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A holiday roundtable: Where did it go wrong for the Falcons and how do they learn from it?

After having their playoff dreams get squashed in San Francisco, the Falcons are back in a familiar place with three games to go. They have to find solutions to their biggest problems and start looking toward next season.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

As Christmas approaches, the holiday spirit is needed in Atlanta. The brief playoff buzz is gone following a shambolic performance in San Francisco. After allowing several long-scoring drives and letting Matt Ryan get hit frequently, the Falcons had to face a harsh reality check. They simply don’t belong on the same football field as the upper echelon in the NFL.

Besides two inspiring showings against Tampa Bay, Arthur Smith’s team has looked completely overmatched in big matchups against New England, Dallas, and now San Francisco.

The sights are set toward 2022 now. With three games left, the time is right for another roundtable discussion. My colleagues Aaron Freeman, William McFadden, and Kevin Knight are joining me to assess the biggest talking points coming out of last week’s discouraging defeat and what to watch for during the remainder of the season.

What was the most glaring issue behind the Falcons’ red zone debacle in San Francisco?

William McFadden: I think the Falcons’ lack of willingness to even attempt to run the ball inside was the most disappointing part of it all. Outside of Matt Ryan’s hurry-up quarterback sneak in the second half did the Falcons, to my knowledge, attempt a true run up the middle while deep in San Francisco’s territory. That can be understood given the way the 49ers’ defense played on Sunday, but it also indicates the team didn’t expect to move the line of scrimmage on the interior.

With 18 plays inside of the opponent’s 15-yard line and no touchdowns, the ability to win matchups in the closest of quarters comes into question. Against good football teams, that is always a potentially fatal flaw.

Aaron Freeman: The Falcons’ red-zone issues stemmed both from a lack of execution and questionable play-calling. The lack of execution was most glaring in the third quarter when the team was forced to settle for a field goal thanks to a missed block by Jalen Mayfield, causing Matt Ryan to miss an opportunity to hit a wide-open Tajae Sharpe in the end zone.

Then you have the questionable play-calling in the fourth quarter, where Arthur Smith made the very questionable decision to call a crack toss on fourth and one rather than, say, a quarterback sneak.

Allen Strk: Arthur Smith can be criticized for a multitude of unsuccessful plays. To have Kyle Pitts blocking as Lee Smith tries to post up a defensive back to catch a pass in the end zone was baffling. Running an empty set on 4th and goal at the one-yard line to set up an awkward rub route concept for Pitts that ended up being incomplete was nonsensical.

Not using Mike Davis in any short-yardage scenarios was another frustrating aspect of their struggles. Smith has to be held accountable for these decisions. For all that, the offensive line is severely hindering this offense. They have failed to get much sustainable push upfront or seal blocks on the outside. For all the major investments across the offensive line, it’s still one of the worst units in the league. Smith desperately needs to reassess his strategy in the red zone, but there is only so much he can change with an overmatched offensive line.

Kevin Knight: Outside of the officiating on the first drive, the biggest issue in the red zone has consistently been the offensive line’s performance. While the run blocking has generally been serviceable, it was especially poor against San Francisco.

The pass protection, as always, was very bad—so bad that Ryan didn’t even have time to complete a quick-hitter to Tajae Sharpe that would’ve been an easy TD. Arthur Smith certainly didn’t have a great day as a play-caller, but the offensive line is forcing him towards limiting his playbook.

Does Dean Pees warrant more criticism for the lack of pressure, or is the defensive line primarily at fault for quarterbacks being comfortable in the pocket?

William McFadden: Against a run offense as demanding as what San Francisco has, it’s extremely difficult to consistently play man coverage. With so much motion in the backfield, the coverage defenders need to be keeping their eyes in the backfield and not on individual receivers. Unfortunately, that takes away a lot of the variety the Falcons like to deploy on defense. Better man-coverage matchups OR a pass rush good enough to let the defense play press-bail would have allowed Atlanta to do more.

Aaron Freeman: The lack of pressure falls mainly on the lack of talent upfront. However, Pees deserves some criticism for not being as aggressive at times calling blitzes when the team deploys zone coverages. Throughout the 2020 season, we saw defensive coordinator/interim head coach Raheem Morris repeatedly throw caution to the wind by dialing up five and six-man pressure packages when utilizing zone coverages.

Pees has been reluctant to do that, typically relying on four-man pressure concepts by dropping an edge defender and replacing him with pressure from a linebacker or cornerback. However, in Pees’ defense, the 2020 unit led by Morris had a much more dynamic and explosive offense. Morris could be more aggressive blitzing because he could have more confidence that his offense could bail him out if the team gave up a big play, which they did more frequently than this 2021 version.

Pees has to be more cautious because the inconsistencies and the lack of dynamism on offense mean that every defensive mistake will get magnified. So it feels unfair to place too much blame at Pees’ feet.

