more? Or maybe it doesn't?
MS: Well, Matt is such an even-keeled young man and he's handled every situation that's been presented to him since he finished his eligibility at Boston College. I don't feel that going back up there is going to be a distraction. Matt's going to prepare like he prepares for all games. We talk about all the time is that one of the things we have complete control over is our preparation. We may not be able to control what's going to happen on Sunday. There're going to be a lot of things that are going to be out of our control, but the one thing that we can always handle is at what level and how well we are going to prepare for our games.
Q: With draft picks, you never know what you have until they arrive, but with Matt Ryan, when did you know this was the kind of player he'd be?
MS: Well, we knew that Matt had an outstanding skill set as we were doing our due diligence in the evaluation when [General Manager] Thomas Dimitroff and myself were going through this draft process. But I think it really became evident in the second preseason game. We had an open competition last year and we told all four quarterbacks that they were going to get an equal number of snaps and we were going to let them compete. I think it became very evident after the second preseason game [when] we made the decision that Matt was going to be our starting quarterback. He ended up starting our third and fourth preseason games, but early on we could tell. There were a number of occasions where he would make a throw and you would go, 'Man...'. I'd look over to [offensive coordinator] Mike Mularkey or [quarterbacks coach] Bill Musgrave on the practice field and say, 'Did he really just make that throw?' or 'What a great decision that was.' So Matt, just like myself as a first time head coach, we made a lot of mistakes we can learn from. And with our team, we are really trying to evaluate everything we do and try to improve each and every week.
Q: On the other side of the ball, what's the most popular way that teams have tried to combat Tony Gonzalez?
MS: Well, Tony's numbers speak for themselves in terms of what he's been able to do in his 13 years. Strategically, people are going to try to defend not Tony, but our offense in different ways. I think when it really comes down to it, it's really about those 22wo guys that are out there playing. I will say this about Tony Gonzalez: Tony not only makes our offense better, but he makes our whole entire football team better. He has the most unbelievable work ethic that I've ever been around. It not only rubs off on the other tight ends or the other offensive players, but it rubs off on everybody in the building and in the locker room. He spends the extra time working his trade, and this is a guy who has been doing it a long time - not just catching balls, but working on his blocking. I think this has been a very good acquisition for us.
Q: How different is it preparing for a Patriots defense without Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison and some of the guys you faced in Jacksonville? Do they look a lot different on film than they did maybe during their heyday?
MS: No, not really. You're watching the same thing schematically and that's one thing [defensive coordinator] Coach Peas and Coach Belichick and [defensive line coach] Pepper Johnson and the staff do up there. They have those guys prepared and they have an outstanding game plan each and every week. We don't really concern ourselves with what numbers those guys are wearing because Patriot football and Patriot defense is based on what they want to try to get done schematically.
Q: Have you noticed Matt Ryan standing among his teammates or in the locker room any different as a second year quarterback than as a rookie?
MS: Yes, most definitely. Matt has earned the right to be a leader on our football team because he is a guy who has made a lot of plays. I think early on our guys recognized what Matt's abilities are. He's familiar with a majority of the guys on our team now, whereas last year he came in and had no idea who these guys were. He knows who they are and one of the things we try to always do with our guys is tell them, 'Hey, we're going to work hard, but we're going to have fun.' That group down in our locker room is a group of guys that enjoys coming to work and having fun and Matt's right in the middle of them.