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How 45 minutes of greatness turned into 19 minutes of devastation for the Falcons

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The Falcons’ implosion can be broken down in a plethora of ways. Kyle Shanahan’s play calling, poor pass protection, bad coverage, and Tom Brady are among the many parts behind the most painful loss in Super Bowl history.

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NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

When Dan Quinn replaced Mike Smith in 2015, a new philosophy was needed. The Falcons lacked speed, balance, and strength at every level. Smith’s poor clock management decisions didn’t help either. Quinn brought a refreshing personality to a fragmented franchise with a clear initiative. Rebuilding a horrific defense in multiple drafts and signing a game-changing center showed Quinn understood their personnel deficiencies.

With a rebuilt defense holding the New England Patriots to nine points in three quarters and Alex Mack playing well on one good leg, everything was building toward a definitive, glorious finish to a fairytale season. A fourth quarter meltdown featuring several breakdowns on both sides of the ball ended those dreams.

Not being able to hold a substantial lead was a familiar sight during Smith’s tenure in Atlanta, and unfortunately, it reappeared on Sunday night at the worst time. Blaming one player, moment or coaching decision isn’t sensible following an excruciating collapse. Allowing 31 unanswered points falls on the entire team’s shoulders.

Offensive breakdowns

As Kyle Shanahan finished the 2015 season as a vilified figure, the 2016 AP Assistant Coach of the Year somehow leaves the franchise in similar fashion. Shanahan assembled one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. It’s unfortunate that some will remember him for one or two questionable play calls on the biggest stage rather than countless mesmerizing game plans that forced opposing defenses into submission. Shanahan is the scapegoat, despite continuing to do what made this team a Super Bowl contender.

To pinpoint Shanahan as the main reason behind Atlanta’s downfall is absurd. The Falcons were up two possessions (and two point conversions) with nine minutes remaining in the game. The best offense in the league should remain confident against any opponent. Calling a pass on third and one isn’t an ideal play call during that situation, but it shouldn’t be viewed as an unforgivable mistake.

Devonta Freeman failed to pick up Dont’a Hightower on a blitz. Some blame can be placed on Matt Ryan for not recognizing Hightower, who was rushing from the left side. For a quarterback who has been excellent under pressure, he should protect the ball better, especially when the sack didn’t come from his blindside. The execution should be criticized more than the play call. A catastrophic mistake catapulted New England’s comeback.

The offense didn’t play up to their usual standard. Only scoring 21 points isn’t good enough against the greatest quarterback, head coaching duo in NFL history. Converting one of eight third down situations and allowing five sacks against a middling pass rush played a substantial role in their shortcomings. Jake Matthews hasn’t looked the same, since suffering a knee injury against Kansas City. Committing a holding penalty on Mohamed Sanu’s key nine-yard catch to get back into field goal range doomed them.

Matthews was responsible for two sacks allowed and two penalties. With Mack starting to fall apart in pass protection and Ryan Schraeder suffering a torn ligament in his ankle, the offensive line should be held largely responsible for the offense’s downfall. Allowing five sacks on 28-drop backs is unacceptable for an offensive line that kept Ryan upright on 40-drop backs two weeks ago against Green Bay.

Shanahan should have called a few more running plays. His slightly more aggressive unbalanced approach doesn’t make him completely responsible. It wasn’t as egregious as many journalists and analysts have indicated. Tevin Coleman’s ankle injury left them with Freeman as their lone active running back. After going up 28-3, the Falcons gained nine yards on five carries. Alan Branch and Malcom Brown form one of the best interior run stuffing duos in the league. It wasn’t surprising to see the offensive line struggle in the second half, especially with Mack’s fractured fibula. Look at the Pro Bowl center’s stance, as Trey Flowers overpowers him.

Ryan dropped back 12 times, which includes being sacked three times after taking a commanding lead. Twelve pass plays and five rushing plays isn’t a great ratio, but let’s take into consideration that Ryan threw three passes on the final drive. Is calling nine passes compared to five runs when having a lead against the greatest quarterback ever so wrong? There are many statistics that show Atlanta simply didn’t do enough from an execution standpoint. The same applies to their young defense.

Not enough juice

After Tom Brady torched Pittsburgh’s defensive zone scheme, everyone anticipated Quinn would use more man coverage looks against New England’s shifty wide receivers. That is a risky proposition with inexperienced cornerbacks such as Jalen Collins and Brian Poole. Both players struggle to change direction, which is a bad scenario against the likes of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. To quote the incomparable Nate Diaz, it was a “kill or be killed” approach to play mostly man coverage with their cornerback group. Being on the field for a whopping 93 snaps will ultimately leave your defense on the latter end of that mentality.

Andy Benoit made a great point in his review piece. Playing 93 snaps is the equivalent of playing a game and a half. The Patriots had forty minutes of possession. Without a great pass rush, you can’t survive against Brady. The Falcons did a commendable job generating pressure in the first three quarters. Similar to practically everything else, the defensive line wore down during their roaring comeback.

