There have been painful losses decided on the final drive. There have been infuriating losses caused by the team self-destructing offensively. There have been embarrassing losses against one-win teams. Arthur Smith’s team has managed to lose in various ways, none of them enjoyable. What they haven’t done is get completely outplayed on both sides of the ball. Even against playoff-bound teams in Detroit and Jacksonville, they held strong defensively in both matchups. That was at least one positive takeaway in both defeats.
There is nothing positive coming out of this loss against Chicago outside of a couple of nice plays. The Atlanta Falcons were outplayed on both sides of the ball. They had no semblance of a drop-back passing game. They allowed several explosive plays on the ground and through the air defensively. It was an alarming performance for a team that could be moving towards a head coaching change next week.
This is the twelfth GIF game review of the season. You can view the previous ones against the Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Texans, Bucs (away), Titans, Vikings, Cardinals, Saints, Bucs (home), and Colts to get a deeper insight into how the team fared in past games.
Editors’s Note: There will not be a season finale GIF review if Arthur Smith is fired next week. There will be far more important topics to discuss about the Falcons.
Taylor Heinicke’s Horror Show
This was the first of several inaccurate throws. According to Pro Football Focus, the veteran quarterback was four for 11 on pass attempts using play action. That is an appalling stat total. These plays are designed to create high-percentage throws by creating open options and adding an extra element of protection. Heinicke continuously threw behind or too high of his intended target.
Kyle Pitts is open on a standard in-breaking route, mirroring Drake London’s crosser. This is a quick 18 to 20-yard completion if the throw is catchable. This should be a standard throw to make, given how clean the pocket is and how much space Pitts has in the intermediate area of the field. An eye-opening miss like this proved to be a sign of things to come.
This play epitomizes the Falcons’ season. There has been plenty of discussion about how the offense lacks attention to detail. The amount of pre-snap penalties, wrong routes run, and self-inflicted mistakes have made it evident. Look at the confusion before the snap with Pitts, London, and Patterson. They don’t know what adjustment was made at the line of scrimmage. Heinicke doesn’t see their confusion, leaving all three players unaware of what type of route they should run. They simply improvise and try to make themselves open. For all the confusion, this play should have resulted in a touchdown. Van Jefferson gets behind Kyler Gordon on an inside go route.
The opening is there, yet for the second consecutive week, Heinicke overthrows him on what should have been a touchdown. A combination of poor communication and understanding before the snap, to go along with erratic accuracy, sums up the Falcons’ passing game this season. It’s no surprise the only three passing plays over 50 yards this season have occurred from screens to Jonnu Smith and Tyler Allgeier and an impressive individual effort from KhaDarel Hodge on a dig route. You can’t have a capable vertical passing game while being so dysfunctional before and after the snap, something that has been the case regardless of who is playing quarterback.
Heinicke threw multiple dangerous passes across the middle of the field last week against Indianapolis, including one that should have been intercepted by Zaire Franklin, yet fortunately avoided a turnover. He wasn’t going to get away with staring down his first read in the middle of the field again without being punished. The veteran quarterback struggles to throw with anticipation and read coverages well. With the pass protection being on point, he should be able to survey the field to decide if a passing window is there. While he wants to push the ball past the first down marker on third and eighth to London rather than throw underneath to Jefferson, the passing window isn’t there for the throw to be completed.
T.J. Edwards is reading Heinicke’s eyes the entire way and positions himself to make the easy interception. Matt Eberflus’ defense primarily plays zone coverage, with a mixture of Cover 2, Cover 4, and Quarters. A quarterback with years of experience should know the nuances of those coverages. As turnover-prone as Heinicke has been over the course of his career, it’s normally from taking shots downfield and wanting to get the ball to his primary playmakers. This interception is based on carelessness. On the list of ugly interceptions from Falcons’ quarterbacks this season, this one is up there near the top.
Throwing three interceptions and having none of them be the worst decision of the day is rare for a quarterback. The way Heinicke missed a wide-open Scotty Miller, a player who seemingly endures this once a week, is staggering. The protection couldn’t have been better, as he is operating in a clean pocket and looking to push the ball downfield off play action. Somehow, he doesn’t identify the speedy wide receiver roaming free on a deep over. The Falcons used misdirection well from play action in their route concepts schematically.
Due to abysmal quarterback play, they weren’t able to turn those terrific opportunities into consistent big completions. Chicago’s secondary is all over the place as Jonnu Smith and Miller cross each around midfield. They run single-high and get caught out of position, biting on the play fake. Heinicke fails to exploit the opening and overthrows Bijan Robinson on a checkdown in a deflating fashion. No offense can expect to be efficient with the level of quarterback play we’ve seen this season.
