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Yearlong issues culminate in another heart-wrenching finish for the Falcons

No matter how hard they tried to adjust and execute better. The Falcons’ offense never found enough consistency to get back to the Super Bowl.

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Divisional Round - Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When you reach the playoffs, there is a growing sense of what to expect. The best teams are going to challenge your biggest deficiencies. How well a team can adjust to overcome or mask their biggest weaknesses ultimately decides their fate. The Falcons endured several problematic tendencies all season long. It was always going to be difficult for a maddeningly inconsistent team to win three consecutive games. Similar to previous years, they’re inability to score in the second half doomed them.

A problematic trend started during Mike Smith’s tenure. Not being able to make adjustments in the second half cost them on multiple occasions. It has transferred over to Dan Quinn’s group, who stresses the importance of finishing. In the Falcons’ last four playoff losses, they have scored a grand total of seven points in the second half. A touchdown pass to Tevin Coleman in the Super Bowl is the only positive from a lengthy list of failures. Not being able to score against the 49ers, Giants, and Eagles in the second half turned winnable games into bitter defeats. This is something that they must overcome, if a championship is going to be delivered to a city starving for one.

Offensive roadblocks

Everyone anticipated a low-scoring affair going into Philadelphia. For all the questions about Nick Foles, there wasn’t any skepticism about their stout defense. No team possesses a deeper defensive line than the Eagles. To use players such as Derek Barnett and Chris Long in situational roles indicates how well equipped they are up front. Adding the likes of Ronald Darby and Patrick Robinson gave them some stability in the back end. They joined Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, who are one of the better safety partnerships in the league.

Assuming the Falcons would manufacture long scoring drives seemed like a speculative expectation. Between the offensive line showing cracks and Steve Sarkisian’s volatility as a play caller, the offense faced an uphill battle. Could the Falcons handle Philadelphia’s intense pressure? Were they good enough to cope with their NASCAR package featuring Barnett, Long, Brandon Graham, and Fletcher Cox? Matt Ryan has played admirably under pressure for most of the season. That being said, you are still asking an athletically limited quarterback to make numerous throws on the move. At some point, the physical toll was likely going to catch up to him.

Ryan ended up being sacked on three occasions and hit eleven times. Although the offensive line played better than most anticipated, it wasn’t enough to prevent the franchise quarterback from being rattled. Ryan wasn’t his normal accurate self. His ball placement on deep passes were either overthrown or underthrown to the point where Julio Jones had to play defensive back. There were moments of him being late with his reads. That was evident on a play action bootleg, where he waited too long to connect with Levine Toilolo that would have resulted in an easy touchdown. You have to wonder how much Ryan was affected by four weeks of high-intensity, pressure-filled games.

To make matters worse, they played right into Philadelphia’s hands. Avoiding third-and-long situations is essential when facing a ferocious pass rush. That increases the importance of every first down. The Falcons went backwards on six first down plays. Whether it was a sack or an outside run getting snuffed out, they put themselves at an immediate disadvantage during several drives. Some of their negative plays were solely based on individual errors. Devonta Freeman failed to pick up McLeod on a blitz that resulted in a ten-yard loss. On the next drive, Graham blew by Ryan Schraeder to bring down Freeman for a five-yard loss. These miscues played a significant part in the Falcons’ inability to score in the second half. Schraeder admitted it cost them in the end.

As Sarkisian receives criticism about the play calling, his usage of certain players will be questioned once again. Tevin Coleman has been regularly misused this season. From not getting enough targets in the passing game to being repeatedly used on inside runs, they rarely utilized his biggest assets to the fullest extent. Saturday felt like the perfect time to make up for lost time. Freeman was clearly not himself, as MCL and PCL sprains in his right knee prevented him from being effective. That should have resulted in more opportunities for Coleman. The explosive playmaker received the same amount of carries as Freeman (ten) and four fewer targets (five to one).

Besides Jones, no other skill player was more productive than Coleman. He gained 93 yards on eleven touches. What makes his performance even more impressive comes from gaining extra yards in the open field. According to Pro Football Focus, he earned 47 of his 79 rushing yards after contact. To average 4.7 yards after contact per attempt shows Coleman’s capabilities. He is developing into a more patient, physical runner. His game-changing speed will cause problems in the passing game. How the coaching staff failed to put the ball in his hands more often (especially when he was getting into open space and running past defenders) during a defensive slugfest should be one of the main talking points behind another offensive letdown.

