It was nearly one year ago when Atlanta faced off against Carolina for the NFC South crown. Momentum was somewhat high following their win over New Orleans, or as Arthur Blank described it, "we kicked the Saints' ass." With the home crowd energized, many felt that Atlanta was going to somehow sneak into the playoffs. Four quarters later, an absolute beatdown was over, and Mike Smith was quickly fired.
Cam Newton had one of the better games of his career. The defense sacked Matt Ryan seven times to go along with three turnovers. It was reminiscent of the 2012 playoff loss to the New York Giants. An overwhelmed offensive line and defense that couldn't get off the field on third down correlated into an unforgettable abomination of Smith's final game as head coach.
With Carolina emerging as the best team in the NFL, Atlanta has faded towards another disappointing season. Expectations weren't high going into this game, especially after last year. A respectable performance would have been accepted. It was only last week when a below-average Saints team pushed the Panthers to the brink, and NFC South games tend to be very competitive.
Undisciplined and horrendous display
That wasn't the case, as Atlanta was pulverized from the start. Jonathan Stewart had open running lanes on most of his ten carries. Paul Worrilow was repeatedly out of position. William Moore looked extremely slow trying to chase Stewart in the open field, before injuring his ankle. Paul Soliai was clearly missed, as Atlanta's interior was getting pushed around.
When they wanted to hit back, it didn't come between the whistles. O'Brien Schofield blatantly took a shot at Newton, and Ryan Schraeder was benched for jawing with multiple Panther players. The destruction continued with Ra'Shede Hageman shoving Bryan Cox on the sidelines. Discipline continues to be a prevalent issue on a team that consists of far too many average to below-average players and raw prospects.
Questioning the team's effort would be harsh. The defense was still playing relatively hard when the game was over in the second half. What yesterday's debacle revealed was Carolina exceeding Atlanta at almost every position. From the speed of their linebackers to unity on the offensive line, it's pretty remarkable to see the talent discrepancy between the two teams.
Several players exploited
Carolina was mocked for depending on Michael Oher to protect Cam Newton's blindside. The often-ridiculed left tackle has been adequate this season. When you look at Atlanta's last-minute trade for Andy Levitre and inserting Mike Person into the starting lineup, those two moves have been responsible for a huge chunk of Atlanta's troubles up front. Opposing defenses have been successful running basic stunts and A-gap blitzes during their losing streak.
Levitre and Person have been mainly responsible for both issues. NaVorro Bowman, D'Qwell Jackson, Anthony Barr, Kwon Alexander, and Thomas Davis are on the list of linebackers that have produced sacks against Atlanta. The linebacker sack streak is currently at five games. While Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have struggled in pass-protection, Person has to take responsibility as well. Nobody will forget his blunder against Minnesota in a critical situation.
There is no need to fully dissect the lack of receiving options. It has been epeated on The Falcoholic for weeks now. This issue has received national recognition with Bill Barnwell writing a long, detailed feature about Matt Ryan's lackluster season. With the game already getting away from them, they couldn't give Freeman a hefty workload. Not being able to utilize the second-best playmaker within your offense isn't a good recipe to beat an undefeated team. The offense will need to make major upgrades at several key positions this off-season. With three more games remaining, nothing extraordinary is going to occur.
Coverage breakdowns can't be overcome
Teams should never be shut out, but the defense's first half performance was far more discouraging. Robert Alford played the worst game of his season. While Ted Ginn got away with an obvious push-off, it doesn't erase the two other penalties for illegal contact. Alford has quietly been one of Atlanta's most dependable players on defense this season. Similar to practically everyone on defense, his performance was reminiscent of the 2014 season. Poor positioning against bigger receivers and constantly grabbing speedy wide receivers downfield were Alford's two biggest flaws last season. That showed up yesterday against the likes of Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess.
Coaching deserves some blame as well, especially involving Ginn's second touchdown. Carolina ran a similar design with him last week against the Saints. As Brandon Browner played off coverage, it allowed Ginn to be matched up against Stephone Anthony. They had Ginn run the same route yesterday, which allowed him to be matched up against Philip Wheeler. Both teams failed to provide safety help for their overmatched linebackers. Unless they were depending on Ginn to drop another wide-open touchdown, it was baffling to see Carolina have success with an identical play call for the second consecutive week with the same player. Ricardo Allen should have provided more help or Desmond Trufant could have shifted over to prevent such an easy touchdown.
Simple breakdowns on both sides of the ball continue to haunt them. While nitpicking coaching decisions will always be a weekly norm following any loss, the lack of talent continues to be exposed. Carolina has emerging superstars such as Kawann Short and Josh Norman. They've joined Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis amongst the elite at their respective positions. Key contributions from veterans such as Jared Allen and Charles Tillman have been beneficial. Kurt Coleman has emerged into a playmaker. They've assembled a unit full of reliable assets that will make plays on a weekly basis. There are more fingers on one hand than the amount of reliable assets Atlanta has on their defense.
Hot seat warming up for Dimitroff
Brian Billick and John Lynch have made statements about Atlanta's lack of talent in recent weeks. Those have to be considered as indirect shots at general manager Thomas Dimitroff. As the losing streak continues, there are going to be severe consequences. No team can go from 5-0 to 6-10 or 7-9 without some type of major change. Kyle Shanahan appears to be the popular choice, which wouldn't be surprising. Dimitroff has to be the other name considered based on underwhelming draft classes and free-agent signings that haven't developed into difference makers.
Soliai, Jacob Tamme, and Chris Chester have been decent signings, but have any high profile free agent acquisitions truly panned out over the past four seasons? Not acquiring Derrick Morgan was a disappointment, and Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora were underwhelming two-year moves. Besides trading for Asante Samuel, it's hard to remember the last true difference maker that Atlanta has acquired.
With only three games left, Dimitroff will receive plenty of attention in the upcoming weeks. The season has essentially become a showcase for younger players to develop and older players to stake their claim into possibly remaining on the team. A win would significantly help from a morale standpoint, but nothing will ease the long-term outlook. Atlanta is several notches below the likes of Carolina and Arizona, and change is imminent. Today confirmed that those changes will be need to be taken to greater lengths for them to compete with the upper echelon in the NFC.