Another self-inflicted loss leaves the Falcons searching for answers. It’s one thing to not have enough talent. It’s another thing to waste precious talent and not capitalize on favorable opportunities. What happened to a once creative, unpredictable offense? How can such a promising defense allow one of the worst offenses in the league to score on every drive in the second half? Why are unforced, careless errors continuing to occur on a weekly basis?
For the second consecutive week, the Falcons failed to win at home against a highly flawed opponent. They found ways to beat themselves in numerous facets of the game. From committing reckless penalties to getting bullied in the trenches, it was an appalling second half display. That is only from a supposedly improving defense. The offense failed to find much of a rhythm, despite getting their star wide receiver and right tackle back. To blow a 17-point lead is heart wrenching. What is ultimately concerning comes from neither side of the ball showing any genuine improvement, along with the lack of discipline as an overall team.
Defense fails to create enough big plays or stops
Everything seemed pretty straightforward in the first half. The Falcons were getting off the field on third down by playing excellent coverage and forcing Jay Cutler to make quick decisions. The defense finally produced a turnover for the first time in three games. Despite shutting out Miami in the first half, there were some warning signs.
Cutler’s poor throw gave an off-balanced Deion Jones a golden opportunity to end the turnover drought. Most quarterbacks don’t miss that opening. Cutler’s inability to throw accurately on the move bailed them out. The defense has struggled covering the middle of the field in recent games. That didn’t change against a horrendous passing game.
With Quinn dialing up more blitzes than usual to fluster Cutler, it gave their playmakers more space to make plays after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the (probably should be retired) quarterback completed 12 of 15 passes for 109 yards and one touchdown. Miami had no issues moving the ball in the second half without DeVante Parker. How the Falcons couldn’t stop a team that scored 22 points in the last three games without their most dangerous wide receiver is frightening.
The pass rush was non-existent. Vic Beasley looked rusty in limited snaps, while Adrian Clayborn failed to make an impact. It’s also starting to make sense why Takkarist McKinley’s snaps were limited in the first two weeks. The first round pick looks awkward coming off the edge. Scouts were concerned about his lack of bend and hand usage. That is starting to appear for a pass rush that is still far from a finished product. Only De’Vondre Campbell, Brian Poole, and Dontari Poe managed to hit Cutler.
After containing LeSean McCoy, there was some growing optimism about the Falcons’ run defense. Jay Ajayi squashed those dreams with a 130-yard effort. Ajayi is one of the most physical running backs in the league. It was going to be an uphill battle for Quinn’s undersized defense to bring him down. According to Pro Football Focus, Ajayi gained 96 yards after contact. What was more concerning was the front seven got manhandled against an underachieving offensive line for the entire game. Star center Mike Pouncey missed the entire second half, yet they didn't miss a beat without him.
Not having legitimate interior tackle depth hurt the Falcons last season. It has lingered into this season following the losses of Jack Crawford and Ra’Shede Hageman. The organization had extra time to sign a veteran, but opted to bring up Taniela Tupou. That led to the puzzling decision of not playing him and giving Joe Vellano far too many snaps. Teams continue to run directly at him, which usually translates into big gains. Not many people would have envisioned Courtney Upshaw to be such a significant loss. They need him to give Grady Jarrett and Poe some much-needed relief.
The last two weeks have been eye opening for this young defense. They conceded a 19 play, 82-yard drive against Buffalo. It went for a whopping 11 minutes. That is inexcusable for any defense, especially when facing a one-dimensional offense. They somehow managed to do it again by allowing a 15 play, 75-yard drive against the Dolphins. It consisted of three third-down conversions, along with one fourth down conversion. Although the Falcons’ offense deserves heavy criticism, the defense is doing little to help them. Allowing a drive to go for nearly nine minutes puts everyone at a disadvantage. The offense can’t get into a rhythm and defense becomes exhausted. If they can’t get off the field against Buffalo and Miami, how are they going to fare against Tom Brady?
Sarkisian’s unimaginative offense
For all of the defensive issues, the Falcons still had four opportunities to score in the second half. They gained a combined 29 yards on three drives, before marching downfield on the final drive. That includes losing six yards on the third possession. It was another lackluster showing from the offense. Matt Ryan played well for the majority of the game. While he didn’t necessarily make many outstanding throws, there weren’t any noticeable misses or questionable decisions. You can’t fault him for the game-ending interception. As Matt Waldman broke down here, Cordrea Tankersley made an excellent play on the ball.
As the offense continues to underachieve, it’s becoming more apparent that Steve Sarkisian’s conservative play calling is playing a significant part in their regression. Most would think the bye week offers enough time to reflect on what went right and wrong so far this season. Making adjustments to correct those deficiencies seems like a logical strategy. Nothing suggested that Sarkisian made any clear changes to the offense.
The usage of every key player should be questioned right now. Ryan is being forced into more three-step drops to get the ball out quicker. If you have full belief in an offensive line the organization heavily invested in, why should you be fixated on getting the ball out so quickly? This isn’t the Giants or Bengals offensive line. Most analysts would consider this to be a top-ten caliber group. The necessity to get the ball out so quickly is nonsensical, especially with the plethora of explosive players on the roster.
Devonta Freeman only received two carries in the second half. For someone that has been so committed to staying balanced, Sarkisian went away from his star running back. Tevin Coleman only received one target on 37 pass plays. One of the league’s most terrifying weapons isn’t being used in a creative manner. It’s been quite some time, since he was utilized as a receiver. Julio Jones has essentially become a possession receiver in this offense. The once-unstoppable force hasn’t caught a pass over 18 yards since Week 2 against the Packers. After featuring him heavily on the first drive, Taylor Gabriel was a complete afterthought in the second half.
There is nothing inspiring about the Falcons’ offense at the moment. They are operating at a rushed, yet extremely predictable pace. It’s not difficult to telegraph who Ryan is targeting. The play designs aren't creating as many openings as they did last season. Unless it’s a play action fake, Ryan hasn’t been taking shots downfield. How can an offense featuring Jones, Coleman, Freeman, and Gabriel become lethargic? The franchise quarterback did talk about not staying aggressive. That could be a notion of change needing to transpire quickly. They can’t expect to be efficient, when Austin Hooper is leading the team with nine targets.
Whenever a team loses in grueling fashion, there are penalties or missed opportunities that can be pinpointed. The defense committed two penalties on both touchdown-scoring drives. Clayborn’s neutral zone infraction turned a third and 12 situation into a more manageable third and seven. That led to Kenny Stills catching a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone. If Clayborn stayed composed, the defense would have been able to put extra pressure on Cutler to throw more downfield into coverage.
On the next drive, Jarrett’s deplorable hit on Cutler erased Jones’ second interception. The rules are meant to protect the quarterback more than any other position, which can make roughing the passer penalties highly debatable. Nobody can defend what Jarrett did after Cutler got rid of the ball. This penalty happened only two plays after Robert Alford was called for pass interference. These costly mistakes turned what should have been three points at most into 14 unanswered points.
The lights couldn’t be brighter for the Falcons. They start a three-game road trip in New England, which could already be considered a pivotal part of the season. No team can afford to commit too many mistakes against the Patriots. Given their recent issues, this is going to be a daunting task. How will Sarkisian make adjustments to revitalize an ordinary offense? They will need to score points to keep pace in a likely high-scoring affair. For the first time in quite some time, Quinn’s team will be heading into a game as a definitive underdog. It’s hard to find confidence in a team that could easily be 1-4 right now. They responded well from their last two-game losing streak, which happened nearly one year ago. Unlike last year, it's going to take more than a few individuals stepping up for this team to get back on track.