There have been many ways we've talked about Matt Ryan's lackluster season. Kyle Shanahan's philosophy has been heavily criticized over the last six weeks, and he lack of receiving options has become apparent with Leonard Hankerson not living up to expectations and Devin Hester not being healthy. While the offensive line played fairly well yesterday, they collapsed on two pivotal plays, causing added stress for #2. His poor play Sunday still was a difference maker.
Everson Griffen beat Jake Matthews on a key third down. Mike Person failed to pick up a blitz assignment on fourth-and-one. Shanahan deserves criticism for calling an empty set formation against a blitz-happy team in a make-or-break situation, especially because Mike Zimmer's blitzing patterns have flustered offenses all season long. Despite those two miscues, they deserve credit for holding their own against a fierce front seven most of the day.
Minnesota is the third best team in the NFC, at least according to the standings. Despite none of us being that optimistic for this game, Atlanta arguably outplayed them for three quarters. Not many people expected them to put together three respectable drives without Devonta Freeman. If you include the Tevin Coleman 46-yard run that translated into a fumble, Atlanta had four drives that went into Minnesota territory before the game was out of reach, but that didn't translate into many points.
Receivers step up more than usual as Jones commands all the attention
While the lack of receiving options and Shanahan's play calling have been weekly talking points, neither issue played a significant role in yesterday's defeat, in my opinion. Matt Ryan was composed for most of the first half, making smart high-percentage throws and reading blitzes well, and Tto see Roddy White, Nick Williams, and Justin Hardy being involved in the passing game was refreshing. White actually had more receiving yards than Julio Jones. Although beating Terence Newman repeatedly was impressive, Zimmer frequently gave Xavier Rhodes safety help to contain Jones at all costs.
Challenging other receivers to make plays and refusing to let Jones run loose downfield proved to be a wise decision. Zimmer wasn't going to fall into the same trap that Todd Bowles did last season by allowing Patrick Peterson to shadow Jones for the entire game without safety help. Without including the lopsided victory against Houston, Jones had the fewest receiving yards in a game this season. The offense struggles to take shots downfield without him, though.
Ryan's decision making costs Atlanta again
The Falcons still had plenty of opportunities to end their losing streak. Ryan was picking his spots against Captain Munnerlyn and Newman. When it came to critical situations, the once-reliable quarterback faltered in abysmal fashion once again. The first interception was another poor throw lacking zip, where Williams created separation on Munnerlyn and may have made the tough catch with a better throw. Ryan wound up throwing behind him at Minnesota's 27-yard line, crushing all momentum and giving the ball back to Minnesota.
As each week passes by, the offense continues to not finish drives. They managed to put together two drives that went over seven minutes and ten plays, and a combined three points came from those drives. Fans always want their starting quarterback to be aggressive. In a one-possession game with your defense playing relatively well, there is no need to force a low-percentage play. Ryan can't afford to throw such an errant pass on the run. While he does a tremendous job escaping pressure, Minnesota's secondary couldn't have been more organized. Tamme was well covered by Newman on the intended pass. Newman mentioned that he tried baiting Ryan into making that decision. The crafty veteran ended up making a huge play that completely changed the landscape of the game.
Productive stat line didn't translate into positive performance for Coleman
Similar to Ryan, Tevin Coleman made two huge mistakes that marred an otherwise solid performance. The fumble has been watched countless times and showcases his carelessness with the football, even if rising star Anthony Barr deserves credit for making a play forty yards downfield. Rookie running backs do tend to struggle with awareness running downfield, but this isn't the first time Coleman has been stripped from behind. John Lynch said on the broadcast that Coleman had lost three fumbles in his last 30 carries, and each one has been costly.
Ball security isn't the only concern in regards to the rookie running back. While his upwards running style and lack of shiftiness has been criticized, Coleman has been a liability in pass protection and added nothing as a receiver. On nine targets this season, he has caught only one pass. That includes a critical drop in the fourth quarter, where Ryan couldn't have thrown a better deep ball. It would have been a 40-yard completion that would put the Falcons in scoring position being down ten points with six minutes to go.
Devonta Freeman has proven to be such an asset as both a runner and receiver. The drop-off was staggering from watching Coleman waste multiple opportunities. He also dropped a screen inside the red zone. Instead of picking up much-needed yardage, Atlanta was forced into a third-and-long situation. That culminated into Ryan's sixth red-zone turnover of the season. Small miscues can translate into game-changing mistakes, which then turn into bad losses.
Missed tackles and losing the turnover battle again
Mistakes made the difference again. It's rare to see a quarterback and running back solely responsible for such a devastating defeat, especially when the offensive line allowed only two sacks and three hits against a front seven full of playmakers. Adrian Peterson eventually broke lose, but Atlanta's run defense made him work for almost every yard.
Missed tackles were an issue, and Paul Worrilow was the main culprit. Peterson made him look silly on multiple occasions. Although it wasn't on a Jerome Felton level of destruction, Zach Line opened up many holes by beating Worrilow at the point of attack.
When the Falcons were 5-0, refining their tackling was a common talking point during Dan Quinn's Monday press conferences, especially after wins over Philadelphia and Dallas. Losing the turnover battle on a weekly basis isn't something that teams can overcome. That was one of my main talking points going into this game. You can't expect to beat a more talented team on paper without winning the turnover battle. Since beating Houston, Atlanta has lost the turnover battle six out of their last seven games, with the turnover-free loss to San Francisco being the only exception.
Loss still rests heavily on Ryan
The disappointing wide receiver play and Shanahan's system can be considered as valid explanations for Ryan's disappointing season, but that doesn't erase or excuse yesterday's disappointing performance, as both interceptions showed poor accuracy and decision-making. Minnesota's defense is going to challenge every offense. Ryan handled himself well for the majority of the game. In critical situations, the once dependable quarterback made two errant plays that cost his team another winnable game. The wide receivers outside of Jones contributed more than expected. Matthews and Ryan Schraeder played their best games in quite some time.
With his entire supporting cast playing above expectations against a top-ten defense, Ryan failed to meet expectations. It's difficult to digest following countless seasons of witnessing him rise up in big-game situations inside the Georgia Dome. With a three-game road stretch coming up that includes two massive divisional games, the season is on life support. Ryan's play will be the biggest difference maker for an Atlanta team trying to not become the fifth team in NFL history to miss the playoffs following a 5-0 start.