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Pass protection woes and adjustments setbacks prove costly for Falcons

One loss shouldn’t derail a season, but major concerns are coming out of Atlanta’s one-sided defeat in Detroit.

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Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Building a team identity takes full belief from the entire organization and consistent results on the field to really take root. If the team all starts moving in the same direction to execute what they specialize in, they can begin setting higher expectations in terms of what they expect to achieve. That’s where the Falcons stood going into 2023.

While they didn’t consistently win games in 2022, the steady progress as a punishing run-first team indicated the type of identity Arthur Smith began to shape in Atlanta. Specific game plans around that strength were devised to impose their will on opposing defenses, regardless of the limitations across the roster. Smith’s ideas worked more times than not, which made the off-season’s infusion of talent create legitimate buzz about the direction of the franchise for the first time since 2018.

The excitement was justified with two early-season wins, but questions did linger about the state of what was supposed to be a formidable offensive line on paper. Struggling to convert third downs also raised eyebrows, considering the significant investment in making the offense prolific. The uneasiness about pass protection and offensive execution in critical moments transpired into a complete meltdown in their first road test of the season within a hostile environment.

The Falcons were bullied in the trenches. Passing the ball downfield proved to be an insurmountable task. Attempting to operate without an efficient running game turned into a catastrophic event for a team that used two top-ten picks on pass catchers.

Offensive line left in shambles

The offensive line has easily been the team’s biggest disappointment so far this season. For as well as they wore down Carolina and Green Bay on the ground, there were still more pass protection mistakes than to be expected from a unit filled with highly-regarded talent. Those errors converted into a complete annihilation against a Detroit defensive front that produced one sack in its first two games, which includes none against a Seattle team missing two of their starting tackles in Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas.

There were communication issues between Matthew Bergeron and Drew Dalman. There were multiple sacks allowed on play action concepts, which were designed to give Desmond Ridder ample time to make the right read in the pocket. Sacks that never should have occurred ruined drives. Some sacks just materialized due to the current state of the offensive line.

Kaleb McGary’s deficiencies in pass protection continue to be problematic, as the beleaguered right tackle allows edge rushers to bend past him to generate instant pressure. Detroit didn’t need to isolate rising star Aiden Hutchinson against him. Players like Derrick Barnes and Charles Harris had their way with McGary. Instead of having him rush primarily off the edge, Hutchinson occasionally shifted inside on passing downs and tore apart Bergeron, who had his second straight rough game. Jake Matthews eventually felt Hutchinson’s wrath, allowing a sack off a vicious inside spin move.

According to Pro Football Focus, the offensive line was responsible for five sacks, two hits, and 11 hurries. That isn’t the only significant aspect of their woeful performance. Only having three successful runs on 19 designed rushing attempts must be highlighted. The Falcons didn’t run the ball effectively because of a negative game script. They didn’t get going on the ground because Detroit’s defense was well-organized, disciplined, explosive, and stronger coming off the line of scrimmage.

Chris Lindstrom hasn’t had anywhere near the same run-blocking impact he had last year so far this season. His missed a cut block on a questionable third-and-six play call by Arthur Smith that prevented the run from gaining much yardage. Bergeron and Dalman struggled with run-blocking assignments, as well. For the offensive line to get dominated in all aspects within the trenches in a big game environment leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth after all the progress made last season. The same can be said about the coaching staff struggling to adapt when they can’t depend on their biggest asset.

No adjustments, no answers

While there are severe difficulties in attempting to put together scoring drives with an overwhelmed offensive line, the coaching staff seemed thoroughly outcoached in Detroit. Averaging 2.8 yards per play takes a complete team breakdown. As Detroit lost multiple starters on the offensive line and was even reduced to their third-string right tackle Colby Sorsdal at one point, they prioritized masking those issues. Once Bud Dupree bullied past him to nearly force a strip-sack on Jared Goff, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson made sure to provide support by having Craig Reynolds chip him on the next play. He gave Sorsdal the necessary support to continue running his effective game plan.

Meanwhile, Atlanta failed to set their protections to give Bergeron support against Hutchinson on crucial third downs. Once Desmond Ridder was clearly rattled, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn cranked up the pressure and capitalized on the Falcons refusing to provide much in the way of additional support and believing in five-man protections that rarely kept a clean pocket.

For the second time this season, the Falcons only converted one of their first ten third downs. They were forced into third-and-long situations often. Ridder’s ball placement was inconsistent, which is somewhat understandable given the amount of punishment he endured. When he was accurate, Detroit had a physical response, jarring well-thrown balls to Jonnu Smith and Mack Hollins loose. When Arthur Smith attempted to get creative, Detroit diagnosed the sluggish, predictable designs and crushed them, led by standout rookie Brian Branch, who made countless open-field tackles. Branch spoke candidly about the importance of stopping Atlanta’s ground game and affecting their rhythm.

There were no schemed-up openings on passing plays. They couldn’t produce easy chunk plays off play action. It was a one-sided contest. As helpless as the Falcons’ offense was in the trenches, it was perplexing how much more well-prepared Detroit’s defense was. A team with playoff aspirations shouldn’t be that overmatched in a big game, yet a team with some of the most dynamic playmakers in the league couldn’t get into the red zone until five minutes left in the game.

That is the ultimate indictment on the coaching staff, which has to quickly learn how to adapt when the running game isn’t necessarily flowing as anticipated. While players like Kyle Pitts must step up (the missed deep post play in the first quarter was more on him than Ridder), there must be a greater emphasis on devising and executing coverage-breaking play designs to produce big-play opportunities. They can’t be so condensed like they were against Detroit. The lack of spacing has been apparent at times during Smith’s tenure.

Looking ahead

One loss doesn’t mean the sky is falling. This offense was going to be a work in progress to start the season. An extremely well-coached, unified team like Detroit will be difficult to beat, especially with the home advantage they are now receiving from their overjoyed fan base. The Falcons were going to take lumps, and now they have.

What can’t be ignored is one of the expected biggest strengths of the team faltering in a such a grueling manner. The offensive line must step up their game collectively. To see the offensive coaching staff fail to come up with solutions that worked in a mostly competitive game was disheartening. They have to learn how to adapt if Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier can’t get going on the ground.

If both can be addressed and improved upon while the team continues to polish its other rough areas, this loss will only be remembered as a minor setback rather than an early sign of downfall in a season meant to be one showcasing genuine growth.