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Defensive fears come true as Falcons waste an exceptional offensive performance

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It didn’t take long for the Falcons’ crumbling defense to be on the losing end of a wild shootout.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It takes something extraordinary to overshadow two franchise records being made (or tied) in the same game. Matt Ryan’s sensational five-touchdown performance silenced any talk of his diminishing arm strength. After scoring his first NFL touchdown last week, Calvin Ridley shredded New Orleans’ secondary on his way to a hat trick. It was a complete offensive assault that featured almost every skill position player. If someone didn’t score a touchdown, they were on the receiving end of a two-point conversion or big play. Steve Sarkisian helped orchestrate another tremendous performance against a divisional rival for the second consecutive week.

To score 37 points should have been enough for the Falcons to overcome their defensive deficiencies. That wasn’t the case, as the loss of four key players (which became five in overtime) proved to be too overwhelming. It wasn’t surprising to see Drew Brees face little pressure against a defensive line lacking in depth and talent. Points were bound to be scored in bunches. How they were scored will have the coaching staff livid. A collection of missed tackles and coverage breakdowns added to their misery in a brutal defeat. It leaves the Falcons searching for immediate solutions within their diminishing defense.

Bending and breaking

Before Dan Quinn arrived in 2015, the Falcons had countless appalling showings against Brees. The future Hall Of Famer torched them on a yearly basis with his wide variety of playmakers. From not generating pressure to blowing coverage assignments, they couldn’t stop Brees from doing whatever he wanted across the field. There was a feeling of hopelessness when watching Brian Van Gorder or Mike Nolan try to concoct a game plan to slow down Sean Payton’s lethal offense. For the first time under Quinn and Marquand Manuel, a once familiar feeling in the Georgia Dome resurfaced in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Saints gained 534 total yards. Regardless of how many starters are missing, it’s unacceptable for a defense to allow that many yards. Brees was rarely harassed in the pocket. Other than a flash of pressure from Vic Beasley, the Falcons’ pass rush looked utterly powerless. The bizarre decision to use more three-man rushes only made things more difficult. Attempting to stop an offense from scoring by having as many players as possible in coverage isn’t sustainable against an elite quarterback. They eventually paid the price on Brees’ touchdown pass to Cameron Meredith. The sight of Grady Jarrett wandering around in the middle of the field as Brees stepped up in the pocket will be engrained in the minds of the entire fanbase.

Although people will raise questions about what the Falcons were doing schematically, they were even worse fundamentally. Some of the tackling on display was particularly atrocious. What made things more surprising was that the usual culprits weren’t responsible. Duke Riley showed signs of improvement in his second game at middle linebacker. It was the secondary that were responsible for most of the missed tackles. Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant paid the price for taking poor angles on multiple occasions. Ricardo Allen and Vic Beasley missed tackles on read option plays that resulted in big third conversions. Brian Poole had his fair share of blunders, which includes being on the receiving end of Brees’ ridiculous spin move. To whiff that badly against a quarterback 14 years older and not known for being elusive will be tough to digest for the normally reliable nickel corner.

With the defense missing key players at nearly every level, the cornerback group needed to step up. They failed to do so in getting torn to pieces by Michael Thomas and company. On 49 pass attempts; Poole was the only player to break up a pass. That is a troubling stat for a secondary that takes pride in being around the ball. Not finishing plays and taking poor angles in pursuit is what will ultimately anger the secondary when assessing their mistakes. Similar to Thomas, Alvin Kamara was going to get his production off sheer volume. How many yards both players gained after contact will be maddening for the entire defense. It correlated with the Saints averaging nearly seven yards per play and being successful on third down (7 for 14).

The birth of a game-breaker

This loss is a prime example of how a headline can change in a heartbeat. If the Falcons had prevailed, Calvin Ridley’s face would be plastered at the start of every game recap. The rookie wide receiver will have to settle for having a section dedicated to him in every post-game review column. Based on how leaky New Orleans’ secondary was against Tampa Bay and Cleveland, it felt like a great opportunity for Ridley to make an even bigger mark following his impressive performance against Carolina. He went above and beyond in putting on an electrifying show.

Ridley seemed to have the upper hand on P.J. Williams from the first drive. His slick stutter steps and terrific footwork gave the inconsistent cornerback fits during the entire first half. Look no further than his first touchdown, as the first round pick left Williams stumbling forward on a stutter-go. There were high expectations for Ridley coming into an offense with an offensive coordinator he previously worked with. Nobody anticipated him playing an integral part in the red zone offense’s resurgence, let alone change the entire offense’s outlook.

When Ridley wasn’t creating separation or working his way back in the end zone to score his third impressive touchdown, he was stretching Dennis Allen’s disorganized defense. The Falcons desperately needed an explosive wide receiver to take the load off Julio Jones. Drafting Ridley is proving to the perfect solution in regaining their status as one of the most feared offenses in the league. He torched Williams once again for a 75-yard-touchdown, which led to Williams being benched for Ken Crawley. Ridley also drew a pass interference on Crawley three drives later that translated into a 45-yard gain. Although Sarkisian put him in excellent positions to succeed, all of Ridley’s touchdowns came from individual excellence. There was nothing overly schematic about any of his touchdowns. For the Falcons to add a player capable of terrorizing an opposing cornerback at any time, alongside Jones and Mohamed Sanu, is massive because it’s clear this offense will need to start averaging close to 30 points per game.

Situational stumble

It’s practically impossible to criticize the offense for yesterday’s defeat. How they were able to drive down the field without any semblance of a running game at will was remarkable. Ryan never looked phased when needing to take command of the offense. As New Orleans started dialing up more blitzes, the former MVP kept his composure and made the right reads to keep the offense moving. His rapport with Sarkisian appears to be finally on the right track. For all their success, they will be kicking themselves for not staying aggressive.

Following Ridley’s 75-yard touchdown, the Falcons got the ball with a little over 90 seconds left in the first half. Sarkisian called a draw for Tevin Coleman to pick up eight yards on first down. It put them in a favorable second down situation, which should have allowed them to start picking up the pace. The offense never showed any urgency, despite having two timeouts remaining. Sarkisian opts for another draw that Sheldon Rankins ate up for a three-yard loss. New Orleans blitzes on third down to force Ryan into an inaccurate throw. What could have been a 17-13 lead going into halftime turns into a 16-14 deficit.

A high-powered offense should always look to score at any opportunity, especially when facing an offensive juggernaut. Quinn will be help culpable as well for not being more attack-minded. It was a costly blunder in a game that was always going to decided by a few plays. You can’t take any chance for granted against a team like New Orleans. The Falcons learned the hard way in a game that shouldn’t have went to overtime.

Looking Ahead

After narrowly beating Chicago and Detroit to start off 3-0 in 2017, the Falcons haven’t had the same fortunate in starting 1-2. Falling on the wrong end of games decided by a few plays has been a problem so far this season. Those circumstances aren’t going away anytime soon with Cincinnati awaiting them. It’s clear the pressure is on the Falcons to outscore every opponent. As injuries continue to mount, it’s becoming increasingly harder for the defense to hold opposing offenses below 24 points.

Potentially not having Ricardo Allen going forward will only make a dire situation even worse. It will be on Quinn and the front office to decide if they need to look elsewhere to salvage an injury-plagued defense. Based on the last two games, the current crop of players have failed to hold their own against playoff-caliber teams.