Much has been made of the Falcons' offensive struggles in the red zone, and rightfully so. When a high powered offense can move the ball at will to get to the red zone, and consistently fizzles out, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, it impacts the outcome of games. The offensive red zone difficulties are the most obvious reason that Atlanta is 1-3.
But, what about the defense? Bear in mind that Atlanta is not built to be a defensive powerhouse. The talent is stacked on an offense that was built to outscore any opponent, a strategy that has been exacerbated by the injuries to key defensive starters, leaving the offense and the defense even more lopsided in terms of talent. But the reality is, all of Atlanta's losses, as well as their single win, have been decided by seven points or fewer. The defense has very nearly done enough, particularly considering that any more injuries to the linebacker corps or the secondary will likely mean that they're pulling random people off the street to start. Had they been able to come up with just one or two additional red zone stops each game, Atlanta could easily be 4-0.
The truth is, they really should be getting one or two additional red zone stops each game, because their percentage of red zone touchdowns allowed is pretty abysmal. Through four games, Atlanta's defense has allowed touchdowns on 69.23% of opponents' trips to the red zone. Last season, Atlanta finished the year having allowed touchdowns on just 50% of trips to the red zone, good for seventh in the league.
The other trend we're seeing from the defense is a strong start that slips away as the game continues. To date, the Falcons defense has allowed zero first quarter points through four games. You can't be more stout than that. Interestingly enough, Atlanta's offense has also been prolific in first quarters, averaging 8.5 points in the first quarter so far this season, good for second in the league.
The second quarter is not as good for the Falcons defense, as they are allowing an average of 9 second quarter points each game. The offense slips to an average of 5.8 second quarter points per game. This means that, on average, the Falcons outscore their opponents in the first half 14.3 to 9.
Atlanta's defense was actually very stout in the third quarter against New England, allowing just one field goal, but on average, the Falcons are allowing 6.8 points in third quarters this season. The offense is scoring an average of 3.5 points in third quarters.
The fourth quarter is the real killer, with the Falcons defense allowing an average of 10.2 fourth quarter points per game, and the offense scoring an average of 5.8 fourth quarter points per game. The average final score of a Falcons game so far this season would be 23.6 for the Falcons to 26 for their opponents. You can see the difference a few more red zone stops would make.
One contributing factor here is the time of possession by quarter. Atlanta has controlled the ball, on average, 64.75% of the first quarter, when the defense has allowed zero points through four games. The percentage drops to 47.61% on average for the second quarter, and the defense, with more time on the field, is allowing an average of nine points in second quarters. The third quarter is really rough, with the Falcons maintaining possession for an average of 39.92% of the time, and the defense is allowing 6.8 points in third quarters, on average. The Falcons bounce back up to 50.39% time of possession on average in the fourth quarter, but, with a 1-3 record, it seems like that's too little, too late.
There are a few other fundamental things that could be hindering Atlanta's defensive success in the red zone. There have been a few missed tackles and blown coverages leading to red zone touchdowns for opponents. In week one, Jimmy Graham scored on a seven yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees, and Thomas DeCoud just whiffed on him, allowing him to enter the end zone unchallenged.
There have been other times that the Falcons have sent a three man rush, effectively getting zero pressure on the quarterback, allowing him to exert his will. This was the case on both Tavon Austin touchdowns when the Rams visited the Georgia Dome.
In Miami, receiver Austin Pettis came out of the slot for a touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill, just flat out beating Robert McClain in coverage. Tannehill threw a touchdown pass to tight end Dion Sims in with linebacker Stephen Nicholas in single coverage. The result wasn't shocking. Tannehill also threw a touchdown pass to receiver Brian Hartline, and while there was coverage from Desmond Trufant and safety help over the top from Thomas DeCoud, they were both beaten by Hartline for the touchdown. Both red zone touchdowns against New England came from breakdowns in coverage as well.
Interestingly enough, for a team that struggled against the run last season, the Falcons defense has been stout against the run in the red zone. The only rushing red zone touchdown allowed by the Falcons this season was surrendered to Miami's Daniel Thomas, and after reviewing the play, it was genuinely good blocking on Miami's part.
It seems like the Falcons' defensive struggles in the red zone are more related to execution than anything else. They can't afford missed tackles and blown coverages. The good news is, these things are all well within the Falcons' control. They can be corrected. The offense could help them out by converting third downs and sustaining drives, particularly in the third quarter, and the offense needs to resolve their own red zone issues as quickly as possible. But, if the defense will correct the fundamental issues that are curtailing their red zone success, we could see a pretty quick turnaround for the Falcons.