The Falcons-Panthers game was almost a perfect microcosm of the 2017 season. Early potential and a decent lead opened up, followed by a long stretch of complete ineptitude, then a flash of brief hope at the end. We saw players making dumb decisions and the team as a whole looking downright deflated. Despite the Falcons sitting at 4-4 and remaining very much alive in the playoff hunt, there isn’t much hope around these parts for improvement.
Let’s face it: it’s Week 10, and the bye has come and gone. We aren’t likely to see any major changes from this team. That means that we’ll continue to see the same results on the field every Sunday. The Falcons look like a .500 team at this point, and that’s my prediction for them until they prove otherwise.
All that doom and gloom out of the way, here are some of the observations I had from re-watching the game.
Steve Sarkisian is strangling this offense
I wrote about some of the issues with Sarkisian in an article on Monday, but this is one thing that is abundantly clear when re-watching the game. Not only does Sark lack understanding of his personnel, his playcalling is complete trash. There is no creativity and the offense has become a predictable vanilla mess. The outside zone runs are gone, as are the packages and natural rub routes that allowed the Falcons offense to get the match-ups they wanted in 2016. Sark claims that he’s running the same offense—maybe he is, but if so it’s the kindergarten version.
There’s no flow to the game plan and players are being blatantly misused. If you want to know why there are so many uncharacteristic mistakes, look no further than Sark: the players have no confidence in him or his scheme, and that shows up in their body language and their play. If the offense wasn’t so incredibly talented, this would probably be among the worst units in the NFL. Sark has instead turned the 8th best offense of all time into an average-at-best mess that is, perhaps worst of all, boring to watch.
The TE position is a problem
Last year, the Falcons got exceptional run blocking out of Toilolo and solid contributions from Hooper. Fast forward to 2017, and neither has been a dependable option as a blocker. Toilolo isn’t a contributor in the passing game, either. Hooper has shown flashes of ability as a receiver coupled with two glaring mistakes that have, both times, led to turnovers. Shanahan’s offense used the TEs expertly, and Sark has thus far been unable to replicate that.
I’m not worried about Hooper long-term, but if Toilolo can’t block at a respectable level he isn’t worth keeping on the field. When are we going to see the rookie Eric Saubert, who supplanted capable options like Josh Perkins and D.J. Tialavea on the depth chart? I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of creativity in TE usage given the overall lack of creativity in the offense, but it’s a shame when the position was such an advantage for this team in 2016.
The Falcons are a mentally fragile team in 2017
This could be a product of any number of things—lingering unresolved issues from the Super Bowl, poor coaching all around, or something more nebulous. You know my take on why this team is so lifeless, and it starts with the offense. In 2016, this team played like they believed they could score on every drive because they could. They regularly made 90+ yard drives happen and looked fantastic doing it. The offense was the lifeblood of the team and inspired the defense to ball out. Now let’s compare that to 2017.
The offense is a shell of its former self. There is no confidence that they’re going to score on every drive, and they usually don’t. Explosive plays have dried up and players are not put in positions to succeed. When all this is going on, should we be shocked that the team is so mentally fragile? The Falcons should be able to trust their offense as the backbone of the team, but that trust—and the offense for the most part—is gone. All I know is that once this team falls behind or gets punched in the mouth, you can all but write off the game as a loss.
The defense played reasonably well, all things considered
Look, nobody has illusions that this Falcons’ defense is an elite unit. But they are at least average, and they’d probably look measurably better if they had an offense to rely upon. That’s no longer the case, however, and we’re now seeing the defense carry the bulk of the load on Sundays. It’s clear that Quinn built this unit to stop the pass and play with a lead—the emphasis on speed and a deep rotation of pass rushers demonstrates this. Very rarely have they been given a lead to play with this season, and it has worn them down.
How can you expect a defense to hold up when they’re on the field for 11 minutes in the third quarter? What do you expect to happen when your offense manages 10 points in two drives early in the game, then can’t finish a drive to save their lives until late in the fourth quarter? These factors set your defense up for failure. Not only that, they demoralize them, too. After all, this is a defense that gave the Falcons offense two fumble recoveries, and the Falcons all but wasted those opportunities. If I was a Falcons’ defender, I’d be pretty upset too.
Atlanta’s defense is finally good enough to complement their offense instead of holding the team back. But the offense, instead of continuing to play at a reasonably high level, has instead become the liability. If you think the offensive players resent that change, you can bet the defensive players do, too. It’s a shame, because this defense—and the roster as a whole—is talented enough to make noise in the playoffs. As we’ve seen over the last several games, even a plethora of talent can’t help you if your coaches have no idea how to use that talent.
Clearly, I have strong feelings about Sarkisian. I blame him for the deflated state of this team, but naturally that also means that some of the blame rests with Quinn for bringing him in. The Falcons aren’t a team that usually makes coaching changes midseason, so we’re likely stuck with Sark for the near future. Best get used to this disgusting offense, for now.
What are your thoughts on the game? Who does the blame for this team’s collapse rest with in your mind?