As the Atlanta Falcons begin to possibly turn a corner, they fall short in excruciating ways. Losing to Tampa Bay showcased how consistently inconsistent the team has been all season. They can put together two efficient drives before struggling to score for two quarters and eventually turning it up in crunch time to potentially win. If Desmond Ridder isn’t committing errors, then the play design will be the downfall at some point. If the play design looks promising, Ridder struggles to lead his receivers properly and provides the defense better leverage to make plays on the ball.
The loss against Tampa Bay puts enormous pressure on the Falcons with four games left in the season. It’s only fitting to put together a roundtable to get into the biggest talking points from them falling short in a big game and how they can adjust moving forward. Dave Choate, William McFadden, Cory Woodroof, and Aaron Freeman join me to discuss Arthur Smith’s embattled team.
The Falcons had seven consecutive non-scoring drives against Tampa Bay, where they gained fewer than 28 yards on all of them. What is the most glaring issue when assessing what went wrong during such a long stretch?
Allen Strk: Anytime Ridder is dropping back 35 times or more, it’s going to be a cause for concern given his propensity to turn the ball over. When that amount hits 45 times, that’s when the alarm bells get louder. Ridder puts the ball in dangerous areas too often to entrust him with that many pass attempts in what was mostly a one-possession game. As decimated as the offensive line was, Tampa Bay didn’t have their defensive centerpiece in Vita Vea.
The coaching staff didn’t do anywhere near enough to help the offense find a consistent rhythm by not giving the ball enough to their dynamic trio out of the backfield. With the passing game heavily reliant on their three top ten picks to be productive at this point, it’s not a sensible strategy to throw the ball more than 35 times with the lack of quality pass-catching options, with a quarterback who struggles to read coverages and doesn’t throw the ball accurately consistently enough.
Dave Choate: They couldn’t (and wouldn’t) run.
Over the course of those seven drives, the Falcons had:
- #1: One zero yard Bijan Robinson carry
- #2: No carries (because of a safety)
- #3: One zero yard Robinson carry
- #4: One zero yard Tyler Allgeier carry, one eight yard Robinson carry
- #5: No rushing attempts
- #6: No rushing attempts
- #7: One one yard Robinson carry, three Allgeier carries for 11 yards
That’s eight attempts over seven drives for a grand total of 20 yards. The Falcons couldn’t run effectively with their backups in all along the offensive line, and perhaps more importantly, they didn’t really trust that they could. The one-dimensional nature of the offense put extra pressure on Ridder and the passing game to deliver, and thanks to quarterback errors, questionable play calls, and drops and errors of execution from receivers, that simply didn’t work out either. Without the ability to challenge Tampa Bay’s front on the ground, the Falcons were left to rely on the half of the offense that is most inconsistent.
Again, Ridder has his moments on Sunday, but it’s too much to ask him and the passing game more generally to carry the load on their own. If this team cannot run at all, they’re in a rough spot, and we saw that on Sunday.
William McFadden: The Falcons have not been a good first-down offense at all this season. They currently have the fifth-worst success rate on first downs (36.5%), according to rbsdm.com, and it was that aspect of the game that again failed them during this stretch.
Among the memorable first-down miscues was a fumble by Ridder on a zone read pull, a dropped screen pass by Jonnu Smith, and a dropped deep shot to Drake London. Without building any momentum on first down, the Falcons were consistently behind the 8-ball on offense.
Cory Woodroof: It just felt like the entire offense was out of sync. It probably didn’t help to have so many offensive starters out on the line, and that likely limited Arthur Smith’s scheme a good deal.
However, Desmond Ridder also just didn’t play particularly well during that stretch, either. It just all felt like it was out of rhythm.
Aaron Freeman: Some might look at that 29-play stretch and note the lack of balance as the problem due to the Falcons only running nine times. But I had no qualms about leaning on the passing game. Instead, my issue is simply that the passing game failed to execute. There’s no single cause to those problems as that stretch featured many of the issues common to a stagnant passing attack: drops, missed throws, and questionable decisions.
But most of those issues point back to the quarterback. Essentially, the Falcons asked Ridder to be the engine that drove the offense during that stretch of the game, and he ultimately left something to be desired.
Richie Grant has allowed two game-winning plays to tight ends in man coverage this season. How can the Falcons try to contain tight ends, as they’ve struggled all season and lost multiple games because of this issue?
