Three games into the 2013 NFL season, the Atlanta Falcons have a 1-2 record, and in all three games the offense has shown a tendency to struggle in the red zone. The Falcons have managed to score touchdowns on 50% of their trips to the red zone this season. For some perspective, that ties them with teams like Tampa Bay, the New York Jets, and the Buffalo Bills in red zone touchdown efficiency.
The key difference between Atlanta and the other teams with a 50% red zone touchdown efficiency is, Atlanta has one of the better quarterbacks in the league in Matt Ryan, as well as All-Pro caliber talent in receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez. There's really very little excuse for a team with that level of talent being unable to consistently score touchdowns in the red zone.
In week one against New Orleans, Atlanta had four red zone opportunities, and converted two of four opportunities to touchdowns. The big challenges for the Falcons against New Orleans came from settling for a field goal on a red zone visit late in the first quarter, and then being unable to punch in a touchdown from the red zone to win the game at the end.
On the red zone series that resulted in a field goal, the Falcons were up 7-0 on the Saints. The Falcons had gotten back to the red zone for the second time in the first quarter thanks to a 12-yard Matt Ryan scramble, plus 15 yards tacked on for unnecessary roughness by New Orleans safety Kenny Vaccaro.
On the red zone series that ended in a field goal, with 3:08 remaining in the first quarter, running back Steven Jackson carried the ball on first down for a three yard gain. A rushing attempt on first down is not a bad idea, and Jackson was pretty successful rushing on first down in this situation, getting the Falcons three yards closer to the end zone. Part of his success, upon reviewing the film, was effective lead blocking by Bradie Ewing.
On second down, the Falcons tried another rushing play, handing off to the 5'6", 188 pound running back Jacquizz Rodgers instead of 6'2", 240 pound Steven Jackson in the backfield. On this down, there was no Bradie Ewing on the field. The Falcons had Julio Jones and Roddy White spread relatively wide, and Tony Gonzalez and Joe Hawley were on Ryan's left as extra blockers. It looked like a passing situation, and New Orleans blitzed accordingly. The offensive line collapsed pretty quickly, and Rodgers did not have a chance.
On the third down effort, Julio Jones should be able to come up with a reception in most cases, but Ryan sailed this one over his head and out of the back of the end zone. It was uncatchable. The pocket collapsed in about 1.75 seconds, and Ryan was throwing off of his back foot, which was a big part of the problem. Matt Bryant's field goal was good, and put the Falcons up 10-0.
On this series, the first down play call is a good one, and the execution is just fine. On second down, the play call is an odd choice, and the execution isn't good, either. On third down, the play call is fine, but the execution is poor, particularly from the offensive line.
On the failed touchdown drive at the end of the game, the Falcons were trailing the Saints by six points, which means that settling for a field goal in the first quarter was the difference between needing to drive down the field in three minutes and twelve seconds to score a touchdown to win, or using that time to get into field goal range and rely on Matt Bryant's leg to win the game.
The Falcons got into the red zone with a minute and nine seconds remaining in the game. On first and goal from the New Orleans seven-yard line Matt Ryan attempted a short pass to Harry Douglas that was incomplete. Douglas ran an out route with single coverage, and had the ball not sailed over his head, would have caught it around the one-yard line.
On second down and goal, Ryan completed a short pass to the right to Roddy White. White was wide open--he was literally just standing on the field looking at Ryan and waiting for the ball--but three defenders converged on him the second he caught it. The four yard gain put the Falcons on the New Orleans three-yard line.
On third down, an incomplete pass that bounced off Steven Jackson's hands forced a fourth down attempt. Jackson ran a clean route, and had single coverage, but just did not complete the catch.
Ryan was under a ton of pressure on fourth down, and had trouble making the read. Tony Gonzalez was heavily covered in the middle, and the ball was also tipped as Ryan threw it, but it still hit Gonzalez in the hands before bouncing into the hands of New Orleans safety Roman Harper, sealing the Falcons' fate.
One thing that's difficult to understand is Atlanta's tendency to throw short of the end zone in red zone situations. Yes, they have receivers who have the ability to get yards after the catch, but when the defense is working with a short field in a red zone situation, they're able to adjust their coverage to make yards after the catch more difficult for receivers. The Falcons threw short on first and second downs on this series. The execution on the first down effort to Harry Douglas was not good, and once again, Ryan was under a ton of pressure. The execution on second down was fine, but throwing short of the end zone condensed the field even more for the defense.
On third and fourth downs, it looks like the play calls were good, and execution was the problem. The ball bounced off of Steven Jackson's hands, and then it bounced off of Tony Gonzalez's hands. Gonzalez was adequately covered by New Orleans, but he generally makes those catches.
Vs. St. Louis Rams:
In week two against the Rams, the Falcons had three red zone opportunities, and converted two to touchdowns. That's actually a pretty good percentage. They also scored a touchdown from outside of the red zone, on an 81-yard Julio Jones reception, and another on an Osi Umenyiora pick-six.
This was a game that ended up being closer than it should have been after a dominant Falcons start, largely due to a letdown in the third quarter and early fourth quarter that led to the Falcons allowing 14 unanswered points, narrowing the score to 17-24.
