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New year, same problems: The Falcons can’t get out of their own way

After failing to show much progress, the pressure is already heating up in Atlanta.

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

“One game will not defy the work we put in for eight months” is what Dan Quinn reiterated during the post-game press conference. The frustrated head coach was struggling for words when answering questions about the Falcons’ red zone problems. It’s hard to blame him, given what transpired last January. The Falcons’ dreams of getting back to the Super Bowl were dashed from their inability to score in the red zone. They faced the same team eight months later and lost in practically the exact manner.

The Falcons scored nine points in five red zone appearances on Thursday night. After going five for 16 in the last four games of the season, the Falcons couldn’t have executed more poorly in the red zone. How a team can move the ball so effectively yet fall apart so emphatically in the most crucial area of the field remains baffling. It raises serious questions about Steve Sarkisian, who was once again the main topic of every conversation. A once-terrifying offense can’t seem to execute when it matters most. Between the frequent penalties and disastrous red zone results, there will be plenty to critique when evaluating the offense.

Lack of comfort and invention

You would think a team without their franchise quarterback and number one wide receiver would falter at some point. Although Nick Foles made his fair share of mistakes, it always seemed like he was able to make enough throws to keep drives moving. Not having Alshon Jeffrey may have limited the offense vertically. What it didn’t affect was their ability to create coverage-breaking plays in giving Foles more high-percentage looks. From Zach Ertz finding space on shallow crosses to Darren Sproles gaining extra yards in the open field, the Eagles were able to pick up solid yardage off mostly underneath passes.

On the other side, the Falcons looked as disjointed and predictable as ever. They couldn’t muster up many positive plays off quick passes. Other than one well-designed play fake to Tevin Coleman, the Eagles’ swarming defense shut down every attempted screen. There weren’t many easy access plays for Matt Ryan. While a defense as good as Philadelphia will make you work for every yard, it was staggering to see the Falcons’ variety of explosive weapons not be featured often. The excessive usage of Julio Jones may have led to an impressive stat line. It also converted into a collection of mistakes.

Jones caught ten passes on 19 targets. The context behind those incompletions is far greater than most would initially expect. As the Falcons’ dreadful red zone conversion rate continues to be highlighted, they didn’t fare much better on third down. Converting only four of 15 third downs will play a significant role in any defeat. A good majority of their failures came from targeting Jones. The Eagles began reading Ryan’s eyes and pounced on several incoming passes intended for Jones. Ronald Darby broke up two passes on third down from telegraphing the play design and making a perfect break on the ball. Ryan’s lone interception came from targeting Jones on what appeared to be a back-shoulder throw. The Eagles read where the ball was headed once again, as Rasul Douglas closed in to secure another empty red zone trip.

As important as it is to make Jones the centerpiece of the offense, the effects of over-relying on him are evident. Jim Schwartz’s defense knew where the ball was going on several plays. Look no further than the final drive. It’s important to utilize Jones in the red zone. To make it a point of emphasis should be encouraged going forward. When a point of emphasis turns into him being the only receiving option, it creates a severely limited offense. That falls on both Sarkisian and Ryan. Lining up Jones in the slot in the red zone is asking for trouble. Not motioning him allows the defense to set up their alignment towards double teaming him. Ryan’s tendency of solely looking in Jones’ direction doesn’t do him any favors either. All of these shortcomings have culminated into Ryan completing one mere pass on 20 attempts to Jones in the last two seasons in the red zone per ESPN Stats and Information. That shocking percentage is going to remain if players like Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper aren’t more involved in the red zone.

Ryan’s implosion

Philadelphia has never been kind to the former NFL MVP. Excluding a decent performance from the 2012 season, Ryan usually struggles in his home state. Those struggles escalated on Thursday night. He looked jittery from the first drive. That wasn’t entirely shocking against the best front four in the league. Mistakes are going to be made against an elite defense, especially on opening night. What became astounding was Ryan’s ball placement on many of his throws. If he wasn’t throwing high and wide of his intended target, his passes were behind the receiver. That was on full display when Sanu had to make multiple difficult catches to pick up six yards on basic plays designed to get the ball out quickly.

Sarkisian will understandably garner most of the criticism, but Ryan’s shocking performance can’t go unnoticed. There were sacks that he could have avoided. Alex Mack bailed him out of nearly committing a turnover, where the normally-astute quarterback stood in the pocket like a statue without showing any awareness. There were also plays that were well-protected and Ryan still decided to leave the pocket. It was bizarre to see such a battle-tested player commit so many unforced errors. Ryan is known for having a strong pocket presence. On a night where everything felt forced and rushed, he was at the centerfold of the Falcons’ downfall.

Undisciplined nature

At the height of all the eye-numbing stats, Quinn’s team committed a whopping 15 penalties. A combination of pre-snap errors, unnecessary holds, and carelessness on special teams put the Falcons in poor field position for most of the game. This has been a lingering issue during Quinn’s entire tenure. For a team that preaches playing smart, they are known for committing reckless penalties.

Every edge rusher except Derrick Shelby was called for neutral zone infraction or offsides. Ryan Schraeder had two costly penalties, including a bizarre clipping penalty that showed him taking out Fletcher Cox completely away from the play. Time will tell if these penalties were from first game rustiness. Previous history suggests it might be a bigger long-term issue. Super Bowl caliber teams can’t expect to beat fellow contenders by repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. All three units were accountable for the ridiculous amount of penalties. They will need to play smarter going into two upcoming divisional games, where tension is bound to be high.

Looking Ahead

What stings the most for the Falcons is losing to a familiar opponent in nearly the same manner. They failed to produce in the red zone. After holding up well for three quarters, the front seven badly wore down and started allowing big gains on the ground. Not being able to get off the field on third down was another frequent issue that ultimately costed them. Not being able to overcome past inadequacies will be tough to digest for the next nine days. It will be on Ryan, Sarkisian, Quinn, and the entire offense to turn eight months of relentless work into positive results.