Although his status shouldn’t be questioned going into 2019, this is a crucial final month of the season for Dan Quinn. The fiery head coach has been under major scrutiny during the Falcons’ three-game losing streak. From his team not showing up in Cleveland to multiple costly decisions against Dallas to the Thanksgiving debacle in New Orleans, it’s been an extremely difficult stretch for someone who is accustomed to success.
What Quinn accomplished in 2016 and 2017 was significant in creating a winning precedent in Atlanta. This recent triumph felt more complete compared to their previous achievements under Mike Smith, where they won numerous close games through Matt Ryan’s undoubted resilience and Matt Bryant’s incredible right leg.
This is the first time where Quinn’s methods are being universally questioned. Despite enduring the loss of several key players, the Falcons have been competitive in nearly every game. Look no further than four of their seven losses being decided on the final play. Good teams know how to overcome adversity and execute in high-pressured situations. That’s something the Falcons haven’t done enough of this season. Although the playoffs seem out of reach, there is still time for Quinn to inject some spirit back into a languishing team. Facing a playoff-caliber Ravens’ team will present an excellent challenge for them.
Note: This preview came out before Deion Jones’ status was confirmed.
Under fire offensive line must respond
While the Falcons’ current defense hasn’t been this bad since 2013-2014, it’s not the only comparison to be made when evaluating those dreaded dark seasons. The current offensive line looks nearly every bit as fragmented as they did in Smith’s final years. Jake Matthews has made huge strides since being an overwhelmed rookie. Although Alex Mack isn’t playing at an elite level, there is no debate between a former All-Pro to the likes of Joe Hawley and James Stone. Those are the clear positives when comparing both lines. The rest is disastrous, as Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland represent a massive downgrade from the decent guard pairing of Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah. Combining the poor guard play with Ryan Schraeder’s substantial regression creates a below-average offensive line.
Last Thursday night’s display in New Orleans was reminiscent of the 2014 season. Pressure was being allowed on countless plays from every angle. There were times Ryan had to escape the pocket without being able to go through his progressions. When the pocket begins to crumble, Ryan can get jittery and make poor decisions. That was evident from taking an unnecessary sack, which nearly resulted in a turnover, to missing Calvin Ridley for a wide-open touchdown. As bad as the pass protection was, it was equally as painful on the ground. The offensive line failed to get any push in short-yardage situations. To get manhandled in every aspect by your bitter rival is difficult to digest. That’s why Quinn’s comments about making a possible change weren’t surprising.
Although Baltimore doesn’t possess a game-wrecking player like Cameron Jordan, they have a plethora of versatile powerful pass rushers. Matthew Judon and Za’Darius Smith are the latest players to emerge from their ever-growing crop of young edge rushers. How the Ravens continue to draft quality pass rushers is only the second most remarkable thing about their defense. Nothing can top Terrell Suggs still giving opposing tackles fits at 36 years old. With their frequent blitzing and wicked twists, the offensive line faces another daunting task. Potentially replacing Garland with Zane Beadles can’t be the only possible solution. Players like Schraeder and Schweitzer must play better for not only the offense’s chances to flourish, but for the sake of their respective futures with the team.
Tevin Coleman: Figuring out an enigma as the end may be near
When Devonta Freeman was sidelined with MCL/PCL related injuries and then ultimately put on injured reserve, the opportunity was there for Coleman to make his mark. It’s been an endless discussion over the past year about Coleman’s usage. How the dynamic playmaker didn’t get the ball enough was a frequent talking point following every loss in 2017. Whether he didn’t receive enough carries or targets, the lack of usage would leave everyone baffled when assessing why the offense scored less than 20 points in a big game.
This has been the biggest opportunity of Coleman’s young career. As many were anticipating a huge breakout year, it’s been a relatively disappointing season for the former third round pick. There are games where Coleman is still utilized as a role player. Some of those instances were because of the Falcons playing from behind. Other instances show Ito Smith outperforming him as a pure runner. It all comes back to his lack of progression, dating back to when he first entered the league. There were concerns about Coleman’s agility, balance, and vision. Those issues haven’t gone away. His north-south running style can mesh well in some offenses. It hasn’t translated into much success within a zone-blocking scheme in a featured role.
