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Crossroads Roundtable: Where is it going wrong for the Falcons?

After falling short in Washington, the staff looks at the latest biggest issues plaguing the Falcons in the team’s quest to surpass Tampa Bay at the top of the division.

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Atlanta Falcons v Washington Commanders Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Losing winnable games at the last minute is always going to lead to the dissection of one or two plays that decided the game. The Falcons’ loss to Washington exemplifies it, as a deflection at the line of scrimmage turned what could have been a game-winning touchdown into a potential season-altering interception.

Instead of breaking down every aspect of Marcus Mariota’s interception in the red zone, it’s better to focus on the overall landscape of the Falcons. They have only put together one all-around good performance since their statement win over San Francisco. That came against a Chicago team in clear rebuilding mode. The Falcons have been stumbling going into December. It’s time to get into some of these major issues and questions going into a pivotal game against Pittsburgh.

William McFadden, Everett Glaze, and Aaron Freeman will be joining me for this discussion. There have been two roundtables so far this season in September and October, which can be read here.

For all his outstanding work in helping build a formidable running game in Atlanta, how much does Arthur Smith deserve blame for his insistence on sticking with Marcus Mariota going into December, considering how poor the passing game has been for weeks?

Aaron Freeman: It may be semantics, but “blame” seems like too strong a word. I certainly think it’s fair to criticize Smith’s decision to stick with Marcus Mariota, as I have in recent weeks. But to “blame” him suggests he’s at fault for something going wrong, and it is hard to say it has. The passing game hasn’t evolved to any major degree in recent weeks, but there have been small signs of progress. Yet it’s hard to say with any conviction that things would be different today had Desmond Ridder been pressed into duty than they are currently under Mariota.

However, the bulk of my criticism is less about this year than the future of the Atlanta Falcons. For obvious reasons, it is in the team’s best interest to find a franchise quarterback. Currently, developing Ridder appears to be their best option on that front. Therefore my main criticism of Smith is that starting Ridder and letting him take his lumps would potentially be beneficial for the team’s long-term future. They are outweighing any short-term hopes that Mariota must keep the team competitive and in playoff contention. But Smith and his coaching staff are in the business of winning football games, therefore, he may balance those scales very differently from the rest of us.

Allen Strk: When the same problems are happening every week and action isn’t being taken to address them, there has to be accountability taken. The notion that Mariota is still the starter because he gives the Falcons the best chance to win is difficult to process. Mariota has done far more to put the team in losing positions rather than winning games. Considering the roster has an intriguing prospect behind him, the decision not to play the hotshot rookie quarterback is baffling.

Smith deserves considerable blame for not being decisive in starting Ridder. There were multiple opportunities to make the necessary switch in November, yet here the Falcons are losing games by not scoring enough points. They can’t find any consistency in the air. It translates into them being hopeless on third and long. It puts added pressure on an already overmatched offensive line to block for a quarterback who panics in the pocket and runs into pressure. The onus must fall on Smith for not moving promptly to inject a spark into a one-dimensional offense.

William McFadden: I don’t blame him at all. Arthur Smith is better equipped than anyone having this discussion to judge his quarterback situation because he has seen every single snap that Ridder has taken in his professional career and probably most of college as well.

Tired of the one in their hand, fans want to see if there really are two birds in that bush. Smith knows what he’s working with. He also has a greater incentive than anyone to field the best team. This is exactly what I think he’s doing, and he’s told us all along what he’s going to do. As long as the team is in playoff contention, Mariota will be the starter.

Everett Glaze: The blame is 100% on Smith’s shoulders regarding his insistence on staying with Mariota. He is not ignorant of Mariota’s limitations in the passing game, yet that hasn’t stopped him from moving forward. However, he seems fine with taking that blame because this team is amazingly still in the playoff hunt.

I have been one of many that have clamored to see Ridder take some snaps due to the prospect that he gives you more as a passer than Mariota does right now. That being stated, I understand Smith is sticking with Mariota while the team is still in the playoff hunt for continuity reasons.

Is there anything, in particular, Drake London is struggling with, or does the lack of production stem from the state of the quarterback play?

Aaron Freeman: The two issues are related. I’ve seen a few too many instances in recent weeks where London didn’t finish a route by settling when Mariota didn’t expect him to or failing to cross a defender’s face. However, it does feel like those issues stem from both the receiver and quarterback not being on the same page, and trust is often a two-way street. Whether it’s London or Kyle Pitts, it has often felt like the rapport between Mariota and the team’s top receiving options simply hasn’t advanced much since opening day.

Allen Strk: When watching every London catch this season, it appears more times than not that he needs to make a difficult adjustment to do it. Mariota’s below-average accuracy and inability to push the ball downfield severely limits his capabilities. When he’s receiving under five targets for the second consecutive game, the first-round rookie is working with scraps. He had to make a remarkable play to catch a ball low on a play that should have been a standard completion against Washington. It was one of his two catches.

London has made a few mistakes, like the horrendous fumble against the Chargers and nearly causing an interception because he stopped his route against the Bears. That said, no wide receiver can be consistently productive in an offense where they rank second worst in passing yards since Week 9.

William McFadden: I haven’t noticed anything glaring with London. If I had to pinpoint a reason, I’d say it’s mostly due to an offense that infrequently passes and, when it does, usually doesn’t send many players out on routes. Add to that a quarterback who doesn’t force-feed specific receivers, and it leads to sparse production.

The opportunities just haven’t really been there. I thought Atlanta actually opened up its passing game a little bit in its first game without Pitts, so perhaps that can give London a chance to end the year strong.

