As NFL preview articles were being established and podcasts were being recorded, there was a common viewpoint about the Atlanta Falcons. They are going to contend for a playoff spot based on their high-powered offense and key players returning from long-term injury. To have Devonta Freeman, Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal for a full season obviously bolsters their chances of contending. It will take far more than four key players returning to get them back into competing with the best teams in the league.
Although one game shouldn’t drastically change an outlook of a team, Atlanta’s loss in Minnesota yesterday indicated how much work needs to be done for them to compete with the NFC’s best. They were soundly outplayed in all three phases of the game. From blowing gap assignments to not getting off blocks, the front seven played poorly in what appeared to be a good matchup for them. The offense didn’t fare any better, as the offensive line couldn’t create many holes in the running game or keep Matt Ryan protected. Blame will also be squared on Ryan and the coaching staff for looking overwhelmed in a big early-season challenge.
Defensive frailties on full display
All eyes were on how the Falcons’ defense was going to look as a fully healthy unit. With Dan Quinn taking over the reins at defensive coordinator, there was further intrigue about how much the unit can improve under him, especially in his enhanced role. Instead of showing any substantial changes, yesterday’s loss was very reminiscent of a game from last season.
Last season’s defense played with a lack of discipline. If it wasn’t for their poor discipline, their issues came from the defensive line not being able to create penetration or poor angles being taken from the back seven. That was evident in yesterday’s defeat.
After experimenting with a variety of 3-4 looks over the past two seasons, Quinn used it far more often against the Vikings. That may have played a part in how they were gashed on the ground. Both Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley failed to set the edge effectively with McKinley struggled in particular. On multiple big runs from Dalvin Cook, McKinley was too aggressive and allowed Cook to turn the corner and accelerate downfield. Adrian Clayborn had similar issues as well, as Minnesota caught him on a well-designed trap for Cook’s first touchdown run. It was staggering how much success the Vikings found running to the outside.
What made matters worse was how the linebackers and defensive backs failed to make initial stops. De’Vondre Campbell missed a few tackles, while taking multiple poor angles on big runs. Besides having a few lapses in coverage, Isaiah Oliver looked lost trying to stop the run. He was culpable for taking some poor angles and not disengaging from blocks, which ultimately led to Cook picking up extra yardage or getting into the end zone.
Quinn was quoted saying “we missed the mark” following their atrocious performance. It leaves to question about his schematic decisions such as using more 3-4 looks and trying to overload inside. Those moves seem to have correlated with Minnesota having constant success running sweeps. Gary Kubiak is considered to be one of the best offensive minds in the league. Pairing him with Mike Zimmer and his preference for establishing the run makes for a pretty lethal coaching tandem. They made Atlanta suffer for most of the game on the ground with Garrett Bradbury and Josh Kline making numerous key blocks.
There were certain things out of the defense’s control. Between Ryan’s first of two baffling interceptions and a blocked punt, the defense was put in difficult positions. They also weren’t given many opportunities to get after Kirk Cousins due to the balance of the game. What remains concerning is how they continue to get pushed around at the line of scrimmage against good teams. Team speed and depth were supposed to be the solutions for being one of the most undersized defenses in the league. Neither of those potential answers translates into success when you’re constantly out of position and lose individual battles up front.
For all their offensive firepower, it was always going to be a tall order for the Falcons to play up to their capabilities in this matchup. Zimmer’s defense rarely allows teams to dictate the pace of the game. They also rarely allow teams to produce big plays or control the line of scrimmage. With two rookies starting alongside each other on the offensive line and uncertainty at left guard, there were some noticeable concerns going into opening weekend. It wasn’t surprising to see those possible weaknesses be exploited.
James Carpenter and Chris Lindstrom were both on the receiving end of not recognizing blitzes quickly enough. Carpenter was penalized for holding, while Lindstrom suffered a foot injury. The pass protection issues only got worse when Jake Matthews endured one of his worst games as a Falcon. His failure to recognize a blitz on the first play of the season essentially ruined that drive. Everson Griffen consistently beat him, particularly on spin moves. It wasn’t surprising to see Minnesota generate pressure. What was surprising was how effective they were when rushing four. Considering how much investment the Falcons put into the offensive line, they failed to rise up to the occasion against a top-tier opponent.
When pressure begins to mount, Ryan can get rattled. He starts locking on certain receivers and doesn’t go through his progressions, which leads to him being jittery in the pocket. That normally results in a few ill-advised throws. Ryan made two of those throws, where he either failed to recognize the underneath defender or tried to make a difficult throw on a tough angle. The former MVP also missed Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley on potential touchdowns. Similar to last season’s opening game in Philadelphia, Ryan’s ball placement was all over the place. This one-game debacle could very well end up being an anomaly like it was in 2018. For Ryan to continue to fall short of expectations against very good teams away from home does have to sting for a player of his caliber.
As the game progressed, it became evident that Zimmer and Kubiak were outcoaching Quinn and Dirk Koetter. Minnesota kept attacking the outside with a variety of runs and that left the Falcons’ defense in shambles. It forced Quinn into taking multiple timeouts despite not having possession. That’s never a good sign for any defense. While his players definitely need to perform better, there must be more effective ways to have his players better positioned to stop the run. They frequently lost their gap integrity and couldn’t diagnose certain run designs, and that will raise further questions about Quinn’s coaching stability.
On the other side of the ball, Koetter failed to show much creativity and diversity with his play calling. There were flashes of play action designs and bootlegs to create openings across the field. Not being able to counter Zimmer’s blitzes, along with running draws on second and long, left a lot to be desired. A more aggressive approach, potentially running more no-huddle, would have been better suited for their comeback aspirations. Instead, Koetter didn’t do enough to get the most out of Atlanta’s playmakers. He joins Kyle Shanahan and Steve Sarkisian on the list of offensive coordinators that Zimmer outcoached in this matchup. For Atlanta’s sake, they can only hope Koetter doesn’t struggle putting together efficient game plans against top-ten defenses like Sarkisian did.
If Minnesota was considered to be a nightmare in the trenches, there’s no telling what Atlanta’s next opponent is capable of. A Sunday night clash against Philadelphia doesn’t necessarily come at a good time. The possibility of going 0-2 will intensify the pressure currently on Quinn. The last three games between both teams consisted of the Eagles manhandling the Falcons in the trenches. With their plethora of talent, Doug Pederson’s team can control the line of scrimmage against any team. That leaves the Falcons in a precarious position knowing how both their lines are a work in progress. It will be on the coaching staff to help elevate their game and craft together strong game plans. This is going to be another strong test determining where the Falcons currently stand as a team.