As a player in the National Football League, I look at it as a privilege to play on Monday night the way we are this evening against the Green Bay Packers.
Any game in primetime is special. You want to go out and play really great football. You always want to bring your A-game.
But on Monday night, you know that the whole football world is watching.
I haven't played in many Monday night games over the course of my career. But I've had success running the ball and reaching the end zone in the ones I have played in. I always strive to play the right way, but when you play in primetime, you want people around the league to be talking about how impressed they were by you the next day.
Coming off last week's win over the Cardinals, this team has a lot of confidence and momentum. Those two things are huge going into any game, especially on the road at Green Bay. We're going to need that.
We understand that to be 1-0 at the end of the week, we have to do all the little things right, and stay consistent in our approach. Guys have really bought in, and it's really good to see that we're still looking for ways to get better even in the month of December.
This last month of football is a very important month for teams fighting for playoff positioning. You're generally playing teams that have a lot to play for, including some that more than likely are going to be in the postseason. As we fight to win the NFC South, we can use these games as a barometer to see where we are.
The Packers are a great barometer. They're one of the best teams in the National Football League. Everyone talks about their prolific offense, but in the film I've watched this week, I've noticed a defense that probably doesn't get enough credit for the team's success.
They play together really well on that side of the ball. They have a lot of different playmakers on defense, including a lot of gifted pass rushers that get after the quarterback. I've had the chance to face defenses coached by their defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, for a number of years. He dials up some pretty exotic blitz packages. So I have to be able to identify the personnel they have out there on every play, and make sure I'm on the same page with the offensive line so that we can protect Matt and he can throw the ball down the field to our playmaking receivers.
Whenever you're on the road, there are a few things you need to do to have success. The first thing you want to do is protect the football. You also want to be able to stop the run. Those two things go a long way toward the third thing, which is to keep the crowd out of it.
If you're able to do those three things as a team overall, you get a chance to be in a game and possibly win a game on the road.
Because it's really hard to do, especially in a place like Lambeau Field on Monday night.
SETTING THE TONE
Last week's victory taught us a lot about ourselves. It showed us the type of football we have to play the rest of this season in order to achieve our goals.
The Cardinals were coming in with the best record in the NFC, so we understood it was going to be a tough fight. We'd also played them last year in Arizona, so we knew they possessed a very potent aerial attack and a very steady defense. Any time you play a team with an offense that has receivers getting down field, and a good defense, you know they can score in a hurry, which makes them dangerous in any game, regardless of the score.
What I was really proud of was that we were able to not only start fast, but also to finish strong and win pretty much all four quarters handily. It was one of our best 60-minute efforts of the season, and we did it collectively as a team.
We had some big-time players make some big-time plays to get us that win, none bigger than Julio Jones. Julio continues to prove himself as one of the elite receivers in the game. When the ball goes in the air, you kind of expect to see something unbelievable happen with Julio. He's just that gifted and talented in his ability to play the game. He's big, he's fast, he's strong. He has a really good hands, and unbelievable focus when the ball is in the air. He's just so athletic.
He's a huge reason why I believe we'll be able to make a real push these last four games. He and Matt have been really clicking over the last few weeks. That's going to be important for us moving along in December.
One of my roles as the lead running back is to set the tone and the tempo for us early in a game. When I'm able to start fast and set the tone, it lets the defense know it's going be a long day for them. It also lets my teammates know that there is a certain level of play and timing that we have to bring each and every snap.
Early in last Sunday's game, I was able to do so in one big play.
It was only a few plays into the first quarter, and we had just moved the chains, but it was a situation where we wanted to get in and out of the huddle and get up to the line of scrimmage in a very timely manner. We wanted to press the issue and set the tempo right from the start to let the Cardinals know that we were going to play fast, that we were going to play Falcons football. That pretty much meant just pushing the pedal to the metal.
So we got the call for an outside zone run, and guys did a good job of setting the blocks on the outside, and allowing me to get to the secondary. At that level, I was able to run through a couple tackles. The safety attempted to bring me down probably about 11 yards down the field, but I shook him off. From there, I just took off running and tried to fight them off to the goal line. I was close to getting in, but didn't quite get there. But we were able to finish the drive a few plays later and that set the tone for the day.
That type of big play, which led to a touchdown just a few plays into the game, really ignites the sideline and gets everyone fired up. The good thing about this ball club is that we all understand the concept of team, and we all want each other to do well. With that comes that natural competitive spirit inside all of us, which makes the next guy want to make a big play, and it just becomes contagious.
When you see points go up on your side of the board that early in the game, it also makes things a lot easier on all of us, including our play caller. It allows us to run the football more, regardless of the outcome of some of those plays.
