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Falcons - Seahawks recap: Another listless opener for Atlanta

The Falcons go 0-4 on fourth downs and lose by 13 in an all-too-familiar performance.

Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons have a problem. They have a problem that has been built patiently and terribly over the course of several seasons, the result of the team shuffling and tweaking their coaching and adding impressive names to the roster that obscure the problem that no one can make things happen when they need to happen. They have a problem because Dan Quinn and company made it to a Super Bowl in 2016 but are increasingly incapable of earning wins, and the people in charge of this team have managed to cling to the specter of that killer team longer than even the fans, to the team’s evident and ongoing detriment.

I like Dan Quinn personally because he is a good person, something that is legitimately important and clearly important to his players and staff. Yet I found last year’s opening loss difficult to wave away, the 1-7 stretch the team ultimately embarked on an indictment of his ability to get the job done, and the final 6-2 run impressive but not ultimately convincing. I predicted a .500 season this year because the talent on hand remains too compelling and the coaching staff too dotted with talented people to think they’d completely implode, but also because real, across-the-board improvement seemed like a stretch after the last two seasons. This dispiriting, listless loss to the team he used to coach for is almost too on the nose, given that it exposed the disparity between a team with a very good plan and one that can’t seem to buy an effective one.

The Falcons were beaten soundly by the Seahawks. The final score and some impressive performances along the way do little to obscure the fact that Atlanta was outmatched early and outmatched late, and that’s why they were outscored 28-12 in three quarters against a Seattle team with an unproven defense and offense that can at least be slowed by a competent defense. All that offseason hype led to another listless result on the field, and you can recognize that this team has a lot of quality pieces for the future while admitting they still do need seem to have the right pieces to the puzzle right now.

This is one game, so the opportunity to recover is evident and 15 games long. The Falcons have to get out of the position very soon, though, or the justified calls for change will justifiably intensify. This effort, against a Seattle team that still has real weaknesses, was simply unacceptable, and the four increasingly desperate fourth down tries for exactly zero conversions only adds to the bitterness we’re all feeling right now. Russell Wilson continuing to have clean, effortless assembly line performances against Atlanta—he only had four incomplete passes Sunday—only makes it worse.

If this was a Falcons team still building, it might be acceptable to feel like this is just a blip on the radar and something to be endured. But Dan Quinn has been here since 2015 and the team has been chasing a Super Bowl since 2016, and they are coming off two straight 7-9 seasons, with a promise that this year would be better after the second half rally we saw in 2019. If this team is still blundering into listless, bad losses after all that, the need to not ride out a season of tweaks and twiddling that falls short of expectations is apparent. We can be hesitant to face that reality, given the real stakes for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and others and the likelihood that a new staff won't provide an immediate transoizations got better by hunkering down and pretending a staff out of ideas can come up with new ones, and a one game blip is all we can reasonably give them before the knives come out. An 0-2 start in what could be a very tough division would feel pretty doomy.

The best reason to believe that a rally is coming is the weird offseason, the team’s reliance on a handful of relatively unproven players, and the fact that this team was ballsy enough to go for it on 4th down and was undone by lackluster execution on all four tries, something that probably doesn’t happen every week. I’m not sure that’s enough to feel positive for the looming matchup against the Cowboys, and I’m especially not sure because the team could only offer up the same “we’re mad as hell and we’re learning” comments we got while the ship sank and the ocean caught fire in the first half of 2019. Seattle had no problem showing up and playing a solid game more or less across the board in the same circumstances, late defensive swoon notwithstanding.

At any rate, they’re going to be traveling to face a Cowboys team licking its wounds after a loss to the Rams, and it’s already something of a must-win game for Atlanta. If a win isn’t coming, it’s probably past time for this franchise to admit the scope of the problem and figure out what should come next, because pretending the fix is a new player here and a coaching staff change here has yet to yield any tangible gains on the field.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • The rebuilt defensive line might actually be something. Takk McKinley went flying in and knocked Russell Wilson down for a sack on Seattle’s play from scrimmage, and Grady Jarrett drilled Wilson again later on the same drive for a massive loss. Those sacks went to waste thanks to penalty and ineptitude elsewhere, but it was a mighty encouraging start.

In all, the team finished with 4 sacks and pressured Russell Wilson on nearly 31% of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus. The Cowboys offensive line looks banged up and there are some intriguing matchups on the docket in the weeks ahead, and if this group can repeat that kind of production, they’re going to be a major lift for this team.

