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After being bullied inside the trenches, the Falcons need to find a new blueprint

The Falcons were on the receiving end of a grueling, intelligent gameplan. It wouldn’t be surprising to see other teams emulate it.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

With all the uncertainty surrounding Atlanta going into the season, the interior defensive line was an afterthought. Grady Jarrett’s transition into a starting role generated optimism. Moving Tyson Jackson back inside didn’t exactly inspire confidence, though, and there were several moving pieces between Ra’Shede Hageman lining up as a five-tech defensive end and Courtney Upshaw putting on weight to play defensive tackle. Transitioning so many different players can be an issue, especially with two starting rookie linebackers.

The run defense has played fairly well this season, overall, but it can’t be discounted that they’ve benefitted from the offense’s efficiency. Opposing teams are forced to throw more often, as they are facing deficits entering the fourth quarter. Jarrett has been productive, while Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell are coming off consecutive terrific performances. Carson Wentz attempted 47 passes against the Giants. It was evident that Doug Pederson was going to prioritize on keeping a steady balance offensively. That proved to be a wise strategy.

Abused up front

When any defense allows over 200 rushing yards, there is no other phrase to describe a dismal performance. The defense was bullied for all four quarters. Nobody expected a walloping of this magnitude based on the instability surrounding Philadelphia’s running back situation. Darren Sproles was announced as the number one running back last week. He only carried the ball twice, while Ryan Matthews and Wendall Smallwood combined for 32 carries. They gained 179 yards together, as the offensive line mauled Atlanta’s front seven.

This was Jarrett’s worst performance of the season. The promising second-year player was on the ground or pushed five yards off the line of scrimmage far too often. If he wasn’t getting double teamed, versatile backup Stefan Wisniewski cleared him out on running plays. With Philadelphia gaining six to eight yards on every carry directed to Jason Peters’ side, the base package’s personnel flaws were being exploited.

The LEO position remains as a major issue. Despite Brooks Reed playing partially better in recent weeks, he isn’t an ideal option for this role. Hageman’s inability to contain and allow opposing lineman to drive him away from the play makes him an unsuitable fit on the edge. The enigmatic lineman still doesn’t use his hands well and overly depends on raw power. With the base defense being gashed on every level, upgrades are going to be required this off-season.

Philadelphia had five drives that went for eight plays or more. A more equipped offense would score more than 21 points on those particular drives. They recognized Atlanta’s offensive excellence and utilized a more methodical game plan. By having more than 38 minutes of possession, it worked masterfully behind a revamped offensive line. Without Allen Barbre and Lane Johnson, the disjointed unit looked unified against the Falcons.

To make matters worse, Quinn oddly decided to rotate the linebackers. LaRoy Reynolds played 20 snaps in the middle. Paul Worrilow played 26 snaps on the weakside. Both players are a significant downgrade from Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell. In the post game press conference, Quinn admitted that there were a few minor knocks, despite failing to specify which linebacker was injured. Both Jones and Campbell appeared to be fine in the locker room.

Offensive woes

It was a puzzling performance for the offense. They moved the ball well during various stages of the game. Eventually, those drives stalled from the offensive line breaking down. They were largely overwhelmed by an outstanding front four. Fletcher Cox was unsurprisingly at the forefront. According to Pro Football Focus, the NFL’s second highest paid defensive player had six hurries on 31 pass rushing snaps. Chris Chester was left hopeless on an island against him.

The right side was primarily responsible for Matt Ryan taking two sacks and six hits. With Chester paired against Cox, Ryan Schraeder faced Brandon Graham for the majority of the game. Schreader’s tendency to struggle against speed rushers continued yesterday. Graham’s explosive first step left Schraeder off balance on several occasions. Ryan couldn’t even get a Hail Mary off, as Graham forced him out of bounds without much resistance. Schreader has faced a brutalizing slate of edge rushers this season. Besides Cliff Avril, nobody gave him more issues than Graham.

When looking at the box score, many would classify yesterday as Ryan’s worst performance of the season. That would be harsh, considering how the franchise quarterback received little support. It wasn’t only the pass protection that left him making unsettling decisions. His receiving options left many plays on the field. Julio Jones and Austin Hooper dropped two passes. The Falcons were going into this game with only ten drops on the season. A major issue in 2015 came back to haunt them, especially on third down. That wasn’t the only previous problem to emerge in the second half.

Ryan stared down Jones for most of the second half. Although the superstar wide receiver was open on several plays, the offense went back to their dreaded 2015 ways. It has been repeated on countless occasions about the offense. For them to play at the highest level, other receiving options need to contribute. Besides Taylor Gabriel roasting Leodis McKelvin for a 76-yard touchdown, nobody else made a standout play. Ryan ultimately paid the price for heavily targeting Jones with an ill-advised interception on the final drive.

Questionable Decisions

The coaching staff has done an outstanding job making second half adjustments this season. That wasn’t the case yesterday, as Quinn and Kyle Shanahan both made poor judgments. It was mentioned above that Quinn gave the backup linebackers far too many snaps. Worrilow shouldn’t be on the field (barring injury) during any third down situation. Jones was having another solid game, yet Reynolds was playing in the fourth quarter. Those were bizarre personnel moves by Quinn.

Sports Illustrated’s Jonathan Jones tweeted that the Falcons ran only once following Gabriel’s touchdown. To abandon the run in a highly competitive game was another issue from last season. Shanahan called over 40 passes and less than 20 running plays in Atlanta’s losses to San Francisco and Tampa Bay at home. They were running the ball fairly well with Devonta Freeman. Philadelphia’s time of possession dominance clearly played a factor behind Freeman only receiving 12 carries. It should have been a point of emphasis to give him the ball more, especially to slow down their vaunted pass rush.

There were other perplexing decisions. After showing confidence in him against Green Bay and Tampa Bay, Terron Ward only received one carry. With only two active running backs, Ward was going to be called upon at some point. The poor offensive balance left him running routes instead of running between the tackles. He should have received four to six carries. Ward also dropped a pass to continue Ryan’s forgettable day. Joshua Perkins played on the final drive, which didn’t seem sensible. Although the coaching staff values him, an undrafted third-string tight end playing his second professional game shouldn’t be on the field in a pivotal situation. Perkins was penalized for setting an obvious pick, which wiped out a 29-yard completion to Freeman on third down.

Looking Ahead

The bye week couldn’t have happened at a better time. From being in the locker room yesterday, there was a sense of fatigue. The Falcons have already played six road games this season. To be 4-2 with victories over Oakland and Denver is impressive. Some much-needed home games, along with Tevin Coleman and possibly Desmond Trufant returning should give them enough to win the division. It was a disappointing performance coming off an extended break. Both lines are going to remember this beating for the next week. With Philadelphia showing the blueprint on how to beat the Falcons, it will be on the offensive line to protect better and defensive line to not be overpowered at the point of attack.