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A closer look: Rookies endure a grueling learning experience

The rookies have played relatively well this season. When facing one of the top teams in the NFL, they fell short and struggled in a big spot.

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Kansas City Chiefs v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Although the final score didn’t reveal it, the Falcons were outplayed in all three phases last Sunday. There are plenty of issues to pinpoint following another soul crushing home defeat. Converting red zone opportunities remains an issue. Decision making in critical situations has become the recent hot topic. What isn’t receiving enough recognition is the defense’s porous play. With Desmond Trufant and Adrian Clayborn sidelined, the rookie starters were expected to step up, as they are developing into potential defensive cornerstones. That didn’t transpire on Sunday.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most standout plays or disappointing decisions. One particular player, positional group, or situation is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. The three rookie starters will be mostly highlighted. Brian Poole makes a brief appearance, but the main focus is going to be elsewhere. Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Keanu Neal noticeably struggled on Sunday. It was easily Neal and Campbell’s worst game of the season. Here are some of the missed plays, along with one or two bright moments from the rookie trio.

1st quarter: 1st and 10 at KC 41

When you drop seven into coverage (Ricardo Allen isn’t pictured, but he is involved), there shouldn’t be any glaring downfield openings. Alex Smith only has four receiving options at his disposal. Somehow, his most talented option finds acres of space and should be practically begging for the ball. Not even a notoriously conservative quarterback like Smith can miss Travis Kelce. Leaving receivers and tight ends open downfield continues to be a repetitive theme for the defense.

Jones and Campbell can’t decide on who is supposed to track back. Robert Alford shares some responsibility, as he was likely supposed to let Allen pick up Tyreek Hill. It’s highly unlikely that Alford can make much of a play on the ball in this position. Kelce is simply too big and knows how to win in traffic. Both rookie linebackers need to watch this play and understand their respective roles. Worrying about Spencer Ware in the flat rather than an elite tight end running a vertical route will lead to surrendering big plays.

1st quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 38

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a better angle for Neal’s matchup against Kelce. Various beat writers were speculating that Campbell would cover Kelce. Neal seemed like a better option based on his previous success against Greg Olsen for three quarters. Shadowing Kelce with the rookie safety was my preferred choice towards containing him. It only took until the third offensive play of the game for my idea to explode into pieces. This isn’t necessarily bad coverage by Neal. He doesn’t bite on Kelce’s head fake, which is a major part of his arsenal.

Neal remains in good position, before losing a step in the end. Smith deserves credit for throwing an accurate deep ball. With better coverage, it could have been broken up. On this occasion, a great player did enough to create separation. Besides Jordan Reed and Jimmy Graham, Kelce is arguably the most athletic productive tight end in the league.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at KC 21

Mitch Morse is one of the most athletic centers in the league. Kansas City expects him to make second level blocks and contribute heavily on screens. He falls short here, as Campbell explodes and beats him. It doesn’t look like a special play, but this is what the Falcons were missing last season.

Speed was obviously stressed during the draft. Completing open field tackles proved to be an issue between Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant last season. Campbell shows excellent technique by going low and corralling both legs. He anticipates that Ware is attacking the B gap, as Ra’Shede Hageman is immediately fooled. Campbell makes a crucial play, as Ware gains at least ten yards, if he doesn’t beat Morse and finish the tackle.

2nd quarter: 2nd and 6 at ATL 39

Neal found himself on the receiving end of several big plays from Kelce. With better defensive alignment, he shouldn’t be forced into this situation. Kansas City is one of the more screen-heavy teams in the league. On several different occasions, the defense looked completely unprepared and disorganized. How are two players in the secondary expected to cope with three receiving options? With Phillip Wheeler blitzing, it left Alford and Allen in a hopeless situation.

Albert Wilson puts a decent cut block on Allen. This springs Kelce into the open field, where he can be an absolute nightmare. Neal decides to go recklessly high and pays for it. According to Pro Football Focus, Neal only missed three tackles prior to this game. Kelce’s cut could have played a part in Neal’s miscue. In the end, this was an ugly play on all fronts. Kelce has consistently been used on screens for a limited Chiefs’ offense. For the defense to be gashed so easily, the coaching staff should be very concerned. Neal’s dismal attempt didn’t help matters either

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at KC 11

When you are in excellent position to make a play, it needs to be completed. Campbell reads Ware’s route and should keep this completion to a minimal gain. There is nothing creative about this play. Campbell goes high instead of wrapping up the waist. Ware doesn’t possess great power, yet uses his smaller frame wisely. With Campbell going high, he ducks and shakes him off. A two-yard completion turns into a 14-yard gain. Basic mistakes have derailed this unit, while providing momentum for the opposing offense.

3rd quarter: 1st and 10 at KC 10

This is another simple play that translates into a big gain. Smith should be looking for Chris Conley, as the offensive coordinator called a bootleg. Matt Ryan has connected with Julio Jones on the same exact design in previous games. Conley was open, yet Smith opted for the safer option (as he normally does) and checked down to Kelce. Campbell should hold him to a one-yard gain at most. Instead, the fourth round pick takes a hard step and looks off balanced. Kelce feasts on the poor angle and gains 19 yards in the process. Campbell committed another baffling mistake on a check down. Imagine if the coaching staff actually used him to shadow Kelce? It would have been a repeat of Vernon Davis versus Stephen Nicholas.

3rd quarter: 1st and 10 at KC 29

On the next play, two rookies combine for a two-yard loss. Jones shows good instincts to recognize the open gap and blasts into the backfield. His tackling is improving following a difficult first month, but the miss is noticeable here. Poole backs him up and finishes off a successful play. The defense’s speed gave Kansas City’s offensive line some fits. Similar to Morse against Campbell, Eric Fisher tries to pull and take out a linebacker. He doesn’t notice Jones’ blistering speed fast enough and Ware can’t get out of the backfield.

4th quarter: 2nd and 10 at KC 8

Kelce beats Neal on the final drive of the game. A whip route can be devastating, if the receiver or tight end possesses good footwork. Look at how Kelce plants his feet and turns his hips to create separation. Neal gets caught off balance and allows a 14-yard completion. It was a humbling experience for Neal, who is genuinely having a strong rookie season. Kelce validated his status as a top five tight end with this performance. Most tight ends are usually too big for opposing safeties. Kelce is one of the few tight ends that can be considered as too athletic (or smooth on this particular play) for safeties to contain in single coverage.