As the injury list continues to increase, the Falcons find themselves at a crossroads. They haven’t been 1-4 since the awful 2013 season. Both teams had Super Bowl aspirations going into the season. Unlike the 2013 group, this current Falcons’ team is far more balanced on both sides of the ball. That balance evaporates when a defense loses four key players, which turned into five when Desmond Trufant had to leave the game after colliding with James Conner.
In the locker room, nobody is looking for sympathy. Everyone knows they face an uphill battle going forward. The Falcons were outplayed in every department. From not being able to keep the pocket clean for Matt Ryan to allowing nine of 12 third downs to be converted, they couldn’t hold up against a desperate Pittsburgh team. A total second half breakdown will raise major questions about the Falcons’ 2018 outlook. Ryan Schraeder was visibly frustrated and didn’t shy away from speaking about the pass protection breakdowns.
“We all take responsibility in everything we do,” Schraeder said. “It’s our job to protect Matt (Ryan) and create running lanes. We need to be accountable for what happened today. It doesn’t matter what defenses are bringing to the table. We have to be better against all fronts.”
Per ESPN, Ryan was hit eleven times and sacked six times on 44 drop backs. Nobody expected him to take a bigger beating than he did on opening night against Philadelphia. That was quickly surpassed by Pittsburgh’s ultra-aggressive scheme. They didn’t hesitate to blitz or use a variety of stunts to disrupt the passing game’s rhythm. Schraeder was caught off guard a few times, but there wasn’t anything that Pittsburgh did was extraordinary.
“They threw some different twists at us,” Schraeder said. “You expect that from most defenses though. That’s when you have to adjust and make sure the pocket doesn’t collapse. The pocket collapsed too often today. We’ll look back at the film and recognize what needs to be fixed.”
“Pittsburgh has some players up front. T.J. Watt was pretty quick. There were a couple of plays that I was lackadaisical coming off the line. It’s those moments you see on film and realize you must bring it on every snap. Watt is definitely a talented player. He can move off the edge.”
With the defense being completely decimated, the coaching staff is looking for solutions across their roster. That means giving the likes of Steven Means, Michael Bennett IV, Bruce Carter, and Sharrod Neasman meaningful snaps. It’s clear some players that the coaching staff had high hopes for aren’t delivering. The dreadful defensive showings against New Orleans and Cincinnati means opportunities will be given to new players. Neasman is one of the recent additions trying to make his case for more playing time. The recently signed safety made his official return to the Falcons after playing for them in 2016.
“It was good to get back into the mix,” Neasman said. “I needed that first collision to get back where I belong. Even though it was a tough game, I’m grateful for today. It was another important learning experience.”
“I knew once I was called in, I was going to be able to step right in. There wasn’t going to be a major transition. I made sure to stay on top of everything over the past few months. That meant staying fresh on defensive schemes and seeing what offenses are doing across the league. There isn’t time for me to get my feet wet. I have to be very detailed in how I approach everything. You can’t afford to mentally fall behind in this league.”
Oluokun getting more comfortable
While veterans are being brought in for depth purposes, the 2018 draft class is receiving more playing time than most anticipated. Deadrin Senat has showed signs of real promise. Although it’s been at a smaller sample size, Isaiah Oliver looks like a potential long-term fit in Dan Quinn’s secondary. Both players were expected to play some type of role this season. That wasn’t the case for Foye Oluokun, who has been pushed into a far bigger role in Deion Jones’ absence. The sixth-round pick is starting to find his niche in the defense.
“I’m starting to feel comfortable working with Duke (Riley) and De’Vondre (Campbell),” Oluokun said. “I’ll give them a blow to make sure we are set before the snap. It’s how we take more responsibility with Deion out. That’s why I’m continuing to work on being able to play in nickel, where I have to make those zone drops or shift into man coverage. Just because I’ve mostly played in base doesn’t mean I can get complacent. It’s about proving I can be a three-down linebacker in this league.”
It’s been a quick rise for Oluokun, who was expected to mostly contribute on special teams this season. There weren’t any plans for him to play 20-25 snaps a game. That has drastically changed, considering the difficult circumstances surrounding the team. Oluokun isn’t shying away from the pressure and learning from Campbell. Although setbacks are bound to happen like his unnecessary roughness penalty when wrapping up Conner, the savvy linebacker is continuing to grow as an all-around player.
“This is a good opportunity for me to keep learning,” Oluokun said. “You have to be ready at all times to play a bigger role. The coaching staff put their trust in me to perform. I need to show what I’m capable of. My emotions got the better of me on that penalty. It’s something I know will never happen again.”
“I like De’Vondre a lot. Everything he says is well thought out. I’m happy to see him take more of a leadership role. It’s good for the team, especially on defense. We need to back him up and start making plays more consistently. Right now, we know it’s not good enough.”
What makes Oluokun’s rise so fascinating is the extreme changes in competition. Not many players can claim to have gone from the Ivy League to playing top-tier quarterbacks in a matter of weeks. Facing Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger in two out of the last three games has been a tremendous experience for him. While playing against the best quarterbacks in the league didn’t initially hit him, Oluokun reflected on these valuable experiences.
“I don’t think about it during the week, but then you reflect and realize what type of competition you are going up against,” Oluokun said with a smile. “It’s great to face these future Hall of Famers. To prepare for them and know what type of coverages we are going to primarily use. Everything about the process is cool. I thought some of the stuff we did in the first half rattled Big Ben.”
Finding a better way forward
With so many key players and veterans being replaced, there are countless young players being inserted into a major role. Most of them have unsurprisingly not come close to matching them. One of the few exceptions is Wes Schweitzer, who replaced Andy Levitre in the second quarter of their lone win against Carolina. It’s been a difficult journey for Schweitzer following a mistake-filled first season. He was even benched at one point. The versatile guard responded well, which is something Schraeder took note of when assessing the offensive line.
“Schweitzer has definitely improved,” Schraeder stated. “This is his second season in a starting role, so everyone expected him to take a leap. He is more than capable of being a starter in this league. He’s taken the necessary steps to learn from last season and progress as a player. His awareness has gotten a lot better too. I’m excited to see where he goes.”
While Schweitzer replaces Levitre at left guard, there are other situations where multiple players will have to make up for the loss of a starter. Ricardo Allen’s absence left a gaping hole in the secondary. His ability to communicate, cover acres of space, and organize the back end helped the defense become an above-average unit. The secondary clearly misses him, as big plays are frequently occurring down the seam without a defender in sight. Neasman knows that playing without Allen is tough, but it’s something they need to come to terms with in order to improve as a defense.
“Everyone has to step up and fill that void,” Neasman said. “We know how much Rico means to the defense. We know what he does on every snap. We must put it on ourselves to make sure we’re organized and ready to stop teams. It’s going to take a collective effort to make up for his loss.”
Although everything is down at the moment, the Falcons remain unified as a group. They know the culture Quinn built is too strong for them to give up on the season. Another home stretch is coming up for them to get back on track. A two-game winning streak before the bye would be massive for them. Oluokun is aware of that. Although he may not know the team’s exact record, the young linebacker knows there is plenty of football left to be played.
“We’re only 1-4?,” Oluokun asked. “I thought we were 1-5. S***, I’ll take it at this point. It’s a long season. Nobody likes losing and we understand that times are tough. That doesn’t mean we are going to cave. There is no quit in us. Right now, it’s about getting a win and taking it from there. That’s all we can do.”