Usually, teams are not given countless opportunities to win a game. They either capitalize on the initial chance or fail to make the most of it. The Falcons certainly failed to make Tampa Bay pay in the second half.
Despite missing three field goals and Jameis Winston struggling to connect with his receivers in the second half, Tampa Bay still managed to stay ahead until the final seconds. Only being up 22-16 instead of 31-16 seemed like it was going to come back to haunt them. For all the Falcons’ pass protection woes and inability to produce explosive plays, they always seemed like a threat to pull off their second comeback win on the road in three weeks. All it took was a few timely third down conversions, along with capitalizing on the most predictable blunder possible.
With Austin Hooper and Russell Gage making huge catches across the middle of the field, the Falcons were able to get into field goal range and put themselves in a winning position. What put them over the edge was pouncing on Winston’s biggest flaws. His tendency of staring down his primary option is known to get him into trouble. Combine that weakness with his overconfidence, and you have the makings of a quarterback who can cost his team at any time.
That’s what ultimately happened when Deion Jones jumped in front of Cameron Brate for what was a fitting end to another chaotic season in Atlanta.
Heart and soul of the defense
Winston tends to play like a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback when matched up against the Falcons. He usually makes extraordinary throws down the seam or towards the back of the end zone when these teams meet twice a season. While Dan Quinn is left shaking his head wondering how some of his throws are completed, he knows there are going to be opportunities to take the ball away from him. Creating turnovers haven’t been easy for the Falcons this season.
They had only produced 17 takeaways entering yesterday’s game. Nearly half of those turnovers came against Kyle Allen. Winston’s fearless style normally plays into the hands of savvy defenders. That came to full fruition again with two of Atlanta’s main defensive leaders at the forefront of their success.
Besides Grady Jarrett and Desmond Trufant, no defensive players on the Falcons has played better than Deion Jones and Ricardo Allen this season. Both players haven’t been quite at the level they were at in 2017. They played integral roles in that defense becoming a borderline top-ten unit. From occasionally being late on coverage assignments to missing open-field tackles, Jones and Allen weren’t as consistent as you’d expect them to be this season.
They are still two incredibly instinctual, intelligent players who can make plays across the field. If an offense makes even the slightest mistake, expect one of them to pounce on it. Winston found out the hard way on multiple occasions.
The enigmatic quarterback is notorious for trying to make tight window throws down the seam. No matter how tight the coverage is, he believes he can practically make any throw. Justin Watson was well-covered coming out of the slot by Allen. As Watson was still running his route, Allen read it the entire way and jumped the pass for an interception.
Whether it’s Winston not having much chemistry with the receiver or being hindered by bad habits, the chase for history was on. To be the team to force a divisional rival’s quarterback to throw 30 interceptions in a season had to be on the players’ mind. With Tampa Bay winning the coin toss, the defense had one more opportunity to make their mark. Jones didn’t hesitate in reading Winston’s eyes to secure the win and set Twitter into a frenzy.
Jones and Allen will be at the heart of everything the Falcons’ defense does going forward. In an off-season where several players will be going elsewhere, they will remain as the nucleus. Allen is the communicator and organizer every defense needs to be successful. Jones possesses unlimited range, tremendous speed, and outstanding coverage ability at one of the most important positions in the sport. Similar to most players on the roster, they haven’t played up to their highest level.
To see them creating turnovers to end the season is encouraging. With Raheem Morris taking over as defensive coordinator next season, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about both players getting back to playing at a consistently high level.
Pass protection against talented fronts remains problematic
For the second consecutive game this season, Tampa Bay manhandled Atlanta in the trenches. Matt Ryan endured six sacks and 14 hits on 57 drop backs, per ESPN. That is an absurd amount for any quarterback, let alone one playing behind four first round picks.
Some of the sacks and hits can be attributed to Dirk Koetter’s insipid play-calling. There are other moments where offensive linemen are losing their individual matchups far too easily. Kaleb McGary has received some grueling beatings this season. In the first matchup between both teams, Shaquil Barrett schooled him on numerous occasions. Barrett did have some success again rushing from the left side again. It was Jason Pierre-Paul who had most of the success this time around.
The resilient edge rusher beat McGary multiple times for sacks on inside moves. As McGary continues to improve on not allowing edge rushers to turn the edge on him, he is leaving openings for linemen to attack inside. That’s where the pre-draft concerns about his footwork appear. There is only so much Chris Lindstrom can do alongside him. For all the concern about how to address the hole at left guard, the right tackle position is far from stable. McGary will need to show considerable improvement next season after a mostly underwhelming rookie season.
There should also be questions about Alex Mack’s play. While the stalwart center isn’t in danger of being released, his decline can’t be ignored. Mack is no longer making the key blocks in the running game like he did from 2016 to 2018. Interior tackles are starting to have more success against him on passing downs. Nobody knows how much the elbow injury he suffered in October is affecting him. Mack’s toughness is well documented from essentially playing on one leg in the Super Bowl. His overall play has resembled an average center instead of an All-Pro caliber center. The Falcons will need him to rebound next season in order to reestablish themselves as a top offensive line.
Dirk Koetter isn’t the answer
On Friday, the Falcons announced Quinn will remain as head coach. They also confirmed Thomas Dimitroff will keep his place as general manager, along with Raheem Morris being promoted to defensive coordinator. Although Quinn did give Koetter a vote of confidence, there was no confirmation the embattled offensive coordinator will remain in charge. Based on watching the Falcons’ offense this season, there is nothing to suggest that he should keep his job. The lackluster formation usage, poor situation play calling, and unimaginative play designs have made Koetter a maligned figure in Atlanta. All those issues were on full display against Tampa Bay.
Ryan was put in many positions where he had to either take a sack or throw the ball away. With limited receiving options, Koetter needed to do his best to scheme players open and create more favorable scenarios for Ryan. Besides creating a play for Ty Sambrailo to make history, he failed to do either of those things effectively against his former team. Instead, Ryan had to make short tight window throws to build drives.
It’s been a problem all season for the franchise quarterback, who has taken a career-high 48 sacks. Koetter rarely did much to help Ryan against talented defensive fronts. This game was another prime example in exposing his flaws. Arthur Blank feels confident about how the team is progressing. They will likely never reach their full potential if Koetter remains as offensive coordinator.
Unless the Falcons decide to move on from Koetter, it will be a quiet January for the organization. They know changes must be made following another season of underachieving. To go from 1-7 to 7-9 is certainly a commendable feat, especially when considering they beat two of the NFC’s biggest contenders on the road. It still doesn’t erase what transpired in September and October.
Learning from previous mistakes will be crucial for Quinn, who will remain on the hot seat going into 2020. The same applies to Dimitroff, who has avoided being fired on multiple occasions dating back to 2014. Quinn and Dimitroff helped craft together a championship-caliber team. They will need to prove they can do it again in order to make it past 2020.