The Atlanta Falcons are off to their worst start since the 2007 season. And at 1-4, this team is too broken to assume that the issues are simply a result of bad bounces of the football (although we saw that Monday night against the New York Jets) or being slightly outplayed by opponents.
Without a doubt, these Falcons are being outplayed. But after their Week 1 loss to the New Orleans Saints, it seemed like a play or two could have been the difference. The same could be said after Atlanta’s Week 3 loss to the Miami Dolphins and their Week 4 deafeat at the hands of New England.
However, Monday night’s game against the New York Jets had an entirely different feel.
After the Jets came into the Georgia Dome and imposed their will on the Falcons, in a game where rookie quarterback Geno Smith led his team on drive after drive to eventually win the football game, it’s more than apparent that the Falcons need more than a tweak. A quick fix or some good luck will not fix this team.
Shortly after the game, I opined that the Falcons were no longer playoff contenders. That’s a harsh reality for a fan base that expected a run to the Super Bowl in February.
What’s gone wrong? How is this team—a team that went 13-3 last season and was one play away from reaching the Super Bowl—in such a disastrous place after just five weeks of the 2013 season?
The biggest issue is coaching, and that’s tough to say, because no one but the staff inside the building in Flowery Branch has full knowledge of what’s going on in regards to the preparation and direction of this team. That said, from the outside looking in, there seem to be some problems that can only be attributed to poor coaching decisions.
Smith even touched upon the subject after Monday’s loss to the Jets.
"We are not coaching the way we need to coach," said Smith. "We’re all in this together."
Even though the Falcons were 4-of-5 in the red zone against the Jets, this team still ranks 25th in the league in red-zone scoring with a putrid 48.83 percent touchdown rate. The Falcons move the ball well until they get to the 20-yard line, but then something happens. Quarterback Matt Ryan spoke after the game Monday and couldn’t put his finger on why, but admitted to the problem.
“We haven’t scored as much as we’ve needed to, and we’ve moved the ball effectively,” said Ryan.
Maybe it’s the play-calling inside the 20-yard line that gets stagnant or predictable. Maybe this offense is designed to succeed against a defense that is spread out, and the confines of the back line of the end zone bunches the defenders up, clogging Atlanta’s desired scoring lanes. Maybe this offensive line isn’t built for short-yardage situations.
Whatever the answer, the coaching decisions inside the red zone even seem to befuddle opposing coaches. Jets coach Rex Ryan said he didn’t know why Smith decided to try and punch the football into the end zone with a running play with one second to go in the first half instead of kicking a field goal.
Atlanta also has issues giving up early leads. Dating back to the 2012 playoffs, the Falcons have enjoyed early, double-digit leads in five of the seven games they’ve played. The Falcons have only won two of those five games.
When the Falcons jump out early, there is often some sort of breakdown that occurs to allow opponents to catch up. Could it be a sense of urgency or complacency? That’s possible. It also could be a shift toward conservative play-calling. Whatever the issue, it’s a coaching problem.
There are coaches out there, even in this NFC South division, that have no trouble applying offensive pressure on the defense, no matter what the score in the game is. I’m looking squarely in the direction of New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton here.
The Saints aren’t known as a team that falls off late in games or goes into conservative mode. The Saints aren’t a team that typically blows early leads. And it’s not that there’s more talent on offense in New Orleans. In fact, on paper, Atlanta should be the more talented offense. But for some reason, Atlanta is outscoring opponents 34-3 in the first quarter of games this season and then being outscored 124-98 after that.
That’s a huge issue, and it’s all about coaching decisions.
There’s the "foot off the gas" theory that’s sound, but I don’t believe it’s the only reason this offense falls off after the first quarter. There’s another theory about losing leads, and this one has as much to do with coaching as the first: the Falcons aren’t adjusting well to opponents’ in-game adjustments.
When Atlanta jumps out to an early lead, it speaks volumes as to how well this coaching staff puts a game plan together during the week leading up to the game. Think of the adage about giving Alabama head coach Nick Saban more than 30 days to prepare for any team and he’s unbeatable. Think the same about the six days—sometimes seven, sometimes fewer—Smith and his staff have prior to each game.
Their planning seems flawless.
That is until the opposing team adjusts during the game or at halftime. When the team on the other sideline changes its strategy to oppose Smith’s game plan, or to change up non-working portions of their own game plan, Atlanta doesn’t seem to adjust well. An NFL game isn’t played in a vacuum, and it’s a constantly evolving orchestra of movement, redirection, repetition and balance.