There is no denying part of Coleman’s underwhelming production can be attributed to Steve Sarkisian’s insistence on running tosses and stretch plays. Between coping with a frustrating tendency and running behind a battered offensive line, most games are an uphill battle for Coleman. Top running backs are capable of making something out of nothing by picking up extra yardage in unfavorable situations. Freeman is exceptional at doing it with his terrific balance, footwork, and vision. None of those qualities are apparent when watching Coleman. It’s a major reason why he leads the league in percentage of runs resulting in a loss of yardage per ESPN’s Field Yates. These limitations make the loss of Freeman even more consequential. The offense will need him to start seeing the field better against a stout Ravens’ front seven.
Pressure rises on big-name edge rushers
When looking at their roster on paper, the Falcons’ defensive line appears to be exciting. They’re lacking a bit on the interior with Grady Jarrett as the only established difference-maker. What makes them enticing is their options off the edge. A trio of Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, and Bruce Irvin should be able to affect quarterbacks. Signing Irvin was meant to spark an underperforming group. Since Irvin’s arrival, only Beasley has managed to get in the sack column. One of his two sacks against Dallas was strictly from the excellent coverage downfield. That’s how dire the pass rush has been.
According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Falcons are generating the second lowest amount of pressure in the league. It’s never a good sign when your team is near the Raiders in any statistical column. For them to be next to Oakland in a pass rushing category, considering what happened in early-September, must be alarming for the coaching staff. They tried implementing their version of the NASCAR package against New Orleans. It proved to be largely ineffective, as the Saints’ terrific offensive line handled their twists and outside rush without much trouble. This was another big game, where Beasley and McKinley were non-existent. Investing first round picks in two edge rushers, who have barley shown glimpses of promise in recent weeks, is a troubling sign moving forward.
This is a crucial final month of the season for all three edge rushers. Facing one of the more unpredictable offenses in the league presents a great opportunity for them to prove their worth. Lamar Jackson’s emergence has elevated the Ravens’ offense from being lethargic to dynamic. How they’ve incorporated zone-read concepts and other creative runs puts the former Heisman winner in favorable positions to exploit opposing defenses. SB Nation’s own Charles McDonald wrote an excellent piece on what Jackson brings to the table. His skillset stresses the importance of remaining disciplined, which is something all three edge rushers tend to struggle with. Not over pursuing against the run and keeping Jackson in the pocket is how each player can start making a genuine impact.
Damontae Kazee’s continued progress
Kazee’s rise has been one of the few bright spots in a grim season. After standing out in every preseason game, the second-year player earned his way into Quinn’s plans. It was always going to be difficult for him to play often, considering how valuable Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are. Kazee still managed to make his mark on opening night. As Nick Foles tried to connect with Dallas Goedert on a crossing pattern, Kazee placed his helmet right on the ball in what was a jarring hit. The ball ended up falling into the waiting arms of Deion Jones for a timely interception.
From that moment, the coaching staff knew they had a special talent on their hands. Kazee stepped up in place of an injured Allen with a league-leading six interceptions. Although the former cornerback has missed a decent amount of tackles and been caught out of position, he continues to show incredible growth as a player still acclimating to a new position. Nobody expected Kazee to organize the defense or make nearly every open-field tackle like Allen. There is no replacing a leader like him. Kazee does bring different aspects to the table as a playmaker, which is something they desperately needed.
There is no telling what the future holds for Kazee. The only thing he can control is to continue proving himself. Recognizing concepts quicker and becoming more positionally disciplined are things that can be improved upon. An exciting unpredictable talent like Jackson will test him in those areas. It’ll be important for Kazee to not bite on play fakes or option designs. Jackson’s tendency of forcing passes into tight windows in the middle of the field could play right into his hands. The rookie quarterback made a few errant throws against Oakland. If he continues to force the issue, expect the ball-hawking safety to add to his collection of takeaways.