The Falcons are now 5-1, and we're going to spend most of the weekend trying to sort out how they got here.
If you're trying to build a case for the Falcons being a worse team than their record indicates, your case essentially begins and ends with the mistakes they keep making. On a yardage per game and scoring per game basis, the defense has been much-improved, while the offense has been one of the league's better units, even if the last two weeks have seen the passing game in particular slow down considerably. They're very obviously an improved football team from a year ago, and I'd argue most metrics point to them being a playoff-caliber team, even if it starts to get squishy beyond that.
Yet the Falcons have fumbled eight times in six games, losing half of those, and Matt Ryan has thrown four picks. They're averaging 62.5 penalty yards per game, a middle-of-the-pack number that is a full 10 yards higher than their average from 2014. And they've missed a ton of tackles, with Dan Quinn estimating 29 at the end of last month, a number that has surely gone up considerably since then. Vaughn McClure has a nice piece on the Falcons' struggles along these very lines.
Falcons need to eliminate mistakes to recover from loss to Saints http://t.co/uZloHQX1iB— ESPN NFL Nation (@ESPN_NFLNation) October 16, 2015
None of these numbers are particularly damning by themselves, but it's telling that this team is in the middle of the pack or lower when it comes to penalties, turnovers, and missed tackles. Those are largely self-inflicted wounds, and the net effect has been squandered drives, too-easy scores, and missed opportunities to score, which have turned four games into closer-than-needed contests and one into a loss. It's fair to say if the Falcons don't lose three fumbles on potential scoring drives, they probably don't lose to the Saints on Thursday night, and missed tackles and blown coverages enabled New Orleans to eat up a ton of yardage on what should have been short, contained plays.
The silver lining is that mistakes like these are largely within the team's control, either through adjusting personnel or emphasizing discipline. The Falcons want to be an aggressive bunch and will continue to be, and their increased talent and improved coaching would validate that approach. The team's largest obstacle to success in the weeks and months ahead is those mistakes, however, and how they set about taking care of those will likely define their 2015 season.