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Humbling defeat in Houston leaves the Falcons in complete disarray

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Dan Quinn’s Falcons have not come to play this year.

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Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

It was always going to be an uphill battle facing one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC. The Houston Texans have one of the most explosive offenses in the league, along with multiple game-wrecking defensive players. This is also a team with noticeable flaws across the offensive line, secondary, and coaching staff. In some ways, they are similar to the Falcons based on the amount of tremendous skill position players and flaws they have on their roster. There are a few obvious differences. Watching yesterday’s game made it evident in realizing why both teams are headed in opposite directions.

Unlike Houston, there isn’t any progress transpiring in Atlanta. Young players aren’t elevating their game like D.J. Reader, Zach Cunningham, and Will Fuller. Players don’t appear to be well-positioned during crucial moments. The coaching staff continues to have a basic, predictable game plan on a weekly basis. For a team as flawed as Houston, they are capable of masking these issues with forward thinking play-calling and schematic variation. The Falcons haven’t been able to address their flaws in an effective manner. Not being able to adapt and evolve as an entire team has resulted in their season falling into a downward spiral.

Worst defensive showing under Quinn

There have been numerous defensive debacles since Dan Quinn was hired in 2015. Look no further than the last time they played in Houston. Despite the countless blown gap assignments and coverages, there is normally something encouraging following every game. With the exception of Grady Jarrett continuing to establish himself as one of the premier defensive tackles in the league, there isn’t a single positive coming out of this latest drubbing. Quinn’s defense looked overmatched, unprepared, and helpless from the second drive. That was proven by them failing to produce a stop on any other drive except the first one.

The stats are endless when evaluating the box score. The Texans produced nearly 600 yards of total offense. Fuller had the same amount of catches and 34 more yards yesterday than he did in the previous four games combined. That also includes three more touchdowns. Six different players produced plays of 14 yards or more. Deshaun Watson wasn’t sacked for only the second time in his career. The Falcons could only produce one measly hit on 33 drop backs against a team that is allowing the fourth most sacks per game in the league.

There were games when the Falcons’ defense looked hopeless last season. It was somewhat understandable given they lost the core of their defense with Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal suffering serious injuries. The only major loss this season has been Neal. That’s what makes this year’s horrendous performances even more appalling. From not generating much pressure to constant coverage breakdowns, it’s alarming to see the same mistakes occurring every week for a team with high aspirations.

If there aren’t individual errors, the defense falls apart collectively. That was apparent when Fuller was roaming free into the end zone with multiple defenders chasing after DeAndre Hopkins. The lack of organization and understanding of certain coverages can’t be fully placed on the players. Accountability must be taken by an already under-fire coaching staff. What are the film sessions like when assessing these previous games? Are players recognizing why they are missing their gap assignments? Do players understand what the responsibilities are of playing Cover 1 and Cover 3? These are all valid questions when watching a defense play as poorly as the Falcons did.

Keke Coutee stated the Falcons’ defense was basic during a post game interview. While the defense isn’t designed to be overly complex, it could use serious modification in how they attack opposing offenses. The coverages give opposing quarterbacks acres of space to work with underneath. The blitz concepts are normally predictable and ineffective. Opposing coaches can enter games knowing they can be aggressive and creative without fear of a dangerous four-man pass rush. A quarterback as dynamic as Watson was bound to produce extraordinary numbers against a unit without many disguises or tricks. What you see is what you get in many instances when watching Quinn’s defense. That’s become extremely problematic over the past year-and-half. Not having the players you expect to grow into high-level starters makes it even worse.

Regression and disappointment

One of the bigger compliments about Quinn over the years is his ability to identify defensive talent. The Falcons were deemed as one of the best teams in the league at evaluating draft prospects. They were praised for some of their past draft hauls, particularly the 2016 draft class. Those major hits have started to diminish over the past few seasons. For every Jarrett, there is Vic Beasley. For every Jones, there is Duke Riley. For every Brian Poole, there is Jalen Collins. Every team will have their misses. What becomes demoralizing is when players show major promise in their first two seasons and fail to build on it.

That’s starting to become a common trend across the defense. Beasley’s issues are well documented, as his limitations as a pass rusher make him impossible to depend on. The lack of growth in Takkarist McKinley’s game has been hugely detrimental to the defense. He was expected to have a true breakout season, but other than his terrific showing against the Eagles, the third-year edge rusher has been anonymous. To have two first-round edge rushers fail to make an impact in most games would put any team at a disadvantage. A team with as many as problems as the Falcons can’t afford to have two major investments at edge rusher be ineffective. Both players have failed to live up to expectations.

They aren’t the only players not progressing following a strong start to their respective careers. De’Vondre Campbell hasn’t played well after having a strong 2017 season. Between not showing much gap integrity to reacting poorly in zone coverage, he’s becoming a player who can’t be trusted as a three-down linebacker. Allowing Darren Fells to beat him so easily at the line of scrimmage for a touchdown was the latest big play where Campbell looked overmatched. It’s one thing for a young player like Isaiah Oliver to make careless mistakes and allow big plays. For someone with three years of starting experience to continue to be a step behind or out of position is a troubling sign. What appeared to be a fourth-round steal for Quinn is becoming a deflating letdown. Not having players like Beasley, McKinley, and Campbell grow into dependable assets is one of the biggest reasons why the Falcons’ defense has failed to rebound this season.

Koetter’s tendencies

Although Koetter did a fairly good job at limiting Houston’s vaunted front four with quick passes and play action concepts, there are still lingering problems about his game plan. His necessity to run the ball on first down was on full display against Houston. It didn’t matter how many times Devonta Freeman was stuffed for a short gain. There wasn’t much of an alteration when calling plays on first down or in how Freeman was being used. Koetter is constantly calling runs out of shotgun for Freeman. Instead of running stretch or counter plays, he opts to use Freeman in a less favorable way. With the offensive line struggling to create holes, it puts more pressure on Freeman to make defenders miss in narrow areas rather than in the open field.

Situational play calling is another common problem when assessing Koetter. To run a play out of the wildcat formation with Mohamed Sanu on second and ten, facing a 16-point deficit in the second half is a prime example. There are far more risks than well-designed high percentage plays with Koetter. Players are rarely being schemed open. Unless it’s from an individual effort, there are rarely any cover busts from the opposing defense. Most of the Falcons’ points are earned off pure execution rather than execution and design. That wasn’t the case with Kyle Shanahan. That wasn’t the case during a few three-game stretches with Steve Sarkisian. It’s been the case with Koetter, which is one of the biggest reasons why the Falcons won’t ever play up to their full capabilities at a consistent level.

Looking Ahead

For the second consecutive season, the Falcons find themselves at 1-4. They don’t have injuries or a difficult schedule as valid reasons behind their disappointing start, either. Losing very winnable games against Indianapolis and Tennessee were major warning signs about where this team was headed. To look utterly hopeless defensively against Houston will only intensify things for Quinn. His hot seat is starting to burn with three consecutive definitive losses. When your franchise quarterback can’t answer a question about disconnection within the team, it makes you wonder if this team is completely fragmented. The warning signs are there. A loss in Arizona next week could lead to immediate significant changes.