For the first time all season, everything seemed to be lined up in the Falcons favor going into a game. The defense was coming off two exceptional performances with their maligned defensive line at the forefront of their success. Matt Ryan had his most impressive performance of the season against Carolina. A home matchup against a faltering Tampa Bay team seemed to be occurring at the perfect time. There wasn’t a better way to continue this recent resurgence than beating a divisional rival in disarray. Those notions couldn’t have been more inaccurate.
Dan Quinn’s team was completely outplayed on both sides of the ball. The offensive line was overwhelmed from the opening drive. Despite trying desperately to muster up a running game, Dirk Koetter’s efforts didn’t lead to any success. That forced Matt Ryan to take a severe amount of punishment. As much as Jameis Winston tried to inflict damage on his own team, he didn’t take much from the Falcons’ defense. That allowed him to throw downfield and put on his signature productive performance against them. This definitive loss proved to be nothing more than a major letdown for Quinn and his coaching staff.
Offensive line gets battered
According to ESPN, Ryan was sacked six times and took 13 hits on 52 drop backs. He likely took more damage in this game than the previous five games against Tampa Bay combined. The Falcons hadn’t lost to them since opening weekend in 2016. Ryan is normally given time to survey the field and torch a helpless secondary. While the Buccaneers’ secondary remains filled with question marks and below-average talent, they didn’t give up many big plays thanks in large part to their ferocious front four.
Rising star linebacker Devin White ended up as the only defender with multiple sacks. That comes as a major surprise, considering how dominant Shaquil Barrett and Vita Vea were. Barrett has been by far the free agent signing of the season. When it comes to players taking one-year “prove it” deals, the once-forgotten edge rusher has proven himself to be one of the most frightening pass rushers in the league. His array of moves, along with tremendous get off gave Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary fits. If it weren’t for Ryan’s sharp pocket movement, Barrett would have converted his five hits into more sacks.
Both Matthews and McGary had their worst games of the season. After struggling in the first two games of the season, Matthews had started to play better. He regressed badly by not staying in front of Barrett. Whether it was off pure speed or technique, Barrett made Matthews look like he didn’t belong on the same field as him. The same can be said about McGary, who continues to look too slow and not strong enough to play right tackle. The rookie tackle allows edge rushers to accelerate past him or bend around him far too easily. There were also moments where he got beat straight on, as Carl Nassib annihilated him on a swim move. The front office’s investment in McGary is starting to look troubling based on his lack of progression.
The offseason plan to invest in the offensive line has played a significant role in the Falcons’ demise. Signing James Carpenter and Jamon Brown haven’t provided the stability they hoped for at the guard position. Vea made Carpenter look foolish on several occasions.
Although Chris Lindstrom should be the long-term solution at right guard, Carpenter and Brown were viewed as players that could be short-term solutions. For them to not have a positive impact on improving the offensive line shows the front office misevaluated both players. It’s too early to say they misevaluated McGary, but there is legitimate worry that the pre-draft concern of him not having the intangibles to be a NFL tackle are proving to be valid.
As Tampa Bay showed drastic improvements across the defensive line, the Falcons look every bit as bad across the offensive line as they did last year. Not having Matthews or Alex Mack playing at a high level hasn’t helped matters. What also hasn’t helped is Dirk Koetter’s reliance on vertical play designs, particularly when facing tremendous pass rushing units. It has forced Ryan into taking more punishment, while putting added pressure on the wide receivers to either create separation against man coverage or find openings against zone coverage. Not being able to scheme open players in quick succession is another factor behind the Falcons’ offense failing to play up to lofty expectations.
Old issues in the secondary resurface
With Raheem Morris returning to his defensive coaching roots, there was a growing sense the frequent communication and organization issues across the secondary were going to be erased. That hopefulness took a major hit yesterday following numerous breakdowns. Winston repeatedly found openings down the seam with Chris Godwin as his main recipient. Eventually, Winston was able to exploit Atlanta’s blown zone coverage looks down the sidelines. It all culminated in what was a major setback for a resurgent defensive unit.
Damontae Kazee appeared to be the culprit on several explosive plays. From being late in reacting to receivers running deep crossers to failing to be on the same page with Desmond Trufant, Kazee is still struggling with the mental processing side of playing deep safety. It was a problem at times last season. Although he was playing better when reverting back to the role, his poor showing proved there are aspects to his game that need serious work. There is more to playing safety than making plays in coverage and closing down ball carriers against the run. Kazee must get better at understanding his coverage responsibilities to reduce these colossal breakdowns.
An all too familiar sight: Non-existent pass rush
While Tampa Bay’s pass rush harassed Ryan at will, Winston had a relatively comfortable afternoon. When he wasn’t staring down his receivers or jumping into his offensive linemen, he found plenty of success without facing any pressure. Only Deion Jones managed to hit Winston. That was essentially on a broken play, which Winston ended up connecting with Mike Evans for a first down. Adrian Clayborn managed to generate some pressure, but Winston was able to slide away from any potential sacks. He was the only defensive lineman of note to force Winston into making adjustments.
It was a hugely disappointing overall performance, considering how well the defensive played over the past two games. They were matched up against a subpar offensive line, yet failed to affect Winston’s rhythm. There weren’t many twists or crafty blitz designs either. Everything they did was reminiscent of how they played in October. Takkarist McKinley failed to build on his terrific game against Carolina. Grady Jarrett had a quiet game for the second consecutive week. Nobody managed to make an impact up front. That allowed Winston to do whatever he wanted. When defensive linemen aren’t winning their individual battles, along with their being a lack of creativity on passing downs, defenses get punished. That’s what Quinn, Morris, and Jeff Ulbrich witnessed on the sidelines.
The opportunity to sweep the Saints doesn’t come around often. For the Falcons, they have the chance to do it in what is considered to be their Super Bowl. The excitement for this matchup certainly diminished after yesterday’s horrendous performance. While the Falcons were dismantled at home, Drew Brees led a comeback victory over Carolina in another impressive performance.
The odds are clearly stacked against them, especially with Ryan taking such a grueling beating. For him to play four days later isn’t ideal. The franchise quarterback tends to struggle playing on short weeks as well. As it was proven last time when these teams faced each other, anything is possible in a bitter rivalry. It’s difficult to be overly optimistic about the Falcons’ chances, given the circumstances and discrepancy in talent.