Sometimes you're gonna get two yards or three yards on a carry, plays that cause very minimal damage as far as moving the chains. That's bound to happen. But it's very important to be patient with the running game. Even those minimal yardage carries do a lot to set up plays down the line either in that drive or in a later one.
And the physicality of those plays allows you to wear down an opponent. When you're able to wear a team down, that pays dividends in the fourth quarter. That's what running the ball is. It's just like a boxer throwing body punches. Give it time, and it will be effective in the long run.
Having a balanced offense keeps your opponent on their heels, because you're attacking in ways they can't predict. That is going to open up the passing game even more. A balanced offense also creates a sustained drive, which gives our defense time to rest. So it's all a domino effect. When you can get your defense rest, it puts them in an even better position to do their job.
And our defense has been playing really outstanding football this last month.
Those guys in the secondary have become ballhawks, and they're doing a really good job of playing together, understanding, and trusting one another. It helps to have our hard-hitting safety William Moore back on the field. He's kind of like the tempo-setter for us on the defensive side of the ball.
The guys up front have been playing really well too, especially against the run. Our run defense has really been stingy, holding our opponents to very few rushing yards.
When your defense is able to create turnovers on the back end or put a drive to an end and get off the field on third downs up front, that gives us more opportunities as an offensive unit to puts points on the board.
That really sets the tone for how we want to play football as a team overall.
Thanksgiving week was a tremendous one for me.
The week of preparation for the Cardinals game went as well as I could ask for. Everyone was clicking and I knew we were in for a great week. After practice one day, myself and the other running backs even had a little turkey bowl. We set up ten pins, but instead of using a bowling ball we used two turkeys and lo and behold, I pulled off the win in the last frame.
On Thursday, we had a huge Thanksgiving day feast at my home here in Atlanta. My mother and father were in town, and I also had some family members that live in the Atlanta area come to join us for the day. We all had a really good time enjoying each other's company and watching football, of course.
Most of the family stuck around for the weekend and I hosted over 20 people at the game on Sunday, so it was really good to get the big run and set the tone early. I'm very lucky that my parents are able to attend the majority of the games. But it was good to have some cousins that I haven't seen in awhile, and some aunts and uncles that I don't get a chance to see often there at the game too. It made it that much more meaningful to have family that's not in the immediate family there to support me. They enjoyed themselves in the stands as much as I enjoyed the game by coming out with the win.
To also climb up the rushing list on Sunday and pass a childhood favorite of mine, Corey Dillon, is something that I'm very grateful for. I have a ton of respect for Corey, and I'm just very appreciative to have been able to surpass his career number. He's one of those running backs I looked up to for a very long time, and he had a huge influence on me and the way I run.
Then to cap that game by breaking through the 100-yard mark for the first time in a Falcons uniform was truly a blessing. It was extra special to do it against the Arizona Cardinals, a team that has been a foe of mine for years. I give credit to the guys up front on our offensive line for helping me get there.
We've had a rash of injuries on our offense, especially in that offensive line room, forcing two rookie — our center James Stone and left tackle Jake Matthews — as well as second-year right tackle Ryan Schraeder into major roles early in their careers. But the way those young guys have stepped up has been such a great thing to see. They've come in and gelled with out veteran guards Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah, and that group is playing smart football.
They're only going get better as they continue to play together. So we're looking at something that could be a very good offensive line in the future.
DECEMBER TO REMEMBER
As we enter the December stretch of schedule, I feel very good about what I'm going to be able to do this last month of the season and I'm really looking forward to what's ahead for this team.
I feel great physically. I feel fresh. Mentally, I'm in a great spot because I'm very thankful to be playing meaningful games in the month of December. We have a chance to not only play in the postseason, but win our division.
Everything that I laid out for myself, everything I wanted to accomplish being a member of this 2014 Atlanta Falcons team is still possible, and I feel I can play a very big role in us reaching those goals. When you play football in December and going into the postseason, you have to be able to run the football and play good defense, and I think we're doing that.
If we want to win our division, this is the perfect time to gel and get everything and everyone clicking on all cylinders. We want to make sure that at the end of 16 games, the Atlanta Falcons have put themselves in the best position to be in the postseason, and then to make a run at the Super Bowl.
That said, it's important that we keep our focus on the task at hand, and that's going 1-0 each week. That's the only part of this situation that we can control. We know that every week in the National Football League, we're going to play tight games. That's what happens when everyone is playing for something. It's what makes this NFL season so interesting on any given Thursday, or Sunday, or Monday.
Any team can win.