We've written a lot this week about Kyle Shanahan's fortunes, what ails the offense, whether the decision to kick the field goal on fourth down was a boneheaded move, and so on. What we've agreed on is that the Falcons are, obviously, kind of stuck with what they have in terms of talent, and it's up to the coaching staff and players alike to maximize their contributions in a synergistic paradigm, or some marketing garbage like that.
Fortunately, with a little bit of health-related luck and a few humbling lessons learned (and put into practice), this team can be relevant in the last seven games, even if "relevant" doesn't wind up meaning 10-plus wins and a playoff berth. Another offseason spent acquiring talent and having players pick up what the coaching staff is hoping to implement on both sides of the ball will obviously be a boon for Atlanta, but here are some paths to victory right now
My final word on Roddy White, for the moment: There's no question Roddy isn't the player he once was, and there's also no question that if the Falcons were willing to make him a higher-priority target and focus on getting him open, he could still be reasonably productive. Kyle Shanahan simply isn't incorporating him for anything but his blocking and a handful of passes per game, and the reason this is an issue is because no one else is stepping up, and we're so used to seeing Roddy wreak his wizardly brand of getting open that he seems like the obvious solution.
What's also clear is that Roddy's status has very little to do with the success of the offense, unless Shanahan and Matt Ryan are suddenly going to prioritize him. The Falcons are an offense that runs the ball well and feeds Julio Jones, and when defenses are capable of stopping or slowing either item on Shanny's checklist, the offense sputters badly. They're searching for a second option in the passing game that has a little more speed and yards after catch ability than Jacob Tamme, and with Leonard Hankerson back, Justin Hardy getting up to speed in the offense, and perhaps Roddy enjoying a bit of a second half resurgence, they could get that.
But the obvious path forward for Atlanta is spreading the ball around more, making it clear that you can't just throw three defensive backs on Julio Jones and thrive. That's particularly true in short yardage situations and close to the goal line, where teams are all too happy to do what it takes to make Jones a tough man to target because they don't really fear anyone else. Couple that with some pass protection woes on third down and Matt Ryan's sometimes erratic 2015 accuracy and you've got a recipe for problems, and the Falcons have certainly been cooking up some problems.
If the passing game is thriving, defenses won't be able to pack the box and wait for Devonta Freeman. Mixing in Tevin Coleman will give the offense a different look, of course, but effective blocking for Freeman (and genuine offensive balance) remain the best way to keep the good times rolling on the ground. Freeman can do some great work when he has enough of a hole to squeeze through and get his legs churning, and I think San Francisco will be a blip on the radar for him, even if his otherworldly pace may not be sustainable.
The bottom line is that the passing game needs to be better and a little less locked-in on Julio, which means Matt Ryan needs to play at a higher level, and his receivers need to do more to help him out. If that happens, a strong ground game ensures this will be one of the more capable offenses in the NFL, like it was through the first month of the season.
The Falcons are doing such a great job stopping the run thus far in 2015, and turning offenses without terrific quarterbacks into one-dimensional units has worked very well. The problem is that they're still allowing some of those familiar third and long conversions, and the lack of a pass rush limits their opportunities to make those third and really long situations.
Part of the issue is that the team's most effective run-stopping line is made up of guys like Kroy Biermann, Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Ra'Shede Hageman, who are tremendously effective in that role but don't offer much when it comes time to drag down the quarterback. Vic Beasley, O'Brien Schofield, Jonathan Babineaux and Adrian Clayborn have had flashes of effectiveness, but none of them have proven to the kind of impact pass rusher this team needs to put fear in the hearts of offenses, and the net effect is that quarterbacks generally have enough time to roll out of the pocket and find an open man, or in Blaine Gabbert's woeful case, just scramble for a first down. Aside from sending the house to gin up pressure, the Falcons will just have to count on improvement from players like Beasley and rising defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to get the job done. It's not going to be a great pass rush this season, but being a little more creative and getting improved play from young players would at least help.
The team's lack of genuine speed and athleticism at linebacker compounds many of these problems, whether it's a player failing to get home on a pass rush or flailing away three yards behind a tight end they can't quite keep up with. The Falcons will undoubtedly make linebacker a priority in the offseason, but for now, they'll try to get the speedy Philip Wheeler on the field more and play more two linebacker sets to limit their exposure, particularly in coverage.
In the secondary, it's all about making tackles and limiting communication issues, because this is a legitimately talented secondary. William Moore has had his coverage hiccups and has missed way too many chances to drag down the ball carrier in 2015, while backup Kemal Ishmael struggles a bit when asked to cover deep (which he should rarely be asked to do). Desmond Trufant is stellar, Robert Alford is very good, Ricardo Allen has been way better than any of us could have dared dream, and Jalen Collins has real upside at cornerback, so it's largely just about cleaning up mistakes.
Overall, this defense is much improved, but they're going to be reliant on making offenses one dimensional via a strong run-stuffing effort. If the offense improves, that should be enough to keep them in most football games this year if the defense just stays the course and just improves slightly itself.
Throwing this in here because I don't want to see anything changed. The Falcons need to make sure they're not letting returners break long ones like Bruce Ellington did against the 49ers, but other than that, this remains the steadiest, most reliable unit on the team. Providing the Falcons with better field position, having a still-reliable kicking option, and pinning opposing teams deep is all this special teams unit really needs to do, and thus far, they've done it quite well.
Bring on the Colts.