Allen Strk: Since they are insistent on playing more man coverage under Ryan Nielsen, especially in two-minute situations, they simply have to use better personnel in these scenarios. The coaching staff should have considered making major adjustments after Trey McBride torched Grant repeatedly in key moments. Although the former second-round pick played better against the Saints and Jets, it was more for his contributions across the field than thriving in man coverage.
Grant isn’t fluid in coverage and doesn’t challenge tight ends particularly well at the line of scrimmage. While Tre Flowers can struggle on vertical routes, he is a physical presence who doesn’t shy away from disrupting tight ends at the line of scrimmage. His ability to cover inside could be a valuable asset. DeMarcco Hellams could be an option as well, although his cover bust on a crucial third down on Tampa Bay’s game-winning drive could give the coaching staff some trepidation about inserting more responsibility on his plate. Playing more zone could be the best option. If not, it’s time to give Hellams or Flowers more opportunities on obvious pass plays.
Dave Choate: I don’t want to sound cute here, but it starts with not asking Richie Grant to cover tight ends.
Grant has had his big moments as a playmaker and remains an effective player closer to the line of scrimmage, but the coverage statistics speak for themselves. He has surrendered the seventh-highest number of yards among all NFL safeties, and is tied for third in terms of touchdowns allowed. Add in the highest number of missed tackles among NFL safeties and you have a recipe for a player who should not be asked to consistently handle critical down and situation coverage responsibilities against players who are difficult for him to handle.
It might behoove Atlanta to roll out Jeff Okudah and Flowers more frequently as options against tight ends, taking Grant off the field entirely in the red zone and on critical third downs in favor of three or four cornerbacks. Remember that Flowers has played safety in the past, as well, and fared pretty well against tight ends.
Otherwise, the unsatisfying answer is that they need better from Grant and everyone else they’re lining up against tight ends, and that will have to happen organically and quickly. This team still has to face a handful of useful tight ends the rest of the way, and I don’t think they can afford to lose another game because a tight end caught a go-ahead touchdown or a critical deep pass.
William McFadden: I feel for Grant a little bit while also still reserving the right to say that he can’t afford to continue to let this happen. The reason I cut Grant a little bit of slack is because he actually defended it the way you’d want him to (outside of giving up leverage), but he stays right in Cade Otton’s hip pocket and plays right through his hands. Otton just makes a great play. My biggest gripe on this specific play is with Hellams.
He’s the deep safety on the play and does not move off his spot an inch. There’s no over-the-top support for Grant on that play, and I feel like there should have been, even in the red zone. Hellams was essentially a wasted body on the play when he was in range to assist. This is still a young team in some key areas, and that’s part of these mistakes.
Cory Woodroof: Tre Flowers entered the building with a calling card for covering tight ends, so perhaps he could help? Grant is just a massive liability while playing on tight ends right now, and the team is going to have to work harder to scheme around that, or these types of plays will keep happening. You could see the team upgrading his spot in the offseason as a hopeful long-term fix.
Aaron Freeman: Ultimately, the long-term solution for the Falcons’ inability to cover tight ends will likely involve investing in upgrades at both linebacker and safety this offseason. But in the short term, they can probably try and get Flowers more involved in their dime looks.
Flowers specialized in covering tight ends the past two years with the Cincinnati Bengals and was at least competent. And right now, competence appears to be preferable to what Grant has been.
Should Kaden Elliss be considered one of the more valuable defensive players on the roster following his recent surge?
Allen Strk: Consistency goes a long way in proving your value. How frequently Elliss shoots in gaps to make stops in the backfield, takes on blocks to disrupt runs, and remains positionally disciplined in coverage makes him a well-rounded force at linebacker. His rise has been hugely impressive following Grady Jarrett’s season-ending injury. There was plenty of discussion about his versatility when joining the Falcons. It’s his reliability and intelligence that makes him truly stand out.
Elliss has only missed eight tackles on 857 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. He knows how to time his blitzes and set up favorable angles for his teammates to collapse the pocket. Despite not being that rangy, he makes up for it in coverage by identifying concepts and using his body wisely to shut down potential passing windows. Elliss did it all against Tampa Bay, which was vital with Nate Landman injured. He’s one of the more valuable defensive players on the roster.
