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Falcons vs. Browns: Atlanta’s quiet passing day both outlier and concern heading into Week 11

The Falcons elected to let Cleveland dictate the terms Sunday.

Atlanta Falcons v Cleveland Browns Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Of the many baffling things we saw Sunday when the Falcons played the Browns, perhaps none were more baffling than the fact that Atlanta’s high-powered passing attack going dark against a Browns defense that wasn’t exactly a world-beater.

In four games before playing the Falcons, the Browns had surrendered 38, 26, 33 and 37 points to the Chargers, Buccaneers, Steelers and Chiefs. The Falcons certainly are capable of playing in the stratosphere of the best teams on that list on offense, and considering the offensive line did a solid job of keeping Matt Ryan clean, it was fair to expect that Atlanta would be able to get things going. But they did not, dear reader. They did not.

Ryan threw 52 times against Cleveland and completed a career-high 38 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns, which look like fine numbers on paper. But then you realize that Ryan’s yards per attempt were his second-lowest of the year (Philly was the lowest, of course) and that six of Ryan’s ten receivers averaged under 10 yards per reception. The Falcons simply looked far more timid than I expected.

There’s little question that the Falcons were trying to avoid turnovers, and that they went out of their way to avoid attacking Cleveland’s Cover 2 looks deep. But what isn’t clear is why the Falcons, who have shown themselves to be capable of many explosive plays and attacking quality defenses deep, would turn into a dink and dunk team, especially once they went down by 18 points. Atlanta had trouble summoning the urgency—they frequently ran too much time off the clock during their comeback—and barely attacked downfield at all. That’s exactly what Cleveland was hoping for by playing their safeties deep and asking linebacker Joe Schobert to chip in to coverage, but what was striking was how infrequently the Falcons even bothered to test that coverage.

This is a concern with Dallas coming to town. The Cowboys just finished off the Eagles in part by holding them in check on third downs and keeping the damage in front of them, allowing Carson Wentz to have a solid day on paper that didn’t translate to a win. The Falcons are a better passing team than Philadelphia by a country mile, but they just showed a disheartening lack of ability against Cover 2 looks that aren’t so different from what they’ll see with the Cowboys and Rod Marinelli. If Dallas watches this game and stays disciplined on play action, manages to get to the ball quickly on those dumpoffs, and Atlanta doesn’t make a move to test them downfield, I’m extremely worried the results are going to be similar for the Falcons.

The good news is that this failure affords the Falcons a chance to avert this outcome against Dallas by taking a hard look at the play calling and execution to see where they missed opportunities to attack Cleveland, and I expect they’ll find plenty of missed opportunities. The bad news is that the Falcons were flummoxed by a defense many scoff at as being archaic, soft and downright ineffective, and that they’ve done so in a season where the offense has otherwise performed at a high level. That can only be chalked up to timidity or a lack of effort, and neither one says anything good about this Falcons team.