In one of the more frustrating game of the 2014 season, our Falcons dropped another close game to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It wasn't just the loss that was disturbing, but the overall flow of the game. The team often seemed disjointed or in some cases, apathetic. It's a hard loss to swallow, but amazingly, the Falcons are still in control of their playoff destiny. Here are some of the key things I took from this game:
1. Matt Ryan has to play near perfect for this team to win
The talk around the Falcons since the game came to a close was the pick-6 that Ryan threw in the 2nd quarter. Talking heads around Atlanta have been quick to point out that INT as the reason the Falcons lost. And let's be clear: it was a terrible throw and one that Ryan should not have made. But it's also indicative of where this team is at now:
Matt Ryan has to play a near perfect game for this team to win.
Last week in GB, the Falcons were down 31-7 early due in part to a Matt Ryan INT. He ended up finishing the game 24/39 with 375 yards, 4 TDs and the 1 INT and a 116.9 QB rating. By any measure, that is a phenomenal day for a QB, but for the Falcons it wasn't enough.
And on Sunday, Ryan finished the game 26/37 with 310 yards and 2TDs and the 1 INT (that was a pick 6). He closed the day with 102.3 QB rating. On those numbers alone, he had a "good" day. Maybe not great, but certainly not terrible. Yet, for the Falcons, it wasn't enough.
I don't want to downplay the importance of those interceptions, because they DID impact those games. And the one against the Steelers was painful since it directly resulted in a touchdown. But by normal measures, Ryan had good games. And therein lies the problem with this team: Ryan can't simply have a good game. He can't even have a mostly great game. He has to have a near perfect game for this team to be able to win.
That is an impossible standard to hold to, and it highlights the disfunction of this team as it is currently constructed.
2. The reliance on Julio is our Achilles heel
If we're honest, we all felt a feeling of dread when we found out that Julio would miss the game. After his dominance in the last 2 games, the question was what the Falcons offense would look like without him.
Well, we found out.
Julio obviously impacts the game in a way that few receivers can. Defenses have to game plan around him. Safeties have to play deeper to offer help to corners that are mismatched. Less attention is paid to other Falcons receivers, that ends up giving them better match-ups.
But when he's out, our offense changes. It's no longer dynamic. The safeties can cheat up into the box. They have little fear of Harry or Roddy, and it shows. Our tight-end is no longer a reliable weapon in our offense. And our receiver depth is topped by Eric Weems. All of this adds up to an offense that becomes stagnant and less capable.
Don't get me wrong, Julio is a fantastic receiver that I'm glad to have on the team. But the way the offense and roster is currently built means we just aren't capable of surviving if he's out of the game. We don't have another downfield threat at all. Roddy isn't the same receiver he once was, and Harry is a WR3 at best.
Long-term, the Falcons need to seriously consider whether they want the offense to be so heavily focused on one player. In a league that is known for injuries, hinging offensive success on one guy seems like a highly risky bet. While I want to see Julio on this team for years to come, I'd like to see the Falcons capable of passing downfield without him.
3. Mike Smith needs to go, regardless of they make the playoffs
I'm going to keep this one short and sweet, because the arguments have been made ad nauseum. And I'm not going to address Dimitroff, because that will likely be a separate article entirely.
As for Smith: his conservative nature (opting for FGs instead of being aggressive), his benching of a frustrated but potentially talented player (Massaqoui) and ultimately, his inability to manage the finer aspects of the game means that his time has come.
Whether the Falcons make the playoffs or not, Smitty just needs to go.
One Extra Note:
I did want to add one small note, acknowledging the decent overall performance of the defense. Some of our young guys flashed (Hageman, Southward) and the overall unit did a decent job of limiting a capable Steelers offense. They've often been at the root of our woes, but on Sunday they played well. Let's hope it's something they can build on for 2015.