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A Closer Look: Red zone inefficiency dooms the Falcons

How did the Falcons fail to pick up nine yards in four plays?

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

In a regression-filled season, the Falcons’ once dynamic offense stumbled in numerous areas. To average nearly 13 fewer points per game with nearly the same personnel from the previous season must be infuriating for the entire organization. It shows that their massive decline can’t be based on bad luck or poor execution. There are internal issues within the offense. Since their Christmas Eve debacle in New Orleans, the Falcons went five of sixteen in the red zone to finish the season. That is a deplorable conversion rate for any team, let alone one with championship aspirations.

For Atlanta’s season to end on a red zone failure isn’t surprising. They finished tenth worst in red zone conversion rate. Not being able to finish drives plagued them all season. Steve Sarkisian’s inability to formulate creative plays in narrow areas showed up at the worst possible time. A mixture of questionable player usage, pedestrian route concepts, and careless situation management crushed their comeback hopes. It puts added pressure on the beleaguered offensive coordinator, despite getting a “vote of confidence” from Dan Quinn.

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 is how the Falcons fell apart in the red zone.

Fourth Quarter: 1st and Goal at PHI 9

A designed fade to Julio Jones can be viewed as a calculated risk. It’s an opportunity to get the ball in the hands of your best wide receiver in an isolated situation. Sarkisian tried it on first down, as they are clearly in four-down territory. There are understandable reasons behind calling this low-percentage play. The sheer fact of calling a low-percentage play with your season on the line makes this a poor decision. According to Pro Football Focus, teams only have a 33 percent success rate when running a fade. That usually translates in a wasted down, which is something that can’t happen against a stout defense.

Ronald Darby is perfectly positioned to prevent the fade from being completed. By playing seven yards off, the aggressive cornerback sits on the route and guides Jones out of bounds. Jones makes his job easier by failing to sell the route. He doesn’t try to bait Darby into taking a wrong step. That makes a low percentage play even more difficult. Jones mistimes his jump, although he was clearly out of bounds after Darby shielded him towards the sidelines. Ryan was one for eighteen on passes to Jones in the end zone this season per ESPN Stats & Information. That can be somewhat attributed to defenses being prepared to defend Sarkisian’s predictable play calling.

Fourth Quarter: 2nd and Goal at PHI 9

As the great Al Michaels said on the broadcast, “what was that” is a perfect description for this one. It’s clear that Sarkisian wanted to pick up a few yards to put them in a manageable third down situation. After not gaining any yards on first down, it’s essential to get some kind of yardage (or even score for that matter). The shovel pass used to be a staple in the Falcons’ red zone offense. Who can forget Jason Snelling galloping into the end zone off shovel passes? Dirk Koetter used them brilliantly during the 2012 season. Although he didn’t utilize it nearly as often, Kyle Shanahan found some success using the unique design. Unlike Sarkisian, he actually added creativity to it by implementing a fake toss to create space on the inside.

Sarkisian rarely called it this season. He opted to use more rub route concepts and crossing patterns in the red zone. To attempt it here without any semblance of deception is absurd. In a four wide receiver set near the goal line, how are the Eagles going to be caught off guard? They don’t have to accommodate for any other player besides Terron Ward out of the backfield. Alex Mack is the only lineman running downfield, as the defensive line collapses inside. It doesn’t matter what running back was on the field. No player is turning this disaster into a positive gain. Vinny Curry recognizes the baffling play call and pounces on it. Ryan is unable to look elsewhere, as Brandon Graham blows past Ryan Schraeder. This is a dreadful play call with poor execution that could have easily gone for negative yardage.

Fourth Quarter: 3rd and Goal at PHI 9

A much-needed positive gain puts the Falcons in striking distance. Malcolm Jenkins has to pick up Tevin Coleman in the flat. That allows Ryan to find a clear opening, as Philadelphia isn’t doubling Jones. Darby continues to play seven yards off in wary of Jones possibly beating him over the top. A quick design to pick up seven yards was essential in giving them options on fourth down.

This completion does leave something to be considered. If Ryan throws the ball higher, can Jones power his way into the end zone? He gets a good angle on Darby with his back turned to the cornerback. Not many wide receivers are better at picking up yards after contact than Jones. The superstar talent ran through several tackles against the Rams. It wouldn’t be inconceivable for Jones to bully his way into the end zone. Then again, none of this would have mattered if every other play didn’t feature an unimaginative or perplexing play call.

Fourth Quarter: 4th and Goal at PHI 2

Before the ball is even snapped, this doesn’t look promising. The personnel alignment lacks variety. Derrick Coleman is out wide to the left as the lone receiver. The notion of putting him there makes zero sense. Does Philadelphia really think Ryan is going to throw to a fullback with the season on the line? That immediately give them an impression that Ryan is going to his right. As Levine Toilolo motions to the right, Rodney McLeod instantly reacts in excitement. He knows what is coming. In his own words, “this is everything you dream of as a player.”

There are plenty of insulting parts to this play. Similar to McLeod, Jenkins knew the sprint right was coming before they broke the huddle. That left Ryan with only one option. With the season on the line, he had only one place to throw the ball. The thought process behind eliminating half of the field and relying on one player without any real backup plan in a make-or-break situation is ludicrous. Mohamed Sanu is a non-factor with McLeod and Jenkins playing bracket coverage. It puts added pressure on Jones, who manages to slip on a play where he needs to move quickly on the comeback route. Mychal Kendricks stays disciplined to make sure Tevin Coleman isn’t wide open. A quarterback should never face a hopeless situation on fourth and two. It’s the play caller’s job to give them options with at least one favorable matchup. None of that took place, as Ryan had no other choice than to throw up a prayer that wouldn’t have been completed regardless if Jones came down with it.

This is an indefensible play call. Some may argue Jones’ slip ruined everything, along with how Ryan should connect with Jones in any situation. That is such an irrational perspective. Players are bound to make mistakes. Not everything is going to operate smoothly at all times. In such a tight area, it should be mandatory to have other available options. How come Austin Hooper isn’t on the field after he made multiple key catches in traffic against the Rams? Sanu led the team in receiving touchdowns, yet he is nothing more than a helpless decoy. The threat of Tevin Coleman alone could have affected Philadelphia’s structure. Let’s not forget Justin Hardy’s knack for finding space in the end zone. These players were either not used or grossly misused on the final play.

Quinn will receive some criticism as well. Based on previous losses in 2015, he should know how the offense struggles when Jones is being heavily targeted without any other receivers being featured. To not reconsider Sarkisian’s decisions, especially when he had two timeouts and an official review before the final play, makes him partially culpable for how the drive ended. Tevin Coleman produced 93 total yards on 11 touches. His ten-yard run put the Falcons on the nine-yard line. Not running the ball or targeting him in the passing game on four consecutive plays makes you wonder how the Falcons value their playmakers outside of Jones. All Coleman may have needed was one touch to put the Falcons in prime position to win the game. Instead, they sprinted right into the off-season and Sarkisian became a national punch line.