The Atlanta Falcons are preparing to take on the undefeated New England Patriots on Sunday night, and Falcons head coach Mike Smith has made it clear that his team must play better situational football against the Pats than it did against the Dolphins if Atlanta wants to even its record at 2-2.
In his Monday press conference, Smith stated that situational football involves executing offensively and defensively on red-zone plays, third-down plays and during two-minute drills.
Based on what Smith said, we went back to the film from Atlanta's Week 3 loss to Miami and found five plays that illustrate Smith's point and help explain part of why Atlanta finds itself at 1-2.
Let's take a look at what went wrong on each play and discuss how the Falcons can remedy each issue in this week's game. We'll begin on the offensive side of ball by breaking down two plays that cost the Falcons in the red zone against Miami.
SITUATION: RED-ZONE OFFENSE; 2ND-AND-10 FROM MIAMI 15
WHAT WENT WRONG
The pre-snap read here suggested that the ball should have gone to Julio Jones because Brent Grimes was playing seven or eight yards off of him, and the play called for Jones to run a quick bubble screen route.
Even after seeing Harry Douglas' defender commit, Matt Ryan decided against throwing the ball short to Jones. Douglas ended up being double-covered in the end zone, and the Falcons blew a chance to pick up a likely first down by getting the ball to Jones in space.
Matt Ryan has to be cognizant of down and distance on a play like this. Even if Jones hadn't picked up the first down, the Falcons would've had another crack at moving the chains on the ensuing third and short.
However, Jones had a lot of green in front of him, and there's a good chance he would've picked up the first down. If this had been a 3rd-and-long or a goal-to-go play, Ryan may have had a stronger case for throwing to Douglas. But in this situation, the right choice would've been to take the short pass to Jones.
SITUATION: RED-ZONE OFFENSE; 3RD-AND-4 FROM MIAMI 17
WHAT WENT WRONG
Miami sent its slot corner on a blitz, and Roddy White didn't break off his route to give Matt Ryan a quick outlet. Given the amount of space between White and the defender who covered him once the slot corner blitzed, White would have almost certainly converted this relatively short first down.
Instead, Ryan was faced to roll to his right in an attempt to force a pass to Tony Gonzalez before ultimately throwing the ball away.
REMEDY: ANTICIPATE BLITZES AND MAKE SIGHT ADJUSTMENTS
Matt Ryan, his receivers and Dirk Koetter all need to be on the same page. A play like this has to accommodate sight adjustments for blitzes, and Atlanta's receivers must help their quarterback by making the adjustments. A first down in this situation probably would've allowed the Falcons to bleed more clock and force Miami to burn its timeouts even if they ended up having to settle for a field goal.
SITUATION: TWO-MINUTE DEFENSE; 2ND-AND-1O FROM MIAMI 43 AND 3RD-AND-2 FROM ATLANTA 49
WHAT WENT WRONG
Miami takes advantage of the cushion that Thomas DeCoud gave its slot receivers on these consecutive plays from Miami's game-winning drive. Miami tight end Michael Egnew ran a short out route for an eight-yard gain on the second-down play in the first screenshot.
The problem arose when Atlanta didn't send DeCoud up to challenge his receiver on a crucial third down even after seeing the Dolphins take advantage of the cushion DeCoud had given the slot receiver on the play preceding the third-down conversion.
REMEDY: RECOGNIZE "CHALLENGE" SITUATIONS IN COVERAGE
As Mike Smith noted, the Falcons have to do a better job of recognizing when the down and distance demands press coverage from Atlanta's secondary. These two plays are a perfect illustration of that. The decision to allow an eight- to 10-yard cushion against an empty set on a 3rd-and-2 when the offense just threw a short out route against similar coverage didn't make much sense here.
SITUATION: THIRD-DOWN DEFENSE; 3RD-AND-4 FROM ATLANTA 33
WHAT WENT WRONG
Brandon Gibson breaks free for Miami's final third-down conversion on its winning drive when Robert Alford bites hard on Gibson's inside route. You can see Robert McClain's man running the same route from the slot at the bottom of the screenshot. Gibson ran a great route, and Alford was finished as soon as he turned his hips.
REMEDY: BETTER FIELD AWARENESS, BETTER TECHNIQUE
I'll repeat: Brandon Gibson ran a great route here. However, Robert Alford would've been in a better position to make a play here if he recognized where he was on the field and appreciated the fact that Miami was on the other side of the two-minute warning with one timeout.
Field awareness is relevant here because even if Alford was beaten to the inside he would've had a chance to tackle Gibson before he picked up the first down, and Gibson wouldn't have been able to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Further, since Gibson broke inside within five yards of Alford, Alford may have been able to get away with a little contact that could've disrupted the route.
SITUATION: RED-ZONE DEFENSE; 1ST-AND-GOAL FROM ATLANTA 8
WHAT WENT WRONG
Joplo Bartu simply misses an open-field tackle here and allows Brandon Gibson to turn the three-yard catch he made at the five-yard line into a near touchdown. If Bartu had made the stop, Miami would've faced a 2nd-and-goal from the Atlanta five-yard line instead of the more favorable 2nd-and-goal from the one-yard line that Miami ended up with.
REMEDY: IMPROVE FUNDAMENTAL TACKLING
There's not much to say here. Teams that excel at red-zone defense make crisp tackles and avoid giving up cheap yards the way the Falcons did here. Even the NFL's strongest red-zone defenses will struggle getting stops on the road when their opponents have two shots to score a touchdown from the one-yard line.
Although it may have looked like the Falcons outplayed the Dolphins, Miami won the game because the Dolphins played better situational football than the Falcons.
You can be pretty sure that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady appreciate this concept, and this week's game between the Patriots and Falcons will likely come down to situational football once again.
If the Falcons are going to come out on top, they're going to have avoid making these five mistakes again.
ALL SCREENSHOTS ARE VIA NFL.COM'S GAME REWIND