After beating most of the NFC North, the Falcons’ experience in the AFC East didn’t get off to a great start. A tough loss to the Bills left some questions about the future. Steve Sarkisian garnered some blame for his play calling, while Matt Ryan played one of his worst games in recent memory. Injuries had a real impact on both sides of the ball. The Falcons were unable to generate any big plays or pass rush. Not being able to do either thing will likely result in a defeat, especially against a well-coached team like Buffalo.
The Miami Dolphins should present an intriguing test. Although they haven’t gotten off to a good start, the roster still possesses some high-quality players. How Atlanta starts will be important coming off a bye week. They need to get on the forefront from the start. Despite having a 3-1 record, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride. It will be on both units to rediscover their ability to make big plays. Before heading to Foxborough in what should be the most emotional game of the year, the Falcons need to take care of business at home.
Restoring the MVP
Following a well-timed bye week, Matt Ryan should be ready to rebound following a pedestrian start. The 2016 MVP has dealt with unfortunate dropped passes leading to interceptions and key players suffering injuries. These mistakes shouldn’t make him liable for every turnover. What needs to be assessed is his overall play. Ryan is currently playing like an average quarterback. For his standards, that should be considered below average.
Ryan has been erratic over the past two games. His inconsistent ball placement left several potential big play opportunities on the table. By looking jittery in the pocket, the offense is struggling to find a rhythm in the passing game. Not capitalizing on favorable positions and taking cheap sacks aren’t helping his cause either. Ryan Schraeder’s absence may have left a bigger impact than anyone anticipated. There are numerous instances when Ryan doesn’t look comfortable in the pocket.
Time will tell if Ryan’s poor performances were caused by Schraeder’s injury. Carson Wentz’s promising rookie season fall apart after Lane Johnson was suspended for ten games, and nobody can underestimate the value of a stout right tackle. That doesn’t mean a former MVP can’t overcome the adversity of playing behind a backup. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have done it in the past. With shoddy footwork and questionable decision making, Ryan’s underwhelming play can’t be disregarded. His deep ball continues to be problematic as well. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan has completed three out of 15 passes on throws that went for 20 yards or more. That must be infuriating for an offense that did whatever they wanted against opposing defenses last season.
With the highly-anticipated Super Bowl rematch looming. Ryan needs to start connecting on intermediate and deep throws. Hitting his weapons in stride instead of overthrowing them will be essential. The franchise quarterback must show better accuracy and decisiveness to get out of this brief slump. Julio Jones is expected to play, which gives him much-needed assurance. The combination of getting his stud wide receiver back and facing a shaky secondary should present plenty of high percentage plays. With Schraeder making his long-awaited return, the offensive line should hopefully remain intact. Everything is slowly aligning for Ryan, although Mohamed Sanu will be missed.
Offensive line on notice
The offensive line has played relatively well as an overall unit. Alex Mack continues to perform at an All-Pro level. Trading for Andy Levtire in 2015 will go down as one of Thomas Dimitroff’s most shrewd moves. Wes Schweitzer has shown improvement in recent weeks. There are still some flaws in this game, particularly when making second level blocks. The former sixth round pick does look more composed in pass protection following a brutal opening game against Akiem Hicks.
One strange trend that doesn’t get enough attention involves Jake Matthews. When the offense is flowing and Ryan gets protection from his blind side, many will be quick to point out Matthews’ fine play. The discussion becomes silent when the offense sputters and Matthews gets beaten repeatedly. Look no further than the Super Bowl, as Kyle Shanahan received the brunt of the blame, yet Matthews’ two penalties in the second half negated key plays. There are plenty of reasons why the Falcons didn’t score enough points against Buffalo. Jerry Hughes thrashing Matthews is one of them.
For all of the criticism about Ty Sambrailo, Matthews played as badly as him. He struggled in pass protection during the entire game. Whether it was a spin move that left Matthews staggered or beating him clean off the edge to force a “fumble”, Hughes made the former top ten pick look overmatched. Hughes is a top-tier pass rusher that can convert speed to power with the best of them. It’s still alarming to see Matthews lose definitively in another high-profile matchup.
The same issues continue to hinder Matthews. His tendency to get overpowered has become well-documented. While he will certainly get paid in 2018, Matthews’ inability to play at a consistently high level is a major reason why the offensive line hasn’t progressed into a premier unit. Miami’s defense is built off their defensive line. Schraeder’s return couldn’t come at a better time, as Cameron Wake primarily rushes from the left side. Schweitzer should receive support when blocking Ndamukong Suh. The pressure will fall on Matthews to handle his individual battles against Andre Branch and Charles Harris.
Winning the turnover battle
It seems rather vague, but this needs to be addressed. One of Quinn’s favorite phrases is “it’s all about the ball”. Creating turnovers is a staple in any defensive minded coach’s philosophy. Quinn takes it another step further by implementing specific drills and stressing it on a consistent basis. His influence was on full display in the playoffs, as Jalen Collins and Deion Jones made terrific individual plays to force a fumble. The current defense is built around playing fast and creating turnovers. That hasn’t transpired yet.
The Falcons are currently minus four in turnover differential. No team can expect to succeed with such a poorly lopsided ratio. Uncharacteristic drops and poor decisions from Ryan have played a significant part to this issue. The defense will still be held accountable, as Quinn expressed his frustration after their recent loss. They have only created a turnover (two to be exact) in one game this season. Exploiting a decimated Packers’ offense was encouraging. Not forcing any turnovers against below average offenses in Chicago and Buffalo is troubling.
It’s telling that the Falcons’ only convincing victory came against Green Bay, where they won the turnover battle. Taking away the ball and protecting it will enhance your chances of beating the opposition. With several key players returning from injury, that needs to be enforced on the field. Playing against a quarterback that should have remained retired may provide the required spark for them to start winning more comfortably.
Besides not forcing turnovers, the Falcons’ defense continues to miss far too many open field tackles. Allowing extra yardage in narrow areas is never a good look for any defense. Charles Clay managed to make the entire starting linebacker group look silly on two plays during the first drive. Quinn preaches about properly wrapping up and remaining disciplined. That is challenging with a young, ultra-quick defense flying around the field. How they manage to hone their craft and speed will be crucial going forward.
Miami’s offense doesn’t look imposing on paper. They still have playmakers that can make tacklers miss in the open field. Jarvis Landry’s willingness to look for ways to gain extra yardage (albeit sometimes to his own detriment) is something that needs to be accounted for on every play. Adam Gase hasn’t been shy about designing plays for him. Due to Jay Cutler’s limitations, the well-respected offensive mind will be heavily reliant on Jay Ajayi.
Leaning on the bruising running back to control time of possession appears to be a realistic game plan. According to Pro Football Focus, Ajayi led the league in broken tackles forced last season. The entire defense needs to be alert, especially struggling rookie Duke Riley. His tackling woes are starting to become more apparent. Growing pains were to be expected, but Riley can’t continue to play like a liability.