NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Titans have lost four straight games since a season-opening win at Tampa Bay, and things won't get any easier this Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons visit Nissan Stadium. The Falcons (5-1) are off to a fast start, with plenty of weapons on the offensive side of the football, led by quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Devonta Freeman and receiver Julio Jones.
The Falcons are ranked fourth overall in the NFL in total offense, and 20th overall in total defense.
This week I caught up with D. Orlando Ledbetter, who covers the Falcons for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Ledbetter is a smart guy – he's a three-time APSE award-winning sports writer, and he also has a law degree. You can follow Ledbetter on Twitter at @DOrlandoAJC. There, you'll find he also knows how to rock a bow tie.
Wyatt: The Falcons finished 6-10 a year ago, and ended up parting ways with head coach Mike Smith after the season. This year the team is 5-1 out of the gate, and the Falcons look like a different team. How have the Falcons seemingly turned things around so quickly?
Ledbetter: Well, there was a major roster turnover after last year. A total of 24 of the 53 guys were turned over from the end of the season roster, which is about 45 percent, and they brought in guys who could fit the scheme they're running, guys who fit the Seattle defense and the Denver Broncos offense, with the outside zone blocking scheme. And they've seemed to hit to varying degrees on most of those players. They took a bargain basement approach to free agency, and most of those guys are playing roles on the team.
Wyatt: The Falcons hired Dan Quinn, formerly defensive coordinator with the Seahawks, of course. What kind of changes has he made as far as the mentality, and overall mindset of the football team?
Ledbetter: He has been preaching about playing fast and physical, and with some urgency, and they have been able to play that way for long periods of time. You see that on the defensive side with the tackling. They are still missing about eight tackles a game and Quinn wants to get that down to four, but you see a much better tackling team this year and that can be directly traced to the new head coach.
Wyatt: A familiar face will be headed back to Nashville in former Titans guard Andy Levitre, who was traded to the Falcons back in September. How has Levitre fit in with the Falcons?
Ledbetter: They are ready to build a statue of Levitre outside the Georgia Dome. In their minds, he has been the missing piece on the offensive line. Coach Quinn has been praising his play, and I think he has come in and adapted to the new environment and system pretty quickly. Coaches say he is playing great in the run game and in the pass blocking game, too. They are asking him to do some things differently here, and he has been a good fit.
Wyatt: Devonta Freeman has put up some crazy numbers already – 505 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in just six games. He also has 32 catches for 296 yards and another score. Is he Atlanta's biggest offensive threat?
Ledbetter: What happened is Julio Jones got off to such a great start, everybody started double-teaming him and that left some lanes open for Freeman. The Falcons have been able to take advantage of that, and they've been able to be productive running off of each other. When Julio is hot it takes somebody out of the box, and Freeman has been hitting the holes hard. I like him. I thought he was just a third down back at first, but shoot, he runs hard. I just worry about him and wonder if he can hold up to the pounding at 5-8, 206. He's a little smallish, so I wonder if he is going to be another Cadillac Williams, who is productive for a couple of years, and then the pounding gets to him.
Wyatt: Another Matthews will be coming to town on Sunday – Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews. He watched his dad, Bruce, play at Nissan Stadium with the Titans. How has Jake been since being drafted in the first round in 2014?
Ledbetter: Jake has been having a pretty solid year. Coach Quinn cited him after the New Orleans game, saying it might have been his best as far a moving and blocking in the run game. He had a tough rookie year at left tackle. He had bad Pro Football Focus numbers playing against some of the best guys in the NFL as a rookie, even though I admit he looked pretty steady to me. But they have been pleased with him this year.
Wyatt: Last thing: What has been one of the biggest surprises about the Falcons so far?
Ledbetter: The run defense has been a surprise to me. I think they were 24th last year and this year they are all the way up to (1st), and they have shut down some pretty good running backs – DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster, Alfred Morris and Matt Jones. So the run defense with the big boys – defensive linemen Ra'Shede Hageman and Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson – on the line, that's been a pretty big surprise. They've been able to hold teams to 78.8 yards rushing and that is a big improvement.