After being filled with optimism and vigor at the start, the Atlanta Falcons' season has fizzled into something lifeless An offense that possesses the most dangerous wide receiver in the league and a dynamic running back has become completely dull. The defense continues to struggle making fundamental tackles and avoiding critical penalties. Powerful slogans such as "Fast and Physical" and "Finishing" are nothing more than gimmicks.
Only four NFL teams have started the season 5-0 and missed the playoffs. Atlanta will become the fifth team, along with being the fastest team to fade away from the playoff picture. It usually takes until the final week of the season for those teams to complete their collapse. The Falcons have managed to take themselves out of the playoff equation by making blunders at inopportune times.
One mistake is the story for Matt Ryan
It has become a weekly truism that Matt Ryan makes one regrettable throw, which changes the complexion of the game. Whether it's a lack of arm strength or poor decision-making, Ryan has continuously faltered at some point on a weekly basis. His latest mishap was not recognizing Lavonte David in Tampa Bay's classic cover two scheme. It was another amateur mistake that an accomplished veteran quarterback shouldn't be making at this stage of his career.
This was another game where Ryan played fairly well, albeit nothing extraordinary. He made standard throws and helped sustain drives quite frequently. Atlanta had three drives that went for ten plays or more, though it only resulted in nine points. Leaving points on the field has arguably been Atlanta's biggest problem. Turnovers have been a well-documented issue, but that wasn't the case during yesterday's defeat. They won the turnover battle for the first time since week nine against San Francisco. That didn't save them from dropping their fifth consecutive game.
Red zone issues continue to derail this offense
Red zone issues usually originate from either a lack of receiving options or power running game. While Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are smaller backs, it would be extremely harsh to criticize either player for Atlanta's failures. Ryan tried forcing the ball to Julio Jones on multiple occasions in the red zone. Tampa Bay knew the ball was going in that direction because he is the only receiver that can make catches in traffic. Roddy White, Justin Hardy, and Jacob Tamme aren't players that can consistently make difficult catches. Despite playing above expectations, Tamme succeeds from being crafty and making catches over the middle.
The loss of Leonard Hankerson, even with his drops, has impacted this offense. While fans will constantly harp on his drops and inability to stay healthy, his size and athleticism presented another element that defenses needed to respect. All three of Hankerson's touchdowns this season came inside the red zone. Kyle Shanahan was able to utilize him in a variety of ways. From running basic out-routes to simply playing pitch-and-catch; Hankerson was a major asset inside the 20. No other wide receiver besides Jones has the ability to consistently make catches in traffic, due to their lack of speed or size. Shanahan refuses to use six-foot-eight Levine Toilolo in the red zone for no apparent reason. That remains as one of the most perplexing personnel decisions this year. Besides being an extra blocker, Toilolo's size is the only other asset in his arsenal.
Besides Ryan's poor season and Shanahan's questionable methods, Atlanta's inability to score in the red zone has haunted them during this losing streak. Teams can't expect to win games by leaving double-digit points on the field. Instead of fourteen points, they scored whopping three points in two red-zone opportunities last week (when the game was competitive). Instead of twenty-one points, Atlanta was reduced to four Shayne Graham field goals. Four of Atlanta's six losses have been one-possession games.
With Freeman being contained, the offense couldn't be more vanilla at the moment. Tampa Bay designed their coverage to keep Jones from beating them deep. They allowed him to catch passes underneath for the most part, as Jones' longest catch went for 25 yards. It was an excellent game plan by Lovie Smith to keep frustrating Ryan, along with running several A-gap blitzes. Handling blitzes was an issue once again, as Kwon Alexander went through untouched and sacked Ryan to force a fumble. It was reminiscent of Anthony Barr's game-ending sack last week. Mike Person's lack of awareness and poor pass protection from Freeman and Coleman has left Ryan hopeless at times.
Poor tackling has emerged once again
Unlike past losses, the defense deserves criticism for a lackluster performance. They allowed 166 rushing yards, which makes it two consecutive weeks that they've been gashed on the ground. Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant were the main culprits. They were constantly being taken out at the second level, forcing Ricardo Allen to make (and occasionally miss) open field tackles. Tackling has become a major issue, as Durant and Jalen Collins both embarrassingly whiffed on plays that went for big gains, and the team continued to miss a ton of tackles. Collins' whiff on Vincent Jackson stood out in particular, as the massive wide receiver rarely makes cornerbacks miss in the open field.
Nothing stood out more than Jameis Winston's infamous run on third-and-nineteen. With the entire organization emphasizing on finishing, you couldn't ask for a more pitiful display of not finishing. Paul Worrilow failed to properly wrap up on the initial hit, and two major free-signings in Brooks Reed and Durant made poor attempts at trying to bring him down. It ended up being a highlight-reel run that changed the entire game.
Simple miscues like that will haunt the Falcons, as they will most likely spend their January on the couch. The defense has plenty of upside, but still remain far too dependent of aging veterans and raw younger players. Vic Beasley was non-existent once again. William Moore hasn't made much of an impact since returning from injury. Adrian Clayborn has been anonymous over the past few weeks. All three players were expected to be major contributors on this rebuilding defense. They failed to emerge in a must-win situation.
At 6-6, things couldn't look bleaker. The development of several young players will be important to watch for during the remaining four games. How veterans respond to this horrific losing streak will be intriguing as well. There is no secret that major personnel changes will occur this off-season. It could also involve the front office, particularly general manager Thomas Dimitroff. Responding to adversity is important for every franchise. How they respond from being 5-0 to essentially out the playoff race will be the focus going forward. Players, coaches, and possibly even the higher ups will be held responsible. Until then, they must raise their games and not beat themselves against the best team in the NFL.