I started the headline with a number, so you know I'm serious.
Again and again, what we hear from Mike Smith is about improvement. It's a credit to Smith that he almost never pretends that the Falcons have put together a perfect game, because they never do.
As we know, talking about it and practicing to become better are no substitute for actually playing better football. After a loss so flat that piano teachers across America flinched, it's time to have a discussion about what the Falcons must learn from the Panthers game. It's time to figure out what three
Before you think I've gone all Bleacher Report on you, note that there are no slideshows and that the three were chosen organically. These are the three biggest issues, and they're ones that will absolutely plague this team against playoff squads if they can't iron them out right now. Heck, the Giants are going to kill them if they can't.
Let's figure out how to take a very good 11-2 team and do away with their most major problems. Follow along with me.
Rush The Passer
It's true that Cam Newton is a dynamic player. It's true that just a week ago, the Falcons applied enough pressure to force Drew Brees into multiple turnovers. The Falcons have enough talent, but they've been extraordinarily inconsistent.
Consider Sunday. The lack of a pass rush was evident throughout, as Newton stood comfortably in the pocket and made positive plays happen. Even when Newton pulled down the ball to run, Corey Peters was spun around trying to drag Newton down in one particularly sad play that resulted in a big gain.
The problem here is obvious. If the Falcons can't finish tackles and can't get after the quarterback on a consistent basis, good quarterbacks will find time, no matter how good the Falcons' secondary is. That's what happened all day Sunday, and whatever Newton's ability might be, we all know guys like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Robert Griffin III are better passers.
There's no obvious solution here besides "play better," but the coaching staff can review tape and see what isn't working. I think the Falcons' tendency to key in on the run against teams like the Panthers has hurt them, and I tend to believe that the current personnel outside of John Abraham just doesn't push the pocket very effectively. It might be time to get more snaps for Vance Walker, who has shown well as a pass rusher in very limited playing time.
Ultimately, though, they have to get this working. Most any playoff team is going to eviscerate them if they don't.
Run The Football Better
I can't believe, after fourteen weeks of the season, that I can't just put a stake in this one. I cannot.
The Falcons not only insist on giving Michael Turner carries, but they insist on doing so in the worst situations possible. First downs to open the game? Turner up the middle. Crucial second downs? Turner up the middle. The middle of the line isn't blocking well and Turner isn't generating any yards.
You might think I'm nitpicking, considering that it was just seven carries on Sunday, but keep in mind this was one of the worst run defenses in the league and Turner generated just 14 yards on seven carries. Jacquizz Rodgers carried the ball just four times and came up with 21 yards.
It's time to stop pretending that every defense in the league doesn't know that Turner up the middle is a common play, and it's way past time for the Falcons to realize that giving him more than a tiny handful of carries a game means giving away downs. The Falcons have so many weapons in the passing game and a healthy Rodgers that it hardly makes sense to stay the course.
Of course, 2A would be blocking better. The Falcons aren't giving Ryan or Turner much time to do anything, and until they do, they need to forget about Turner in their gameplan.
Get Aggressive Early
This year has taught us that the Falcons are capable of erasing leads for other teams in a hurry, which is a nice ability to have. It would be even better if they didn't fall behind early.
In the Mularkey/BVG era, we ragged on the team for going up early and sitting on a lead. In this new era, they seem to come out flat and cede the lead early. This applies specifically to the offense, which has a nasty habit of wearing out the D early by flailing around and scoring little to no points.
Let's take a look at the Panthers game. The Falcons only had three drives in the first half thanks to time-consuming drives from the Panthers, which is entirely on the defense. But the offense did nothing at all, generating just 34 yards on those three drives and zero points. Passes fell incomplete or went nowhere, the ground game couldn't generate much of anything and the Falcons failed to take shots downfield when the situation clearly warranted it.
The blocking isn't giving Matt Ryan a lot of time to work with, as I mentioned, but there's something to be said for picking on a depleted secondary. The Falcons have mostly failed to do so in back-to-back weeks, preferring checkdowns and short routes to Julio Jones bombing down the field and leaving his guy in the dust. I think if you're going to build a roster with a ton of talent at the skill positions, you have to trust them to make big plays and put defenses back on their heels.
Fix these three issues and you have a more dynamic offense that rolls downfield early and gets after opposing quarterbacks. That doesn't mean wins naturally follow, but it should clear up a lot of frustration.
Those are my three. Share yours in the comments.