Despite the success and new achievements that the Atlanta Falcons reached this season, they collapsed in the second half and left a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth going into the offseason. When they were up 17-0 in the second quarter of Sunday's NFC Championship Game, you knew San Francisco wasn’t going to get blown out.
San Francisco was considered the best team in the NFC for a reason, and it proved that with how it came back so smoothly. The 49ers realized Atlanta couldn’t cover a tight end and Vernon Davis abused them for it. Then they used the running game effectively, and the first-quarter jitters were quickly washed away.
The refs managed to call a decent game until the fourth quarter. I’m still in shock that the Harry Douglas catch was called a catch because it was pretty clear that the ball hit the ground. Then, Navarro Bowman got away with a clear hold on Roddy White on fourth down, which should have been a first down.
It was an odd game all around with the Falcons having two personal foul penalties despite being the least-penalized team in the NFL. Then, Matt Ryan had two turnovers, although one of them was because White slipped. Despite the undisciplined second half, there is a lot more as to why the Falcons struggle to keep big leads.
Pass Rush Was Mostly a non-Factor
Once again, the Falcons couldn’t muster up much of a pass rush. It has been a common theme this year and hurts even more when they have to play against an athletic quarterback like Colin Kaepernick. When the Falcons tried to dial up a blitz, it led to Vernon Davis being wide open and making the Falcons pay.
John Abraham has been terrific for the Falcons in his seven years there, but he simply can’t carry the load anymore. Even though he wasn’t fully healthy, he was mostly a non-factor through the majority of December and January. It was painful to see a player of his caliber become such a non-factor.
The other defensive linemen didn’t really contribute too much, either. San Francisco’s offensive line is a talented group that deserves credit for keeping Kaepernick from taking many hits. Still, the Atlanta secondary is talented and can hold its coverage for the pass rush to make plays.
When you look at the rest of the Falcons defensive line, it’s in need of another defensive end. Jonathan Babineaux had a great season and hopefully he’ll be able to play defensive tackle more next season rather than defensive end to help the run defense.
The need for another pass-rusher couldn’t have been more exposed over these past two weeks.
Kroy Biermann is a solid player, but he isn’t a starter due to being undersized and not being explosive enough to beat tackles consistently. Vance Walker and Peria Jerry are backups at best, while Corey Peters is likely in a make-or-break year to see if he can be an actual starter after being injured for the majority of the year.
With Ray Edwards being a complete bust, the Falcons would be wise to draft a defensive end and actually develop him. Cliff Matthews is a seventh-round pick and didn’t show anything to justify that he was any different from that in the two playoff games. Hopefully Atlanta can add a first-round defensive end from the draft so that he can take the load off of Abraham.
Running Game Needs an Overhaul
The 49ers run defense was among the best in the league during the regular season and it didn’t disappoint Sunday. The issue with this game was that you would think the Falcons could do some damage in the running game considering the 49ers safeties were getting beat over the top through out the first half. The safeties weren’t cheating inside the box, which meant more possible room for the Falcons to get yardage in the running game.
Instead, they couldn’t do much, which is on the offensive line along with the running game.
Even though he showed some burst, I’d still cut Michael Turner without much hesitation. He’s another player that I respect for what he’s done with the Falcons, but he’s hit the dreaded running back wall that most of them hit after 30.
The Falcons could have a potential three-running back system with Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and another running back from the draft. It can be similar to the Saints' system, where you have the speed guy in Rodgers, a big, athletic back in Snelling and a power back from the draft. We’ve seen great running backs come from everywhere, so it won’t be necessary for them to draft one in the first round.
The offensive line has to be blamed as well because they failed to open many holes this year in the running game.
Todd McClure may be finished at center and should take a role as a backup, similar to what Mike Peterson is doing at linebacker. McClure just can’t hang with 3-4 nose tackles and constantly gets pushed back. With more teams going to the 3-4, he is going to continue to be a liability.
They might as well put Peter Konz at center, which is his natural position. He was average (at best) this season at right guard. With the rest of the offensive line set with Sam Baker, Justin Blalock and Tyson Clabo, it will be up to the right interior side to be fixed, whether it’s in the draft, free agency or possibly on the roster.
It wouldn’t surprise me if they used Mike Johnson more, who was excellent this season as an extra blocker. He’s only 25 years old, so it may be time to try him out in a starter role rather than adding a free agent that could be 31 years old and on the decline.
There are options, but it’s clear that the interior line needs a change to help a lackluster running game.
What to Make of Matt Ryan
The future of Matt Ryan is going to be fine, as according to Fox Sports' Jay Glazer, the Falcons are looking to reward their QB with a big contract extension.
I’m still in awe of what happened in the second half. Other than Russell Wilson, no quarterback had made the 49ers defense look that weak all year. Ryan was completing passes wherever he wanted to and seemed to be in complete control.
Then the score became close and Ryan made some uncharacteristic mistakes, including a fumble when the offense was in field-goal range. Even if they are held to just a field goal, it’s a one-point game and the Falcons don’t need to go for it on fourth down.
It was frustrating to see a perfect first half become forgettable by such an abysmal second half. The offensive line was starting to struggle in the fourth quarter, but it was clear that Ryan was pressing and was forcing his passes late in the game.
He was on his way to cementing his elite status with this performance, but now I’ll have to wait another season to place him in that elite category.
Even with the playoff failures of the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, they don’t make miscues like that. Ryan has some improvements that need to be made, but he’s well on his way to being elite.
Looking to the Future
With the offseason already here for Atlanta, it’s never too early to already preview the possibilities.
It may not be official, but it’s pretty certain that Tony Gonzalez is retiring. I’m not ruling out a return, because he may still have the fire to come back for one more season.
Nobody can criticize Gonzalez for his decision because he has stated publicly that he wants to spend time with his family. It was an honor watching Gonzalez play for Atlanta for four seasons if it should end like that. If he stays, then it will be a dream come true and should make Atlanta a trendy Super Bowl pick next season.
I’m confident that the Falcons will re-sign William Moore and Sam Baker. Baker was in a make-or-break season and he delivered, earning him a spot for years to come. Despite missing four games, Moore had a fantastic season and is now going to enter the prime of his career.
The big question for Atlanta is if it wants to re-sign Brent Grimes. When healthy, Grimes is one of the best cover corners in the league, so it would odd to just let a great cornerback leave.
Asante Samuel showed that he can still play, and Robert McClain gave Atlanta a solid option at nickel corner, which leaves Atlanta with one major decision.
It’ll come down to if they want Grimes back or Dunta Robinson released. It would be a shame if Robinson were the odd man out, because he bounced back this season and played well for the most part.
Obviously, if I had to pick between them, Grimes would be my pick. The question is, how much money will he be asking for?
With all three corner backs being 30 years old or older going into next season, it would be wise for McClain to continue to play and to develop him into a future starter. If they have to cut Robinson, it will be unfortunate, but it wouldn’t be a bad decision if they ended up keeping Grimes. A decision will have to be made come March.
Regardless of the collapse yesterday, the Falcons still has a great future ahead of them. They’ll have their coordinators back, which clearly made them a better team compared to 2011. The fact that they were so successful despite not having much of a pass rush or running game is remarkable.
If they make a few upgrades at some key positions, they’ll be right back next season. The competition couldn’t be better in the NFC, so it will make the front office realize that it will need to evolve more if the team wants to keep up with the likes of Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay.
Allen Strk is a columnist on Bleacher Report. You can read more of my work at TJRSports.com, where I cover the NFL, NBA and MMA. You can follow me at @Allen_Strk on Twitter or e-mail questions/comments at AStrk19@gmail.com.