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No hiding from reality in Chicago for underachieving Falcons

A humbling defeat to end a hugely disappointing 2023 leaves Atlanta searching for hope going into the new year. Hope that goes far beyond somehow winning the NFC South.

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Atlanta Falcons v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

As reports began to surface of Arthur Smith’s status being safe going into 2024, one of the most dreadful performances of the season couldn’t have come at a worse time for the embattled head coach. Although the one-sided defeat to Chicago was more due to personnel shortcomings than coaching blunders, the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff and front office made those decisions in those key positional areas. They also failed to make credible adjustments after being considerably outplayed in the first half.

Losing that definitively against a team you expect to beat must be alarming for Arthur Blank, as time is quickly approaching for his big decision to be made on a head coaching change. As well as they played against the Colts and still have the slight possibility of winning this appalling NFC South division, it’s essential to look at the bigger picture. With anything in life, there has to be a greater outlook on what can be done beyond the upcoming challenge.

What has the past year shown to remain confident and committed to the primary leader’s vision? There are clear reasons to be down on this team’s overall performance after sixteen games. It starts with a total missed evaluation at the quarterback position.

A Deep Downfall

For all the horrendous turnovers, frustrating overthrows, and poor misreads in coverage by Desmond Ridder, the worst quarterback performance of the season took place in Chicago. Taylor Heincke had a plethora of throws that either resulted in turnovers or hit defenders in the hands and somehow didn’t get punished. If he wasn’t making costly mistakes, he was overthrowing receivers or not identifying open pass catchers.

No play summed up his performance better than Drake London and Kyle Pitts not knowing the pre-snap adjustment and waving to Heinicke to give them the information on what play was being run. The veteran quarterback didn’t recognize their pleas and ended up hiking it without either player knowing what route to run. The play ends in him overthrowing an open Van Jefferson for the second consecutive week on what should have been a 24-yard touchdown.

From missing Pitts to Scotty Miller downfield for what would have been explosive plays, it was a total abomination from a quarterback who was supposedly one of the top backups in the league. Heinicke didn’t look like he should have been on the field based on his decision-making and inability to read coverages.

This is the latest personnel decision from Smith that will raise questions about his ability to evaluate the most valuable position in football. Not even Marcus Mariota played this poorly last season, and everyone knows how he couldn’t find any rhythm as a passer. Similar to last season, the offense looks hopeless when trying to run a dropback passing game. That’s a troubling sign for a coach who had a full season to make improvements.

The empty sets continue to be lackluster, as the strategy behind having Cordarelle Patterson and Jonnu Smith as two of the pass catchers with Bijan Robinson and Pitts leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to stretching defenses. No team should have more running backs and tight ends than wide receivers in a five-receiver formation, yet the Falcons do it in their failed attempt at playing positionless football.

The offensive line having one of their best performances in pass protection revealed further how fragmented the passing attack has been for most of the season. The number of times Heinicke had to scramble or force the ball into tight windows emphasized the need for not only personnel changes but also significant schematic alterations.

According to The Athletic’s Josh Kendall, the Falcons are averaging 14 points per game on the road this season. That’s a telling sign of how much this team has regressed. Let’s not forget their hugely favorable schedule, where they have only faced three teams with winning records. Two of those teams were on the road (or at a neutral site in London), with average defenses at best in Detroit and Jacksonville.

They have proven they can’t play from behind. The once-prolific ground game is more maddeningly inconsistent than enjoyably efficient. Most of the season’s frustrations culminated in the crushing defeat to Chicago, signifying significant changes must be made. Although the severity isn’t anywhere near as high, the revamped defense will need to be modified following their dosage of reality from facing Luke Getsy’s improved offense.

No Finishers, No Hope To Reach Greater Heights

As the great Dave Choate eloquently said, the Falcons were destroyed, wrecked, and pummeled against the Bears. It was the worst defensive performance of the season, as the much-improved unit was either a step behind or overpowered at the point of the attack. Nobody on the defensive line made a positive impact outside of Calais Campbell, who continues to play at a ridiculously high level.

Nate Landman and Kaden Elliss struggled to get off blocks and play with the anticipation you expect them to play with. The secondary had no answer for D.J. Moore, no matter where the star receiver lined up. It was disappointing that A.J. Terrell took his share of individual losses. He has underwhelmed more times than not this season when called upon to shadow an opposing star wide receiver.

Defenses are going to have their rough games. As great as Cleveland and San Francisco have been defensively, they endured a few poor performances. There’s no need to be overly critical of individual performances and question the future of Terrell, Elliss, Landman, or David Onyemata. What should be examined are positions that need to be upgraded or stabilized.

The inability to finish pressures has cost Ryan Nielsen’s defense on numerous occasions. It’s one of the bigger reasons why the Falcons aren’t likely going to make the playoffs. Joshua Dobbs and Kyler Murray essentially won Minnesota and Arizona their respective games against Atlanta by escaping surefire sacks. While Justin Fields didn’t need to pull off any late-game heroics, he managed to make two outstanding plays by evading an unblocked Bud Dupree on third down to get a first down, and then shortly after, made Arnold Ebiketie look silly on another play where the pocket collapsed and a sack should have happened.

As has been the case for most off-seasons over the past decade, adding an edge rusher must be one of the biggest priorities. Depending on Dupree and Ebiketie as the primary pass rushers will leave any defense limited. Both players don’t generate enough consistent pressure and play with good enough technique to win regularly. They are constantly going high on elusive quarterbacks when they are in prime position to make a stop. The NFL has become more comprised of athletic quarterbacks in recent years. It’s only going to increase, based on how most prolific offenses have been constructed.

The work to develop into a certified top-ten unit doesn’t stop there. If this unit is going to take the next step, younger defensive backs will have to step up, or newer additions have to be made at cornerback and free safety. The rotation in recent weeks between Clark Phillips, Mike Hughes, Jeff Okudah, and Dee Alford has been more detrimental than beneficial. Although defenses are using more three safety schematic looks, DeMarcco Hellams and Richie Grant haven’t been convincing together in their respective roles.

Per ESPN’s Matt Bowen, the Falcons played man coverage at a staggering 89.5% rate against Fields. They got carved up comprehensively through the air. If Nielsen is going to be in Atlanta next season and wants to play man coverage that often, they will need to add better players, ones they can fully depend on. Reality can be cruelly dished out when you least expect it. Chicago has played significantly better over the last five games heading into the clash against Atlanta, but we didn’t think it would look like this.

As much as Fields has improved and the play-calling has become creative, nobody could have anticipated such a one-sided onslaught by them. It gave the front office a clearer picture of what needs to be improved upon in 2024. Given the uncertainty of Smith’s status, time will tell if the defensive coaching staff will be here to help take the defense to the next level.