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Third down woes and lack of possession prove costly for the Falcons in a defensive slugfest

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A combination of poor execution and self-inflicted mistakes doomed the Falcons in a hard-nosed battle.

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Minnesota Vikings v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The narratives about falling short in close games came to light yesterday. From converting on third down to playing disciplined and winning in the trenches, it’s how close games can be decided between two very good teams. That ended up being the three major deciding factors in the Falcons’ defeat. They struggled to make plays when it counted. Even when it appeared they found a rhythm offensively, Matt Ryan couldn’t make the decisive throw to get them in the end zone.

As the defense wore down and Minnesota’s pass rush started to collapse the pocket, everything began to slowly dwindle for the Falcons. It wasn’t necessarily a bad loss. Opportunities were there, but the Vikings’ overall talent can’t be disregarded. They have assembled a stellar defense that can carry them to victory. With a vastly improved running game and two incredible wide receivers, it was always going to be an uphill battle for a short-handed Falcons team missing three starters. Not having Desmond Trufant, Brian Poole, and Andy Levitre (suffered a triceps injury on the first drive) eventually came back to haunt them.

Offensive halt

For an offense that only scored nine points, the Falcons actually moved the ball. Four of their eight drives went for seven plays or more. That includes a methodical 15-play drive that took more than seven minutes off the clock. What became their undoing on these drives were penalties that led to third-and-long situations. It put Mike Zimmer’s defense in their comfort zone. Forcing offenses into third-and-long allows them to get creative by using their signature double A-Gap blitzes. By providing safety help over the top to contain Julio Jones, Ryan had to make quick decisions that were either well short of the first down marker or resulted in inaccurate throws. That is one of several reasons behind the Falcons going one for ten on third down.

Despite not getting sacked once, Ryan was harassed for most of the game. Levitre’s absence forced Ben Garland into the lineup. The versatile fan favorite did well as a run blocker, but eventually succumbed to Linval Joesph’s power in pass protection. Everson Griffen continued his takeover of the league by exploding past Jake Matthews at times. With Zimmer’s aggressive mindset and Minnesota’s ultra talented front four, Steve Sarkisian had to rely on a more conservative game plan. That is always going to be problematic on third down.

There were a couple of moments, where Ryan had to take what the defense gave him and throw short of the first down marker. There were other moments, where his supporting cast let him down. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu each dropped a surefire pass that would have gone for a first down. After dropping what would have been an easy first down, Sanu failed to provide a pick for Marvin Hall on another third down. It was a frustrating afternoon for Sanu, who reportedly confronted Raheem Morris on the sideline. They needed him to step up, as Jones received extra attention. Although he ended up being their leading receiver, three catches for 43 yards isn’t good enough.

Ryan will hold some accountability for the offense’s disappointing performance. His inconsistent accuracy left some plays on the field. A low throw to a wide-open Sanu forced them to kick another field goal. Some can argue his ball placement on a few throws to Jones should have been better for a player of his caliber. Ryan admitted that his performance wasn’t good enough. After playing outstanding football for the past five games, a slight drop off was bound to occur at some point. It wasn’t surprising to see it happen against a terrific defense.

The other major disappointment comes from being heavily penalized. Committing seven penalties may not seem like a huge amount. When six of them transpire in the first half, it becomes a major talking point. The offense was responsible for six of the eight penalties. Alex Mack’s hold negated a 25-yard run by Devonta Freeman. Justin Hardy was called for multiple block in the back penalties. Austin Hooper’s false start put them in a difficult second and fifteen situation near the red zone. These mistakes add up against one of the best teams in the NFL. The margin for error is limited in these massive games. As the defense managed to hold on, the offense made numerous errors and played right into Zimmer’s hands.

A resolute defensive performance falls short

Without Trufant and Poole, expectations were lowered. That didn’t matter to the Falcons. To only allow 14 points against an explosive offense with the best wide receiver tandem in the league should be appreciated. Blidi Wreh-Wilson held his own in replacing Trufant. Robert Alford broke up a pass intended for Stefon Diggs on third down. Case Keenum only targeted him twice, which is a sign of Alford’s improvement. Grady Jarrett and Takkarist McKinley led an improving, yet still wildly inconsistent pass rush to a good first half showing.

For all their success, familiar issues began to arise in the second half. The front four didn’t affect Keenum enough, which led to a near perfect performance. He only threw five incompletions on 30 pass attempts. That didn’t come from picking on backup cornerbacks either. He had time to survey the field and make high-percentage throws. Vic Beasley’s continued usage at linebacker certainly helped. Minnesota repeatedly targeted him in the first half. Although he showed signs of life as a pass rusher, it’s clear that Beasley isn’t the same dangerous threat off the edge at the moment. Handling multiple roles appears to have taken a toll on him.

The stat sheet won’t show it, but the Falcons struggled against the run yet again. Minnesota started dominating in the trenches during the second half. A preposterous 15 play, 89-yard drive showcased their advantage. Latavius Murray found gaping holes at times. Deion Jones continues to look overwhelmed against the run. The young linebacker missed a tackle in the backfield, along with Beasley and Brooks Reed on that game-changing drive. Following a strong start to the season, De’Vondre Campbell isn’t making the same amount of impact plays. Jarrett and Dontari Poe can do so much on the interior. Other players need to step up, if the Falcons are going to play football in January.

Late game call

There was plenty of discussion about Dan Quinn’s decision to opt for a field goal rather than go for it on fourth and four. It was surprising to see a genuine debate on what seemed like a pretty straight forward move. The Falcons were down five points with five minutes left. To make it a two-point deficit and trust your defense can get one more stop was the right move. With Matt Bryant still kicking at an elite level, nobody would have imagined him missing a crucial kick.

Another factor behind Quinn’s decision must have been Minnesota’s success on third down. The risk of not converting on fourth down was too high. Why possibly ruin the chances of not scoring anything, when you have one of the most reliable kickers in the business? It’s not coaching scared. This is putting your team in the best position to win a close game. If you believe the defense is a talented unit, you must have faith that they can get one more stop. Of course, the plan didn’t come to fruition. That shouldn’t be on Quinn. An unforeseen miss and C.J. Goodwin being exploited at the worst possible time ultimately doomed them.

Looking Ahead

The timing of Thursday night’s pivotal divisional clash can be viewed in multiple ways. On a positive note, the Falcons get an opportunity to rebound quickly and maintain control of their own destiny in the NFC South. The negative side comes from the team’s current health status. Minnesota physically punishes their opposition. Between the unknown status of three key players and playing three days after a hard-fought loss, it’s a definite concern for Atlanta. Quinn always raves about them being a resilient group. They will need to show it against their bitter rivals.