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A Closer Look: How the Falcons stumbled on third down

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Poor officiating and failing to score in the red zone weren't the only reasons behind the Falcons' downfall in New Orleans.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It has been an incredibly frustrating season for the Atlanta Falcons. As Dan Quinn’s defense continues to show progression, a once-powerhouse offense has dwindled into an ordinary attack. Everyone knew they weren’t going to replicate last season’s greatness by averaging 34 points per game. The magical cohesion of play calling and talent destroyed opposing defenses. Most believed that their talent would be more than enough to maintain their status as a top-tier group. A 12-point drop off to 22 points per game validates the offense’s current disjointed state.

Steve Sarkisian hasn’t instilled confidence as an offensive coordinator. His volatile approach makes every week a new adventure. A combination of Sarkisian’s inability to adjust at a steady rate, failing to score regularly in the red zone, and being tied for the league lead in drops assembles an enigmatic offense. For all their issues, third down has proven to be Atlanta’s biggest ally. They are currently ranked first in third down conversion rate. That speaks volumes of their success, considering they went two for thirteen against New Orleans. It was an infuriating display of missed opportunities; poor pass protection, and unimaginative play designs.

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. Here are four of Atlanta’s eleven failures on third down.

First Quarter: 3rd and 12 at ATL 34

To counter New Orleans’ blitz packages, Atlanta opted to use Austin Hooper as an extra blocker. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is known for blitzing quite often. It was a wise decision on Sarkisian’s part to recognize what could potentially happen without proper protection. Putting Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu on the same side usually presents a world of problems. Jones is constantly attracting double teams, while Sanu’s patience and timing makes it a guessing game for most defensive backs.

New Orleans isn’t your standard defense. With Marshon Lattimore’s rise to stardom, they have inserted him into a unique spot. Unlike most star cornerbacks, he is more than willing to follow number one wide receivers into the slot. Lattimore fully embraced the opportunity to cover Jones. This was one of the rare plays, where he didn’t play press. Although it’s understandable to play eight yards off on third and 12, allowing a free release to a player like Jones is risky. His acceleration and change of direction leaves cornerbacks searching for answers.

Lattimore was fortunate that Ryan didn’t throw the ball slightly earlier and higher. A quicker release would have resulted in a completion. The same can be said about the throw being higher, which would have made it far more difficult for the lunging Lattimore to make a play on the ball. It’s a disappointing throw from Ryan, especially when you consider the excellent protection. This is a well-crafted play that doesn’t reap the benefits.

Third Quarter: 3rd and 3 at ATL 43

Before Sunday’s game, the Falcons had only allowed 18 sacks on the season. It’s a surprisingly low total, considering Andy Levitre and Ryan Schraeder missed multiple games. Ryan has done better escaping the pocket and avoiding sacks in recent years. Despite not allowing many sacks, there were warning signs about the offensive line not being as good as the stats suggested. New Orleans’ front seven proved it with a five-sack showing.

Cameron Jordan will receive defensive player of the year consideration. Other than Aaron Donald, it’s hard to think of a more deserving winner. He can line up anywhere across the defensive line. His presence allows younger players such as Hau’oli Kikaha and David Onyemata to develop into valued contributors. Jordan does an outstanding job mixing up his hands to get Schraeder off balance. Just as you think he commits to an inside move, the Pro Bowler reverts outside and gets underneath Schraeder. Ryan is unable to escape with Kikaha overpowering Jake Matthews on the other side.

What makes this play sting even further is Sanu creates acres of space. Sarkisian loves pairing him alongside Jones. With Lattimore pressing Jones, it gives Sanu space to operate in a one on one situation. P.J. Williams is responsible for picking up the versatile wide receiver. Sanu easily shakes past him for what should have been a first down. No Falcons’ skill position player is more lethal on option routes than him. Unfortunately, the protection doesn’t hold up and a great chance is wasted.

Fourth Quarter: 3rd and 7 at NO 30

A solid dosage of crossing patterns is an efficient way to exploit an aggressive defense. Lattimore and Ken Crawley were playing physical all game long. The young cornerback tandem allows Allen to play more man heavy schemes. As the Falcons continued to find themselves in third and long situations, Sarkisian needed to get more creative. Devising a play for Taylor Gabriel to get open seemed like an ideal solution. His ability to pick up yards after the catch would be perfect for a play designed to cause confusion and create space.

Gabriel has been mostly limited to screens and jet sweeps this season. If any player has been greatly damaged in Sarkisian’s offense, it would be the diminutive receiver. An astute play call gives him a chance to get the Falcons back into the game. New Orleans runs another blitz, which leads to extra space in the middle of the field. Sanu’s battle with Crawley provides even more room. As everything aligns for a big play, the fan favorite can’t jump up and hold onto the ball.

The pass isn’t great with Ryan throwing it slightly behind and high. Although Sheldon Rankins smashes him, it comes from his blindside rather than in his face. A quarterback of Ryan’s caliber should throw a more accurate pass. A wide receiver of Gabriel’s caliber should haul in a high throw. This is another heart-wrenching moment in a game filled with them.

Fourth Quarter: 3rd and 14 at ATL 6

Four of their five allowed sacks occurred on third down. There aren’t many things sweeter for a defense than third down sacks. In the first meeting, Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn sacked Drew Brees on third down. Those drive-killing plays propelled the Falcons' comeback. They were on the receiving end of it in this game, which squashed their comeback hopes.

New Orleans found success running stunts across the defensive line. Jordan got an easy sack off Rankins’ dirty work. Wes Schweitzer’s lack of awareness presented them with a free gift. On this play, they decided to get creative on the interior rather than left side. Rankins’ wicked first step catches Alex Mack off guard. His instant explosive move forces Mack to follow him the entire way. It also knocks Ben Garland off balance, who is trying to pick up George Johnson. Rankins wrecks this play by pushing the pocket and taking out two linemen in the process. Ryan’s impressive individual effort saves them from further embarrassment.

The immediate pressure followed by Johnson’s sack doesn't negate what was a speculative play call. Placing Jones in the slot indicates that the Falcons are trying to create a favorable matchup downfield. There appears to be an opening, as Williams is the only player in the vicinity of him. For Sarkisian to use his best player on a low-percentage, long developing play during a dire situation is a major mistake.

They are clearly in four down territory with less than five minutes left in a two possession game. Why not try to pick up a decent gain to put your offense in a more favorable state or use a bunch formation to create mismatches that can translate into a third and long conversion? Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are the safe options, as they are running quick-ins. A pass to either running back wouldn’t have resulted in a significant gain regardless. This is another example of mismanagement and not scheming your players into high percentage situations.