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Falcons - Titans recap: Atlanta’s pieces go to pieces

At 1-3, the Falcons in trouble for the second straight September. This time, the changes to come are likely to be more sweeping.

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For me, at least, being a Falcons fan has always involved a little irrational hope. When I first became a fan the Falcons were solid and my hometown Patriots were abysmal, but I understood very well that the Falcons were not one of the league’s elite franchises. I hoped they could become one.

That hope has colored every step of my journey as a fan and, eventually, as a writer about this football team. Even on the darkest days, I have a hard time letting go of the idea that excellence is right around the corner, perhaps because I saw those awful Patriots teams turn into something special. It feels, with every great addition and great game, like something better might be looming.

Maybe that turnaround is right around the corner, but it’s not going to happen here, with this regime and in this season. I wrote something bracing a year ago on this very day about the team’s opportunity to make the kind of big changes given their injuries and defensive struggles, something the team did not embrace in hindsight. This offseason, they had the opportunity to get guys healthy and make those kinds of additions, and after all they’re getting blown out by the Titans at home while their fellow NFC South stalwarts in Carolina and New Orleans are keeping two terrific offenses in check en route to wins, and with backup quarterbacks to boot. This team doesn’t have answers.

It’s time to grapple with the reality that Dan Quinn is going to be an ex-Falcons coach in the not-too-distant future, barring the kind of turnaround this Falcons team has not had in its in recent years, and it’s possible we’ll have a new GM and new staff from Arthur Blank on down for the first time since 2008. Things are, I dare say, that bad.

There’s not much else to talk about for this particular game, which was an unmitigated disaster across the board. The offense had little trouble zipping passes to Austin Hooper but struggled otherwise, especially after losing Jamon Brown, and the defense put the team in a deep hole from quite early on. Once Matt Bryant missed a chip shot field goal, the writing was on the wall for this team, which couldn’t even muster an inspiring near-rally this week. They stunk from early on and never really got un-stunk.

The Falcons have repeatedly touted the improvements to come but they aren’t there, except in quick streaks and veins in the great ore of mediocrity that they’ve become. The season is far from over by definition alone, but it certainly feels grim given that the rest of the NFC South is at least one game ahead, and two of them are getting the job done with backup quarterbacks. I’ve reached the same point I reached much later in the season last year: I have low hopes and expectations the rest of the way, but will try to find enjoyment in the good moments and hope they’ve got something better for us.

On to the individual and team notes. It’s a little shorter this week because, frankly, I don’t have much to say.

The Good

  • Austin Hooper is putting together the best season of his career in front of our eyes, and is that rare player who has legitimately gotten better every single year he’s been in the NFL thus far. On another day where the offense was slow to get going, having Hooper involved early turned out to be a huge difference maker. He would remain involved all game, and late in this one when guys were swearing or committing costly penalties or just generally struggling, he was still making tough catches. It’s a shame that his excellence is being overshadowed by a crummy start for the team.
  • Ito Smith has just looked better than Devonta Freeman this year. Freeman’s struggles have mostly been overblown—the blocking hasn’t always been there for him, and he’s shown great pop on a couple of big runs—but Ito’s shimmy and physicality makes him an intriguing option for the offense going forward. We all need more intriguing options to look forward to, and at this point Ito should not be an afterthought.
  • Freeman salvaged his day, though, by piling up the catches. Running back receptions are not the most efficient way to run your offense, but Free ideally is a threat in more than one way when he’s out there.
  • Mohamed Sanu fought like hell for catches and yardage all day. and it was especially welcome given the relatively quiet efforts from Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones.
  • Takk McKinley did virtually everything he could in this one minus, you know, a game-winning sack and forced fumble. He was constantly after Mariota, constantly forcing his way into the backfield, and forcing a number of off-target throws and lackluster runs. In a winning effort or with one splash play, it’d be easier to recognize what he was up to, but Takk does deserve credit for the heroic effort he’s putting forth in a season that hardly deserves it.
  • When they absolutely had to in order to preserve the lead, the Falcons actually got down to business on defense multiple times, forcing punts and stopping the Titans cold on what should have been an easy 4th and 1 in the red zone early in the fourth quarter. It’s not much, considering how the game had gone to that point, but it was quality defense. I’ll take those oases in a sea of failure, if only because they point to what might happen if this team does get it together.

The Ugly

  • After everything that’s happened over the last couple of years—and in particular in the early going of this season—watching A.J. Brown catch a wide open ball, avoid all but cursory contact, and scamper for a 55 yard touchdown was sickening. Watching the Falcons surrender a 3rd and 15 later in the first quarter provoked the same disgusted reaction.

These are problems caused by coaching and execution alike. The Falcons are willing to cede the middle of the field and play deep to prevent deep passes, but that only works if you can keep plays in front of you and make critical open field tackles. The Falcons can’t do either of those things consistently, and it continues to kill them against offenses both excellent and mediocre.

  • How do the Falcons keep seeing guys popped for multiple penalties on the same drive? This time out, it was Tyeler Davison, who had been stone solid this year but somehow picked up two costly penalties in the first quarter on the same productive Tennessee drive. Other teams don’t need extra help moving against this defense, and Davison later chipped in a third penalty in a single game.
  • Desmond Trufant and Isaiah Oliver just looked absolutely puzzled in the first quarter. Trufant got turned around on A.J. Brown’s initial big touchdown and Oliver froze, flatfooted, on a critical Derrick Henry run. Neither one was the primary reason for the loss, but they put the Falcons in a bad position early, and things kept going south from there. Oliver has shown legitimate promise but the results have been, kindly, inconsistent.
  • Dirk Koetter’s offense has now scored no more than 24 points in a single game, and have twice scored under two touchdowns. More than anything, his uninspired playcalling when it comes to the run and the team’s inability to spring any receivers open is fast becoming a massive problem. The team moved on from Steve Sarkisian with the hope that they could find an improvement over a man who tended to scuffle against good defenses—but it was never clear Dirk Koetter was going to be a drastic improvement, and thus far he’s hardly been an improvement at all.

That said, if the team does move on from Dan Quinn (see below), he’s the likely interim head coach. Yippee!

  • This team is just not good enough. We’ve seen them play a quarter of the season, which is long enough to pretty definitively say the awaited breakout is not on its way, and that the issues on offense and defense are every bit as bad as the grimmest among us predicted and the most positive among us feared. I don’t know if there’s much point in delaying the inevitable, because nothing we’ve seen from this team aside from a couple of brief flashes of brilliance indicate that they’re going to claw their way out of this deep hole they’ve dug. Arthur Blank will probably let Dan Quinn hang on until at least midseason—he gave him another year, after all—but after all the money and the moves and the promises, this is not a great football team. Barring a big run starting in Week 5, it’s time for a change. Some would argue, fairly, that it’s time even then.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Absolutely not giving this to anyone from that Falcons effort. You can’t make me.

One Takeaway

The Falcons, no matter how talented they may seem, are incapable of putting together a four quarter effort. That may become relevant in the near future.

Next Week

The Texans, featuring a pissed off Deshaun Watson and a good offense that was held in check by Carolina. Surely that won’t go poorly! Check out Battle Red Blog for more.

Final Word