Chicago’s defense capitalized on Heinicke’s limitations in the pocket. They play a standard Cover 2 against 10 personnel. There is no vertical aspect to this play design, as the ball needs to come out quickly to counter the coverage. Heinicke doesn’t have a quick release here and does not go through his progressions fast enough. It looks static when seeing him process what is in front of him. To make matters worse, he doesn’t usually see receivers open. He looks for a wide, clear opening and then attempts to connect with them. With better touch and anticipation, Smith is there on the corner route. Instead, he is lackadaisical with his read and throw as Tyrique Stevenson pounces on another easy interception.
If Heinicke was more decisive, he would have connected with Smith in stride or fired a tight-window throw into Hodge off the hitch. The space is there to get the drive moving. It ends with another colossal mistake from a quarterback who isn’t playing like the capable backup Atlanta was certain they were getting. Outside of the second half against Tennessee and a small handful of other stretches, Heinicke has been a liability when called upon this season. This performance exemplified how badly the Falcons managed the most valuable position in the sport in 2023, and why they badly need to turn the room over in 2024.
A Rare Screen Pass Out of the Backfield Goes to the House
One of the bigger frustrations about the Falcons’ disjointed offense has been the lack of variation in how they use screens. They have mostly dialed up bubble or jailbreak concepts this season, with Robinson, Jonnu Smith, or occasionally Patterson. Everything has been to the outside in three to five wide receiver sets, leading to mixed results. This touchdown was refreshing in finally mixing up the designs and getting better usage out of an athletic offensive line, with Heinicke getting the ball to Allgeier on time and the back making the play work. Chris Lindstrom has established himself as one of the premier guards in the league. When he can get into space, a difference-making block will likely be made against a linebacker.
The way he picks up Tremaine Edmunds and positions himself to guide him away from Allgeier is a thing of beauty. From there, Allgeier takes off and uses the downfield blocks extremely well. Miller does an outstanding job of staying in front and not getting unnecessarily grabby. It has to be noted that London made a wise decision by not trying to land a crushing block that could result in a costly unnecessary roughness penalty to prevent the touchdown. This is an intelligent all-around play from the offense in executing a long-overdue play design, and it is now the Falcons’ most explosive play of the season.
Taking the Short Tough Yards
Young running backs in difficult situations can tend to try to do too much when the easy yards are there to keep the drive moving. Instead of following the lead block and gaining the necessary three yards, they can try to cut outside to produce an explosive play. Breece Hall has continuously done this as a way to provide a spark to an overmatched Jets’ offense. As dynamic as Hall is, his penchant for wanting to gain 10-15 yards can be detrimental in ending drives or putting the offense in second or third-and-long situations.
Robinson doesn’t do it anywhere near as often as Hall does. There are a few moments where he attempts to do something spectacular, and defenses are there to stop him. On second and one, he should stay behind Tucker Fisk and burst into the hole to pick up the certain first down. Instead, he jukes to the left into the waiting arms of Justin Jones for no gain. The Falcons did end up converting on the next play. This wasn’t a consequential mistake. It’s more of a tendency that Robinson should pick up on and learn from. The right side of Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary can be counted on to create a strong push in short-yardage situations. Use it to your advantage and avoid third downs when you can.
Offensive Playcalling Wasn’t the Issue In Chicago
For all the questionable decisions, poor situational management, and lack of consistency within the offense, Smith called a relatively good game compared to the previous ugly losses this season. This is one of the rare offensive performances where personnel let the coaching staff down. Smith was aggressive, creative, and clever in scheming up openings against a much-improved Chicago defense.
Calling a play action reverse with Robinson and Hodge to start the game shows his desire to start fast. Slow starts have been a frequent issue for the Falcons all season. Smith doesn’t waste time confusing the linebackers with the play fakes and freeing up London on a deep over for a 22-yard completion. Using Pitts on a go route to command the attention of multiple defenders was a nice touch in making this an excellent chunk play. This is the type of attention to detail an offense needs to be productive.
Elusive Quarterbacks Continue to Cause Nightmares
Another game against a multi-dimensional quarterback, another highlight-reel moment where the Falcons are punished for poor finishing. They run a straightforward blitz that the Bears end up botching their protection on. Besides Kaden Elliss twisting behind David Onyemata, there is nothing creative about it. Bud Dupree benefits from the protection breakdown and gets a free shot at Justin Fields. For a veteran edge rusher to go high on such a dynamic quarterback is unacceptable. There is plenty of time for him to use proper technique and lower his shoulders to wrap up to get the much-needed third sack.
Dupree has made his fair share of blunders when having golden opportunities to secure sacks, which mar an otherwise solid season from the veteran. His inability to get Joshua Dobbs down essentially cost the Falcons a win. Onyemata had the chance to get him down as well, but this is ultimately on Dupree, who has to make the fundamental play. This is the latest example of why the Falcons must prioritize investing in a certified edge rusher this off-season to secure sacks and end drives.
Fields’ pocket movement has to be marveled at. The smooth change of direction ability, along with having a knack for sensing danger, makes him hard to contain. His tremendous elusiveness doesn’t absolve Arnold Ebiketie from criticism. The second-year edge rusher has a clear shot at him. If he plays with better balance and lowers his shoulder, this is a third down sack. It’s disappointing from Ebiketie, who uses a nice counter-spin move to collapse the pocket after having his initial rip move get thwarted by Darnell Wright.
