As Matt Ryan and Steve Sarkisian continue to lead a surging Falcons’ offense back to where they belong, the defense continues to find new ways to allow long scoring drives and falter at the worst possible moments. It was another outstanding all-around display from the offense. Ryan was firing on all cylinders with what is becoming one of the best wide receiving trios in the league. Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley were all terrific in tearing apart Cincinnati’s secondary. Sarkisian’s usage of play action continues to greatly benefit the offense in producing easy chunk plays. There aren’t many offenses operating at a higher level than the Falcons right now.
Unfortunately for Dan Quinn’s squad, there aren’t many defenses playing at a lower level than the Falcons. The endless list of mistakes will have the coaching staff fuming in light of another game decided by a few plays.
Unlike in previous games, the front four managed to generate pressure without blitzing excessively, though it took a while to get going. Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley were influential in knocking Andy Dalton off balance. The rest of the defense failed to capitalize, as a combination of coverage breakdowns and careless penalties left the secondary searching for answers. What was one of the biggest strengths on the roster is turning into a legitimate problem. It’s hard to win with an underperforming cornerback group and backup safeties not accustomed to having major responsibility.
Failure to make up for lost talent
When Deion Jones and Keanu Neal suffered serious injuries against Philadelphia, the Falcons’ defense knew they were going to be faced with a season-long uphill battle. Losing two difference makers hurts any defense. Adding Ricardo Allen to the long-term injury list clearly worsens their chances of holding up against any offense. It’s understandable for players such as Duke Riley and Damontae Kazee to have their struggles in trying to replace two indispensable stars. That wasn’t the case in yesterday’s demoralizing defeat.
A once-formidable cornerback group was largely responsible for Andy Dalton’s terrific performance. Regardless of what coverage was being played, Dalton carved them up without much resistance. He found openings down the seam against a disorganized Falcons’ secondary. Touchdown passes to Tyler Eifert and John Ross revealed how much the defense misses Allen. Look no further than Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver still communicating as the play was materializing. Neither player was fully aware of what their responsibility was on what translated into a 39-yard-touchdown.
Although the lack of experience at safety was clearly problematic, it wasn’t responsible for the amount of times Cincinnati’s wide receivers were open. A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd had their way with Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant. If Green wasn’t blowing past Alford at the line of scrimmage, he was drawing penalties against the enigmatic cornerback. Boyd repeatedly beat Trufant on a plethora of drag and whip routes. The dynamic receiver gave the normally well-positioned cornerback all sorts of fits. It proved to be a game-changer, as Boyd beat Trufant to convert multiple fourth downs on the game-winning drive.
One of the NFL’s better cornerback duos has failed to play at a high level when their team needed them most. It’s not only the mistakes in coverage that continue to derail the Falcons. An inability to contain in run support allowed Giovani Bernard to turn the corner and produce big plays. For the second consecutive week, Alford was responsible for a touchdown from taking a poor angle. He wasn’t the only player at fault against the run. Brian Poole’s transition to strong safety was a total nightmare. It was another week of missed tackles and poor angles for the versatile defensive back. Trufant, Alford, and Poole were integral in the Falcons’ rise towards becoming a top-ten caliber defense in 2017. They are currently playing a significant role in the defense’s downfall and relevancy as a playoff-caliber team.
An offensive assault without reward
Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar summed up the Falcons’ dazzling offensive performance in one tweet. As teams make history for positive reasons, the Falcons find extraordinary ways to make history for negative reasons. To score 36 points or more without turning the ball over once and still lose two consecutive games is demoralizing. The backlash following Matt Ryan’s disastrous opening night performance feels like it happened three years ago. That’s how well the former MVP has recently played.
Ryan’s poise and timing has helped elevate a once-stagnant offense into a near-unstoppable force. Unless Geno Atkins or Carl Lawson managed to get pressure, Cincinnati never came close to rattling him. Sanu had one of his most productive games as a Falcon. After playing more of a reserved role in recent weeks, the former Bengal made several big plays off a variety of crossing routes. Ryan couldn’t have placed the ball any better on a stunning 36-yard completion.
With Jones continuing to go about his business and command extra attention, Ridley keeps dismantling cornerbacks. Dre Kirkpatrick was the latest victim on the potential offensive rookie of the year’s highlight reel. A devastating out-and-up left Kirkpatrick helpless on what was another jaw-dropping touchdown for the rookie sensation. Ridley’s game is starting to become reminiscent of T.Y. Hilton based on his ability to create separation and generate explosive plays on a weekly basis.
Not many teams can claim to have a generational talent (Jones), game-breaking threat (Ridley), and reliable physical weapon (Sanu) in their offense. To have a top-tier quarterback and a plethora of dynamic running backs, along with a comfortable offensive coordinator who is starting to acclimate himself to the pro game, has reestablished the Falcons’ position of being one of the top offenses in the league. How these breath-taking performances haven’t translated into victories only creates more frustration about the season.
Whenever a team loses three games by one-possession, there are three to five plays in each game that should be thoroughly assessed. The next step in dissecting a close defeat is evaluating how you beat yourself. Committing ten penalties represents a solid indicator of why a sub-.500 team fell short in a close game. Similar to their loss in Philadelphia, the Falcons were undisciplined and careless on both sides of the ball. Trufant and Alford were flagged on multiple occasions. No penalty was worse than Trufant needlessly shoving Boyd in the back after the play was seemingly over.
The secondary blunders continued, as Poole recklessly went helmet first in attempting to prevent Walton from making a catch. It was the type of unacceptable penalty that continues to plague the Falcons. After months of tackling drills and tutelage from Quinn, the secondary continues to make mind-numbing mistakes. Kazee was fortunate not to be flagged for blazing headfirst on a play in the fourth quarter. Instead of connecting with Bernard, he hit Beasley and sent him to the sidelines. There are going to be moments where players get overly aggressive and make mistakes. To commit the same dangerous errors that you’ve already made shows how little progress certain players are making in their development.
A trip to Pittsburgh does look exciting on paper. The scoreboard could possibly break at some point in the game. That’s how much firepower both offenses have in their arsenal. Although it’s an attractive matchup, the coaching staff can’t be excited about another likely shootout. Not being able to stop a slightly above-average Bengals’ offense doesn’t bode well for what the Steelers have to offer. There aren’t any signs that the organization is looking for any genuine outside help to bolster their defense. It leaves Ryan back in the position where he was four years ago. The Falcons’ success ultimately falls on him, regardless of how cruel the circumstances currently are.