1. People tend to focus on your struggles on offense, but what is up with your defense this year? Why has it been so horrible?
I point to two injuries in particular. Losing Kroy Biermann took away a chess piece for Mike Nolan. Biermann is an underrated player who can do a little bit of everything, was rock solid against the run and was going to be moved between defensive end and linebacker. Losing him forced the Falcons to find (lesser) alternatives to fill that void.
Losing Sean Weatherspoon was the coup de grace to the front seven. 'Spoon isn't a superstar, but he's an athletic player who knows the scheme well. Without those two, the Falcons have had to play guys who either aren't completely ready or aren't good enough. At one point this year, they were starting two UDFA linebackers and Omar Gaither. It doesn't even matter that the UDFAs have been far better than we had any right to expect: That ain't good.
Couple that with a poor year from Thomas DeCoud, two rookies growing at cornerback and the traditional lack of an elite pass rush up front and you've got a middling defense capable of swinging between "pretty good" and "just awful" from game to game.
2. Steven Jackson's back and healthy(-ish). Can he make a difference going forward?
I don't know if he can. The offensive line couldn't block a road if you spotted them concrete barriers, so Jackson has no room to run. He's also still getting back to 100%, he lacks the ability to quickly change direction that has helped Jacquizz Rodgers survive behind this line and he's delivering mixed results in the passing game.
Increasingly, it's becoming clear that the Falcons made a major error bringing Jackson in. Not because it's his fault this isn't working out, but an aging, veteran back behind a woeful offensive line is no good. The Falcons are going to rid with S-Jax, but I'd be surprised to see him really get it going.
3. I've seen a lot of Falcons fans call for Mike Smith's head, and even some complaining about Matt Ryan. How do you feel about those issues?
Mike Smith I'm ambivalent about. He's the best coach in the franchise's history, but he's had his maddening habits for years and he hasn't been able to do much with the difficult situation in front of him. If the Falcons keep him, I'll be happy to have him back a wiser man with a better team to coach in 2014. If they cut him loose, I'll be happy if they hire a terrific coach. That's a big if, and I don't see the Falcons firing him in 2013.
I've been arguing Matt Ryan's case for weeks now. There seems to be an assumption in some corners of the fanbase that Ryan's showing his true colors (you know, after five mostly very good seasons) and his contract is going to cripple the team. I disagree with both, and I think those who have said they would support going in a different direction at QB are straight up crazy. Ryan's a franchise quarterback, and once you have one you don't let him go. Even if he drops another dud against the Bucs, I'm not getting on that wagon.
It's a frustrating time for the fanbase, so both of these are understandable.
4. Harry Douglas destroyed the Bucs the last time these two teams met. Do you think he can do that again or was that a fluke?
I don't know if it was a fluke. Douglas has always had enough talent to make defenses pay, but he has a tough time getting separation and he's had a handful of terrible mistakes over the years. If he's healthy and he's got a favorable matchup, Douglas can easily go for 100 again.
It may be moot. Douglas mysteriously did not practice Thursday, so we're holding our breath there.
5. Care to predict the game?
I think the Falcons win (again), and once more it should be a close one that stays ugly throughout. Let's go with 24-17, Falcons.