What seems like a familiar feeling isn’t actually all that familiar to the Falcons. Four of their six losses this season has resulted from the last play of the game. Although not capitalizing on golden opportunities and failing to convert in key situations played major roles in those painful defeats, it’s staggering to see how the Falcons have managed to lose in such a repetitive manner. What wasn’t repetitive about yesterday’s defeat involves the offense’s lack of production. It was the first time all season they failed to score more than 20 points in consecutive games.
For all the defense’s deficiencies, they managed to hold their own against a resurgent Dallas’ offense. Holding them to three points in the first half was impressive. In unsurprising fashion, they crumbled in the fourth quarter off a combination of missed tackles and blown coverage assignments. They still managed to put the offense in a position to take the initiative and reach their standard of scoring 27 points or more. It took them until the fourth quarter to not only score a touchdown, but to make a red zone appearance. Everyone is accustomed to seeing the Falcons light up the scoreboard at home. That didn’t transpire in a must-win game, which makes this loss even more difficult to comprehend.
Lack of explosive plays hinders offense
When the offense doesn’t play up to expectations, it’s usually a result of not running the ball effectively and poor pass protection. That wasn’t the case in yesterday’s loss. Tevin Coleman rattled off multiple big runs. Due to game flow and Steve Sarkisian’s tendency of getting overly fancy with runs directed to the outside, Coleman only received eight carries. Those questionable decisions shouldn’t outweigh what was a positive performance on the ground. The same applies to the offensive line, where Ryan Schraeder understandably had issues stopping DeMarcus Lawrence from creating havoc. His individual problems aren’t a result of the offensive line struggling as an entire group. They gave Matt Ryan ample time in the pocket for majority of the game.
The biggest reason behind another underwhelming offensive showing comes from the lack of big plays. Dallas came into the game ranked top ten in several defensive categories. For all the chaos surrounding their organization, they’ve built a legitimate stingy defense. The secondary is filled with promising ball hawks, while Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have formed one of the better linebacker duos in the league. Combining the development of several young players with a ferocious edge rusher like Lawrence creates a top-ten caliber defense.
This matchup was always going to be one of the more difficult challenges remaining on the schedule. Given their incredible offensive consistency at home and plethora of playmakers, most assumed the Falcons would eventually get into a rhythm and exploit a poorly coached team. Despite managing to move the ball quite well, it never materialized into successful drives. They couldn’t convert on third down when nearing the red zone. On what was their only red zone appearance, Ryan forced a pass to Austin Hooper, who was well covered by Vander Esch. Dan Quinn is known for preaching about the importance of finishing. That’s what the offense was ultimately missing.
It all comes back to their recent issues of not being able to produce explosive plays. Only three of Ryan’s 24 completions resulted in a gain of 20 yards or more. All three completions went to Julio Jones, which includes a stunning 34-yard touchdown. Jones is going to make big plays on a weekly basis. No defender or scheme can stop an unstoppable force. That doesn’t mean the Falcons can be solely reliant on him. There is a cost to not getting the likes of Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu more involved. Whether it’s not targeting them enough or not scheming plays open, both players haven’t had a great impact in the last two games.
Going into yesterday’s game, Ryan’s passer rating when targeting Ridley was at 138.9 per Pro Football Focus. It didn’t take long for them to build a strong rapport. That reliable connection is starting to become an afterthought. Ridley was drafted to bring much-needed explosiveness and diversity to the offense. After taking the league by storm in the first month of the season, his impact is waning. Could it be from Hooper receiving more targets or Sarkisian’s play calling? Both seem to be the cause behind the Falcons’ most explosive weapon outside of Jones not being featured enough. Although Ridley’s game changing drop won’t be forgotten anytime soon, the rookie receiver is far too talented to be a secondary option. Not utilizing his talents after the catch and on the outside when defenses are playing man has stagnated the growth of a resurgent Falcons’ offense.
There is only a certain amount you can expect from Dan Quinn’s undermanned defense. With Deion Jones still sidelined, the Falcons are liable to allowing numerous chunk plays across the middle of the field. Dak Prescott didn’t hesitate to throw to Ezekiel Elliott underneath in picking up quick easy-access yards. In fact, Elliott led the Cowboys in targets and receiving yards. Exploiting Atlanta’s undersized defensive line and inexperienced linebackers was their clear objective. Putting Elliott at the forefront of their game plan proved to be hugely successful. Tackling has been an issue for the Falcons all season. Nobody was shocked at the sight of Elliott running through contact to turn moderate gains into big gains.
What will leave fans frustrated was how they failed to build on a positive first half. Prescott was under duress during phases of the opening 30 minutes. Between calling more blitzes to moving personnel around, the coaching staff showed their willingness towards not depending on a mostly ineffective four-man rush. Vic Beasley reaped the benefits with his first two-sack game since 2016. Those encouraging moments vanished in the second half; as Dallas went on to convert seven out of 13 third downs. Prescott had time to make plays and attack Robert Alford, who is turning into a major liability. It’s gotten to the point where benching him would be considered as a justifiable move. This is one of the several decisions the coaching staff must make in what is essentially a lost season.
Coaching comes into question
Even though Quinn didn’t necessarily make any glaring errors in last week’s loss to Cleveland, an ugly one-sided loss does fall on him, especially after De’Vondre Campbell’s alarming comments about their mentality going into the game. The ongoing discussion about Quinn will transition from the team’s approach to scheming. His tendency of rushing three was on full display in what seemed like an attempt to keep Prescott in the pocket. It never seemed like a wise strategy based on the linebackers’ lack of awareness and underwhelming play from the cornerbacks.
By dropping eight players into coverage, it allowed savvy route runners like Amari Cooper and Cole Beasley more time to create separation. Prescott was able to connect with Beasley for a 19-yard completion on the final drive that put them into field goal range. It’s one thing to drop an extra player into coverage to prevent a big gain on third down or prevent a touchdown in the red zone. Dropping an extra player into coverage during a two-minute situation with a struggling pass rush is nonsensical. They signed Bruce Irvin nearly two weeks ago, yet the veteran edge rusher was used more often to shadow Prescott rather than get after him. A poor strategy left an already overwhelmed defense in a bad place, which culminated in another disappointing loss.
What appeared to be a compelling matchup featuring one of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL is now filled with uncertainty. Thursday night’s showdown in New Orleans should remain entertaining and intense. There is still significance to this game, regardless of the current standings and where these teams stand. The Falcons will be as motivated as ever, especially with the possible return of Jones.
Facing the hottest team in the NFL in a hostile environment is about as daunting as it gets. What the Saints have done over the past few months is remarkable. They’ve managed to beat every NFC contender or recent Super Bowl champion in convincing fashion. With Drew Brees operating at a MVP-caliber level with his variety of playmakers, it’s hard to be optimistic about the Falcons’ chances. It will take extraordinary performances from Ryan and their (hopefully) returning defensive leader to keep pace with a true powerhouse.