Dave Choate: Yes, because he’s generally been at least solid and dependable, and has added a well-rounded game. Elliss is not a masterful coverage option, but as Allen notes above, he rarely misses tackles, is extremely useful against the run, and has his utility as a pass rusher when he’s asked to play that role. As the defense increasingly suffers injuries and some lapses up front and in the secondary late marred a good day from the unit, having a player like Elliss who is going to deliver you a full complement of quality snaps every Sunday is a big, big deal.
With more in front of him next year—and make no mistake, the Falcons will prioritize upgrading and infusing youth into this defensive line—I expect him to be even better. There’s little question he has been one of the team’s more reliable and valuable defenders, either way.
William McFadden: Yes. Absolutely. Elliss does a little bit of everything on the field for the Falcons’ defense. He’s really the only other player besides Jessie Bates that I think you can say that about at this particular moment. He does give up some plays in coverage, but he also makes some plays in that area.
Where he’s shining is as a gap-penetrating run defender and pass rusher. He doesn’t have gaudy rush statistics, but he moves guys off their spots and stuffs players in the hole. He’s probably the most underrated defender right now.
Cory Woodroof: It feels like he should. He’s been excellent in the second half of the season, and he’s keeping that linebackers’ room steady right now through all the injuries. He’s the unsung hero of that defense still playing well right now.
Aaron Freeman: Yes. He should have been considered that all year long. His best asset is his pass-rushing ability, which the Falcons have been able to feature a bit more in recent weeks, but he’s proven himself more than capable as a run defender and coverage player.
Which lineman is most missed from all the current injured starters on the offensive line?
Allen Strk: As well as the backups fared, they will face far more formidable tests than Tampa Bay’s languishing front four. Tyler Vrabel’s lack of experience makes Jake Matthews the most valuable of the three injured starters. It’s not as if Matthews has greatly outplayed Drew Dalman or Kaleb McGary this season. This is purely based on personnel and positional value.
When pressure was generated from Tampa Bay or runs failed to gain many positive yards, it usually came from or directed to the left side. Some of it can be attributed to Matthew Bergeron’s indifferent showing, while Chris Lindstrom had one of his better games of the season. Vrabel did look a bit overwhelmed at times, which is completely understandable for such an inexperienced player. Storm Norton has started games. Ryan Neuzil has played snaps before and looked competent. Vrabel is relatively unknown, outside of being Mike Vrabel’s son, which makes Matthews more valuable. The possibility of Brian Burns lining up against Vrabel would be catastrophic.
Dave Choate: I think given what this team wants to do and given that he may miss multiple weeks, you have to go to McGary here. He has been a deeply frustrating player in pass protection at times this year, but I’ve also felt like McGary has made his strides there as the season has worn on, something backed up by his Pro Football Focus grades over the past several weeks. As a run blocker, McGary is one of the better tackles in football, and the Falcons simply have more success running behind him and Lindstrom than they do trying to go left.
It sounds as though Matthews, Dalman, and Lindstrom will all be back in action next Sunday and McGary could miss another week, and we’ve now seen that Norton is useful in pass protection but a pale shade of McGary in terms of opening up lanes for Atlanta’s vital ground game. I wouldn’t have said this at the beginning of the season, but the Falcons badly need McGary back in action.
William McFadden: It’s Matthews for me. I know a few Falcons fans who are so ready for Matthews to no longer suit up for this organization, and I think that’s wild. Again, no team has 22 perfect starters. People are going to mess up. Having a left tackle who is as balanced as a run blocker and pass protector for as long as Matthews has been while staying healthy is such a massive positive.
Remember what came before Matthews? Several seasons of Sam Baker, whose best moments were basically what you get from Matthews as a baseline, and a massive injury question mark at the position. When the game gets going, Matthews’ experience is a huge boost to this unit. If he does miss time, his absence will be felt.
Cory Woodroof: McGary gets a lot of criticism, but what he provides in the run game is vital. He will always be an inconsistent pass protector, but his run-blocking helps this offense succeed. Not being in there limits what they can do on the ground. Obviously, if Matthews actually misses this upcoming Panthers game, it’s him in a heartbeat, though.
Aaron Freeman: Matthews is the answer. Vrabel stepped in and performed reasonably well vs. the Bucs, but the Falcons’ protections hinge on Matthews’ ability to hold up on an island. And should Vrabel start this week versus the Panthers, Burns is a much harder challenge than Bucs rookie Yaya Diaby. And while Matthews’ run blocking isn’t elite, he’s much better there than Vrabel was against Tampa Bay.