What should have been another exciting battle between bitter rivals turned into one of the most perplexing calamities in recent Falcons history. It was a game of head shaking moments, calls, and blunders that affected Dan Quinn’s team nearly every time they took possession of the ball.
Another slow start for the offense put them at an instant disadvantage. They were unable to establish much of a ground game and struggled to cope with New Orleans’ hostile crowd. Losing the turnover battle wasn’t going to help matters either. That didn't stop them from keeping the game in striking distance.
For all their struggles, the Falcons manufactured solid drives. They put themselves in scoring range on four occasions. In abysmal fashion, only one red zone appearance translated into seven points. Not scoring in the red zone has cost them in multiple games. It’s a consistent problem to go along with their frequent drops. After entering the game behind San Francisco for the most drops in the league, they surpassed them with another four. There is plenty of reason to be outraged about the officiating crew’s incompetence. Before assessing each appalling call, it would be wise to evaluate how the team fell short. That is how they are going to bounce back heading into a make-or-break game against Carolina.
Offensive shortcomings in critical areas
After producing three consecutive outstanding performances in November, it seemed like the haunting October memories were behind the Falcons' offense. They have reappeared over the past four games. Not being able to finish drives proved to be one of their main downfalls on Sunday. Committing two silly drive-killing penalties ruined two promising drives in the first half. Jake Matthews and Derrick Coleman made inexcusable errors to negate big runs from Devonta Freeman. The blunders continued with Taylor Gabriel and Marvin Hall dropping sure first down passes. Any possibility of scoring a touchdown on either drive had been ruined by self-inflicted mistakes.
The grueling errors will be highlighted, but there are plenty of reasons behind the Falcons’ crushing defeat. They simply didn’t execute when it mattered most. As previously mentioned, you can’t afford to go one for four in the red zone and expect to beat one of the best teams in the league. That also applies to Atlanta’s dreadful third down conversion rate. The best third down offense in the NFL managed to go two for thirteen. Although New Orleans didn’t fare much better (three for thirteen), they didn’t falter in a destructive way. Five of Atlanta’s eleven failed conversions resulted in sacks or an interception.
Matt Ryan was left hopeless at times. Following a mostly frustrating December, he elevated his play and made some sharp throws. Ryan got back on the same page with Julio Jones. The normally reliable pairing struggled to connect over the past three games. They got back to their standard level of play, as Jones made several impressive catches. Ryan hit Jones on a 44-yard deep ball to capitalize on the superstar wide receiver’s beautiful out-and-up route that left Marshon Lattimore searching for answers. It proved to be a beneficial matchup for Ryan. According to Pro Bowl Focus, Jones caught six passes for 140 yards on nine targets when Lattimore covered him. Jones added another game to his “dealing with questions about his injury status all week, yet still goes out and does whatever he pleases” collection. Unless Lattimore got away with a blatant hold or pass interference, there was no stopping Jones from making plays.
What turned out to be Jones’ second biggest game of the season proved to be inconsequential in the final result. When Ryan had to look elsewhere on third down, his supporting cast failed to deliver. Hall had to replace Jones on a third and ten during the last minute of the first half. With New Orleans blitzing, Ryan recognized Hall had space on a deep in. He couldn’t hold onto the ball to put the Falcons into field goal range. A well-thrown pass somehow ended up on Lattimore’s left butt cheek, as what should have been a 6-3 score at minimum turned into a 13-point deficit going into halftime.
The offensive line will shoulder some blame for their inability to score a touchdown in the first three quarters. Ryan was only sacked once in the first meeting, which came from Hau’oli Kikaha coming in unblocked on a play action bootleg. Nobody else created much pressure other than Cameron Jordan. A five-sack showing on Sunday shows how things can change in an instant between two divisional teams. The Saints’ front four dominated in all phases. Cameron Jordan recorded two sacks and four hits, as Ryan Schraeder was on the receiving end of his defensive player of the year campaign. Sheldon Rankins and George Johnson contributed with sacks. By mixing in a solid dosage of blitzes, Dennis Allen continues to do an excellent job with a rapidly improving defense.
