Following a Thanksgiving night shellacking in New Orleans, the Falcons were in desperate need of a strong response. There aren’t many things more demoralizing than an embarrassing one-sided loss to your bitter rival on national television. To get humbled on both sides of the ball should have been a major wakeup call for the entire organization. Despite lacking talent in certain areas, they still have enough roster talent to muster up a strong finish to what is now officially a lost season.
Dan Quinn’s team had ten days to prepare for an aggressive Ravens team that knows how to punish offenses. The challenge of playing a good team, along with playing one of the final home games of the season should have lifted the Falcons to elevate their game. They proceeded to play without any urgency. By allowing Baltimore to dictate the pace and have complete control of a close game, it shows how dispirited and disjointed the Falcons are at the moment. Questions about their desire were raised after the Browns game. Those questions will increase after their second lackadaisical showing in the past four games.
For the second time this season, the Falcons couldn’t handle the relentless blitzing of an AFC North opponent. Baltimore is notorious for bringing extra rushers, as they have full confidence in their ultra-talented secondary. Implementing double a-gap blitzes or using a defensive back to blitz off the backside are some of their most common designs. Similar to Pittsburgh, they want to impose their will by shutting down the opposition’s running game and bring extra pressure from different angles. Both of their goals were accomplished without much resistance.
The Falcons rushed for a measly 34 yards on 15 rushing attempts. On 29 dropbacks, Matt Ryan was sacked three times and took seven hits. Although he took far more punishment against New Orleans, Ryan was left in more hopeless situations. It goes beyond not being able to see the field and go through progressions. The franchise quarterback was put in bad positions when trying to fend off Baltimore’s constant blitzes. Those schematic errors played a significant factor behind them only converting two out of nine third downs.
Steve Sarkisian’s preference towards running empty set formations was repeatedly targeted. As dangerous as they are when spreading the field, it leaves them exposed against heavy-blitzing teams. That was evident against the Steelers. Instead of making the necessary adjustments, Sarkisian stuck to his philosophy and paid the price. Running slow-materializing plays out of shotgun not only puts pressure on Ryan, it also puts pressure on a battered offensive line that continues to get overpowered.
After receiving major praise at this time last month, Sarkisian is under major scrutiny once again. His frustrating tendencies continue to hinder what should be one of the most consistently prolific offenses in the league. Instead of targeting an opponent’s biggest weakness, he’ll try to beat them at their biggest strength. Calling a run straight up the gut on fourth and one against one of the best run-stopping defenses in the league is a prime example. After struggling to convert in short-yardage situations all season, how can you expect to succeed by running straight at the heart of Baltimore’s defense? An interior line featuring Wes Schweitzer and Zane Beadles aren’t going to get much of push on Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce. These types of matchups must be accounted for, especially in crucial situations.
There have been some appalling offensive performances under Sarkisian. Yesterday’s game tops them all based on their inability to make proper adjustments and produce explosive plays. Ryan’s biggest completion went for 17 yards to Austin Hooper. That’s inexcusable for an offense with their type of firepower. The same notion applies to them only gaining 99 yards in the first three quarters. At one point in the second half, they had only ran six offensive plays compared to Baltimore’s staggering 35 plays. For an offense that was tearing defenses apart earlier in the season to look completely overwhelmed is the most disappointing aspect of their current four-game losing streak.
Gashed on the ground
As great as it was to see Deion Jones make his long-awaited return, it was obvious he couldn’t single-handily solve the run stopping woes. Jones is a top-tier linebacker that can make plays sideline to sideline. Expecting him to take on blockers and erase running lanes simply isn’t realistic. It’s going to take a collective effort across the board to prevent teams from dominating on the ground. Although Baltimore has a luxury with Lamar Jackson’s dynamism, they still managed to run the ball without being solely reliant on option runs.
Whether it was out of pistol or single back formation, the Ravens did whatever they pleased on the ground. Teams are continuing to target Atlanta’s nickel scheme by running straight at Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford. The undersized pairing offer a lot as interior pass rushers. They have outperformed every edge rusher on the roster. When facing massive interior offensive lines, holding up against the run becomes extremely difficult for them. It also doesn’t help that Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley aren’t disciplined enough against the run.
Not being able to stop the run allows teams to play risk-free and dominate time of possession. Baltimore had the ball for over 39 minutes, which must be close to an all-time record. A combination of not being able to get off blocks, tackling in space, and playing with positional awareness led them to being dismantled. There isn’t much movement coming from the defensive line outside of Jarrett. De’Vondre Campbell was caught out of position on several occasions. For the third time in four weeks, Damontae Kazee missed an open field tackle that led to a rushing touchdown. These mistakes culminated into another abysmal defensive display.
The lack of discipline continues to be an ongoing struggle defensively. What made matters worse was that these penalties kept occurring on third down. On Baltimore’s opening drive, Jones was penalized for illegal use of hands on a screen to Ty Montgomery. While you have to take into consideration it was the star linebacker’s first game action since Week 1, the penalty was indefensible on third and 15. His penalty led to Jackson’s touchdown run.
The penalties started adding up, as Sharrod Neasman was flagged for pass interference on third and four. It was another moment of madness where he held onto Mark Andrews during the entire route. To top everything off, the Falcons were penalized for 12 men on the field after getting a rare stop on third and two. Seeing Jordan Richards try to run off the field before the snap encapsulates how dysfunctional the Falcons are. Undisciplined teams will constantly commit unforced penalties. On too many occasions this season, the Falcons have done exactly that in doing something careless without the other team forcing them into making a mistake.
With four games remaining, it will take something remarkable for this not to be Quinn’s first losing season as a head coach. The Falcons do face four teams that are out of the playoff picture or (in Carolina’s case) falling apart. Could more favorable matchups be the solution in getting a stumbling offense back on track? Will it also help a defense trying to find some confidence?
Facing a team in even bigger disarray like the Packers will answer those questions. It’s bizarre to see a matchup with Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers look so unappealing on paper. Although Mike McCarthy’s firing adds some intrigue, it doesn’t take away Green Bay’s underperforming roster. With Quinn’s past success against them, there are some encouraging signs that the Falcons can come out on top in the battle of most disappointing NFC teams.