The Falcons were awful on Sunday. We can still learn things from it.
At 2-7, the Falcons aren't just dead in the water. They've been reanimated, lurched into a desert, gunned down by grizzled survivor and dragged back into a river. There's no question that they're done for 2013, but there's also no question that they would gladly get a few more wins along the way to make it more bearable for everyone around.
In that spirit, let's look at five things we learned.
- The Falcons are killing Matt Ryan. You don't sit your franchise quarterback for games at a time, even in a lost season. You can, however, sit him late in a game where you're getting blown out. The fact that the Falcons chose not to against Seattle is a problem.
Right now, Ryan's under real pressure. He's was under duress on better than 50% of his dropbacks on Sunday. Tony Gonzalez is constantly being doubled, Roddy White isn't quite 100% and everyone else is capable of stretches of quality play and not much else. There is no run game to turn to. It shouldn't surprise anyone that Ryan is scuffling right now, and that he's starting to fall back into some bad habits that are making things worse.
There's no easy solution here. The Falcons aren't going to bench him, but they're not suddenly going to improve and make his life easier, either. In some ways, this is a prime opportunity for Ryan to fix some those bad habits (locking on, forcing throws, feeling phantom pressure) in the face of tremendous adversity. Ultimately, though, the Falcons need to figure out how they can get him through this season healthy and ready to bounce back with a healthy Julio Jones and a (hopefully) improved line. I don't know how they're going to do that.
- The Falcons need a ground game. You don't know how much you'll miss having a legitimate rushing attack until you don't have one. The Falcons don't have one.
At this point, I think the Falcons need to be amenable to doing whatever it takes to fix this. If that means playing Harland Gunn or Joe Hawley at right guard, well, is the downside that significant? I was one of Garrett Reynolds' biggest supporters coming into the season, but after a fast start he's tailed off as a run blocker and a pass protector. It's probably time to check the low-hanging fruit first. If Sam Baker's not coming back this year,
I would also fully support giving Jacquizz Rodgers more carries. He's probably not the answer, but it's clear he can make more happen behind this raging Nickelback concert of a line than Steven Jackson can.
- The Falcons could be without Sam Baker a while. It's easy to forget this, because Baker's lousy when injured and has barely been healthy this season, but the best version of the line currently might have him on it. In the Carolina game, with Baker at left tackle, Lamar Holmes at right tackle and the interior the same, the Falcons put up a competent rushing performance and were competent at protecting Matt Ryan. Baker was slightly below average, but you're replacing the Jeremy Trueblood roller coaster with competence in Lamar Holmes. You may not have noticed that because Ryan had a miserable game, but you couldn't blame it on the line for once.
Unfortunately, the Falcons could be without Baker for a while. Mike Smith is reportedly concerned about the way his knee is responding to treatment, which means the Falcons are going to roll with Holmes/Blalock/Konz/Reynolds(?)/Trueblood for as long as he's out. One hopes that Holmes and Konz will improve so dramatically that we're left feeling good about this line, because there aren't a ton of alternatives.
- The secondary isn't taking the opportunities being given to them. The secondary has mostly been a strength for this defense, at least relative to the rest of the team. Yet on Sunday, we watched them fall prey to that old bogeyman of Dunta Robinsons past: Not looking for the ball.
You can see it on at least a half-dozen plays, but it is best illustrated by this touchdown passto Jermaine Kearse. Marshawn Lynch is met by Jonathan Babineaux, tosses the ball back to Russell Wilson and Wilson launches it to Kearse with Joplo Bartu closing in on him.
It's a risky throw. Thomas DeCoud is basically step-for-step with Kearse, who is not an elite receiver by any stretch of the imagination. If DeCoud reads Kearse correctly or turns to look for the ball, he's got a play there, either a batted ball or even possibly an interception on a pretty nice throw. Instead, despite being with Kearse right into the end zone, he just kind of flails at him and fails to do much of anything, and Kearse has a touchdown pass.
Something similar happened with Robert Alford on Golden Tate's touchdown grab, as well. Whatever you may think of DeCoud and the corners, they have athleticism in spades and are more than capable of making quarterbacks pay for testing them. Unless they can get a bead on the ball, they're going to continue to miss those opportunities.
- The Falcons aren't learning. I hate that it's come to this, but you can't look at the product the team put on the field on Sunday and come to any other conclusion.
Let's start with Steven Jackson, because everyone loves talking about the ground game twice in one post. The Falcons have a season's worth of evidence that suggests that a back not running well is not going to "get it going" behind this offensive line. Yet they gave Jackson nine carries, which went for 11 yards. Five of those yards came on one carry, which means he managed an unbelievable 6 yards on 8 other carries. Snelling and Rodgers got four carries for a combined 38 yards.
Or watch Matt Ryan try and fail again and again to connect on short passes on second and third down, passes that might not result in a first down even if they were caught. Or watch the Falcons drop defensive linemen into coverage.