Who better to ask about the opponent than the beat writers who cover them every day. D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal Constituion was good enough to answer five questions about the Falcons in advance of Sunday’s game against the Panthers:
1. How close is Matt Ryan to reaching elite quarterback status, and how much of the reason for this year's improvement is his maturity?
“Over the offseason he did an extensive film study of some of the top quarterback in the league. He studied Philip Rivers. He studied Peyton Manning and a few others. What he came away from the film study was a better understanding of how to move the ball around and take what the defense is giving him. If they take Roddy White away, then Gonzalez should be open. He they take all of the receivers away, now he doesn't have a problem with dropping it of this backs. I'm not sure how close he is, but is definitely climbing that ladder right now.
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2. Bonus Ryan question: Has he now, or do you think he'll match the level of popularity Michael Vick had in your town?
“I don't think that he has yet. Mike went to the playoffs twice and three Pro Bowls. Ryan is still winning over some of the Vick fans. He might not ever get all of them.”
3. What's been the biggest difference in the Falcons defensively this season?
“They are making more aggressive calls on third down. They are not just sitting back in zones and trying to rally to the ball. They will attack out of a 3-man front and try to blitz teams into submission. Good quarterbacks have been able to make them pay with big plays. Also, they have played the run really well.”
4. When will people recognize that Mike Smith's had a big hand in this? Seems like very few know anything about him. What's been his strongest quality in steering this ship?
“Mike Smith is a real down to earth guy. The players like playing for him. He's considered the mastermind behind the defense, which is very young and still under construction. He is very well organized and goal oriented. He's fine with flying under the radar.”
5. We know the Falcons have been unbeatable at home, but are they showing you the maturity it takes to win games like this one on the road?
“Yes they are showing those signs of maturity. The win at Tampa Bay was perhaps their best road win under Smith. Ryan is now 11-12 on the road and while he didn't play his best against the Bucs, he played well enough in the fourth quarter to pull out the victory. The win over the Saints earlier in the season was also a big road win. ”
-- Darin Gantt