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Playing with fire catches up with the Falcons

When you turn the ball over and can't execute in the red zone, you can't expect to keep winning.

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Buffalo Bills v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

For the second consecutive week, the Falcons made several uncharacteristic mistakes. The offense continues to turn the ball over. When your defense can’t force any turnovers, it turns the process of winning itself into an uphill battle.

This will be a difficult loss to get over for the Falcons. Despite all of their miscues, they couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity on the final drive. To not gain one yard on two plays speaks volumes of how discombobulated things were for a decimated offense.

Not having Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Ryan Schraeder left them shorthanded against a rapidly improving Bills’ defense. Although he was only sacked once, Matt Ryan looked rattled for the second straight week. His erratic play can’t be overlooked in a close game. Whenever a team is on the receiving end of a tough loss, two or three names will be pinpointed. Ryan and Steve Sarkisian will likely take the brunt of the blame. It doesn’t help that the officiating crew made multiple ludicrous decisions. The entire team will still have to take responsibility for a loss filled with self-inflicted mistakes and poor late game decisions from the coaching staff.

When it all falls down

When Matt Ryan tends to struggle, his supporting cast fails to provide much assistance. The 2016 MVP didn’t play well last week against Detroit. He missed Taylor Gabriel and Julio Jones multiple times on downfield throws in favorable situations. To make matters worse, Tevin Coleman and Mohamed Sanu dropped passes that translated into costly interceptions. It all culminated into an infuriating performance with so many points left on the field.

The same issues transpired yesterday. On the first drive, Ryan overthrew Jones on a deep crossing pattern. It was another wasted opportunity, as Jones had a couple of steps on the Bills' secondary. Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo mentioned on his podcast that Ryan had only completed two passes of 20 yards or more heading into yesterday’s game. His deep ball accuracy should be viewed as a legitimate concern. Other than completing a 39-yard downfield pass to Tevin Coleman, it was another poor showing from the usually reliable quarterback.

Critics used to highlight Ryan’s lack of arm strength for his inability to consistently connect on deep throws. That has recently changed with Ryan overthrowing his weapons on many occasions. His ball placement on intermediate passes looked off as well. Although Justin Hardy and Austin Hooper dropped multiple passes, some fairly easy throws required them to some kind of adjustment. In a game where nothing much was going right offensively, your leader needs to take matters into his own hands. Ryan didn’t do enough to elevate his teammates in a dire situation.

As Ryan receives backlash, there will plenty of questions surrounding the coaching staff. Dan Quinn’s time mismanagement must be observed. Using your last timeout with over three minutes left felt like a rash decision. Given the lack of receiving options and discomfort within the offense, one timeout would have been extremely useful. They should have taken into account what Ryan had at his disposal. Nick Williams made his first appearance of the season. Hardy rarely sees the field in late-game situations. They didn't bother using Andre Roberts. Not having familiarity with your offense could be detrimental when attempting to conduct a game-winning drive. Ryan, Quinn, and Sarkisian learned the hard way.

It appears to have affected Ryan, who looked panicky near the red zone. Throwing the ball away on multiple occasions put them in a difficult spot. If they had one timeout left, it would have allowed him to scramble or check it down more often. Ryan decided to throw a pass away, despite having Coleman open for a first down on third and one. That led to the incomplete pass on fourth down. You always need to move at a fast pace on a potential game-winning drive. Not having the comfort of one timeout can cause rushed plays and missed opportunities. Questionable play calling doesn’t help either.

Play calling gone wrong

Between the putrid officiating and shaky play calling, there are plenty of things to digest surrounding this loss. Sarkisian’s inconsistency continues to hamper the offense. The lack of productivity wasn’t solely based on losing both starting wide receivers. Jones played on the first three drives, while Sanu missed the second half. They scored a total of three points when both players were in the game. It shows that the game wasn’t completely derailed because of injuries. There were still chances for points to be scored.

The lack of play action and pre-snap motion showed during the entire game. Designing plays for Ryan to run a three or five step drop and make a five-yard throw happened far too often. This offense thrives off creativity and causing disruption with their route combinations. None of it was on display against a young Bills’ secondary. He didn’t do Ryan any favors by running empty sets on third down against McDermott’s heavy blitz scheme. Based on Buffalo’s tendency to run blitzes between the A and B gaps, you would assume Sarkisian would have been somewhat prepared for it. The first two drives ended with Ryan being forced into throwing well shy of the first down marker because of McDermott’s well-timed blitzes.

What will ultimately doom Sarkisian from yesterday’s loss were the final two plays. Freeman and Coleman were clearly the most dependable options on the field. Both players had productive games, which includes Coleman easily having his best performance of the season. The third-year back ran hard, made big plays in the passing game, and had multiple excellent blitz pickups to give Ryan enough time to make the right read. To not feature either player on the last two plays is preposterous.

The dynamic running back duo carried them for the entire game. How do you not give either of them the ball in a short yardage situation? There was still 44 seconds left in the game. Would running the ball to pick up one yard and spiking the ball to stop the clock take up so much time?

Ryan did mention that Buffalo stacked the box with eight players on fourth down. It’s understandable for them to adjust and attempt a pass. How they didn’t have Freeman or Coleman as a potential receiving option is still unacceptable. These are two players that deliver on a weekly basis. With the limited receiving options, one of them should have been used a receiver. They could have both been on the field at the same time. Coleman has experience lining up on the outside and in the slot. It’s time to start utilizing one of the most dangerous weapons in football to the fullest.

To make matters even worse, Buffalo called a timeout and gave them time to draw up a play. They designed a play for Taylor Gabriel (who was a complete afterthought) on fourth and one. There were so many critical errors in a short time frame. It’s fair to say that Ryan should have hit Coleman on a checkdown. That would have decreased the chances of shaky play calling coming back to haunt them. Ryan failed to do so, which is why everyone should accept this as a team loss.

Good enough wasn’t good enough

The popular belief about the defense is that they are playing good enough. Holding opposing teams to a certain amount of points and limiting big plays marks signs of improvement. For them to take the next step, they need to start forcing turnovers. They have only forced two turnovers in four games. That’s a pretty alarming stat, considering both turnovers came against a Green Bay team without both starting tackles.

The secondary failed to create any chances of a possible interception. Damontae Kazee did force a fumble on Mike Tolbert, but the defense failed to recover it. There weren’t any other signs of them possibly causing a turnover. With the offense struggling, they desperately needed to cause one. Quinn did highlight his frustration about them not causing turnovers. Wrapping up continues to be a lingering issue as well, particularly with Duke Riley missing a whopping four tackles. Vic Beasley and Ricardo Allen will greatly help the defense. It’s still problematic that they couldn’t create turnovers against a limited offense.

Looking Ahead

There is no need to hit the panic button yet. The Falcons have been decimated by injuries over the past two weeks. Although the sloppy play is worrying, there are plenty of key players that will be returning shortly. Ryan should feel better knowing Schraeder will be blocking for him soon enough. Beasley is on course to return in a couple of weeks. The same applies to Allen as well. While Sarkisian still needs to figure out ways to get Coleman and Gabriel more involved, he has showed signs of being an excellent play caller in four games. The bye week couldn’t come at a better time. It will give the Falcons plenty of time to rest and reevaluate everything on both sides of the ball.