In preparation for the highly-anticipated rematch, there was a growing consensus about how the game would play out. The Falcons’ offense would finally find their groove again. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a guaranteed victory, given that the opposition has the best quarterback-head coach combo in NFL history. It’s still something that would be comforting for a sputtering offense that is struggling to find an identity. New England’s defense has allowed big plays on a weekly basis. With a non-existent pass rush and slow linebacker group, this appeared to be a prime matchup for Matt Ryan and co.
It proved to be the complete opposite, as the Falcons had arguably their most abysmal performance under Dan Quinn. There were some dark moments during Quinn’s first season in Atlanta, but it was understandable from a personnel standpoint. They were limited at wide receiver and across the defensive line. What transpired on Sunday night was nothing short of embarrassing. For the offense to show a lack of urgency after the debacle against Miami raises major questions about the team’s overall outlook.
The franchise is missing their franchise player
While nobody is going to justify Steve Sarkisian’s play calling, the drastic decline in production doesn’t fall solely on him. A one-sided loss usually comes from a collaborative effort (or lack thereof as a group) and not being able to execute. That was the biggest talking point following the demoralizing defeat. Ryan and Quinn were both adamant about the lack of execution as the offense’s biggest problem. Neither were going to publicly criticize Sarkisian or point blame in a specific direction. There were opportunities to create big plays and make it a more competitive game. They couldn’t capitalize on those opportunities.
Matt Ryan’s accuracy on throws over 20 yards continues to be a major issue. On two consecutive plays, Mohamed Sanu and Julio Jones got a step behind the defensive back. Ryan managed to overthrow both receivers in the back of the end zone. One of his most reliable plays is hitting Jones on a corner route for a 15 to 20-yard gain. This is something that he can practically hit in his sleep. Ryan somehow overthrew that pass, which signaled this was going to be another frustrating performance.
Some may argue that Ryan is barely missing these throws. That was said against Detroit, when Ryan missed Taylor Gabriel on multiple downfield passes. It was said the following week against Buffalo. Jones exploded past two defenders on a deep crosser, yet another Ryan overthrow caused him to dive for nothing. Sarkisian’s conservative play calling has left a lingering negative effect on the Falcons’ offense. He shouldn’t be held responsible for Ryan’s porous deep ball numbers.
The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote a piece about the Falcons’ offense before Sunday’s game. Metrics showed how much the 2016 MVP has regressed this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan has competed four of 19 pass attempts that went for 20 yards or more. It’s safe to say that ratio worsened following another game of overthrowing his receivers. Ryan’s longest completion went for 22 yards on a slant to Justin Hardy. What makes these numbers even more troubling is that Ryan isn’t even close on several of these throws. Pro Football Focus charted just 21.1 percent of his throws over 20 yards as accurate passes. How can someone descend from being the league’s most accurate deep passer to an erratic and unreliable passer in one year?
When you are coming off a historical season, expectations are going to remain high. Ryan has some limitations, but nobody can deny his status as a top-tier quarterback over the past six years. High level quarterbacks don’t consistently overthrow their intended targets. They connect on those tight window throws, which Ryan spoke about following the game. Ryan missed Sanu wildly on third and fourth down on different drives. He was fortunate not to get picked off by Malcolm Butler on the lone touchdown pass.
The play calling will receive serious criticism, but this is another game of Ryan not making enough throws against a vulnerable opponent. He rarely faced any serious pressure either. This will only raise more questions about his play, as he had time to set his feet and make accurate throws. Regression was bound to occur following last season’s magical run. Nobody expected him to play like an ordinary quarterback, who can’t complete vertical passes.
Temperature is warming up
Although Ryan’s misses resulted in leaving points on the field, Sarkisian has created more problems for the offense. A collection of errors puts the embattled offensive coordinator in a difficult position. He admitted that some aspects of the game were challenging for him. Understanding the flow of each game and making sure players are getting enough touches can be overwhelming for a new coordinator early on. As the season approaches late October, you would expect to see some progress. That isn’t the case for Sarkisian.
The offense hit rock bottom by going two for nine on third down and one for four in the red zone. Failing to come out on top in critical situations will doom any team. It showed against the statistically ranked worst defense in the league. The lack of variety in formations and diversity in pass plays continues to become more evident each week. Butler confirmed that by saying you can pick up on their tendencies. It’s remarkable how a team went from having the most imaginative play caller in the league to someone that is being telegraphed seven weeks into the season.
The pinnacle of Sarkisian’s ineptitude came from calling a jet sweep on fourth down. Kyle Van Noy was two steps ahead of the play design. As Gabriel received the ball, Van Noy is already in excellent position to prevent him from getting around the edge. It’s bad enough that this was called on fourth and goal at the one-yard line. Not using the highest-paid running back in the league for the second time in three weeks during a make-or-break situation makes the decision even more baffling. The fact that Van Noy completely read the design is the epitome of the Falcons’ perplexing, lethargic offense.
Sarkisian has joined a long list of offensive coordinators that became the most unpopular person in Atlanta. Unlike previous coordinators, he is being supplied an abundance of talented resources. A player like Tevin Coleman doesn’t grow on trees. You can’t develop game-breaking speed that is capable of being utilized in a plethora of ways. Considering how offenses targeted New England’s linebackers in recent weeks, most would have expected to see Coleman play a more featured role. He ended up playing 33 percent of the snaps and looked visibly angry after the game.
There are numerous issues surrounding the offense. From over using five receiver sets to thinking Gabriel can beat press coverage on a consistent basis, it’s easy to figure out why Sarkisian is already facing intense pressure. Figuring out creative ways to utilize a player that essentially won Atlanta multiple games last season rather than not scoring points and leaving him on the bench would be a positive start towards fixing a plummeting unit.
Every game is slowly going to become more pivotal. What makes the upcoming matchup against the Jets even more important is the slate of opponents in November. Atlanta faces Carolina, Dallas, Seattle, and Tampa Bay. Those are four teams that expect to be playing meaningful football in January. It’s a grueling stretch for a team looking for solutions at nearly every level.
Facing the AFC East was supposed to provide some cushion for the Falcons. It was deemed as one of the worst divisions in the league. The Falcons are currently winless in three games against them. If the Falcons miss the playoffs, everyone will pinpoint to this stretch as the biggest reason behind their disappointing season. The inability to win once against three extremely flawed teams will hurt almost as much as the realization of the offensive juggernaut days being long gone.