Similar to Dupree, Ebiketie has endured some issues finishing plays, most notably against the Cardinals, where he missed a sack on Kyler Murray’s pivotal scramble on a game-winning drive. Given how tight the man coverage is on the back end, this should have been a third down stop. Not being able to contain athletic quarterbacks continues to be the defense’s main kryptonite.
It does have to be noted that D.J. Moore should have been penalized for holding A.J. Terrell. There is a pull on the jersey. Once that occurs, it’s a call you expect referees to make when it happens in space. Nevertheless, this play can still be examined for the lack of awareness and decisiveness within the middle of the defense. Elliss had arguably his worst game of the season. The great anticipation, sharp instincts, and excellent positioning he plays with went missing in this matchup. He is left frozen on the designed draw as Fields turns the corner by the time Elliss recognizes the play design. DeMarcco Hellams was hesitant and failed to close down quickly enough.
Considering he seemed to be the only defender besides Nate Landman to identify Fields as the ball carrier, the rookie safety should have made a greater attempt at preventing him from getting into the end zone. Although this is a designed run compared to the two previous scrambles, it does show a recurring issue for this defense. Athletic quarterbacks can create plays with their legs far too easily against them.
New Year, Same Problems Against D.J. Moore
The Bears only went six for 16 on third down, yet every conversion felt hugely impressive. It’s only fitting Moore was on the receiving end of a few of them, considering his long history of producing terrific performances against the Falcons. Terrell moves into the slot to shadow the star wide receiver. He oddly looks in the backfield as the ball is snapped. Lining up in press coverage against a shifty, prolific wide receiver requires total focus on the receiver.
Moore capitalizes on the lack of concentration with ease for a 32-yard completion. There have been moments where Terrell’s lapses in concentration have resulted in allowing explosive vertical plays downfield. It’s been a major reason why his play has been uneven at times this season.
According to ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, the Falcons played 89.5% man coverage on Fields’ dropbacks. They trusted Terrell to shadow Moore across formations. While not every explosive play from Moore against the Falcons’ top corner, he had his share of success. On five targets against Terrell, the former Panther caught three passes for 76 yards, per Pro Football Focus. All three receptions went for first downs as well. Surprisingly, Terrell doesn’t try to jam him at the line of scrimmage.
A quick receiver like Moore will create separation with his sheer speed on most occasions if he has the space to run his route cleanly. Trying to cover a shallow cross without disrupting the release is asking for trouble. Terrell pays the price and gets stiff-armed to the ground on this 23-yard gain. At least Moore isn’t in the NFC South anymore because he has played at a Pro Bowl level this season.
No Pressure, Coverage Breakdown in Chaos
Fields is aiming to connect with Moore on a deep corner from the slot. With Mike Hughes playing outside leverage, he can’t push the ball downfield. Bears’ offensive coordinator Luke Getsy does well to use a solid combination of route variation and deception to get Roschon Johnson open in the flat. Clark Phillips gets overzealous and leaves his area as he passes off Tyler Scott, who was running a shallow cross. There is plenty of support in the middle of the field, with Hellams providing support behind him.
It’s a strange decision from someone who has shown great composure and positional intelligence as a rookie. Despite the coverage bust, the lack of pass rush must be acknowledged. Fields could have started making snow angels in the pocket. That’s how non-existent the four-man pass rush was. This game truly stressed the importance of how much this defense needs a consistent edge rusher.
Stout Run Defense Crumbles
Two things you don’t see often from Landman are missed tackles and indecisiveness against the run. This is a play where everyone is accustomed to seeing Landman position himself to accelerate downhill into the B-gap and stop Khalil Herbert for minimal gain. For some reason, he is hesitant when attempting to close the gap. He stops his feet and allows Lucas Patrick to get some leverage on him.
It’s surprising to see him be a bit sluggish and not burst into the clear lane to make the routine stop. Much like most of the defense, this was an off-game for the breakout linebacker. His poor performance did play a significant role in Chicago running for 192 yards.
It’s rare to see Elliss and Landman largely responsible for an explosive running play. Other than Zach Harrison being completely overpowered at the point of attack and getting pancaked, the dependable linebacker duo caused the big play by being out of position. Elliss gets baited into the threat of Fields running a zone read. Considering he comes off the edge free, it would be expected for a player of his caliber to be more composed. He should have shifted more horizontally to maintain gap integrity than burst vertically to leave a gaping running lane if Landman can’t close in on time.
That’s exactly what happens, as Landman isn’t reactive quickly enough to close down Herbert. It’s surprising for him to whiff that badly, considering he is unblocked and normally diagnoses run plays well. This proved to be one of those forgettable rough games for two of the defense’s most consistent players, along with Jessie Bates and Onyemata.