The Atlanta Falcons have fallen to 1-2 after a dismal first-half performance against the Indianapolis Colts.
The game has sparked a doomsday reaction online with Falcons fans, and carries with it a somber weight as starting safety Keanu Neal suffered yet another season-ending injury, this one an Achilles tear.
There’s a lot we can take from this game, so how do we parse through it?
The offense has to find faster starts
The Falcons have only scored 13 first-half points so far this season, two of those games on the road where the cumulative number goes to a field goal against the Colts.
Whatever is keeping the Falcons from scoring points early, whether that be bizarre picks from Matt Ryan or breakdowns in pass protection or uninspired play calling and ball distribution, the team can’t keep getting behind the eight ball against talented teams.
The Falcons are 1-0 this season when they score a touchdown in the first half; they’re 0-2 when they don’t. This team is not built to play from behind; losing the first half is losing the 2019 Falcons games.
Julio Jones and Austin Hooper are the red zone favorites for Dirk Koetter
Jones (4) and Hooper (2) are emerging as Koetter’s top targets to use in the red zone.
The team found great success using Hooper in the second half versus the Colts, with him getting open down low a big reason Atlanta had a chance late Sunday.
It’s also encouraging to see Jones have a touchdown in each game this season, and shows that Koetter, obviously, has ultimate trust with him to get open and score touchdowns.
The Falcons have to do a better job using Calvin Ridley in the red zone, and give a bit of a break to targeting Luke Stocker. Stocker only has five career touchdowns in his ten-season career, and has other use to the offense in blocking.
The team has its early favored candidates for scoring under Koetter, though, and it’s not necessarily the guys who factored in there under Steve Sarkisian.
The defense under DC Dan Quinn is still finding itself
After a relatively dominant performance against the Eagles, the Falcons reverted back to missed tackles, lapses in coverage and general sloppiness against an opportunistic Colts offense.
The defense didn’t do itself favors to let the Colts score 20 points in the first half, though they tightened it down in the second half until allowing Indy to salt the clock with the lead on late drive-extending plays.
It’s just not clear exactly what this defense is going to turn into, and now that Neal is out for the year once more, is going to leave more questions than answers entering the quarter-mark of the season.
A Titans offense with boundless potential and equal frustration comes to town next week, and it gives the Falcons’ defense equal opportunity to rebound and disappoint in equal measure.
S Kemal Ishmael will have big shoes to fill, should he take Neal’s role
The next man up right now for Neal’s job is Ishmael, who hasn’t started meaningful time at the position since Neal went out for roughly a month in his rookie year.
He played admirably back in 2016, but had since been moved to linebacker. Now he’ll return to his original position and, at first glance, take over for the hard-hitting Neal, who excels in tackling and coverage.
Damontae Kazee, who has had so-so results in his switch to slot cornerback, could also flip over to take Neal’s role, and actually could be a more natural fit. He played well last season in Ricardo Allen’s absence at free safety, and has a punishing style to his play that mimics Neal’s. The team has indicated they don’t plan to go that route.
Replacing Neal is impossible, though, and the Falcons will just have to hope whoever takes over for him holds down the spot.
The team’s schedule does not get easier from here
The Falcons’ upcoming slate of games doesn’t exactly inspire confidence if the team’s inconsistencies hold true: a tough out in Tennessee looms for the return to Mercedes-Benz, followed by a trip to see electric young QB and former Falcons ball boy Deshaun Watson and the 2-1 Texans.
Upstart rookie Kyler Murray and the Cardinals are next up on the road, and then back-to-back home games against the NFC West’s Rams (3-0) and Seahawks (2-1) before the bye (a certain archrival awaits on the road once the team gets its week off in).
It’s a fight every week, and will certainly test the team’s mettle and ability to improve in the moment. If they remain static, substantial changes could loom in the not-so-distant future.