During training camp, Flowery Branch had a different aura. Coaches began preaching about aggression and improving tackling techniques, and the attention was strictly on Dan Quinn implementing his new scheme. While plenty of positive results have occurred from Quinn's arrival, a few troubling habits have emerged over the past few weeks.
Fluky turnovers such as James Stone's botched snap against New Orleans or Kwon Alexander's phenomenal play against Julio Jones can't be criticized. Not every week is going to be perfect. A monthly stretch of bad snaps, botched hand-offs, and being unable to consistently score in the red zone has left Atlanta struggling against below-average teams, and it has become a collective team issue.
No Discipline, No Win
Atlanta committed eleven penalties yesterday, which is an appalling amount for any team. Not all of these penalties came from poor individual plays or incompetent refereeing. Two neutral zone infractions, including a Vic Beasley mistake that resulted in a first down, are prime examples of a lack of discipline. Multiple holding penalties on Andy Levitre affected the offense's momentum. As good as Julio Jones and Jacob Tamme have been this season, both players committed blatant holding penalties that set the offense back ten yards.
Ten Yard Fight
Ten yards can severely affect an offense, especially when that offense is lacking any semblance of a downfield passing attack. A ten-yard holding penalty leads to more predictable play calling, and that doesn't bode well for an offense turning the ball over at a breakneck pace. Matt Ryan has been criticized heavily over the past month for poor decision making and underthrowing his receivers, and it has been deserved, though he played fairly well yesterday.
Ryan's poise and ability to thread the needle was evident in the second half. His rapport with Tamme continues to grow on a weekly basis. While his lone interception stemmed from staring down Tamme, it's clear how valuable a pass-catching tight end is for the franchise quarterback.
The issues from yesterday's game can be summed up as fundamental football mistakes. A botched handoff from Ryan to Freeman can't be rationalized. To make matters worse, the fumble occurred at the 20-yard line. Fundamental mistakes inside the red zone have doomed this offense for the past three weeks. The comedy of errors continued with Mike Person botching a snap, which resembled an old man rolling a bocce ball.
Person of Interest (Unfortunately)
Person's tendency to immediately want to block or pull has resulted in poor snaps on far too many occasions. It has become an almost weekly occurrence, one that has either resulted in a turnover or Ryan throwing a wayward pass. Those issues continued with Ryan nearly tripping on Person's foot during a toss play that resulted in a four-yard loss.
It was never going to be a smooth transition going from being a backup guard with minimal NFL experience to a starting center in one month. Atlanta's last minute personnel change was going to be an issue at some point, and despite his fine blocking, Person has become the issue following yesterday's performance. He will need to work with Ryan extensively to avoid any further mishaps. These fundamental mistakes can't occur in November, when good teams start setting themselves apart from the pack.
The Expectations Game
When any team starts 5-0, the bar will be higher, and players are expected to continue their high level of play or improve. Ryan should be able to attack below-average defenses like New Orleans' or Tampa Bay's on a consistent basis, and turnovers shouldn't be an issue against defenses that lack playmakers.
Nine turnovers in the last three games, including five in the red zone, are the main reason Atlanta is not undefeated. Not being able to throw downfield and lacking vertical threats at wide receiver are certainly major problems. That still didn't stop them from producing 496 total yards yesterday or 413 total yards against New Orleans. After being first in red zone efficiency following the blowout against Houston, they have slightly fallen down to fifth. The most noteworthy stat comes from the last three games, where they've only scored touchdowns on 50 percent of their red zone opportunities.
Atlanta had four ten-play drives yesterday. They only managed to score 13 out of a possible 28 points against a defense that just allowed Kirk Cousins to come back from a 24-point deficit. You begin to wonder what could possibly happen against quality teams such as Minnesota and Carolina. They've been underwhelming for a month now, despite having the NFL's most dangerous receiver and a productive running game.
This recent poor stretch doesn't derail their overall outlook. A trip to San Francisco should be a good opportunity to bounce back. That being said, I've mentioned in my past three weekly preview features how this team should feast on below average opponents. Based on San Francisco's struggles, as summed up by Gregg Rosenthal, there is no reason to believe Atlanta shouldn't be 7-2 going into their bye week, even so.
Getting Back on Track
Leonard Hankerson's ability to stretch the field has been missed. People will condemn his drops (rightfully so), but there is no denying his ability to get open and create mismatches. Roddy White, Justin Hardy, and Nick Williams are all possession receivers. With Devin Hester not coming back until early December, Hankerson is desperately needed to take pressure off Julio Jones.
It feels like an eternity since Ryan attempted a true deep pass. While some may reference him not being at 100 percent, the absence of Hankerson has more validity behind Atlanta's dink-and-dunk offense. His return will provide a different element for an offense that desperately needs one. Ryan's most complete passing performances came against New York and Dallas this season. Hankerson's breakout game occurred against New York, and he also contributed three catches for 45 yards against Dallas. While the former Redskin isn't dependable enough to be a long-term number-two option, nobody can deny his ability as a difference maker for this offense.
Adjustments still have to be made across the board. Botched handoffs and snaps can't continue to happen on a weekly basis. Improvising new plays inside the red zone would be beneficial as well. October was supposed to be the month when Atlanta preyed on weaker opponents and talented teams brought Carolina down, but that failed to transpire. Reinforcements, including Hankerson and Hester, will be coming back shortly. For now, it's up to the offense to start finishing drives.