One-by-one, the things that some of us took for granted heading into 2018 have evaporated. The improvement from Steve Sarkisian’s offense, the talent on defense, and the idea that the Falcons had good enough lines to hang with the NFL’s best. The injuries to Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco have absolutely robbed this team of talent and cohesion in a way that has impacted their ability to win games, but it didn’t strip them of a touted coaching staff or players who were either regarded as stars or set to become them on both sides of the ball.
With 11 games in the books, what these losses have done is expose the Falcons. This team has rarely seen its preseason performance align with its regular season fate—you know this because we spend a lot of time harping on it—but the depth wasn’t ready then and it has not proven to be ready now. We’ve seen that Sarkisian can put together one hell of an offensive explosion if all goes well but has few answers when things go awry, and we’ve seen playmakers and role players alike on that offense struggle to execute and avoid costly mistakes. Defensively, Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel’s unit suffered mightily in the face of injuries but can not gin up a consistent pass rush even when the front seven is mostly healthy, and everything from coverage to open field tackling has been beaten to death on the practice field and in press conferences with negligible change.
At a time like this, when the team is 4-7 and has reeled off three ugly losses in a row, the finger-pointing is going to be pervasive. There are those who will crow because they’ve been right along and those who will mourn the fact that they were so wrong. There are those who will call for Dan Quinn’s head—still the longest of longshots, by the way—and those who will call for major changes to the coaching staff, the roster, or both. And then there are those who chalk it up primarily to the injuries, and think (entirely reasonably) that this team will be much better if they’re just healthier in 2019. But you can make a reasonable case that nobody here is free of blame, I think, because of the myriad crushing ways in which this team has lost. It feels like a mistake to let much of anyone off the hook.
Me? I very much believed in this team when they were healthy, and all along the way when they were still hanging on to narrow playoff odds, I thought there was the talent on hand to turn the ship around. When they got to 4-4, especially after the win against Washington, the odds remained long but the spirit seemed to be there. Being a fan of a football team for any length of time requires the suspension of disbelief or the investment of belief, and no one will tell you that I haven’t been guilty of both over the years, or especially this year. The three losses in a row—and the way the Falcons have lost them—have been more than I would have dared fear.
That was true even in this Saints game, which most of us chalked up as a loss before it ever began. The Falcons were downright inept offensively, as they were completely unable to run the ball against a quality Saints front, were unable to get into a tempo throughout most of the game, and literally fumbled away three scoring chances that could’ve made this one a game. The defense actually fared better than I thought they would have, but there were still missed tackles and ill-timed failures of the pass rush galore in this one. They just weren’t good, and while that was wholly expected, it will do nothing to quiet the criticism of this Falcons team. And frankly, it shouldn’t.
Atlanta doesn’t make sweeping mid-season changes, and I’ve said all along that Dan Quinn is safe this year thanks to the injuries. But from the highest levels of Flowery Branch to the butts on the couches in Atlanta and all over the world, these Falcons have been exposed as a team with critical flaws that go far beyond what the turf monster has rolled up. Unless they can strengthen both lines, come into games with more imaginative and more effective game plans, and at least paper over glaring deficiencies in basic skills like open field tackling and bringing down a quarterback you’re a foot away from, they’re going to fall short again. That’s likely to take down this whole regime and all but close out the Matt Ryan era in Atlanta with disappointment, which means the hard conversations the team thinks they’ve had to this point are just the beginning.
What’s clear is that the Saints are where the Falcons were supposed to be, back before the team vouched for its defensive line or started to wobble in the preseason or lost their stars. What it will take to get them there can’t be known or said before the offseason even arrives, but if they have to take the motivational posters down and rip out the carpet to get there, they should, so that the impending return of some of the organization’s brightest stars doesn’t go to waste. Anything short of that is going to get a lot of people fired and close out yet another failed chapter in a long string of them, and there isn’t a single person here who is looking forward to that.
On to an abbreviated recap.
- This was not Matt Ryan’s finest day. It was not Julio Jones’ finest day, either. But you saw both players battling like crazy in the face of long odds just to get something done, with Ryan leading the team in rushing and hanging tough and Julio continuing to scoop up big catches and push for extra, even if it did prove costly. Heck, throw in Austin Hooper and Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu here, as both did the same (particularly Sanu) even if it didn’t matter much in the end. They did try, as low of a bar as that is.
- It was a solid night for the interior pass rush, which forced Drew Brees to rush a handful of ugly throws and picked up two sacks, one each from Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford. If you were surprised to see the Falcons hold the Saints under 40 points, you can give a solid amount of credit to the trio on the interior, plus some score-saving tackles by the likes of Damontae Kazee and Foye Oluokun, plus a handful of nice plays in coverage. It could have been worse.
- Speaking of Kazee, his sixth interception of the game came on a play where Drew Brees may have been angling for a DPI call, but it was still a very nice play. Kazee’s coverage chops are very good at times and lacking at others, but as a tackler and a turnover machine, he doesn’t really have an equal on this defense at the moment.
- The Falcons got manhandled up front. The bloom is off the rose for Wes Schweitzer, who cashed in a handful of solid games earlier in the year but has struggled for a while now, and Ryan Schraeder continues to just get overwhelmed by quality pass rushers. The offensive line needs, at minimum, a new starting guard option and a developmental right tackle worth his salt.
The Falcons couldn’t run at all, Matt Ryan was repeatedly pressured and ultimately sacked, and having Ricky Ortiz active accomplished nothing. Ugly.
- The defensive line was not, I don’t think, helped by the team’s decision to park Deadrin Senat. I still don’t understand that one, and Senat was at least a competent presence against the run.
But Senat’s absence mattered a lot less than this team’s ongoing, disquieting failures off the edge. They once again got only hit-or-miss pass rushing in this one, with Takk flashing occasionally, Bruce Irvin turning in another quiet effort, and Vic Beasley standing out only for missing some tackle opportunities a week after an encouraging two sack effort. This team is going to keep building around Takk, but short of Beasley coming on again late in the year, they aren’t heading into 2019 with a single reliable pass rusher at defensive end despite investing two first round picks in the position since 2015. Along with the offensive line, that situation is the one in most urgent need of remedying.
- The Falcons already were overmatched in this game. They could not afford to get unlucky, too, but predictably that’s exactly what happened. Matt Ryan was stripped and the Saints recovered just yards outside the end zone early on, and then just before the half Julio Jones took a bit of a risk for extra yards and had the ball knocked loose on a bit of a freak moment, and it rolled right into the waiting hands of a Saints defender. That’s at least six points, if not 14, the team left on the field in a game they couldn’t afford to do so. Some of that is just a bad bounce, but it’s emblematic of this season.
- Time will tell what’s going to happen to this coaching staff, but even an organization as loathe to make hair trigger moves as the Falcons will find themselves needing someone to blame for the way this season has gone so spectacularly off the rails. If it’s not Dan Quinn, it’s extremely likely to be a member of his coaching staff, and that means you should keep an eye on Steve Sarkisian and Marquand Manuel if the offense continues to struggle to score points and the defense continues to be a liability. It’s not necessarily fair—your mileage may vary there—but it is the business.
It’s probably Ryan, who played a pretty good game despite being constantly harried.
The season’s over. We have five more games to think about and hope for at least semi-enjoyable results from, but this team is 100% not making the playoffs, instead of just 90%.
The Baltimore Ravens! Oh joy.