The Falcons came into the season expecting to win. It was evident in the way the team talked about themselves—the bit of swagger in the videos and interviews, especially from general manager Thomas Dimitroff after the team re-signed Matt Bryant—but they weren’t alone in expecting it. The bulk of the fanbase felt good about the year ahead, and experts including a panel at ESPN had them finishing no worse than second in the NFC South.
Things would go wrong, of course, because it was the Falcons. It still seemed reasonable to the vast majority of us to expect this Falcons team, loaded as it was with weapons and featuring some new faces on the offensive line and defense, to at least improve on last year’s injury-marred campaign. Instead, they’ve fallen to the very depths of the NFL, with a loss to the lowly Bucs putting them at 3-8 and absolutely cooking their final hope.
The way the Falcons lost to the Bucs mimicked the way they’ve lost all their games this year, more or less, with that weird opening loss to the Vikings serving as a small exception. The Falcons have lost, in no particular order, because of:
- Awful offensive line play. The Falcons can’t run, as they’ve averaging just 74.5 yards per game on the ground, the third-lowest total in the NFL. They’ve done so on the third-fewest attempts in the NFL, sure, but they’ve chiefly accomplished that on first down runs, which have been incredibly unproductive. That’s the fault of the offensive line, but so are the pass protection woes that have marred the season. For perspective’s sake, the Falcons are on pace to allow about 46 sacks in 2019, which would be...four more than they allowed in 2018, when they lost starting guards to injury and Ryan Schraeder was also hobbled.
The Falcons will always ask “what if?” with Chris Lindstrom’s injury, but the fact of the matter is that none of their other moves have worked out that well. Jamon Brown has been solid but not spectacular, James Carpenter has been solid at best, and Kaleb McGary’s rookie woes against everyone but Cameron Jordan are expected but unfortunate. The amount of draft capital and money the team poured into this unit just to watch them stink out loud is enough to run folks out of town, and that’s not even mentioning Jake Matthews, who has mixed several solid-to-good games with a handful of absolute bombs like Sunday’s.
The offensive line, then, looks like it needs at least a partial re-tooling the offseason after the Falcons supposedly rebuilt it. That’s a big reason they’re losing.
- Defensive miscues. The Falcons were largely back to their old tricks against the Buccaneers. They didn’t sack Jameis Winston all day despite the fact that Winston absorbs a lot of sacks, and issues with determining who should be where in coverage appeared to doom them against Chris Godwin in particular all day.
That is not new. Besides the first two weeks of the season and that magical Saints-Panthers run, the Falcons have spent seven games doing nothing on defense. They can stop the run just fine and did so again against Tampa Bay, but teams aren’t trying to beat the Falcons on the ground. They don’t need to when coverage lapses lead to huge gains, the pass rush generally fails to get home, and missed tackles open up opportunities that didn’t exist before.
The defense has made strides both little and large since the beginning of the season, to the point where I’m not sweating bullets over the secondary in particular heading into the next year. But lackluster defense has defined the Falcons for going on two decades now, and you won’t be able to tell the story of this disappointing season without talking about the many ways they fell apart when the offense needed them most.
Oh, speaking of which...
- A disappointing offense. This might be the greatest doom of them all. Dirk Koetter’s hire was not met with much fanfare, and there were those among us who actively disliked the hire. It was still hard to imagine him completely screwing up an offense loaded with playmakers.
Yet he has. The Falcons this year have scored just 242 points in 11 games compared to 280 last year, and that accounts for the beginning of Atlanta’s awful sub-20 point scoring efforts in Steve Sarkisian’s final year. They’ve managed just 24 touchdowns in 11 games, compared to 32 touchdowns in 11 games a year ago. Under Koetter, Ryan is on track to be sacked more than he was in 2018 (again, see the offensive line section for the reasons that’s not really his fault), throw more picks and fewer touchdowns, and the ground game has completely and totally fallen apart. If this offense was simply doing what it did a year ago, those eight touchdowns would’ve gotten the Falcons a few more wins. Alas, they have not.
The fact that all these issues have persisted throughout the entire year is an indictment of a lot of people inside the building at Flowery Branch, but in particular the coaching staff and front office that weren’t able to coach, develop, or acquire their way into a team that could overcome issues that have been readily evident for weeks. It’s a shame to have to call the season over with five games left, but we have to hope the next Falcons regime can take a hard look at this team and figure out how to fix it.