The Falcons’ suffered their third close loss of the season. While it can be easy to view these defeats as “what ifs” full of close calls, there are several underlying reasons behind their downfall. Questionable play calling in critical situations can and should be assessed. Steve Sarkisian continues to make perplexing decisions, along with his inability to adapt when facing specific defensive schemes. These issues don’t appear to be going anywhere for the overwhelmed offensive coordinator.
For all of Sarkisian’s shortcomings, he shouldn’t be labeled as the lone reason behind what is shaping up to be a very disappointing season. It’s hard to win when you allow over 200 yards of rushing. After facing Cam Newton on countless occasions, the defense repeatedly lost containment on read option plays. It was as if they never played against him. Between conceding over eleven minutes of possession in the third quarter and failing to rattle Newton, who didn’t have Greg Olsen or Kelvin Benjamin, Dan Quinn’s defense continues to fall short in repetitive ways.
Offensive conundrum lingers on
Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko wrote about Sarkisian and mentioned that two players described the offense as disorganized. That is a proper way to describe what happened after an excellent first quarter. The offense found a nice rhythm with Julio Jones running free in the open field. Big plays were actually being created. Once the Falcons were stuffed on fourth down in the second quarter, everything spiraled into a discombobulated haze.
It’s been well documented that Sarkisan focuses on staying balanced, which is understandable when you have the most dynamic backfield duo at your disposal. That doesn’t mean they are going to be productive every game. You can’t be fixated on trying to fulfill a certain quota such as rushing attempts. Expecting to score on very good defenses based on your principles rather than trying to exploit their flaws is a flawed strategy. It proved to be evident in the second quarter on what started Carolina’s run of scoring 20 unanswered points.
The Falcons were on the verge of building on a ten-point lead. Matt Ryan looked to be in sync with his receivers early on. With solid pass protection, he had time in the pocket to target Carolina’s young cornerbacks and slow safeties. Those plans were squashed by calling three consecutive running plays up the middle. Instead of continuing to remain aggressive by picking apart Carolina's vulnerable secondary, they played right into the hands of a stout front seven led by Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short. To not gain five yards on four plays following a neutral zone infraction penalty is deplorable.
A lack of execution deserves to be mentioned. Levine Toilolo isn’t making effective seal blocks like he was last season. After showing major progression over the past month, Wes Schweitzer has struggled mightily over the past two games. Both played roles in the running game’s short yardage failures. It’s still puzzling on why they were so insistent on running straight up the middle. What happened to calling stretch plays to get the most out of their athletic offensive line? To believe that an undersized group would overpower Short and Star Lotulelei (along with the best middle linebacker in the league behind him) seemed like a foolish expectation.
Not adapting to in-game situations continues to be a significant problem for Sarkisian. After getting stuffed on multiple short yardage situations, he responded by calling a rollout on third and short. That resulted in a desperate downfield heave from Ryan. While Sarkisian is trying to show he can learn and adapt, it hasn’t resulted in actual production. Leaving Taylor Gabriel out there as the lone receiver on that play is one example of him missing certain personnel nuances. Where is Jones or Mohamed Sanu to provide a reliable option that can win in traffic? Both players can step up and make a difficult catch on a disjointed play. This is another case of showing too much belief in your personnel and not properly making adjustments during critical situations.
The second half was a total disaster. While Jones’ horrific drop will get national attention, the previous play was a screen to the left intended for Gabriel on third down. This is becoming one of their most predictable weekly plays. Carolina was all over it and stopped it to a one-yard again. When Jones isn’t on the field, the offense goes ultra-conservative and defenses instantly recognize it. That wasn’t the case last year. They never played scared or failed to (at least attempt to) pick on an opposing defense’s biggest flaw. When it comes to facing top-tier defenses, you can’t solely rely on players to execute. There needs to be a semblance of intelligent decision-making and well-timed creativeness. As Brian Billick mentioned yesterday, there is no creativity about the current offense. The lack of pre snap motion was apparent weeks ago. It’s now gotten to the point, where the coaching staff seems to be throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks.
Defense needs to take responsibility
After two terrific plays by Keanu Neal, it seemed like the defense looked ready to put together a memorable performance. They found plenty of success against Newton last season. After a wonky start featuring several inaccurate throws, all signs indicated that Newton was going to struggle coping with a depleted supporting cast. The former MVP had other ideas against a bitter rival.
Behind Mike Shula’s read option designs, they exploited an undisciplined Falcons’ defense. Newton found acres of space on numerous plays. Whether it was Vic Beasley or Brooks Reed, they ended up tackling Christian McCaffrey rather than setting the edge to prevent Newton from running free. It’s hard to believe Quinn didn’t have them prepared to stop the read option. For them to look so disorganized against a familiar opponent was alarming. Most of Carolina’s 201 rushing yards came on those designs. While some will argue Newton’s big runs inflated those numbers, you can’t disregard the defense’s lack of discipline and poor gap control.
At some point, the defense needs to start taking command of games. They continuously allow opposing offenses to implement their game plan. Holding teams to 20 points isn’t good enough when the offense is on the sidelines for an extended period of time. Besides having a near six-minute edge with the ball, Carolina completely controlled the third quarter. The numbers were staggering.
That is how teams lose close games. It happened against Buffalo, when they allowed a whopping 17-play drive. This is a result of not stopping the run and failing to generating enough pressure against mediocre offensive lines. The “bend, don’t break” philosophy only works for high-scoring offenses. That exist in Atlanta anymore. It’s not about holding offenses to three points anymore. It’s about not letting them impose their will and use the clock to their advantage.
Not enough production at tight end
After being a noticeable strength for the offense last season, the tight ends have underachieved this season. Toliolo’s run blocking woes were previously mentioned. Mario Addison blew past him on third down during the botched four-down drive. For a player who was paid handsomely in the off-season, he hasn’t lived up to his contract. The enormous tight end proved to be a difference maker as a run blocker last season. It hasn’t been the case at all this season. With his receiving limitations, the organization expected him to continue being reliable as a run blocker. His play has left fans wonder what if they invested their money in keeping a Pro Bowl fullback instead of a backup tight end.
The more pressing concern involves Austin Hooper. As Sarkisian tries to get him more involved, it hasn’t helped improve a stagnant offense. Hooper dropped a pass on third down that should have been hauled in. His miscommunication with Ryan led to an interception, which boosted the massive momentum swing. Similar to Toilolo, he continues to blow assignments as a run blocker. High expectations were placed on Hooper going into the season. After showing great promise as a rookie, he isn’t developing as quickly as most anticipated.
The next two games could drastically affect the Falcons’ season. It doesn’t get much bigger than facing Dallas and Seattle, as both teams look ready to compete for a championship. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Atlanta. The offense finds new ways to stumble on a weekly basis. For all of the positive statistics, the defense’s minimal improvement isn’t good enough. Dallas is about as real as it gets. They will relentlessly pound the ball and generate tons of pressure led by defensive player of the year candidate DeMarcus Lawrence. The season is far from over, but things could become bleak quickly without a strong response.