Former boxer Mike Tyson had a quote that beautifully illustrates this point. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Tyson said. The Falcons are getting punched in the mouth shortly after the game gets going this season and, like many of Tyson’s opponents, they aren’t getting back up.
In addition to the coaching issues that plague the Falcons, there are on-the-field problems. One of the biggest is Atlanta’s offensive line.
Of quarterbacks that have dropped back to pass at least 100 times this season, only five in the NFL have been under more pressure than Ryan, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In 228 dropbacks, Ryan has been under pressure 95 times. He’s completed 53.5 percent of those passes and has only been sacked nine times (a testament to his quick release and intelligence in reading the defense), but he’s only thrown two touchdown passes while under duress and has been picked off three times.
Using a different metric, the folks at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) looked at how many sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries each offensive line gives up. The result is a 71.3 pass-blocking efficiency score for the Falcons, good for a rank of No. 26 in the NFL.
Atlanta’s offensive line has given up seven sacks (one was given up by Gonzalez, another assessed to no one), 15 quarterback hits and 63 hurries. Only the New York Giants have allowed more quarterback hurries that Atlanta.
Offensive tackle Lamar Holmes has been the most frequent culprit, giving up two sacks, five quarterback hits and 20 hurries this season. But Sam Baker has a lower pass-block rating from PFF (subscription required) because Baker has given up similar pressure numbers to Holmes in far fewer snaps.
Zero Pass Rush
There were times on Monday night that Jets quarterback Geno Smith looked as if he could read a book in the pocket. The Falcons were able to pull Smith down four times, but there were too many occasions where the rookie was allowed to peruse the field and find an open target.
This has happened far too frequently this season for Falcons opponents.
The Falcons rank 24th in the league with just 11 sacks on the season. Four of those came from defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who leads the team in sacks. But even though Umenyiora ranks fourth in the NFL with his sack count, he’s nowhere near the top when pass-rush productivity comes into play.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Umenyiora ranks 50th in the NFL in pass-rush productivity, a stat that examines how many times a defensive player affects the quarterback through sacks, hurries and quarterback hits. Jonathan Massaquoi, Atlanta’s other defensive end, ranks 39th but has no sacks. Massaquoi gets to the quarterback but hasn’t been able to pull one down yet.
Using the same metric by PFF (subscription required), Peria Jerry is the best defensive tackle the Falcons have at putting pressure on the quarterback, and he ranks 47th in the league. Joplo Bartu is the best outside linebacker at No. 14 in the NFL, and Akeem Dent ranks as the No. 19 inside linebacker in the league.
These pass-rush numbers don’t instill a lot of fear in opposing quarterbacks. And in this day and age of the pass-happy NFL, controlling the line of scrimmage is paramount. The Falcons don’t excel on either side of the trenches.
Yeah, injuries have hurt this 1-4 Falcons team; there is no denying that. But to use the injury bug as one of the top-three reasons for the Falcons’ 1-4 start is ludicrous.
Running back Steven Jackson’s injury has put a small damper on Atlanta’s running game, but the combination of Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers haven’t stunk up the joint.
The same can be said for the injury to cornerback Asante Samuel. The trio of Robert McClain and rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford has done admirably. They have not been world-beaters, but they have not been dogs.
The injury to offensive tackle Mike Johnson in training camp and Sam Baker in recent weeks, while hitting the team hard, haven’t been the reason for poor play. This Atlanta offensive line was going to be subpar whether or not those two were completely healthy or not. Blaming the offensive line woes on injury is inexcusable.
The linebacking corps is a different story. Losing the heart and soul of this defense in Sean Weatherspoon hurt. Add to that the loss of hybrid linebacker Kroy Biermann, and the combined absence of the unit’s two best players was devastating.
The Falcons’ depth at linebacker is being tested, and the team is being forced to rely on two undrafted rookies (Bartu and Paul Worrilow) and a free agent brought in for depth (Omar Gaither) to help veterans Dent and Stephen Nicholas hold down the fort. The results haven’t been pleasing.
But the injuries at linebacker are the only truly devastating ones, as the others only play a small role.
As this team moves forward—and boy, did this week's bye come at a fantastic time—the Falcons will have to evaluate how to solve these issues. It might be impossible now to make a playoff run, even if the problems are fixed. And if the Falcons lose Jones for the season to injury, those minuscule chances diminish drastically.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.