In the past two weeks, the Falcons have experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows as a team. Beating the Saints on the road in dramatic fashion was a real statement win for Arthur Smith. The team showed resilience, intelligence, and fearlessness to beat their biggest rival. Unfortunately, all the excitement quickly evaporated in a humiliating defeat to the Cowboys.
They were completely annihilated in all aspects of the game. Whether it was Matt Ryan proving unable to connect with his receivers or the defense not coming close to touching Dak Prescott, the Falcons didn’t belong on the same field as one of the NFC’s premier teams. It was a harsh reality check for a team that entered the game as the seventh seed.
The challenges only continue heading into tonight’s game against the Patriots. There isn’t a team playing better football than Bill Belichick’s rebuilt squad. They are pounding opponents into submission in the trenches, creating turnovers, and producing explosive plays with Josh McDaniels’ superb play calling. Outside of Richie Grant’s impressive punch out on Ezekiel Elliott, the Falcons didn’t come close to doing any of those things against Dallas.
It’s going to take a collective response following such a brutal one-sided beating. There are four things, in particular, the Falcons must do to have a chance to pull off an impressive upset win.
Calling for wide receivers to make plays
It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Falcons’ passing game without Calvin Ridley. The star wide receiver’s absence means the wide receiver group is largely filled with limited, untested wide receivers that are far better suited as role players than starters. What makes their lack of production frustrating comes from how well Matt Ryan is playing. It’s not as if Ryan’s lack of arm strength or inability to stay composed under pressure in the pocket is preventing the Falcons from being successful in the air. Before Sunday’s debacle, Ryan was playing his best football since the early stages of the 2018 season. The biggest issue with the aerial attack is that they don’t have wide receivers that can consistently make plays.
Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Christian Blake, and Frank Darby have let down Ryan on numerous occasions, though Blake and Darby have had fewer opportunities. Gage is one of the biggest disappointments on the team following a highly encouraging 2020 season. For him not to catch a single pass in two of the past three games speaks volumes on his issues creating separation. There are also moments where he isn’t making contested catches—the huge hit he took near the goal line against Dallas wasn’t one of them—which is hugely concerning considering how good he was at using his body at the catch point and making difficult grabs in 2020.
The same applies to Zaccheaus, who allowed Anthony Brown to outfight him for the ball for what should have been a straightforward 10-yard completion. At some point, one of these receivers has to start making plays. Ryan can’t be solely dependent on Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson to keep drives going. While Smith will do his best to scheme plays open for them and should be looking for ways to put them in the best possible positions, these wide receivers must improve quickly if the Falcons are going to be competitive against the best teams.
Leaders turned liabilities have to bounce back at linebacker
There is no getting around how much of a disaster the Falcons’ defense is. Only the New York Jets are allowing more points than them per game. Only the Washington Football Team are worse on third downs. Besides Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell, and Jaylinn Hawkins, it’s difficult to pinpoint any players that have greatly elevated their game or playing to the level of an above-average starter.
Two players that have massively underperformed are Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun. It’s been staggering to see two linebackers that possess all the skills you want from off-ball linebackers fail to make a difference during long stretches of games. Jones is struggling more than ever at the point of attack, while his coverage skills aren’t making up for those issues. His performance against Dallas was pitiful, to say the least. Oluokun consistently finds himself out of position on running plays, along with taking poor angles in space.
It’s been extremely disappointing for two expected-to-be leaders to become legitimate liabilities. Dean Pees has to be asking major questions about both players. For all the discussion about them not being potentially utilized properly, they aren’t making fundamental plays you expect from a starting linebacker. They are now facing one of the more punishing running games in the league.
New England’s offensive line led by David Andrews and Shaq Mason has been steamrolling opposing fronts. Running reverses for skill position players like Kendrick Bourne have converted into explosive plays as well. Jones and Oluokun need to be positionally sound and ready for punishment. The bad angles, woeful tackling, and lack of concentration in critical moments will be exploited against one of the most intelligent teams in the league. Both linebackers have to start playing better to help salvage this calamitous defense.
Generating pressure by any means
It’s the same old story when it comes to disrupting quarterbacks. The Falcons’ inability to produce sacks has gotten to the point where individual players have more sacks than their entire team. This was an uninspiring unit going into the season. The hope was that Pees’ chaotic blitzes would elevate the unit, along with one or two players emerging. Neither of those wishes has come to fruition.
Outside of James Vaughters’ strip-sack on Taylor Siemian, it’s hard to recall the last time a Falcons’ edge rusher made an impressive individual play. The interior isn’t adding much either, with Marlon Davidson failing to make any significant strides thus far in his second year. As Smith stated after the loss to Dallas, “you’ve got to find about people”. That’s what the approach has become when it comes to finding long-term fits on the defensive line, and it’s unclear whether this team has found anyone.
Pees will have to shoulder some of the responsibility for how ineffective the pass rush has been. His blitzes have been lethargic for most of the season, and opposing teams have neutralized them rather easily. Outside of wins against the Jets and Dolphins, there haven’t been many moments where quarterbacks were disrupted by his blitzes.
As much as he wants Dante Fowler to be “the player we think he can be”, he’s going to need to improve as a play-caller because his blitzes aren’t cutting it from a production standpoint. Designing more twists with his front four to disrupt offenses could be beneficial, particularly against a rookie quarterback on a short week. It’s evident that the personnel must improve across the board. That doesn’t exclude Pees from the conversation of the Falcons having to make significant adjustments to generate more pressure.
Understanding the situation and working around limitations
As with any team that has a losing record, the head coach will be scrutinized. It doesn’t matter how bad the roster is. It doesn’t matter how little money the team has to work with. If the head coach doesn’t handle a situation properly, he will receive immediate criticism. Smith has had his fair share of blunders. What has been the most concerning is maintaining his aggression. Everyone wants their head coach to be aggressive. While Smith is that type of head coach, he can go overboard with his decision-making, such as going for it on fourth and seven in the first quarter against Dallas. To make matters worse, his play call was as simplistic as it gets with three plays running vertical routes downfield. It’s rare for Smith to call something so bland and unimaginative. He did it at the worst possible time.
It’s not only situational management Smith has to get a better handle on. He needs to understand his personnel better outside of his unique, prolific duo in Pitts and Patterson. As defenses amp up playing more man coverage, Smith will have to find answers. The Athletic’s Josh Kendall pointed out the Falcons are only averaging 4.7 yards per play against man coverage, compared to averaging a yard more at 5.9 against zone coverage. Opposing defenses are confident they can lock up the Falcons’ skill position players. Smith needs to help those players more in giving them higher percentage chances to get the ball in advantageous positions. New England won’t hesitate to plan man coverage with their stellar secondary. If the Falcons don’t have schematic solutions, it’s going to be the second miserable game for Ryan in five days.