Red zone nightmare

As well as Ryan has played over the last three games; it never translated into true memorable performances. There were countless missed opportunities that prevented them from reaching the 30-point mark. What became the standard last season turned into an insurmountable task for an underachieving offense. A team with so much talent at their disposal shouldn’t go seven consecutive games without scoring 30 points or more. Due to their inability to score in the red zone, they made an unforeseen streak into something that finished their season.

The Falcons finished as the tenth worst team in the red zone. Since their Christmas Eve debacle against New Orleans, they went five for sixteen in the red zone. That is unacceptable for a team with two massive wide receivers and dynamic running backs. It starts with their inability to get Jones the ball in the end zone. After getting him on the move using a slide concept to score a pivotal touchdown against the Rams, they failed to deploy any creative designs to break open Philadelphia’s organized secondary. It was the same unimaginative, predictable play calls that have plagued the Falcons all season. That is a major reason behind Ryan going one for eighteen to Jones in the end zone per ESPN Stats and Information.

Despite having plenty of time on the clock, they never looked to be in control. A fade to Jones was the first sign of concern. It’s one of the most low percentage plays in the playbook. To immediately waste a down on a play that worked one out of eight times this season creates instant pressure. It forces the offense to pick up some yards rather than remain open minded. Instead of possibly running the ball or finding a way to get the ball in Tevin Coleman’s hands, Sarkisian calls a shovel pass intended for Terron Ward. What may have been viewed as a high-percentage play turns into a disaster when your interior line is in disarray and neither of your top running backs are on the field.

They managed to pick up a solid gain on third down, before another perplexing play call ended their season. A sprint right designed for Jones is another low percentage play call that can go awry in a hurry. It’s a play that eliminates half of the field and prevents other receivers from being legitimate options. Sarkisian is known for condensing the field to get the ball out quicker, which must be frustrating for an offense that exploited space better than any other team last season. At the worst possible time, he calls a highly anticipated play designed for the most obvious player without a backup plan. Not allowing Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper to be options in a make-or-break situation is nonsensical. To have Derrick Coleman split out wide raises more questions as well. Jenkins and McLeod were salivating as the play ensued. They knew it was coming and jumped all over it. In a season where Sarkisian was heavily criticized for his lack of creativity and questionable personnel usage, it was on full display to ruin what should have been a game winning drive.

Lingering issues hold back the defense

From an overall season standpoint, the Falcons’ defense showed more than enough improvement to be encouraged about their development. They have a plethora of talent at all three levels of their defense. Quinn’s vision of building an ultra fast team that embraces physicality is coming to fruition. To draft and develop three game changers in Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal within three years validates his credentials as a talent evaluator. Takkarist McKinley could make it four players in four years based on his play over the last eight weeks of the season.

There is still plenty of work to do for this evolving defense. It starts with not allowing extended drives that take over half a quarter. The Falcons allowed two 14-play drives in separate halves, along with a 12-play drive in the third quarter. These drives lasted between six to eight minutes, which gave the Eagles enough time to make the game simpler for Foles. Doug Pederson called a terrific game that put his beleaguered quarterback in favorable situations. Winning the time of possession battle was crucial for both teams. Philadelphia’s RPO focused game plan caught the Falcons out of position more than enough times to prevail.

It was a disappointing performance for a defense that came in with high expectations. They managed to do enough to win the game, but you’d expect a top-ten caliber defense to impose their will against a backup quarterback. Not being able to generate much pressure, along with allowing Foles to make easy decisions will leave Quinn and Marquand Manuel frustrated.

Looking Ahead

Regardless of the situation, all playoff losses are tough to digest. Another opportunity to win a championship disappears. In a wide-open NFC, there are going to be plenty of dreaded “what if” questions.

This is the most unpredictable league in all of sports. It doesn’t take long to realize this, especially for the only NFC team to make it back to the playoffs. Quinn has clearly built something special in Atlanta. His team is capable of beating anyone. Transitioning from being capable of beating any team to being expected to beat every team is how they will reclaim what should have been their trophy last February. That process starts with getting the offense back to where they belong, as one of the most feared units in the league.