While nobody can fault him for the pass protection woes or inexplicable drops, Steve Sarkisian’s decision making will be questioned once again. There was one noticeable element to Freeman not scoring at the one-yard line on two occasions. Neither play featured a full back in the backfield. After struggling to convert on short-yardage situations, Derrick Coleman could have been a useful body to bring some kind of physicality up front. The lack of faith in the struggling full back is evident. It makes the failure to re-sign Patrick DiMarco even more demoralizing. The Falcons have one of the lightest offensive lines in the league. Why not use Coleman or Dontari Poe to provide extra support in goal line situations, especially when the offense is under serious pressure? Kyle Shanahan knew how to properly structure formations for them to exploit mismatches and mask personnel flaws. Sarkisian isn’t doing either of those things at a consistent rate.
Reliable studs falter
There are five players that usually play at a high level every week for the Falcons. Julio Jones and Alex Mack are premier players. Grady Jarrett has established himself as an interior force. That leaves Devonta Freeman and Desmond Trufant as the other players on this exclusive list. They are as dependable as it gets at their respective positions. Freeman’s vision to find space and hit the hole with venom is something to be admired. His versatility gives them a multi-dimensional option that can wreck opposing defenses. Quinn has inserted Trufant into Richard Sherman’s role as the primary left cornerback to make quarterbacks think twice about targeting that side. Both players have been difference makers for the Falcons since 2015.
To see both of them on the receiving end of game changing plays and lose their composure was unfathomable. Freeman committed two silly penalties that resulted in losing 30 yards. After not fumbling once in ten games, Freeman has fumbled four times in the past three games. It’s difficult to figure out how ball security became an issue for the two-time Pro Bowler. Manti Te’o came in unblocked (like he did for the entire first half) and blasted Alex Mack into the inrushing Freeman. A freak moment turned into another nightmare in a game filled with them.
Trufant was left roasted by Ted Ginn on a 54-yard touchdown. It was one of the rare plays where he wasn’t on his preferred left side. For him to not anticipate Ginn running a more vertical route with 22 seconds left proved costly. Trufant was also responsible for leaving Michael Thomas wide open on third down. Not knowing what the coverage was in such a crucial situation must be frustrating for the savvy corner. His shocking performance was topped off by nearly punching Thomas in the face. Could you imagine being suspended for an upcoming must-win game because of such a careless error? An experienced player like Trufant should show more composure, especially during the last two minutes of a game that was already decided.
Officiating will never be perfect. It’s something everyone learns to accept at some point. You can only hope that the particular officiating crew learns from their mistakes. Pete Morelli and his group did the same exact opposite. The first half was relatively fine. Besides Freeman’s sketchy personal foul penalty, every other illegal action deserved to be punished. As the third quarter commenced, they essentially ruined everything.
Nobody ever wants officiating to become a major talking point of the game. Matchups should be decided on ability, coaching, and execution. That can’t happen when Lattimore is draped all over Jones before the ball even arrives and the officials don’t penalize him. On the next drive, the rookie cornerback knows he can’t run step for step with Jones and wisely pulls him down. A deemed “uncatchable” ball makes Lattimore’s actions legal. Meanwhile, Brian Poole jams Thomas at the line of scrimmage and gets called for pass interference on a well-overthrown pass from Brees.
All three calls were either on third down or would have resulted in a 40-yard play. New Orleans proved to be worthy winners, but this game had no business ending in a one-sided affair. It was truly a deplorable effort from the entire officiating crew. They ruined what should have been a close hard-fought game.
The message is simple at this point. Everything comes down to next Sunday. As bleak as things may appear, there are more than enough positives to remain optimistic heading into a showdown with Carolina. The front seven mostly limited Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. That should provide some confidence against the Panthers’ unpredictable ground game. Jones looks ready to carry the offense into January based on Sunday's performance. Andy Levitre’s imminent return will be massive against Carolina’s nasty interior tackle group. It comes down to the Falcons not beating themselves. Can they score in the red zone, while cutting out penalties and mental mistakes? That question will need to be answered for them to secure the last available playoff spot.