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Observations from Falcons vs. Patriots

There’s no sugarcoating this disgusting performance by Atlanta. Here are some in-depth thoughts on the game.

Atlanta Falcons v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I don’t know where exactly to begin with this one. There are literally so many issues with the Falcons’ putrid play against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football that it’s difficult to think of where to begin. There’s a lot to get to after a game like this, and very little of it will be fun. But we do it anyway, because there are plenty of problems that we need to call out.

From execution to coaching to a complete lack of effort, there is a lot of blame to go around for this mess. Let’s get started.

Steve Sarkisian is in over his head as an NFL offensive coordinator

There was plenty of optimism surrounding the Steve Sarkisian hire in the offseason. He was known as a sharp offensive mind that had simply struggled with some personal issues in his fall from grace. Sark had coached some dynamic offenses in his time at Washington and USC, and although the transition to NFL coaching is a difficult one, he would have all the personnel to make his job easy: an MVP QB, a top-10 offensive line, and the best WR and RB tandem in football.

Sark started out well enough, but the shine has quickly faded. In rare cases we’ve been able to see flashes of what this offense is capable of—against Green Bay and Detroit—but that play seems to have been the exception, not the norm. Sark’s playcalling has steadily devolved from confusing and nonsensical at times to completely neutering the NFL’s best offense. He appears scared and totally unsure of himself. The calls oscillate from painfully conservative to psychotically aggressive and cute, and both at times that make absolutely no sense. There seems to be no gameplan and no targeting of opponents weaknesses. The scheme is so incredibly vanilla that any defensive coordinator worth his salt can see the plays coming from a mile away.

Sark was used to coaching at USC, where the talent of his players was miles ahead of the competition. You can call a vanilla scheme there and expect your athletes to simply blow past your opponents. That is not a tenable strategy in the NFL, and Sark is learning that the hard way. After a few games where we saw some creative elements that gave us flashbacks to 2016, we’ve seen absolutely nothing interesting over the past three games. Pre-snap motion has all but disappeared. Tevin Coleman has two targets over the past two games, both against teams that are abysmal at covering RBs. The Falcons are run-heavy when they need to pass and pass-heavy when they need to run. It all reeks of an offensive coordinator who is under a ton of pressure and doesn’t know how to proceed.

I’m not sure what the correct course of action is here. It’s unlikely Quinn will make a change at offensive coordinator before the season is done. This team is not one to make snap decisions, for better or worse. All I know is that Sark has to start taking command of this offense and stop acting like a scared little child in the booth. Get creative, use your personnel, and stop babying this team. They are far too talented to play this weak, uninspired brand of offense. You can see it in how the team reacts: Julio’s angry spike after finally catching his first TD, and Matt Ryan seemingly calling out Sarkisian by saying that the offense has no identity.

Sark needs to figure this out, and soon, or he’s going to lose the locker room. Julio and Matt appear to be almost ready to bail on him. If you lose those two, you’re cooked. For all of us, Sark, please get it together and act like an NFL coach. The Falcons’ 2017 hopes rest on your shoulders, and that is a terrifying prospect right now.

Defense showed flashes, but ultimately couldn’t stop the Patriots

We saw flashes of what this defense can be early in the game, when they stopped the Patriots on their first two drives. The Falcons have enough talent to slow down offenses, even elite ones like the Patriots. But they aren’t a good enough defense to carry a team, and they can’t hold up when the opposing team holds the ball for ten more minutes than the offense. When teams are able to go run-heavy against Atlanta’s defense, they will eventually find success.

That’s not entirely unexpected. It’s pretty obvious that Quinn has crafted this defense to favor speed over size and physicality. This is a defense that is designed to stop the pass and play with a lead. They can stop the run in spurts, but the small LBs and hybrid defensive linemen will get worn down by a constant rushing attack. This worked well in 2016 with a defense that had considerably less talent, because the offense was consistently giving them rest and setting them up for success. That is no longer the case in 2017.

The signing of Ahtyba Rubin as a pure run-stuffer should help somewhat, but it’s not a magic bullet. The LBs must tackle better and be more physical at the point of attack. Atlanta’s defense must cut down on the dumb penalties—this is the second week in a row that a turnover has been erased by a roughing the passer call. The bottom line is that the Falcons defense hasn’t been great, but they haven’t been awful either. If you hold the Patriots to 23 points, you should have a good shot to beat them.

The Falcons appear mentally weak and unable to recover

We’ve seen it three weeks in a row, now. The Falcons lose the momentum and then completely stop playing with heart. All the talent in the world won’t help you if your team gives up after facing any hardship, and this is perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this Falcons’ team. Dan Quinn preaches toughness, competitiveness, and brotherhood. This team has shown exactly zero of those traits over the past three games, and that starts with the coaching staff.

Quinn’s speeches about resilience and battling all sound like nothing but hot air when the product on the field is this pathetic. I don’t know exactly what the problem is, but I point my finger to a lack of faith in something. Perhaps it’s a lack of faith in themselves, but I think it’s more likely a lack of faith in the coaching staff—particularly on the offensive side of the ball. If I was on the Falcons’ defense and shut down Tom Brady and Co. twice in a row, only to see the offense squander the opportunity time and time and again, I’d probably feel pretty deflated too. I believe these guys all genuinely love Quinn, and coaches like Marquand Manuel have earned their respect. Sark, however, has not—he needs to if there is to be any hope of turning this season around.

The offensive line is coming together and looks good

One of the few bright spots of the last two games has been seeing the return of Ryan Schraeder and the continued development of Wes Schweitzer. It’s funny to look back on the preseason (and Week 1) and remember that our biggest concern was whether or not Schweitzer could be a starting-caliber RG. Well, that does not appear to be a problem anymore. Schweitzer has been an excellent run-blocker and has held his own in pass protection against some truly dangerous defensive lines.

Meanwhile, Schraeder has provided stability and a veteran presence to the right side of the offensive line. It’s clear that he’s still getting back into the swing of things coming off his concussion, but Schraeder is a great talent and should continue to help the right side of the line flourish in 2017. It now appears that the left side of the OL is the bigger issue, with Jake Matthews having an up-and-down season and Levitre struggling at times with penalties and missed blocks. Overall, though, the Falcons appear to have a top-10 offensive line, which is never a bad thing.

There were a few positive performances scattered about

Lost in the crushing disappoint of the loss were some encouraging performances by some of the Falcons’ young defenders. Vic Beasley added a sack to his resume and had several impressive stops in the run game. De’Vondre Campbell had a great sack on Brady and helped to contain Gronk on a few plays. Keanu Neal was perhaps the most impressive player on defense, as he held Gronk in check throughout the night and contributed with several important tackles. Grady Jarrett continues to be a beast on the interior, and one of the only players that continues to play hard when the game is going badly.

On offense, it’s nice to see that Mohamed Sanu is healthy. He looked like he was back to his old self, and it’s clear that Matt trusts him in important situations. Julio was a beast, of course, and finally notched a TD after Ryan made a concerted effort to get him the ball in the red zone. Devonta Freeman looked amazing, as usual, and continued to make Sark look like a fool for not using him more often. There is plenty of talent on this team that is waiting to be used for good. Get it together, coaching staff.

That’s pretty much all I’ve got for now. What are your thoughts on the game? Do you think there’s any hope for Sarkisian going forward? If you do want the Falcons to move on from Sark, how would you replace him? Who are some of the players you’re impressed with despite the bad turn of events for this team?