One of the biggest surprises to the start of the NFL season has been the disappointing play of the Atlanta Falcons, who many believed would be Super Bowl contenders. But despite the multiple shortcomings they currently face, it is possible for Atlanta to bounce back and salvage their season.
Julio Jones scheduled to get the 2nd opinion on foot tomorrow -- but that's clinging to hope. "Legitimate concern" he's done, source says.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) October 8, 2013
If Jones is out for the season, the Falcons would lose talent in one of their few remaining areas of strength. But to get back on track and contend for the playoffs, the Falcons must focus on shoring up their areas of greatest weakness.
The Atlanta offensive line is among the worst in the NFL, and the numbers prove it. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Falcons have allowed the second most pressures on Matt Ryan in the NFL this season. Pressures include hurries, hits and sacks, so that means Ryan has been on the run more than any QB other than Eli Manning.
The line isn't helping the running game, either, as Atlanta has rushed for fewer than 80 yards per game, which finds them in the bottom 10 of the league. And apart from Steven Jackson's 50-yard run early in the season, there have been no big plays in the running game because Atlanta's backs just can't get to the second level often enough to break a big run.
There is not much the Falcons can do to improve their offensive line from a personnel standpoint this late in the season, as that's something that should have been better addressed over the offseason. But some coaching and scheming to cover for their weaknesses could go a long way in shoring up the woeful run and pass blocking the Falcons have at the moment.
On Monday night, their lack of strength at the point of attack allowed the Jets to run wild on defense, as pointed out by NFL.com's Bucky Brooks.
The Falcons must get better at blocking for the running game, especially if Julio Jones is out for an extended period of time. Running the ball will help bring safeties into the box, which opens up more room for Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez to catch the ball.
But that will only happen if the team improves its pass blocking as well, which will be key for Matt Ryan's hopes of leading his team back to the playoffs.
Defensive Front Seven
The Falcons aren't winning the point of attack on offense (as mentioned in the tweet above by Bucky Brooks), and they're not winning it on defense, either. The Falcons have lost players to injury on the defensive line and at linebacker, but they should still be performing better than they are so far this season.
According to Pro Football Focus' charting statistics, the Atlanta defensive line and linebackers have combined for 18 missed tackles so far this season. To put that into perspective, those same units had 50 missed tackles over the course of last season. They're on pace to have 10 more missed tackles than last year, and last season's defense for the Falcons wasn't exactly the benchmark for efficient tackling.
They're also among the worst in the NFL in sacks, having brought down the quarterback only 11 times in five games. This inability to get after the quarterback was on full display against the Jets on Monday, as Geno Smith had time in the pocket to put together his best night as a pro quarterback.
Can the Falcons make the playoffs despite Julio Jones' injury?
The Falcons have to find a way to win in the trenches on defense to succeed. They have the talent at defensive back to make plays and shut down receivers, but all of that talent goes to waste without a good pass rush.
And if a team can run down the throat of the Falcons without any resistance and break tackles for big plays, they don't need to throw the ball. That takes talents like Asante Samuel and William Moore out of the picture for an offensive coordinator and makes calling plays much easier.
Atlanta has the talent to get back on track even without Julio Jones. But they have to win the battle at the point of attack on both sides of the football to have any hope of getting the most out of their talented skill position players.