  • That Todd Gurley/Brian Hill duo combined for 17 carries, 68 yards, and a touchdown, which isn’t exactly stellar but is very solid. The team clearly plans to spell Gurley with Hill all year, so seeing decent results from both players is an encouraging sign for the road ahead, no matter how long that road might be. I thought Gurley looked extremely effective on his carries—he and Ryan have some work to do in the passing game, sure, but that will come—and that Hill looked strong and sure himself.
  • Similarly, Ryan threw for 450 yards and got Julio, Ridley, and Gage over 100 yards by the end of the game despite the losing effort. It’s obvious that those stats were aided by garbage time, but Atlanta has the horses to make this passing game into a great one, even if it was too little too late here.

Dirk Koetter and company simply have to put the ball into the hands of their speedy receiving options more often on early downs, because there were still too many frittered-away plays featuring short passes to running backs and long-developing plays that left Matt Ryan at the mercy of an offensive line that is still finding its footing.

  • Younghoe Koo is an onside kick god. I don’t know how he does it and I don’t know how much it matters, but the man unquestionably has the wizardry, and the Falcons should probably take advantage of it as often as they deem necessary.
  • As impossibly sad as this note is, three NFC South teams are 0-1. The Falcons can get it together and recover quite nicely from here, as difficult as it feels at the moment, and honestly this loss against an NFC contender probably feels far worse because 2020 has been such an awful year and we were hoping for a Falcons win early.

The Ugly

  • Defensively, the Falcons were awful on the first drive of the game outside of awesome sacks by Takk McKinley and Grady Jarrett. Ricardo Allen got called for a pass interference that was certainly of debatable merit but also came at a hilariously inopportune time, and a 3rd and 23 went to waste. It was all too familiar and typical.

So was what followed. After an ill-advised attempt to go for it super early in the game from near midfield on 4th down, the Falcons allowed Seattle to score swiftly to put them up 14-3. They would keep making nice plays on early downs and blowing it late, which culminated in the ultimate failure in the third quarter when the Seahawks disrespectfully went for it on 4th and 5 and scored an easy, deep touchdown on a brilliant pass from Russell Wilson to D.K. Metcalf over Isaiah Oliver.

We knew this defense would have some kinks to work out, given the number of new starters and the question marks still circling this secondary, but this is a team that supposedly had ironed things out on that side of the ball in their 6-2 second half. They can’t still be allowing effectively untouched touchdown romps to the likes of Chris Carson, as good as he may be.

  • Dirk Koetter drew some praise from me early for getting Todd Gurley outside the tackles, where his speed and physicality can shine. Then he chose a Brian Hill run up the middle on 3rd and 1 on the team’s second offensive drive and a 4th down play where the line got eviscerated and the praise dried up.

Koetter does not have it figured out yet. He went for it with run plays on 4th down and run plays on third down and didn’t lean heavily enough on his obviously terrific options in the passing game until it was far too late to do so, which tells me that the sense of urgency we’re looking for from him and the larger offense is still not there.

  • Younghoe Koo was nails on a 49 yard field goal but missed an extra point in the second quarter, because we can’t have nice things. I have to think the sun in his eyes was a factor given how well he performed the rest of the game, but that missed XP might have hurt a lot more if the Falcons hadn’t subsequently melted down, and is another thing that simply has to be a one-time error.
  • This team cannot make the right decision at the right time. Going for it near midfield is not a bad call in a vacuum, but the Falcons knew the defense was struggling early and had to know giving the ball to Seattle at their own 40 could be costly. The move failed, the Seahawks scored, and the Falcons were forced to catch up.

The team’s desire to remain aggressive on fourth downs is an admirable one in its way, and something their team personnel suggests is a wise decision. They had the fourth highest 4th down conversion rate in the NFL in 2020, after all. But there is also a need to understand the consequences of giving a short field to a team that has Russell Wilson and was showing early signs of being able to blow by this Atlanta defense, and the need to understand that compounding that risk when the game is still in reach is not something that the percentages alone can help you wave away.

I have seen several comments about the team’s perceived lack of trust in Younghoe Koo being a factor here, but I’m not sure that was the case. A 57 yard field goal in the first quarter would have been a cause for pause for most kickers, while the team passed up a chip shot and a 52 yarder later because they were trying to rally. It’s still worth watching how they deploy their kicker in future weeks, as he converted two 49 yarders but still isn’t attempting them beyond 50 yards.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I can’t give one this week. Sorry.

One Takeaway

The Falcons failed for many reasons Sunday, but the tidiness and effectiveness of the Seattle offense against this supposedly improving defense heralds lousy Sundays to come.

Next Week

Somehow, the Falcons have to fare much better against a very competent Dallas Cowboys team, even if that team is banged up and coming off a loss of their own. It’s fair to say I’m not going to be optimistic about that one, but perhaps you can read about some weaknesses on Blogging the Boys.

Final Word