Everett Glaze: London is actually exactly what I’d thought he’d be coming out of USC. He also is exhibiting the issues I expected as well. He’s not very quick out of his releases and he’s certainly not the type of receiver that you want running nine routes or any long developing routes right now, due to the lack of plus pass protection.

However, the state of quarterback play isn’t helping him either. With a player like London and his toughness, you want to get him a certain amount of opportunities in the slot or as an X WR in short to intermediate routes per game for him to be effective. While he has had a few focus drops, better QB play in the passing game will do more for his overall production.

With Troy Andersen receiving more snaps, how should the coaching staff look to utilize the current starting linebacker rotation?

Aaron Freeman: Between Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker, I have felt that the former has been the weaker link among the starters for most of this season. Thus, if one deserved to be replaced outright by Andersen, it would be Evans, not Walker. Yet, in recent weeks, we’ve also seen Evans take over, wearing the green dot and calling the defense.

Therefore, I think the status quo is perfectly acceptable, with Evans and Walker remaining the starters and Andersen being a part-time player. Any changes should be focused on the specific matchups. In games like against the Chicago Bears, where having another athlete on the field like Andersen is beneficial to the game plan, he deserves to play more.

Allen Strk: Walker’s play has steadily improved over the past month. His rough spell in October, where he was missing tackles, blowing coverage assignments, and non-existent in run defense, seems to be past him. As well as Evans has played at times, his coverage shortcomings and overall lack of range allow opposing offenses to pick up chunk plays without hesitation across the short and intermediate part of the field.

Andersen should play a more enhanced role in nickel to gain a rapport with Walker. That would allow him to hone in on handling a multitude of responsibilities alongside a similarly athletic linebacker. The coaching staff has done well to bring him along slowly. It’s this time of the season when he should be rotating with Evans more and gaining valuable experience.

William McFadden: This all depends on his comfort in the understanding of this scheme, but I think Andersen could be really interesting as a plus-sized utility hybrid. Given his unique traits, I can envision Andersen playing as a third safety, a weakside edge, or on the interior.

It may be a role he is more suited to play next season if the Falcons don’t view him as the heir apparent to Evans, but I think he’s got that type of potential. In the short term, I would keep Evans and Walker as the starters and pick my spots with Andersen.

Everett Glaze: This is such an interesting question because I was actually thinking about it due to Walker looking much better without the green dot. Andersen is still extremely raw, but he’s an elite athlete. Because of that, you can always use a player like him in different personnel groupings or as a blitzer. Plus, Andersen needs all the experience he can get for developmental purposes. It’s obvious that Evans will see his starting time as the signal caller and MIKE linebacker.

However, considering Andersen and Walker could be the future, now is as good a time as any to continue giving both of them as many snaps as possible to determine who will ultimately be the leader and signal caller of the defense going forward. Pees should continue to rotate Walker and Andersen on 1st and 2nd downs and eventually use them exclusively in nickel because, even now, they offer more upside than Evans in coverage.

Do the Falcons’ run defense woes come from primarily bad interior tackle play or is it more of a collective issue defensively?

Aaron Freeman: It’s hard to say that the run defense’s weakness is mainly on the defensive interior’s inferior play. Grady Jarrett and Ta’Quon Graham have been, by far, the team’s most reliable and impactful run defenders this year. Yet, it does feel like a key piece is missing without having more size in the middle. With Graham injured, surrounding Jarrett with journeymen and former undrafted players like Abdullah Anderson, Timmy Horne, and Jaleel Johnson isn’t likely going to lead to significant improvement.

But in the interest of pointing fingers and sharing responsibility, none of the Falcons linebackers have been particularly good against the run this year. The outside linebackers’ collective ability to set the edge has been inconsistent at best. It also doesn’t help that the team is undersized and lacks an enforcer in the safety position. All of these factors contribute collectively to the team’s woes against the run, but it does feel like ultimately fixing this problem starts up front.

Allen Strk: As frustrating as it is to see the organization not sign or trade for a capable starter, it’s not like the current crop of defensive tackles consistently get pushed five yards off the line of scrimmage. Anderson has been a pleasant surprise with his ability to take on blockers and be disruptive. Horne is playing better recently as someone who faces double teams. Neither player should be depended on as a key contributor, but the issues go far deeper when it comes to stopping the run.

The linebackers tend to struggle to play with gap integrity. They don’t take on blocks that well either. The way Ade Ogundeji continues to play significant snaps, despite not doing what he is best at as an edge-setting run defender, has significantly contributed to their woes. The young safeties haven’t been dependable enough in the box. While defensive tackle will be a major need going into the off-season, the lack of talent there isn’t solely responsible for opposing teams running over Pees’ unit.

William McFadden: My biggest issue with Atlanta’s run defense has been tackling at the second level and outside of the tackles. The Falcons have been gashed at times up the middle, but I’m willing to accept that as periodically unavoidable until they find a true space-eater in the middle. Without that, I think the Falcons have done an admirable job holding up on the interior of the defensive line, especially in the face of mounting injuries.

It’s not the highest caliber of play, but the contributions from Anderson and Horne have been more than anyone could have expected. There’s no real excuse for Atlanta’s tackling against the run to still be this big of an issue.

Everett Glaze: There are a few factors that contribute to the run defense woes. I will note that poor tackling collectively has been an Achilles heel for this defense. It should be at the top of what ails this group. However, what happens up front is a big part of it. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that the Falcons released Anthony Rush (who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles) because the depth at DT is just spotty at best.

Outside of Jarrett and Graham, there has been inconsistency. Now that Graham has been put on IR, I don’t see it improving at this rate. Jarrett constantly sees double teams, and gap integrity as a whole up front has been an issue. The hope is that Fontenot recognizes the positional flaw and fully addresses it in free agency next off-season.