On the red zone attempt that the Falcons failed to convert into a touchdown, there were some weird decisions. There were 18 seconds remaining in the first half when the Falcons entered the red zone, with a first and ten from the St. Louis 15 yard line.
On first down, the called play was a pass to Tony Gonzalez. Had it been caught, it would have put the Falcons on the St. Louis three yard line with a fresh set of downs and 14 seconds remaining in the half. Ryan was under a lot of pressure (are you sensing a theme here?) and he sailed the ball over Gonzalez's head.
On second down, the Falcons were out of timeouts, but had time to run at least one other play. Instead, Mike Smith opted to settle for a field goal.
The first down play call was fine, and execution was poor, primarily because of a rapidly collapsing pocket for Matt Ryan. On second down, it's too conservative to settle for a field goal with time on the clock, especially given Atlanta's tendency to let down in the second half, which was exactly what happened.
Sunday's loss in Miami was extremely frustrating, mainly because the Falcons had the opportunity to put the game away, and the red zone failures caught up with them. On five trips to the red zone, the Falcons managed to convert just two of them into touchdowns.
In the second quarter, the Falcons marched down the field pretty efficiently, and entered the red zone with 4:06 remaining in the half and a three point lead on the Dolphins. On first down from the Miami 11 yard line, it was a handoff to Jason Snelling in the backfield. Center Peter Konz did not hold his block, and Snelling ran right into the arms of Miami defensive tackle Randy Starks.
On second down, it was a quick release pass to Harry Douglas in the flat, and Douglas turned it into a nine yard gain. Here's another situation where the Falcons' red zone strategy includes short passes outside of the end zone. While Douglas did manage a nice gain on the play, Atlanta was short of the first down.
On third down, Jason Snelling and fullback Patrick DiMarco were in the backfield in the I formation. After receiving the handoff, Snelling tried to bounce outside instead of following DiMarco's lead blocking, and the result was no gain on the play.
On fourth down, with less than one yard to go for a fresh set of downs, the Falcons opted to kick a field goal. Mike Smith said in yesterday's press conference that they would have opted to go for it had the distance to a first down been a half-yard or less.
The first down play call was a good one. Jason Snelling was very successful moving the ball on the ground against Miami. In this case, it was execution. If Konz holds his block a second or two longer, Snelling would have managed some gain. The second down call was a short pass in the flat, and while it did result in a nine-yard gain, it did not get the Falcons a first down, nor did it result in a score. The execution was fine, but it's a confusing play call. The third down play call, with less than a yard to a first down, was a good one, but was not executed well. On fourth down, many would have preferred to see the Falcons go for it instead of settling for a field goal.
In the fourth quarter, the Falcons saw another red zone appearance result in an anticlimactic field goal. Jason Snelling turned a short pass into a 34 yard gain, and got the Falcons into the red zone with 12:02 remaining. The game was all tied up, 20-20.
On first and ten from the Miami 15 yard line, Matt Ryan faked a handoff to Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield, but the designed play was a throw to Tony Gonzalez in the end zone. Lamar Holmes did not hold his block, Ryan was under pressure, and overthrew Gonzalez.
On second down and ten from the Miami 15 yard line, it was a great play call. Harry Douglas ran a route to the right side of the end zone. The Dolphins rushed five, and the Falcons had Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers available to help pass block. Jeremy Trueblood let his assignment slip past before Matt Ryan could release the throw, and Ryan sailed this one over Douglas' head.
On third down and ten from the Miami 15 yard line, Ryan was under pressure and rolled out to his right. Under pursuit, he threw on the run and the pass was well over Julio Jones' head. The Falcons settled for a field goal on fourth down to go up 23-20.
On this series, the play calls were all pretty reasonable, but the execution was not great. The Dolphins brought considerable pressure, and it kept Matt Ryan from being effective.
The Falcons returned quickly to the red zone, with a second down and six to go from the Miami 19 yard line and 5:36 remaining in the game.
On second down and six from the Miami 19 yard line, Jason Snelling and Patrick DiMarco were in the backfield in the I formation, and Snelling took the handoff and followed DiMarco's lead blocking for a two yard gain. This was a good defensive effort by Miami to limit Snelling's gain as much as anything else.
On third down and four to go from the Miami 17 yard line, Ryan had Roddy White and Harry Douglas in or near the end zone with single coverage (Julio Jones was double-covered), but Miami sent a safety blitz and it was very effective. Ryan was flushed out of the pocket, and threw the ball away. This was another case where Miami's defensive approach was the primary cause of the breakdown of the play.
Matt Bryant missed the field goal on the fourth down attempt, which almost never happens, and the rest, as they say, is history. Really depressing history.
Atlanta is averaging four trips to the red zone per game, but when they're only converting 50% of those to touchdowns, it's a problem. The Falcons are putting themselves in a position to score, but settling for field goals doesn't win games. Matt Ryan's overall quarterback rating is 100.4 so far this season, but his quarterback rating in the red zone is only 74.0. That's a pretty significant drop.
The red zone struggle might be easier to fix if it were all play-calling, or all player execution. Some of the plays called are strange decisions, and some of the play breakdowns are just good defensive effort, and some are breakdowns in execution. The offensive line, although they have seemed to gel a little bit more each week, is still allowing a lot of pressure on Matt Ryan--even if they're not allowing sacks--in red zone situations, and it is impacting Atlanta's performance.