Collins and Poole were frequently picked on. While the former second round pick made great strides over the past six games, Collins was routinely beaten by smaller wide receivers. The same can be said about Poole, who committed two holding penalties on the same drive. He was fortunate that Robert Alford’s pick six made up for those miscues. It was inevitable that Brady would find success against two developing corners. As the defensive line slowed down, the Super Bowl MVP’s precise ball placement and timing made him unstoppable.

Despite Grady Jarrett and Dwight Freeney playing extremely well, Vic Beasley’s anonymous game can’t be overlooked. He failed to make his mark on the biggest stage. According to Sam Monson, Beasley generated one pressure on 54 snaps. His lone pressure ended up being a 15-yard completion to Martellus Bennett.

The dynamic pass rusher was overwhelmed by standout right tackle Marcus Cannon. For all his success, Beasley is far from a finished product. Building more lower body strength and learning more pass-rushing moves should help him ascend to the next level. Opposing right tackles figured out the blueprint to stop his speed rush during the playoffs.

Quinn’s tiring defense desperately needed a jolt to stop the bleeding. As Brady kept throwing perfect darts to his running backs and wide receivers, they needed to start hitting him again. That is the only realistic scenario to get a superstar quarterback out of rhythm without having ballhawks in the secondary. The NFL sack leader simply couldn’t provide it.

Beasley found himself in a difficult situation based on Adrian Clayborn’s season ending injury and Freeney playing on a snap count. As players like Courtney Upshaw and Jarrett emerged as pass rushers, many anticipated Beasley to have a big playoff performance. It never transpired in a disappointing end to his breakout season.

Bright spots

As mentioned in the title, the Falcons were incredible for 45 minutes. Ryan’s solid performance shouldn’t be overshadowed. Besides not recognizing pressure on the fumble and taking one too many sacks, the 2016 NFL MVP played a perfect game. His 27-yard completion to Julio Jones in the fourth quarter was one of the best throws of his career. While Jones received well-deserved praise for the absurd catch, Ryan threw a sensational pass on the run to escape pressure. He placed the ball where his superstar wide receiver can only catch it.

Taylor Gabriel and Austin Hooper had their shining moments. In previous articles, I’ve mentioned Gabriel’s underrated route running ability. It doesn’t get much recognition, due to his breakaway speed. The electrifying wide receiver’s head fake put star cornerback Malcolm Butler on a mixtape. After missing him on the previous play, Ryan went right back to Hooper down the seam for a touchdown. A special offense looks to utilize all of their playmakers and exploit mismatches. Hooper had a favorable matchup against Patrick Chung. It shows the level of confidence Ryan has to go immediately back to a rookie tight end following an incompletion on the previous play.

Limiting New England to nine points is a noteworthy feat, regardless of how the game finished. Deion Jones was everywhere in the first half. Whether it was chasing down running backs in coverage or stopping them in the running game, the rookie middle linebacker could be a future Pro Bowler. He set the tone early by stopping LeGarrette Blount for no gain on third and one during the first drive. Stripping Blount two drives later started the Falcons’ run of scoring 21 unanswered points. Jones produced nine tackles, one tackle for a loss, and one pass breakup. Based on his playoff performances, you can argue Jones surpassed Beasley as their defensive MVP this season.

Jarrett looked like the second coming of Geno Atkins. The former fifth round pick is known for his relentless motor and outstanding quickness. Nobody touted his pass rushing ability coming out of Clemson. It was a coming out party for the talented defensive tackle. Jarrett recorded three sacks; four quarterback hits, and played a big part behind limiting Blount to a pedestrian game. From putting a nasty swim move on Shaq Mason to blasting through a double team, Jarrett deserved MVP honors, if the Falcons prevailed. Playing him alongside a true nose tackle next season should make him into an even bigger force.

Looking Ahead

This magical season has ended in the most brutalizing way possible. For all the unbelievable surprises and standout performances this season, blowing a 25-point lead on the grandest stage will never be forgotten. Quinn’s third season should be very interesting based on his team’s rapid progression. They are going to face a new type of adversity. It feels strange to label next season as “Super Bowl or Bust”, yet they are clearly a championship-caliber team.

During the short time period before free agency begins, Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux should make their decisions about playing next season. Both are free agents, but it’s hard to imagine them playing anywhere else besides Atlanta. Freeman’s contract situation is going to be another off-season storyline as well.

The Falcons made significant strides that nobody anticipated heading into the 2016 season. Matt Ryan went from being labeled as the fourth best quarterback in the NFC South to being the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. After assembling “bend don’t break” to simply abysmal defenses for the past decade, the Falcons’ defense developed into an exciting unit.

There are plenty of things to be optimistic about heading into the 2017 season. Can they reach the pinnacle again? It’s hard to make the Super Bowl, let alone take a commanding lead. A historically great offense, opportunistic defense, and fantastic coaching staff are on the receiving end of the worst collapse in Super Bowl history. That is what leaves the entire franchise and fan base beyond devastated.