Turnovers were supposedly the main roadblock for the Atlanta Falcons. Nine turnovers in three games, including five in the red zone has doomed the offense. With help from amateur turnovers, questionable play calling, and below average personnel, Atlanta has routinely failed in the red zone over the past month.
In my weekly feature, playing fundamental football was the main talking point. If Atlanta didn't turn the ball over, there should have been no reason for them to lose to one of the worst teams in the NFL. The offense should be good enough to take advantage of a decimated defense, but another stagnant performance was all we got.
Abandoning the run
For the first time since week two, the running game simply wasn't productive. San Francisco's front seven was flying to the ball, particularly on the edge. Devonta Freeman was neutralized for the first time since his emergence, and though it was stymied all day, the coaching's staff decision to largely abandon the run was questionable.
Kyle Shanahan's offense emphasizes balance and unpredictability. Nothing screams predictability more than 45 passes and 13 rushes, despite being down by one possession throughout most of the game. Successful running teams don't bail on their strength, unless the scoreboard indicates that they need to score quickly. Only giving Tevin Coleman one carry is another issue. A player with game-changing speed needs to be utilized more often, regardless of Freeman's success. A split of 30 to 35 passes and 20 to 25 rushes would be an ideal weekly strategy.
The score never indicated that Atlanta needed to score instantly in the second half. Shanahan decided to go pass-heavy, which didn't lead to one second-half touchdown against the 28th ranked defense. While his stat sheet looks pretty, Ryan missed a fair share of throws and should have been intercepted by Navarro Bowman on a check down. Basic out-routes were missed, as Ryan overthrew Julio Jones and Nick Williams for easy first downs.
Passing game limitations
Quarterbacks will miss throws, but it can't be the same throws on a weekly basis. Overthrowing short to intermediate throws will drastically affect an offense that can't attack defenses downfield. Ryan managed to complete a beautiful 54-yard pass to Jones, although San Francisco was out of position with NaVorro Bowman running 40 yards downfield. Atlanta was fortunate to have that opening, as they didn't complete another downfield pass until the fourth quarter, where Roddy White made his lone catch on a in-route for 20 yards.
Everyone is trying to figure out Atlanta's issues by evaluating every coaching decision and player. While nobody on the Falcoholic staff breaks down issues better than Charles MacDonald, I see a few obvious ones that we need to address now.
Roddy White playing fifty to fifty-five snaps is detrimental to the offense. He can't explode off the line of scrimmage any more, or run crafty routes to create separation. When cornerbacks play man coverage against him, White is going to be taken out of the play on most occasions. It's a harsh reality for the once-stud wide receiver. Age catches up to all players. With Leonard Hankerson coming back, the coaching staff needs to put White in better positions, possibly inside the slot. Continuing to play him for fifty to fifty-five snaps has left Ryan checking down to Freeman on far too many occasions.
More limitations that have been fully exposed
There are simply no excuses for yesterday's performance. Losing to a team featuring no offensive playmakers outside of Torrey Smith is unfathomable. The pass rush continues to be non-existent, which is another reoccurring weekly theme. As excellent as the interior tackles (Paul Soliai in particular) have played this season, you have to question Atlanta's strategy to not acquire another edge rusher. If the coaching staff always envisioned Adrian Clayborn as an interior pass rusher, how could they feel comfortable with only three true edge rushers on the roster?
The edge rusher rotation consists of an undersized rookie, situational run stopper, and Kroy Biermann. Does that sound like a convincing trio? It has really hindered a defense that lacks athletic linebackers and depth at cornerback. San Francisco dropped six passes, which included a Jerome Simpson drop that ended up as an interception. The box score could have looked significantly worse without those blunders. Philip Adams was fully exposed as a nickel cornerback, while Kemal Ishmael doesn't have the speed to handle coverage responsibilities. That was evident last year, yet the coaching staff has been forced to play him.
Coaching staff blunders against weak opponents
What has been so demoralizing about this poor stretch has been the quality of opponents. Even with injuries to key players such as Justin Durant and Hankerson, Atlanta should be more than capable of beating NFC basement-dwellers like Tampa Bay and San Francisco. As Carolina continues to knock off playoff teams, Atlanta is searching for answers to save a once-promising season.
While the team was thoroughly out-played by both Tampa Bay and San Francisco, the coaching staff deserves to be mentioned. There are many unlikely scenarios in this crazy sport. Overruling the spot of a short-yardage play remains as one of the most unlikely scenarios. The challenge couldn't have been more unnecessary, as it showed a sign of desperation and lost Atlanta a key timeout.
A timeout could have been used to fully decide to go for it on fourth down. While defensive coaches will always be stubborn about trusting their defense, a timeout could have used to evaluate the situation a little more carefully. Besides not running the ball, Shanahan's play calling was fairly weak. A low-percentage jump ball to Jones wasn't wise, considering San Francisco doesn't fear any other receiver. They constructed their defense around shutting down Jones in the red zone.
An obvious pick play to Justin Hardy was well covered on third down. Atlanta had a bunch formation on the right to isolate Jones on the left. With safety help on the left side, a pick play to Hardy was Ryan's only realistic option. They immediately wrapped him up with relative ease. It's still baffling to see Levine Toilolo not utilized in the red zone, but that has become another weekly objection. Even players admit the play calling from Kyle Shanahan has become too predictable.
It boils down to a lack of receiving options
Yesterday reminded us that turnovers aren't solely responsible for crushing Atlanta's momentum. They lack speed on the outside, while the pass protection has declined over the past month. Fans can only hope that Hankerson and Devin Hester will be immediate solutions that can save Atlanta from being a complete dink-and-dunk offense. They can provide some explosiveness to a passing attack filled with possession wide receivers that either can't separate any more (White) or have limitations (Hardy).
In 2014, Ryan attempted 69 deep passes, which ranked seventh among quarterbacks according to Pro Football Focus. He completed 56 percent of those passes that ranked him above every quarterback. In 2015, Ryan hasn't even made the top 20 list for deep passes. Of course, Shanahan needs to do a better job of putting his receivers in better opportunities.
Ryan didn't become overly conservative overnight. Receivers need to step up in order to save a once-explosive offense from becoming completely ordinary. No offense that features the most feared wide receiver and a top running back should struggle to score 20 points. Atlanta has defied those depressing odds and now must rediscover what once made them an offensive juggernaut.