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Can the Falcons fix what ails them before it’s too late?

On paper, the problem is simple: They’re not playing well and they need to play better. Actually getting there is a different story.

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

I cut my recap a bit shorter this week because there simply isn’t much to say about individual performances at this point. There are your typical suspects underperforming (Isaiah Oliver comes to mind with his extremely up-and-down 2019), but it is impossible to hang this on any one player. The truth is that the Falcons seem utterly lost as a team, with coaches and players alike unable to offer up much in the way of reassuring diagnoses or solutions for what ails Atlanta. That shows in the postgame pressers, sure, but more than that it shows on the field.

Take the Titans. The Falcons had just got done playing a Colts team with a solid-but-unspectacular offense and a pretty good defense, and that team took them for a first half ride before the Falcons managed to catch up. The Titans and Colts are not remotely similar football teams in many respects, but putting the brakes on their ground game, keeping a so-so passing attack in check, and passing the ball effectively figured to be key for both games. The Falcons were a bit more disciplined and did a nice job of putting a vise on Derrick Henry, but otherwise they lost this game much the same way they lost to the Colts: By playing sloppy, uninspired football, missing tackles, surrendering the middle of the field on defense, and failing to make big plays when they needed to. Considering they were at home and managed just 10 points against the Titans, this loss was probably much worse.

The question for everyone from Arthur Blank to Jeff Schultz is whether the Falcons know how to fix this, and how quickly they can get it turned around. As Schultz noted in his most recent column, the answers have not been forthcoming, and the losses have been maddening considering the talent on hand.

But regardless of what anybody thinks of the Falcons’ personnel, there’s no question it’s better than this.

In Game 1 at Minnesota, the Falcons allowed a sack on the first play and a blocked punt on the first series and gave up four touchdowns on three turnovers and the block. In Game 3 at Indianapolis, they committed a head-spinning 16 penalties. In Game 4, they fell behind a 24-7 to a less-than-average opponent and managed just one touchdown in a 24-10 loss.

The truth is that on paper, the Falcons do have time. The Panthers and Buccaneers both won on Sunday—the Saints hadn’t wrapped things up by the time I finished this—but they have yet to play any divisional games and are still technically in this thing with 12 full games to go. The problem, as we’ve learned when comparing the talent the Falcons have on paper with what they’re putting on the field, is that reality does not always meet parchment in the way we like.

The reality is that the Falcons have two straight road games—the Texans and Cardinals, with the former likely to be yet another nasty AFC game—and then have back-to-back-to-back-to-back games against the Rams, Seahawks, Panthers, and Saints Playing this brand of football, they’ll be lucky to come out of that stretch with a win against the Cardinals, and frankly Quinn might be gone before they ever get into that early November tilt against the Saints.

The truth is that the solution is deceptively simple: Stop making mistakes, and take concrete steps to tighten up coverage. The Falcons are getting absolutely killed on short passes over the middle of the field, as was the case with the absolutely crushing A.J. Brown touchdown yesterday that saw Brown with tons of room, followed by some of the weakest tracking and tackling attempts you can imagine. The Falcons have been wrecked on the sidelines at times, too, but the truth is their willingness to surrender short passes only works if they’re truly short passes, and if they can arrive in fast and physical fashion when the ball is caught. They’ve done none of that.

The mistakes on defense might be fixed with better coaching and better execution, both of which should be within reach for this team. But there are ongoing issues with penalties that are bedeviling this team, including the sort of unbelievable sight of the great Alex Mack ruining a productive drive by dropping an elbow on a helpless defender, prompting an equally unbelievable live mic rebuke from a ref. These are the kinds of weird, avoidable penalties that continue to kill any momentum the Falcons gin up between their other mistakes.

The Falcons are 2-2 or even 3-1 right now if they significantly cut down on their penalties, missed tackles, and other crucial errors along the way, given that the Titans won by two scores on a day where Atlanta had broken coverage and drives killed by just those kinds of mistakes. But it’s equally true that the Falcons, aside from one surreal triumph against the Eagles, have shown no sign of ironing out those issues for any length of time. If anything, minus the dizzying number of penalties against the Colts, the Falcons were much worse against Tennessee than they were against Indy.

Let’s not sugarcoat it, then: There’s simply no reason to think they suddenly will improve dramatically, at least not before this hole gets any deeper.