Heading into yesterday’s game, the situation in Atlanta couldn’t have been bleaker. Matt Ryan was set to miss his first game since 2009. It was their first game without Mohamed Sanu, which meant one fewer receiving weapon on the roster. A daunting matchup against the current MVP favorite only made matters worse.
Dan Quinn’s defense has been in complete disarray for most of the season. To face one of the true elite quarterbacks in the league, along with the Seahawks’ punishing ground game and playmakers on the outside, caused major concern going into what could have been Quinn’s last game as head coach.
Things ended up going slightly better than advertised.
Despite being largely abysmal in the first half, the Falcons responded well on both sides of the ball. The defense had multiple impressive stops. They managed to produce two sacks, which saved them from being the first team ever to not have a sack in five consecutive games. Between generating actual pressure and breaking up passes in coverage, there was legitimate improvement from the defense.
The same applies to the offense, as the offensive line provided Matt Schaub with strong protection for most of the game. Encouraging losses don’t really exist in a results-driven business. That said, it was important for the Falcons to show some resolve against a playoff-caliber team.
Youth movement begins
With the 2019 season being effectively over, the Falcons need to evaluate what young players could emerge into dependable starters or contributors. There is a clear sense that several players will be either released, not re-signed, or traded. Instead of playing them on every snap, a stronger emphasis on giving young players more opportunities must be established.
It’s not the most ideal scenario, given that Quinn won’t be coaching the team next season. He may not even be coaching the team a month from now. For however long he remains as head coach, the focus should be clearly on assessing potential long-term fits on a roster in need of playmakers and dependable starters.
Russell Gage is one of those players who should receive an extended look going forward. The promising playmaker didn’t disappoint, catching seven passes for 58 yards on nine targets. His numbers would have greater if Schaub didn’t throw behind him on a quick slant, which would have gone for a big gain.
Gage entered the league as someone who was perceived as a gadget player. His development into becoming a genuine wide receiver was one of the biggest highlights in an otherwise forgettable preseason. Those productive performances have translated into regular season success. Gage possesses strong hands, a wide catch radius, and strength to make contested catches. There were also moments where he ran through contact and picked up extra yards after the catch. Gage is an exciting talent who should be utilized more often. He wasn’t the only young skill position player to make his mark.
The somewhat forgotten Brian Hill replaced an injured Ito Smith to spell Devonta Freeman. Due to the Falcons playing from behind all game, he only received three carries. Hill made the most of them with a 24-yard touchdown run. Running behind excellent blocks from Austin Hooper and Alex Mack, he displayed good vision and burst to get into the open field.
Hill showed flashes of lead back potential in the final two games of last season. With Smith’s injury history and Freeman’s contract situation, Hill may be someone that the new coaching staff could depend on. They could also prefer having a power back in the offense rather than utilizing two similar smaller ones.
On the other side of the ball, Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield continue to make strides. Oliver had his best game as a pro with two pass breakups. The biggest positive for Oliver was not committing any penalties or mental errors. It was the first game where the second-year cornerback didn’t make a glaring mistake.
Sheffield allowed a few big plays, albeit because of Wilson’s tremendous accuracy and chemistry with Tyler Lockett, but managed to hold his own in man coverage. Desmond Trufant is another player who could possibly be dealt or released next season. Consistent playing time for Sheffield and Oliver this season will give the front office a greater perspective on whether they can be relied upon next season and beyond.
There are still players who deserve actual playing time. Foye Oluokun and Deadrin Senat both showed potential last season. Campbell keeps getting playing time over Oluokun, and it doesn’t make sense. Not being able to find a place for Senat is another personnel issue that should be addressed. While Tyeler Davison is having a solid season, it would be preposterous to not play a promising defensive tackle for the entire season. Both players should receive a greater opportunity to try to establish themselves as long-term staples of a rebuilding front seven.
Matt Schaub can still play football
Most people, including myself, didn’t think Schaub should still be in the league. The long-time Falcon looked uneasy at times during preseason. There were calls for him to be replaced, particularly after the Hall of Fame game. Relying on him to start against one of the better teams in the league seemed like a nightmare waiting to happen. Despite not starting an NFL game since 2015, Schaub played relatively well and showed impressive composure. His arm strength and accuracy looked much better than it did in the preseason. Although Schaub had one bad interception and nearly threw another one to Akeem King, his decision making was much better than anyone could have anticipated.
Dirk Koetter put together a play-action-heavy game plan to give Schaub easier looks. Given Schaub’s limitations, he couldn’t run his normal vertical-oriented passing attack. A more condensed version with play fakes proved to be beneficial. Schaub immediately built a strong rapport with Julio Jones. There were even moments where Schaub looked like he turned back the clock and hit Andre Johnson on perfectly thrown darts. For all the jokes, he put on a commendable performance in difficult circumstances.
Lack of communication and organization remains
One of the biggest issues surrounding the Falcons’ defense comes from their inability to communicate and position themselves. Players are constantly moving around before the snap unsure of their positioning or assignment. For as great as Ricardo Allen is, he can only do so much on a defense filled with unproven and underachieving talent. He can also only do so much within a basic scheme that the league has essentially figured out. Poor communication and organization usually result in wide open plays being created. It’s been a recurring theme for the Falcons all season. That was evident once again yesterday.
D.K. Metcalf caught two touchdown passes in the red zone. He couldn’t have been more open on both touchdowns. To allow two wide open touchdowns in the red zone illustrates how dysfunctional your defense is. On the first touchdown, Quinn’s defense wasn’t even set. Damontae Kazee was running to get in position, as Campbell passed off Metcalf. Kazee didn’t know his assignment in the process of trying to cover Lockett. The other touchdown showcased their inability to cover crossing patterns. How they’re unable to pass off properly and adjust to standard play concepts is one of the numerous things that makes the Falcons defense one of the worst units in the league. It also represents how poorly coached they are.
A bye week is always needed, especially at this point of the season. For the Falcons, they desperately need a break and reassess themselves as a team. The week off will give Ryan time to recover from an ankle injury. It’ll allow the coaching staff to evaluate why the season has gone awry from the eight games they’ve played. Arthur Blank confirmed that Quinn won’t be fired during the bye week. That could change in November.
The Falcons also get extra time to prepare for their bitter rivals, who happen to be one of the best teams in the league. To start off a stretch of five divisional games in New Orleans is far from ideal. It does give them time to get their franchise quarterback healthy. That’s certainly one positive going up against a team that just got their franchise quarterback back. There aren’t many other reasons to be optimistic about their chances in New Orleans.
At this point, a week off from playing football is something the Falcons need to cherish.