When assessing the Falcons’ demise, there are multiple cases to be made when you’re trying to defend their poor performances. Everyone is fully aware of the injuries they’ve endured on both sides of the ball. What has gone unnoticed is the level of competition they’ve faced in recent weeks. Playing three playoff teams in Dallas, New Orleans, and Baltimore was always going to be problematic for a flawed team. With players either underperforming or not being good enough in the trenches, it was understandable for them to lose each game. That doesn’t make their performances acceptable, but spectators can recognize why they can’t beat (or stay competitive against) teams that will be playing in January.
What transpired yesterday in Green Bay was nothing short of appalling. To get blown out by a dysfunctional Packers’ team proves that Dan Quinn’s problems go beyond injuries and level of competition. The Falcons were soundly beaten by a team without an identity or much talent on either side of the ball. Not having three starters on the offensive line only adds to the fuel. Does it also have to be mentioned that they recently fired their head coach after losing to the Cardinals at home? There is no escaping the cruel reality. The Falcons have been the worst team in the league since Week 10. Not being able to stay competitive in four out of their last five losses signifies a broken team.
New week, same issues
The sign of a bad team is when they consistently lose in a recurring manner. A combination of committing the same unforced mistakes, failing to execute in key situations, and not learning from previous schematic errors has made the Falcons look hopeless over the past month. It’s frightening that the biggest positive takeaway from yesterday’s defeat was the offense reached the 20-point mark for the first time in five weeks.
After putting together a terrific drive to start the game, the offense failed to maintain any rhythm. A month of taking severe punishment seems to be taking a toll on Ryan. The franchise quarterback isn’t throwing with the same zip as he did earlier in the season. His deep ball accuracy continues to be wildly inconsistent. There is simply too much pressure on him at the moment. Not being able to exploit the mismatch between Julio Jones and Jaire Alexander will leave him fuming in the film room. Despite beating the rookie corner time and time again, Jones’ fine work on the outside wasn’t fully rewarded.
What continues to hinder the offense is their inability to convert on third down. From not being able to stop four-man rushes to not making adjustments when teams blitz, they’re falling short in the same area each week. Trying to run it up the gut without a fullback on third and short has developed into a weekly tradition. Steve Sarkisian’s lack of creativity and over-reliance on a below-average offensive line in short-yardage situations remains as one of the most baffling elements to his game plan. When you continue to fall short in the same situation and don’t make adjustments, how can you expect the offense to play up to the high standards they set earlier in the season?
As the offense struggles to convert on third down, the defense can’t get off the field on third down. Green Bay converted seven out of 12 third downs. That results in another week where the opposing offense converted more than 50 percent on third down against the league’s second-worst third down defense. Despite producing four sacks, the majority of the sacks came on blitzes or pass protection breakdowns on Green Bay’s part. They should have been able to exert more damage on an offensive line missing three starters. Instead, they failed to generate much pressure on four man rushes giving Rodgers plenty of time to roam in the pocket.
The lack of pressure and Rodgers returning to his elite form made for a long afternoon. Green Bay put together three drives of nine plays or more in the first half. Whether it was from targeting Robert Alford or overpowering an undersized front seven, the Packers didn’t have any trouble moving the ball. A team without many explosive weapons will end up controlling possession. That left the defense on the field for far too long, which put the offense at a greater disadvantage. Allowing opponents to have possession for long periods of time, particularly in cold weather, forces you to play at their pace and leaves a negative effect on the offense. All of that came to fruition for Quinn’s team.
Experimenting with personnel
With the coaching staff desperately looking for long-term solutions, it wasn’t surprising to see them make some personnel changes. This is the time of year when underachieving teams bench underperforming veterans for younger talent. Ty Sambrailo replaced Ryan Schraeder at right tackle, which seemed like an inevitable move. They traded a fifth round pick to acquire the former second round pick. Seeing what he can offer rather than continuing to play a rapidly declining veteran is a logical decision. The same notion could be made for Isaiah Oliver, who may soon replace Alford in the starting lineup.
Sambrailo struggled against Green Bay’s array of quality pass rushers. The lack of chemistry between Zane Beadles and him was evident when trying to stop stunts. Watching them look confused as Ryan took a sack on third down was another indicative sign of how much things have unraveled. Witnessing Oliver challenge Davante Adams better than Alford is another prime example of how times are changing in Atlanta.
Alford and Schraeder were both essential in the Falcons’ recent playoff runs. For as poorly as they’ve played this season, it shouldn’t be forgotten how well they played during the team’s peak years. It also should be noted that hanging onto aging talent for too long could damage your long-term prospects of bouncing back. The coaching staff needs to continue giving younger players opportunities in trying to identify potential starters for 2019.
There is a collective issue between both of the Falcons’ underachieving units. The incessant penalties continue to plague this team on both sides of the ball. Jake Matthews, Wes Schweitzer, and Alex Mack were all flagged for holding. Penalties on Matthews and Schweitzer negated 32-yard completions to Jones and Mohamed Sanu. By being forced into second and third long situations, the offense was unable to put together sustainable drives until the game was essentially out of reach.
The defense was largely responsible for most of the penalties. Aaron Rodgers’ superb movement puts defenders in precarious situations. By forcing defensive backs and linebackers to cover for an extended period of time, Rodgers knows how to draw penalties with the best of them. There were still plays where Alford and Deion Jones were flagged within a few seconds. Another instance of indiscipline showed Brian Poole penalized for illegal contact, as Oliver was holding Adams. When you start becoming accustomed to committing double-digit penalties, it reflects on not only how poorly you’re playing. It reflects on the coaching staff’s inability to develop players and get their message across.
With three games remaining, the pressure is on Quinn to get something positive out of a disjointed team. This is officially his first losing season as a head coach. To not have a losing season until his fourth year represents what he’s done in turning a deeply flawed roster into a championship-caliber team. Unfortunately for him, a once championship-caliber team has reverted back into being flawed.
What makes matters worse for Quinn is that frequent mistakes aren’t being corrected. Penalties are still being committed at an alarming rate. Plays aren’t being finished at the line of scrimmage or in the open field. For a team that prides themselves on open-field tackling, they continue to miss by taking poor angles or using poor technique.
Losing close games because your team simply doesn’t have enough talent on one of the side of the ball is reasonable for the Falcons in their current state. Losing games by the early fourth quarter is unacceptable for a team still filled with talent on their active roster. Without showing any improvement on either side of the ball, they can’t stay competitive against many teams. That’s a major reason why Quinn will continue to feel the heat going into their final home game against Arizona.