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A slow start, penalties and miscues leaves Dan Quinn and the Falcons searching for answers

Instead of growing improvement, frustrating tendencies are starting to be developed for the Falcons following another road defeat.

Atlanta Falcons v Indianapolis Colts

It was difficult to gauge what the Falcons’ outlook was going into yesterday’s game. Following last week’s thrilling victory over Philadelphia, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic. They played extremely well in the trenches on both sides of the ball, along with producing explosive passing plays and creating turnovers. It’s the type of combination that teams need to be successful. The optimism was more on the cautious side based on previous experience. The Falcons are prone for letdown games, particularly on the road against unfamiliar opponents. That was on full display in Indianapolis.

Dan Quinn’s team looked sluggish from the very first snap. It made for a completely one-sided first half. Whether it was running stretch plays with Marlon Mack or carving up the Falcons’ zone with quick underneath passes, Frank Reich crafted a masterful game plan. It consisted of a ball-control styled attack designed to give Jacoby Brissett high-percentage looks and get one of the best offensive lines in the league on the move. Although there was improvement in the second half, it wasn’t enough to justify an appalling first half from the Falcons. How they faltered defensively will raise further questions about Quinn’s status as not only a defensive coordinator, but also as a head coach.

Defensive letdown

After harassing Carson Wentz and rarely getting caught out of position against Doug Pederson’s wizardry, it appeared the Falcons took a major step forward against Philadelphia. The encouraging signs are a distant memory now. Quinn’s unit looked disorganized, unprepared, and overwhelmed for most of the game. It started on the ground, as defenders couldn’t get off blocks or make tackles. Indianapolis’ success on the ground quickly converted into picking up easy chunk plays through the air. Reich knew where to find the openings in Quinn’s Cover 3 defense. He also knew how to devise creative, coverage-shattering plays.

Reich is one of the most respected play callers in the league. There are moments where an opposing defense has no idea what hit them when facing him. It happened on multiple occasions starting with Deion Jones getting caught flat-footed in the flat. That left Zach Pascal all alone on a wheel route following a solid dosage of deception and crafty route concepts. Pascal was on the receiving of another big play, as Isaiah Oliver badly bit on a play fake. Between Reich’s fearless, nifty play calling and Brissett’s ability to sell play fakes; the Colts were able to put together long drives.

This was a major setback for the Falcons’ defense. Allowing back-to-back drives of 93 and 94 yards against any offense is unacceptable, let alone one that is trying to find their identity after losing their franchise quarterback two weeks before the season. They gave Brissett acres of space to work with underneath. It allowed players such as Jack Doyle and Nyheim Hines to pick up first downs off quick dump offs into the flat. With the Falcons’ unable to generate much pressure, the defense didn’t have many answers in the first half.

Outside of the always-reliable Jones, the entire linebacker group faltered. De’Vondre Campbell continues to struggle getting off blocks against the run. His tendency of holding in coverage is also starting to become problematic. Kemal Ishmael surprisingly received more snaps than usual. It ended up costing the Falcons, especially when he was asked to cover downfield. Brissett targeted Foye Oluokun and Ishmael across the field. If the linebackers weren’t a step behind, Damontae Kazee was getting picked on. Reverting from free safety to cornerback hasn’t gone smoothly so far for the promising defensive back.

There were instances where Quinn didn’t seem to have a response. He also needs to figure out more effective ways to manage his heavy rotations. Two timeouts were wasted in the first half because he was trying to get his defense organized. Then on third and one, his rotating led to a five-yard penalty after Grady Jarrett couldn’t get off the field in time. The Colts ended up scoring on that drive before the half. These mistakes can’t be transpiring as a fifth-year head coach. With better understanding of in-game situations and personnel usage, timeouts wouldn’t be wasted and penalties can be avoided. Quinn must find a better balance with his rotations and coverage looks for this defense to play consistently better, especially against the best coaching staffs in the league.