Allen Strk: There were moments in other games where Pees could have done more to dial up pressure. For last Sunday’s game and the majority of this season, the lack of pressure falls strictly on the defensive line. Watching Steven Means haplessly try to bullrush Trent Williams is a prime example of how little the Falcons have upfront. A player like Means shouldn’t be playing 45-50 snaps a game. Yet, due to cap constraints and poor talent judgment, he is doing all he can to make a positive contribution.

Pees can only do so much to compensate for the lack of talent. There are problems you can have with Pees in regards to his coverage alignments and personnel usage. The lack of pressure shouldn’t fall on him. Expecting him to create 2-3 sacks a week by pure design was a pipe dream. The Falcons have to start fresh with a new plan upfront in 2022.

Kevin Knight: I don’t blame Dean Pees for the lack of pressure. I blame the personnel. Obviously, some of that has to do with the decisions this offseason and the failure to bring in a single impact pass rusher. The biggest addition was Ade Ogundeji, who was a late day-three selection. Pees has tried to scheme up pressure in creative ways with blitzes. It’s worked against some of the younger quarterbacks and weaker offensive lines the Falcons have faced. Good offenses have easily avoided the pressure, and it’s shown on the scoreboard. Atlanta’s defense looks to be in good hands with Pees—it’s a miracle they aren’t the worst in the league because they might be the least talented roster overall. They just need a massive talent infusion, particularly on the defensive line.

How surprising is Russell Gage’s late-season explosion?

William McFadden: His story is a little underrated. I remember some confusion between a colleague and myself as to what position he would play when he was drafted in the 6th round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and he’s provided a definitive answer - He can do it all. Primarily a special teams player as a rookie, it was Falcons receivers coach Dave Brock whom Dan Quinn credits with seeing potential in Gage as a receiver.

Gage got a late-season run as a slot receiver in 2019 before posting his best year in 2020 with 72 catches for 786 yards and four touchdowns. He’s done nothing but ascend throughout his career, and now that he’s finally healthy and seemingly in-tune with the offense, I think he can thrive.

Aaron Freeman: Since being blanked for the third time this season against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10, Gage has caught 34 passes for 396 yards and two scores in the past five games. Obviously, the absence of Calvin Ridley has formed him to be the team’s primary breadwinner at the receiver position. But it’s impressive that the two next most used receivers for the Falcon during that five-week span in Kyle Pitts and Mike Davis have combined for just 33 catches for 365 yards and no touchdowns.

So Gage is by far the team’s best current receiving option, and that deserves kudos. He showed his ability to win one-on-one outside in Week 15 on a couple of go balls, where Ryan saw single-high man coverage presnap and had enough confidence in Gage to throw it up and let him make a play. In the past, that has been a level of confidence reserved solely to go-to options like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Ridley, and Pitts. Where defenses were made to pay when they dared to single them up on the outside with no safety help over the top. That doesn’t mean that Gage is quite on their levels, nor should he be considered a true No. 1 receiver, but it’s a testament that at least on a handful of plays against the 49ers, he performed like one.

Allen Strk: Gage has been a player I’ve highly rated for some time now. Before the season, I wrote a feature on his overall development as a wide receiver. There were high expectations of him going into the season as one of the few proven playmakers on the roster. His production in recent games isn’t surprising at all.

What was surprising was how long it took for him to start being productive. Injuries and offensive instability did limit him, but there is no way a starting wide receiver should go multiple games without catching a pass when his team is losing for most of the game. Gage is too crafty as a route-runner, too dangerous after the catch, and too strong at the point of attack to be ostracized out of games. Besides Cordarelle Patterson, there hasn’t been a more consistent offensive player on the roster than Gage over the past month. He single-handily lifted the Falcons in not getting completely embarrassed by the 49ers.

His ability to make contested catches in man coverage and spatial awareness in the open field makes him a threat at all times. There are no more surprises with Gage. It was proven he can play at a high-level last season. This type of production has been long overdue this season.

Kevin Knight: Actually not that surprising to me. I was more surprised by Gage’s slow start, to be honest. Obviously, none of us expected Gage to have to shoulder the load as a number one wide receiver. But he’s really impressed over the past month and looks to be making himself some significant money this offseason. The fact that he’s been able to take on the primary role, with basically nothing else around him outside of Pitts and Patterson, really does demonstrate his ability as a number two wide receiver in the right system. I’m skeptical Atlanta ends up paying him simply because Arthur Smith has preferred 12 personnel packages to 11 in the past, but he’s been forced to be more flexible this year.

Where do Deion Jones’ biggest problems lie as a linebacker?

