The Atlanta Falcons have a glaring weakness. The New Orleans Saints knew it. The Oakland Raiders tested it. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers exploited it early and often in their 22-17 win over the Falcons in Week 17.
And there might be nothing the Falcons can do about it.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense often work like a well-oiled machine. But like any machine, it can be broken. Ryan often relies on timing when defenses increase pressure. He often throws the ball to where the receiver is supposed to be when they are supposed to be there.
Supposed to be.
Susceptible to Tight Coverage
While not the proverbial silver bullet, the best way to slow the Falcons' passing attack is by affecting the Falcons receivers. Jamming hard at the line of scrimmage is a tried and true method of disrupting the timing of an uptempo passing attack. This is legal and universally accepted.
The Falcons, however, can stumble when defenders become physical past the line of scrimmage. The Falcons offensive line struggles in pass protection at times, and the wide receivers may not have the time to shake the defender.
When Is Coverage Too Tight?
After the loss to the Buccaneers, Dave Archer interviewed Harry Douglas on the Falcons Radio Network. Archer alluded to the Buccaneers' physicality in the secondary. He then addressed Douglas directly on the topic. Archer asked Douglas about the officials letting the Falcons receivers get "mauled."
Douglas laughed nervously and responded, "If they call it, they call it."
Douglas was smart to dance around the question. The NFL is quick to fine those who would question a referee's judgement or capability. It is also somewhat taboo to infer that officials could have influenced a close loss without a mountain of evidence—both in the media and in the locker room.
But one could read volumes between the lines of Archer and Douglas' conversation.
In 2008, the Arizona Cardinals easily penetrated the Falcons' backfield with well-timed jumps. Mike Mularkey had the offense on a static snap during the game, and the Cardinals knew it. Many of these jumps might have been before the snap, but there were very few flags thrown.
The Falcons' first playoff opponent would be wise to take a page from the Cardinals' playbook. Obviously not the snap count, but in testing the officials. From the very first offensive drive, the opponent's defense should be testing just how far the officials will let them go. They might be surprised just how physical they are allowed to be.
The Falcons would be wise to game-plan for it. If they do not, then one-and-done will be even more bitter this year.