Lack of urgency, awareness, and adjustments

For the second consecutive road game, the Falcons got off to the slowest start possible. They couldn’t finish drives or create any downfield plays. For all the offense’s success in the second half, they couldn’t find their rhythm early on, albeit the lack of opportunities certainly didn’t help because of the defense’s ineptitude. Only having possession for slightly over nine minutes will hinder any offense. There were still missed opportunities.

Matt Ryan played essentially lights out in the second half. He was making the right decisions, especially on third down where the Falcons went eight for ten. His tremendous touchdown pass to Julio Jones is another indicator that the red zone woes between one of the league’s best quarterback-wide receiver duos are long gone. Unfortunately for Ryan, he made another baffling decision, which led a costly interception. Attempting to thread the needle down the seam to Luke Stocker in traffic sounds like a mistake waiting to happen. To overthrow him by five yards resulted in another turnover to Ryan’s growing collection of them in 2019.

The franchise quarterback played otherwise flawlessly. What remains concerning about the offense comes from a play calling standpoint. Dirk Koetter made some questionable decisions between running the ball too often in predictable spots and not being aggressive enough. It continues to be a mystifying trend for the offensive coordinator, who likes taking shots downfield and running more vertical concepts. The lack of aggression comes from not picking up the pace and calling runs from the same formations.

When the Colts defense was starting to look rattled, Koetter opted not to go no-huddle and continue moving at a slow pace. He would then call a draw play from shotgun or some type of stretch run. Although Devonta Freeman looked like his old explosive self during large portions of the game, there were big play openings there for the taking. Koetter’s incessant need to run on first down or call a predictable play left the offense stagnated at times. If they operated at a faster rate, the Falcons offense could have scored 30 points or more. Until Ryan stops making reckless throws (only one this week) and Koetter starts becoming more unpredictable and forward-thinking, we won’t see one of the most talented offenses in the league play up to there full potential.

Self-inflicted mistakes

To nearly win despite committing 16 penalties is a testament to how good one side of the ball played. That’s how efficient the Falcons’ offense was in the second half, yet they still had their fair share of blunders. Jamon Brown committed two penalties, while Jake Matthews and Calvin Ridley had their own separate blunders. Mental errors are becoming far too common on a weekly basis for the Falcons. You can’t be dependent on converting third and long situations at a staggering rate every week. These careless, unforced penalties will usually come back to haunt any team.

Most of the biggest penalties were committed by the defense. On 16 penalties, the Colts picked up seven first downs. Campbell and Kazee were guilty of crucial holding penalties. There were three neutral zone infraction penalties, as Jack Crawford committed two of them. If Reich wasn’t dialing up brilliantly designed plays, the Falcons were punishing themselves with individual errors.

These personnel gaffes will fall squarely on Quinn’s shoulders. One of the biggest reasons for Mike Smith’s success was how disciplined his teams were. The Falcons were one of the least-penalized teams during his best years. They didn’t beat themselves by having poor awareness or technique. The Falcons have never been the most disciplined team since Quinn arrived in 2015. In three games this season, the Falcons have committed 36 penalties for 264 yards. That amount is reminiscent of Rex Ryan’s Jets and Bills teams. To be compared to those teams isn’t endearing.

The Falcons will fall short of their high expectations if they continue to commit penalties at a similar rate as those teams did.

Looking Ahead

There are teams in deeper crises than the Falcons. One of them happens to be coming to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Tennessee has looked completely out of sorts since blowing out the Browns. With Marcus Mariota regressing and the offensive line allowing pressure at an enormous rate, this appears to be a favorable matchup. Losing Keanu Neal for the season is a massive blow, while Grady Jarrett’s status is unknown, as he didn’t return from a toe injury. Takkarist McKinley was banged as up well. That’s three of the six most important defenders on the team.

Besides the injury worries, there is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Falcons. A team with significant pressure and expectations on them shouldn’t be starting games slowly, especially when facing teams that either made the playoffs last year (Indianapolis) or playoff-caliber (Minnesota). Motivation shouldn’t be lacking. Neither should proper discipline and game planning be lacking either. That’s what Quinn will need to address going forward with not only the roster, but with himself and the coaching staff.