William McFadden: To me, this is a scheme fit issue rather than Deion Jones suddenly forgetting how to play. He is still an excellent football player, but when was the last time Dean Pees had a player truly in the mold of Jones? In Dan Quinn’s defense, the Falcons really liked to keep him free to roam the middle of the field as the middle linebacker. This allowed him to match up and neutralize opposing running backs as receivers.

With that coverage assignment, Jones could also afford to play downhill against the run and simply pivot with the back on any play-action fakes. Jones didn’t play too many deep zones in Quinn’s scheme either, but he’s now guarding tight ends and receivers in deep zones. As one of two second-level linebackers, Jones still looks talented, it just seems like his talents are misplaced.

Aaron Freeman: Jones has always been a question mark when it comes to being a downhill run-defender. Taking on and disengaging from blocks and being a physical tackler in traffic has been something that has never been considered a strength of his going back to his days at LSU. Where Jones has shined is in his ability to show elite range sideline to sideline, often showcase when chasing down screens, and to be a lockdown coverage linebacker, especially when he’s going up against running backs.

But in the Pees’ scheme, he hasn’t been really asked to do those things, and when he has, he has been all-too-often overaggressive and out of position on screen passes.

Allen Strk: It’s evident that Pees’ defense doesn’t bring the best out of Jones. There aren’t many instances where Jones gets to cover running backs or utilize his range to make plays across the field. That said, he is making far too many mistakes for a player of his caliber. The frequent missed tackles in the open field, inability to diagnose passing plays and make plays on the ball in zone coverage, and poor angles in run pursuit are issues Jones didn’t have in 2017-2018.

How he is suddenly on the receiving end of numerous touchdowns is a troubling sign for a player that used to erase potential-scoring plays in the red zone. The scheme clearly isn’t a great fit for him, but it also exposes his biggest flaw. Jones isn’t the versatile, flexible linebacker coaches envisioned him to be after his breakout rookie season. He is someone that might want to join the Cowboys, Rams, or Jets to be back in a position that suits his particular skillset as an off-ball linebacker.

Kevin Knight: Deion Jones is a linebacker made for a specific system, and he needs to be protected to thrive in that role. His weaknesses are his lack of size and physicality as a run defender, and he’s been exposed quite a bit this season. Jones cannot take on blocks head-on, and he’ll struggle to bring down bigger runners with a head of steam.

His ability in coverage, his range as a run-and-chase tackler, and his blitzing are all terrific positive attributes. I view Jones as a great piece on a complete defense that can allow him to play to his strengths. With a bad defensive line in front of him in Atlanta, it’s been difficult for him to be productive. I think Jones will still have significant interest on the trade market for defenses that really need a rangy coverage linebacker and have the defensive line in place ahead of them.

With three games to go, what should fans be watching and hoping for the most?

William McFadden: I don’t think it’s unfair for fans to hope for three straight wins. Of the big dogs this year, Buffalo has been the most susceptible, and it would still be a huge win for the culture in Atlanta late in the year. As for what to watch for - Kyle Pitts to establish himself in the offense as the No. 1 option, it needs to happen.

Aaron Freeman: Drumming up excitement for these last three games will be difficult, but if there’s anything worth paying attention to, I think it is keeping an eye on this 2021 draft class. Seeing how those players perform and finish the season could go a long way to determining what types of roles each of these players could have in 2022, which could go a long way to determining how the team plans to attack their needs and weaknesses entering the offseason.

Whether players like Richie Grant, Darren Hall, and Jalen Mayfield can be counted upon and entrusted to be starters next season will be key. Because if not, that’s potentially up to three more starting positions the Falcons are going to have to fill this spring, and they already have a plethora of other needs and sore spots that need to be addressed.

Allen Strk: The Falcons are playing three highly inspired, competitive teams to end the season. All three teams are capable of embarrassing them. What to watch for has to be if they can play better in the trenches. Kaleb McGary, Jalen Mayfield, Tyeler Davison, and Steven Means are a few of several players that can be easily replaced in the starting lineup in 2022. Both lines have to drastically improve to relieve pressure off Matt Ryan and a young secondary.

Whether Drew Dalman or Anthony Rush get more reps, both lines desperately need something different after what has been a disastrous season across the board. For the fans, it would be refreshing to see the team win a home game in Atlanta. Losing to a two-win team and their most bitter rival to cap off a winless season in their home stadium would leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Kevin Knight: I’d be hoping to see two more wins on the season. The Falcons should defeat the Lions, and a sweep over the Saints would really help Arthur Smith’s street cred with the fans. Mostly, you’d like to see growth from Matt Hennessy and Jalen Mayfield. At this point, I’m not sure Mayfield could do enough to secure a starting spot for 2022. But Hennessy’s continued improvement would help the team tremendously in terms of resource allocation this offseason. The play of the young secondary players will also be important: can Richie Grant, Darren Hall, and Jaylinn Hawkins be trusted to start next year? Any players who can step up and make cases for expanded roles will be significant.