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Change, not platitudes, or the Falcons are headed for a lost 2018

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The Falcons can no longer pretend their defense, as it stands, is good enough to get by.

Cincinnati Bengals v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I’m not one to advocate for panic. Panic, especially four games into a season, is generally counterproductive at best and foolish at worst. It forces us into hot takes and causes us not to have patience, patience that has often proven warranted for the Falcons under Dan Quinn. They were Super Bowl team two years ago and an NFC Divisional Round team one year ago, after all. You can’t seriously advocate for firing Dan Quinn.

But you can panic about this team now. You can panic because they have to go on the road and face the Steelers next, and their defense has now surrendered an astonishing 80 points over the last two weeks. They’ve been beaten on the ground, they’ve been beaten out of the backfield, they’ve been beaten on shallow passes and they’ve been beaten deep. They’ve missed tackles, shown poor communication, and made costly errors of execution that include dumb penalties and dropped interception chances. The Falcons could do more on offense, the refs made a bad call on Dalton’s fumble-that-wasn’t today, and a thousand other small variables. Yet the defense has been the obvious, primary reason Atlanta has lost their last two games, and there’s a good chance they’ll be 1-4 before they even get a breather on a run of quality offenses.

In light of that, the Falcons need to make a hard choice. They can either accept that their defense is a major liability, give the unit they have an opportunity to grow and try to win in the meantime with stellar offense, or they can make moves. They can take a hard look at the way they manage their defense and handle the clock, which hurt them each of the last two weeks, and they can scour free agency and trade opportunities for improvement. They could swing for the fences and give up a lot for Earl Thomas on the understanding that it will have significant long-term ramifications for their cap space, who they keep, and what they’re able to pick up in the draft next year. But they need to be realistic about what all of those options entail, and the fact that even if they don’t touch their personnel, something has to change in the way this team rolls out its personnel to give them a fighting chance.

Coaching staffs and teams more generally have trouble letting go of their slogans. Quinn has had a lot of success here because he’s relentlessly positive, because he protects his players from the outside world as much as possible, and because this team refuses to admit they’re down and out. That has served this team well, but it can also prove to be a blinding sort of light when you need to properly navigate the darkness ahead. Atlanta has a lot of tough conversations ahead about the way Quinn and company handled that last Bengals drive, holding on to their timeouts until it was too late, and more broadly whether the men on the field can get the job done if they’re given more time and more opportunities to succeed.

I recognize the impossible task facing these Falcons. No one wants to admit that the primary reason this defense is so bad is that it’s minus Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, but that’s precisely why it is. Allen was the quarterback of the defense, and the confusion in coverage that has been evident since he went down is killing this defense. They were already bad minus their tone-setting safety and game-changing middle linebacker, but there are some holes you can’t fill, no matter how game Duke Riley has appeared over the last couple of weeks and no matter how much urgency Damontae Kazee plays with. They’re not going to be able to go out in free agency or the trade market and simply replace those guys. They can’t, but the defense doesn’t need to be ruinous, either.

Yet it would be a mistake to fall back on talking about “a tough ass group of men” and the “next man up” and variations of not listening to the heated criticism going on outside of Flowery Branch, though at least in public-facing forums I expect Quinn will do exactly that while acknowledging this team has fallen short. The most important thing is that the Falcons realize they are not yet mathematically dead, and that this blessed offense gives them opportunities to win every week. The brutal truth is that they need to stop squandering those, stop trying to to pretend things will be okay if they just keep pushing forward, and find a way to salvage a season that started out with such vibrant promise.

If they don’t, we’ll spend a long time looking back at 2018’s rash of injuries and stubbornness and wonder what might have been.