The pressure is starting to intensify for the free-falling Falcons. As the entire team searches for solutions, they look to avoid getting swept by an entire division. A matchup against the New York Jets should provide a much-needed antidote to their lack of recent success, at least on paper. That doesn’t necessarily guarantee a victory.
Based on the last three weeks, nothing is a given at this point. The offense has found different ways to stoop to a new low under Steve Sarkisian. After being labeled as one of the most exciting defenses in the league heading into the year, Dan Quinn’s group has forced three turnovers in six games.
With a daunting slate of games in November, this can be considered as a must-win situation. There is no telling how the offense is going to perform. Matt Ryan was adamant about the lack of execution as the biggest reason behind their struggles. According to two players in Robert Klemko’s piece, Sarkisian’s approach is disorganized. Both are valid statements, considering the offense’s recent performances. Regardless of how the players truly feel, they have far too much talent to continue underachieving. Something must change heading into a very winnable game.
Finding the right balance again
After being committed to staying balanced offensively, the Falcons have gone away from their beliefs in the past two games. Facing a 17-point deficit against New England did force them into a pass-heavy mindset. It’s still frustrating to see the most electrifying running back duo in the league be little-used at times in a disjointed offense. For Devonta Freeman to have 21 carries in the past two games reveals the chaotic structure within the system. A similar issue applies to his partner in crime. How can an incredible weapon like Tevin Coleman receive a combined two targets in the past two games?
The poor usage of both running backs has had a damaging effect on the offense. After not gaining one yard on two attempts against Buffalo, most would think Sarkisian couldn’t make the same mistake twice in a short-yardage situation. He managed to call a play action roll out and jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel near the goal line against New England. It proved to be another sequence of regretful play calls. To keep using Freeman as a decoy or leaving him out entirely in make-or-break situations is baffling. It has repeatedly costed them during this three game losing streak.
While Coleman’s role desperately needs to expand in the passing game, he will play a pivotal part in the offense’s (hopefully) rediscovered commitment towards establishing the run. Quinn spoke openly about wanting to see their rushing attempts total in the high 20’s. That would make sense for a team averaging nearly five yards per carry and owns one of the most stabilized offensive lines in the league. The Jets’ front seven isn’t their usual formidable self. After being known for their ability to shut down opposing ground games, they are currently allowing the fifth most rushing yards per game. There is nothing to be fearful about when facing their talent-deprived defense.
Warren Sharp posted an insightful thread about the Falcons’ current situation. Despite enduring a statistical decline in numerous categories, they are actually running the ball more effectively this season. Their overall success rate remains high on every down. A modified approach could do wonders for Sarkisian. It doesn’t have to be a drastic shift like Pittsburgh has recently done by leaning on Le’Veon Bell. What they could do is run the ball more on first down to help avoid those dreaded third-and-long situations, which has become problematic this season. Prioritizing running the ball more often could add organization to an offense that looks disorganized.
Fixing the run stopping woes
Considering all the issues surrounding the offense, there hasn’t been much attention directed towards the defense. Allowing 23 points to the Patriots is usually considered as a valiant effort. That wasn’t quite the case last Sunday, especially on the ground. New England ran for 162 yards on 36 carries. Only Mike Gillislee averaged less than four yards per carry out of the four running back rotation. Yards per carry can be inflated stat, if someone runs for a 40-yard gain. When a running back is still productive without a huge run, it will normally mark the sign of an offensive line dominating in the trenches. Dion Lewis’ 25-yard run was the lone carry over 20 yards.
The entire defense was responsible for allowing another big game on the ground. You would expect much better after allowing Jay Ajayi to run wild for 130 yards in a humiliating defeat. Dontari Poe struggled to handle double teams, while Grady Jarrett couldn’t get much penetration. Brooks Reed hasn’t been particularly good at setting the edge this season. Although Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have developed into capable players, they don’t recognize subtle movement or get off blocks well enough yet. Both linebackers were caught out of position on several occasions. New England found success using delayed handoffs and blasts up the middle from using various shotgun looks. They averaged close to seven yards per carry in that formation.
These issues don’t fall entirely on the front seven. The secondary plays a contributing role to stopping the run as well. They need to play physical and close down open space on the outside or second level. Robert Alford’s dreadful effort on Brandin Cooks’ touchdown run is a prime example of not handling responsibility. An experienced player like Alford can’t be looking to deliberately avoid contact. It sends a bad message to a young defense. The Jets won’t hesitate to run stretch plays with Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire. Alford will need to be up for the task of taking on blocks and nullifying potential big runs.
There are some reinforcements coming into the front seven. Ahtyba Rubin is expected to play this weekend. This should be a welcoming addition to the defensive line, as Joe Vellano was a major liability against the run. It wasn’t surprising to see the front office release him. With Rubin and Courtney Upshaw back in the fray, they have strong depth behind Jarrett and Poe. Sean Weatherspoon’s return generates a nice morale boost, although it’s unlikely he will play a significant role in his third stint with Atlanta. Kemal Ishmael is more than capable of replacing Duke Riley in the base package. These personnel moves are promising for the defense’s outlook. They should expect to see a heavy dose of runs against a limited offense that will look to control the time of possession.
Exploiting outside matchups
The Ryan-Sarkisian conundrum has been spoken about ad nauseum. While they are certainly at the center of the Falcons’ problems, the recent issues aren’t solely on them. Other skill players need to step up. It became apparent that Mohamed Sanu wasn’t on the same page with Ryan against New England. They failed to connect during crucial stages of the game. Both players will share equal blame for those wasted opportunities. It’ll be essential for them to regain their strong rapport.
This is an excellent matchup for the likes of Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper to make a difference. Despite playing hard and exceeding expectations, the Jets’ defense isn’t exactly a disciplined group. ESPN’s Rich Cimini wrote about them having three of the four most penalized players in the league. These aren’t little-known players. Morris Claiborne, Buster Skrine, and Darron Lee play major roles for their defense. Bowles denied claims about them being undisciplined, but he can’t ignore the fact that several big-name players aren’t playing well. Neither Leonard Williams or Mohamed Wilkerson have produced a sack this season. Lee is constantly out of position against the run. Skrine allowed three touchdowns last week against Miami. With Carolina and Seattle on the horizon, the offense must snap out of their funk. How each skill position player contributes will be crucial for the offense’s progression.
Time is right to end the bad turnover luck
Forcing turnovers has been a challenge for the Falcons this season. Besides the offense’s weekly destruction, what made their playoff run so memorable was how they forced turnovers. From stripping ball carriers to jumping passing lanes, the defense was flying to the ball. They played with a real sense of urgency. That hasn’t been the case at times this season, despite dealing with some unfortunate miscues. Roughing the passer penalties negated interceptions from Jones and Alford over the past two games. Alford had a game-sealing interception against Detroit ruined by a needless holding penalty from Desmond Trufant. These were massive game-changing moments.
The next two weeks could be huge for this inconsistent unit. With upcoming matchups against Josh McCown and Cam Newton, big play opportunities will be presented. The secondary has played better in recent weeks. They hold a distinct advantage over the Jets’ below average wide receiver group. As the Jets’ lack talent at numerous positions, it’s time for the defense to showcase their ability. Vic Beasley looked more explosive against New England. With Quinn putting more emphasis on Takkarist McKinley’s development, the pass rush should be getting back into full gear. Getting off the field on third down remains as their biggest issue. Rattling quarterbacks and creating takeaways is one of the best cures for it. With better discipline, they are more than capable of accomplishing that.