Last night's loss was extremely frustrating. The Falcons established the hope that they might, in fact, pull off a signature win (or, more realistically, a signature tie to send the game into overtime for a shot at a signature win) in the fourth quarter, only to exhibit the same struggles in the red zone that have become the Achilles heel of this talented offense. In some ways, losing that way is more difficult to accept than losing by a much greater margin. Either way, the Falcons lost, as they have done three out of the four games this season, and losing is the worst.
It's clear that this team has some genuine issues that they need to address, and if there is any bright spot in the bleak start to this season, it would be that the Falcons can learn from their performances thus far and make corrections. What did we learn from last night's loss?
1. The injuries are a huge factor. On defense, not having Asante Samuel on the field is a big challenge. The linebacker corps is really missing Sean Weatherspoon, and losing Kroy Biermann hurts. Although Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling looked good against Miami, they didn't get much of anything going against New England, and Steven Jackson might have been a difference maker in that situation. Roddy is clearly hobbled, and Julio Jones has been tweaked. Sam Baker's fluctuating status emphasizes uncertainty along a line that had enough uncertainty when he was healthy. Akeem Dent was injured on the LeGarrette Blount touchdown run, and Paul Worrilow was also injured in last night's game. The injuries are not the only reason the Falcons are struggling, and they may not even be the primary reason--but make no mistake, the injuries are a huge factor.
2. The offense wasn't balanced, and that's a problem. In last night's loss, Atlanta passed the ball 54 times, and had only 15 rushing attempts. Head coach Mike Smith said that the opponent dictates how the offense will attack, but it seems odd that the Falcons, with pass protection concerns, didn't try to set the tone with the run to slow down the pass rush a little bit. Steven Jackson's injury is a part of this issue, but Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling need to do enough on the ground to balance out the offense.
3. The red zone is a place of nightmares and heartbreak. After last night's game, Atlanta's touchdown-only red zone efficiency has dropped to 38.89% for the season. The issues seemed to be more execution than play-calling last night, and although the team acknowledges that it is a very serious issue, it's still happening. At this point, this is a significant concern for this team and it must be addressed. It seems that the offense has potentially developed a mental block when it comes to the red zone. The team had a 16.67% touchdown-only red zone efficiency last night. Let that sink in, because it's astonishingly bad. If the team cannot overcome their red zone struggles, it is going to be a very long season.
4. The coaching staff still doesn't adjust. The lack of adjustments is partially to blame for the sluggish second halves this offense has become known for of late, but Dirk Koetter is not the only scapegoat here. Tom Brady is a master of the play-action fake, and the Falcons' defense fell for it time and time again, with no adjustments. The responsibility for the lack of adjustments ultimately rests with head coach Mike Smith. If the coordinators won't make adjustments, the head coach needs to make them make adjustments.
5. The offensive line may be getting slightly better. The line was not great against the Patriots, giving up two sacks, two hits and 15 hurries on Matt Ryan, but while this isn't good, it actually is a significant improvement over previous week's performances in terms of the percentage of passing downs on which Ryan was pressured. Ryan was pressured on 31.67% of his passing attempts last night. Compare that to 43.6% vs. Miami, 40.4% vs. St. Louis, and a staggering 58.1% vs New Orleans, and you'll see that there is progress being made, even if the end result wasn't a win.
What did you learn from last night's game?