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A Closer Look: Short-yardage woes plague the Falcons

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Cat Scratch Reader’s Billy Marshall joins me to look at how the Panthers shut down the Falcons in short-yardage situations.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Following every Falcons game, a new offensive issue arises. Here’s a brief list of what we’ve been talking about this year.

  • Not throwing the ball enough to Julio Jones
  • The subpar red zone conversion rate
  • And now, their inability to convert in short-yardage situations

According to Mike Conti, the Falcons averaged 0.1 yards per attempt on nine plays that only needed two yards or fewer to secure a first down. That is an alarming statistic. A lack of execution and Steve Sarkisian’s simplistic philosophy are the main reasons behind this recent setback.

Cat Scratch Reader’s Billy Marshall joins me to analyze what went wrong on these short-yardage plays. Billy covers the Panthers and puts together film breakdowns. After evaluating Matt Ryan’s poor performance versus Buffalo with Derrik Klassen, I want to continue bringing in guests for this feature piece. We are going to look at the execution of each play, along with assessing Sarkisian’s questionable play calling and/or personnel usage.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most impressive and disappointing plays. One specific player, positional group, or topic is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Billy and I will break down the infamous drive, where the Falcons couldn’t gain five yards on four plays. We also look at another third and short failure.

Second Quarter: 2nd and 2 at CAR 36

Marshall: The Falcons are running a split zone concept. The run is designed to hit the weak side guard's inside hip, which would be Wes Schweitzer on this run. Alex Mack gets beaten immediately after the snap. Schweitzer is responsible for pinning (blocking down) on the 3 technique defensive tackle, but he also allows the defender to cross his face. Tevin Coleman has to execute a jump cut, but the alleys are clogged due to the penetration by Carolina's defensive line.

Strk: There is so much movement up front. Austin Hooper is cross pulling and lands a decent block on Charles Johnson. It appears that Ryan Schraeder tries to chip Star Lotulelei. That proves costly, as he doesn’t make contact and overruns the entire play. This is a creative play design, yet it still involves Tevin Coleman running up the middle. That has become a redundant, ineffective way to use the explosive playmaker.

The interior line simply loses up front. Kawann Short gets immediate penetration by exploding past Mack. This was arguably Mack’s worst performance as a Falcon. It’s difficult to recall another game where he failed to make a positive impact as a run blocker. Schweitzer holds some responsibility for the minimal gain as well. He tries to seal off Lotulelei, but failed to generate much power. Schweitzer is another player that has underperformed in recent weeks. His lack of strength was highlighted on several scouting reports during the 2016 draft process, and those concerns aren’t going away.

Second Quarter: 3rd and 1 at CAR 35

Marshall: The blocking assignments are man on man, so it's important to get a hat on each defender. Coleman is isolated in the backfield. The left side of the line does their job. Their appears to be a decent size hole, but Levine Toliolo gets isolated with Mario Addison. Addison beats Toliolo to disrupt any momentum that Coleman has towards the hole. He is assisted by Short who eventually manages to get off his block too.

Strk: The personnel alignment must be questioned. Not using Devonta Freeman as the primary short-yardage back is bizarre. Despite being small in stature, Freeman knows how to pick up extra yardage. He was the ball carrier on a third and one conversion during the same drive. Sarkisian’s commitment towards getting Coleman touches is understandable. To consistently run him up the gut in critical situations doesn’t seem logical. It’s bad enough that they are challenging the second-best run defense in their strongest area with the starting full back lining up outside as a receiver.

Despite Sarkisian’s questionable decision making, the players up front lost badly here. They overloaded the left side with two tight ends. Both players failed to make proper reach blocks. Toilolo has been a major disappointment in the running game. After developing into an above average run blocker last season, the massive tight end is losing at the point of attack far too often. He doesn’t use his hips at all to prevent MAddison from blowing up the play. Jake Matthews should do much better on the double team. You can’t take a poor angle and expect to stop a monster like Short. With Andy Levitre losing leverage, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle blows up the run alongside Addison.

Second Quarter: 4th and 1 at CAR 35

Marshall: Derrick Coleman serves as a lead blocker for Freeman. As long as the blockers execute their job one on one, Freeman should pick up the first down. The right side of the line does enough, but Kurt Coleman gets underneath Derrick Coleman, which allows him to leverage any momentum Freeman had of fighting through contact.

Furthermore, Thomas Davis is able to out leverage Schweitzer when they make contact which clogs down that hole. This might be nit picking, but Freeman could also do better. Kurt Coleman isn't the strongest safety in the league and Freeman has shown that he is one of the best at running through contact.

Strk: Derrick Coleman is finally used as a lead blocker. Many wondered how much Sarkisian values the fullback position. Not re-signing Patrick DiMarco raised concerns, especially with the team not changing much from last season’s offense. DiMarco was heavily relied upon in a variety of ways. From taking out linebackers at the second level to being utilized as a receiver to create deception, the All-Pro full back was an essential part to their success.

That isn’t the case with Coleman. Based on this play, it’s easy to realize why his role is limited. Coleman needs to make this block. To square up against a safety instead of a linebacker should present a more favorable matchup. As Kurt Coleman gets low and lowers his shoulder, you would expect a starting-caliber full back to adjust and overpower him. Coleman fails to make the block, as a narrow opening gets shut down.

Freeman could possibly cut back to squeeze between Mack and Schweitzer. It would be harsh to criticize him for not doing it. On a make-or-break play, running backs are going to follow their blockers and move forward. Carolina does a nice job causing congestion, but this falls squarely on Coleman. The Falcons have now failed to convert on all three fourth-and-one situations this season.

Third Quarter: 3rd and 1 at ATL 34

Marshall: This was a deceptive job by Carolina to disguise the coverage. Once Ryan motions Gabriel, Shaq Thompson follows Gabriel and it's assumed that Carolina is in man coverage. However, Carolina does not stay in man coverage. They disguised to a Cover 3 shell. Ryan's primary target was Derrick Coleman. The offensive line slides the protection to the right, which leaves Addison isolated versus Freeman.

Addison avoids Freeman, but Ryan steps away from the pressure. Thompson matches with Derrick Coleman, which takes Ryan's primary read away. Therefore, Ryan for all intents and purposes throws the ball away to avoid the sack. It looks like a miss to Hooper, but with Carolina bracketing him it's essentially a throw away.

Strk: Sarkisian tries to be more creative and catch the Panthers off guard. After seeing both running backs get smothered in the second quarter, he decides to challenge them in a different way. Using play action should usually lead to a high-percentage throw. Unfortunately for the Falcons, the same issues continue to hinder them. Sarkisian’s inability to adapt during specific in-game situations has left a damaging effect. When he tries to make adjustments, it results in a confusing mess.

A combination of poor personnel alignment and play design ruins this play. Using Taylor Gabriel as a lone receiver in this situation is nonsensical. Why would they use a small receiver that struggles to win in traffic? Julio Jones was banged up during the game, so he may not have been available. They still have Mohamed Sanu as a capable option. The versatile wide receiver knows how to create enough separation in narrow areas.

To make matters worse, Gabriel is motioned to the left. That only condenses more space against a well-organized defense. None of the linebackers bite on the play fake, which puts Ryan in a precarious situation. Do you think he feels comfortable forcing the ball to Hooper, Gabriel, or Derrick Coleman? With Addison and Luke Kuechly charging in, he is forced into throwing up a prayer. Quinn admitted that he wasn’t “fired up” about the play call. It was a risky play call, but how the play was constructed should receive the most criticism.