It’s hard to recall many games that can be considered as a complete dud during Dan Quinn’s tenure. For all the triumphs and heartbreaks, there is one thing you can always count on from the Falcons. They will present a difficult challenge to their opposition. Whether it’s from scoring on nearly every drive against New Orleans or getting into a defensive slugfest with Philadelphia, easy games don’t exist against Atlanta. No opponent can afford to get comfortable when facing such a battle-tested group of players capable of generating a flurry of big plays in an instant.
In one of the rare games since Quinn became head coach in 2015, the Falcons failed to offer much intensity or threat to their opponent. It was about as lifeless as a performance can get from a talented team coming off their best performance of the season. One of the most prolific offenses in the league failed to produce many big plays. After shutting down Saquon Barkley and Adrian Peterson in two consecutive games, they were annihilated by Nick Chubb and an average offensive line. Pinpointing what went wrong in a Falcons’ game normally isn’t difficult, especially given their ridiculous injury list and limited defense. For what was considered as one of the most winnable games remaining on their schedule, everything that could have possibly went wrong transpired in a demoralizing defeat.
Self-inflicted mistakes and questionable approach unsettles high-flying offense
When the Falcons’ offense falters, there are usually two reasons behind their poor performance. It involves Matt Ryan being under severe pressure because the offensive line was overpowered or they failed to make adjustments against a blitz-heavy scheme. The other indication consists of not being able to run the ball effectively. Neither of those common shortcomings were the cause of their downfall.
Ryan was sacked twice and hit four times on 54 drop backs per ESPN. One of those sacks occurred on the final play of the game where Ryan held onto the ball for too long and made a careless mistake. Despite being known for his exotic (often labeled as reckless) blitzes, Gregg Williams didn’t bring as many extra rushers as he generally does. He decided to be more conservative with his game plan, which made a substantial difference in forcing Ryan to be more conservative with his decision-making. Between being more organized and controlling the tempo of the game, Cleveland’s success forced Steve Sarkisian to essentially abandon the running game.
If the offensive line gives Ryan ample time in the pocket and helps create some semblance of a running game, the offense should produce plenty of explosive plays and score more than 30 points. That wasn’t the case against Cleveland’s emerging defense. Only four of Ryan’s 38 completions went for 15 yards or more. After becoming overly reliant on their signature play action designs in the first half, they started operating from the shotgun for the majority of the second half. The lack of formation diversity and pre-snap motion allowed a defense known for their undisciplined tendencies to be more organized.
It was one of those tactical games where you need to watch the coaches’ film to fully understand how the Falcons’ offense stumbled. Julio Jones made an interesting observation about their issues. The superstar wide receiver admitted that Williams’ decision to play more two-high limited them to a certain extent. Those opportunities to vertically stretch them weren’t there. It still remains worrying that Sarkisian couldn’t make the necessary adjustments against their Cover 2 looks; especially after the glowing praise he received this past week. His inability to get Calvin Ridley involved didn’t help matters in trying to produce more explosive plays. A player of Ridley’s caliber shouldn’t be catching his first pass in the middle of the third quarter.
While Sarkisian will merit some blame, the Falcons’ committed multiple unforced errors to put themselves in a worse position. Alex Mack’s high snap led to an eight-yard loss, which ruined a promising drive. A quick completion to Mohamed Sanu shouldn’t result in a turnover, yet the reliable wide receiver made a baffling decision to stretch for extra yardage on second and eighteen. His fumble led to Cleveland scoring a touchdown six plays later. Besides only converting on five of fourteen third down situations, the lack of adjustments and uncharacteristic mistakes ruined their chances of keeping pace in a game where they didn’t receive much assistance from their defense.
Defensive shortcomings on full display
After winning in the trenches over the last two games, there was a sense of growing confidence within the Falcons’ defensive line. They started to impose their will against the run, along with creating more pressure without being dependent of stunts and twists. Grady Jarrett’s return unsurprisingly made a massive difference. With Bruce Irvin being recently added, it seemed like the pieces were coming together up front.
Those aspirations took a huge step back in getting manhandled and outmaneuvered by the Browns. If they wanted to use stretch zone runs, holes were being instantly created. If they wanted to get more creative by running different option looks, the Falcons’ defense were caught left behind. The lack of gap integrity was apparent during several of Chubb’s big runs. It seemed the cutback lane continued to get bigger following every other run.
With De’Vondre Campbell not taking an expected third-year leap this season and Duke Riley failing to read the game well or take on blockers, Chubb got to the second level with relative ease. Allowing a special talent like him to run free into the open field will eventually cost you. It can result in something game-breaking like a 92-yard touchdown, which Damontae Kazee found out first hand by badly whiffing in the open field.
As the run defense took a major setback, the tackling was as bad as it was earlier in the season. Chubb was running through defenders as if they weren’t there at times. There were times when a linebacker wasn’t near the line of scrimmage because they were taken out by an offensive lineman or overran the play. Quinn can only hope Deion Jones is ready to make his long-awaited return next week.
Outcoached and outthought in all areas
One of the more perplexing aspects of yesterday’s loss was Atlanta’s inability to score at the one-yard line. Sarkisian’s insistence on running plays out of shotgun was understandable in a three-possession game. They needed to put together quick drives in order to get back into the game. To stay in shotgun formation near the goal line is what raised major questions. Between running unsuccessful rub route concepts to forced fades, the coaching staff’s lack of faith in the offensive line was evident. Not trusting them to get enough of a push for one yard is concerning.
It took them six plays on two separate drives to eventually get into the end zone. An outstanding individual effort from Ryan to find Austin Hooper on fourth down saved them from further embarrassment. The unexpected decision to make Ricky Ortiz, who is their only full back on the roster, a healthy scratch needs to be considered when assessing their short-yardage woes.
On the other side of the ball, Freddie Kitchens called a terrific game. He had the Falcons’ defense on their heels with a variety of read option designs. After recognizing Baker Mayfield’s recent struggles, he lessened the pressure on him by designing plays to help him get the ball out quicker while providing more high-percentage looks. That played a significant part behind the rookie quarterback completing 17 out of 20 passes. Most of his completions came off slants, screens, and quick dump offs into the flat. His first touchdown pass to Rashard Higgins was the only difficult throw he had to make in the entire game.
By forcing Quinn to use his base package more often and targeting Atlanta’s linebackers in coverage, Kitchens’ game plan was brilliantly executed. Brooks Reed was the only player to hit Mayfield, while Kazee was the only defender to break up a pass. That’s how comfortable the Browns were offensively.
The Falcons are heading into a make-or-break stretch of the season. They will play two games in a five-day span next week. For all the buzz about their Thanksgiving showdown in New Orleans, it will lose a considerable amount of steam if they don’t handle business at home against a disjointed Dallas’ team. Dropping to 4-6 before facing one of the best teams in the league would be devastating.
It was only a few days ago where everything was heading towards the right direction. The sight of Irvin wearing red to Jones returning to practice created major optimism about their chances of making a serious playoff push. To let these positive moments fade away after one defeat would be cruel in what has practically been a cruel season. The entire team must show a better sense of urgency and make the proper adjustments to come out on top in a battle between two desperate teams.