Falcons vs. Cardinals: Takeaways from Atlanta's 27-13 Loss to Arizona
Trying to build off the momentum they gained a week ago in a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons looked out sorts with poor efforts on either side of the ball on the road against the Cardinals.
Atlanta's record falls to 2-5 and any chance of making a late-season run at a wild card spot now looks out of reach.
The Falcons will look to rebound next week against the Carolina Panthers by looking at a plethora of negatives and a handful of positives from this game.
The 2013 Falcons Season Is Virtually over
While there still remain nine games left in which the Falcons still have the possibility of turning around their 2013 season, all the signs point otherwise.
Simply put, the Falcons aren't going to see many more favorable matchups than what they got Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. While the Cardinals defense is certainly a force to be reckoned with, they have an offense that is the polar opposite as it is among the weakest in the league. That wasn't the case Sunday afternoon, and if the Atlanta defense can't stop Arizona's offense, things aren't looking up for the remainder of the season.
The Falcons turned in their most abysmal half of football this year with their first-half effort against the Cardinals. Any hope that the Falcons' win last week would carry momentum for the remainder of the year quickly evaporated midway through the second quarter when Andre Ellington sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown to give Arizona a 14-6 lead.
The Falcons will need to regroup and play a more inspired brand of football against divisional rival Carolina next week.
The Cardinals Are Matt Ryan's Kryptonite
Last season, Matt Ryan threw five interceptions in a win over the Cardinals. It seemed like an aberration as Ryan threw only nine picks in his other 15 games played in 2012.
Sunday, Ryan threw four picks. While it may, ultimately, prove to be another aberration in the context of the remainder of Ryan's 2013 season, it still is odd that Arizona seems to be the one team that has Ryan and the Falcons' offensive number in terms of creating uncharacteristic turnovers.
All of Ryan's interceptions came in the second half, with the Falcons offense pressing to get back into the game, down 21-6 at halftime. It was clear the Falcons were in no position to mount a comeback against a tough Cardinal defense, as three of Ryan's picks came with pressure in his face and/or trying to make a play downfield.
The offense seemed to settle for a lot of short throws which led to several long drives and the Falcons winning the time-of-possession battle but very few points as the team's red-zone struggles continue to surface.
Falcons Ground Game Must Improve
The Falcons' leading rusher on the day was none other than Matt Ryan, who had 13 yards on his lone carry, a fourth-down conversion late in the game. Jacquizz Rodgers had eight rushing yards on a pair of carries, while Steven Jackson rushed for six yards on 11 carries.
It was an embarrassing effort for the Falcons on the ground with virtually no push against a stingy Cardinals defensive front. Jackson's first game back since Week 2 was one that saw him continually getting bottled up for minimal gains. His longest gain of the day was a four-yard carry that required him to break a few tackles.
When Julio Jones and Roddy White were healthy and playing in 2012, the Falcons got away with being a one-dimensional offense. That is no longer the case with injuries suffered by both wideouts this year. Having a good rushing attack at this point appears to be a pipe dream, but the Falcons must find a way to reach competency and some semblance of balance if there is any hope for their offense to stay afloat the rest of this season.
The Offensive Line Reverts to Being a Liability
It looked like the Falcons' offensive line was beginning to make small strides with their performances in recent weeks, but that progress was halted with a poor performance against the Cardinals.
Matt Ryan was sacked four times and hit 11 times on 65 dropbacks. Nearly all those plays came in the second half of the game, as the Cardinals defense was able to pin their ears back and get after Ryan, who dropped back to pass 38 times in the final two quarters.
Last week, the Falcons running backs combined for a paltry 30 yards on 15 carries against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Things only got worse this week with Falcons rushers combining for 14 yards on 13 carries.
Regardless of Ryan's poor performance, there is no way any quarterback can be expected to function and overcome protection that poor, nor a rushing game that pathetic. The Falcons need to look hard at a midseason shake-up to their starting five since the current guys simply aren't getting the job done.
Falcons Failed to Unleash Gonzalez
Between the four of them, Jared Cook, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen and Vernon Davis averaged 133.5 yards receiving against the Arizona Cardinals defense. With that sort of production given up to other tight ends, it appeared likely that Tony Gonzalez was poised to have another big day.
What ensued was a weak 26-yard effort on three catches for Gonzalez. In fact, that stat line is less productive than what the remaining three tight ends, Tim Wright, Zach Miller and Brandon Pettigrew, produced against the Cardinals defense.
It's clear, the Cardinals did make successful adjustments to correct their problem with defending tight ends. But it is equally clear the Falcons failed to take advantage of using their best weapon to attack one of the few weaknesses on the Arizona defense.
Until Roddy White is back in the lineup, the remaining Falcons receivers just aren't good enough to carry this offense if Gonzalez isn't going to have a big day.
The Falcons will need to figure something out to try and keep future opponents from effectively limiting the tight end's production. Because if the Cardinals are capable of accomplishing it given the season they've had defending tight ends, then there's reason to believe any and every team is capable of doing the same.
Douglas Has Another Productive Day
The stat sheet will portray Harry Douglas' performance as better than it was. But nonetheless, it was still a solid performance for the formerly maligned wide receiver in Atlanta.
He finished the game with 12 catches for 121 yards on 18 targets after a week where he had seven catches for a career-high 149 yards. The main difference is the lack of big plays from Douglas against the Cardinals versus the Buccaneers a week ago. Douglas had only one reception for more than 20 yards after three last week. And that lone play did not come until midway through the fourth quarter.
But on a day where there were few standout performances, Douglas' effort was one of the only bright spots for the Falcons offense and is something the Falcons can continue to build upon. If they can continue to get similar production from him while improving in other areas, things could be looking up for the Falcons offense in the second half of the season.
Big Plays Gashed the Falcons Defense
In contrast to the Falcons, the Cardinals offense was able to generate a number of big plays including several on the ground. Andre Ellington's 80-yard run where he bounced outside and went untouched for a score stands out. But Ellington had three more runs of 10 or more yards on the day, and fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor also got in the act with a 15-yard run of his own.
Throwing in a nine-yard scramble by Carson Palmer, the Cardinals combined for 201 rushing yards on 30 carries. It was the first time an opponent has put up 200 or more yards on the ground against the Falcons since December 2010.
The Falcons run defense did respond in the second half, holding the Cardinals to under 50 yards rushing on 17 carries. But it was too little, too late. The Cardinals first-half rushing success (153 yards) and other big plays, such as a 51-yard bomb to Teddy Williams led to early scores. The Falcons dug a hole for themselves early and were unable to dig themselves out, thanks to their second-half turnovers.
Falcons Young Corners Are Stepping Up
One of the few positives for the Falcons defense is the play of their secondary. While they did get exposed for that big play to Williams, for the most part, they had a fairly solid day.
The problem was more with the Falcons' inability to stop the run early in the game and their offense's inability to take advantage of the stops they were getting in the second half.
One thing that did emerge was the fact that the team may have found their permanent nickel corner in Robert Alford. While his stat line reads only two tackles and a pass breakup, he had a nice day. He was able to show confidence going up against a top wide receiver like Larry Fitzgerald, comparable to what Desmond Trufant showed last week when matched up on an island often against Vincent Jackson.
With the youth movement that has been forced to fill in, due to the injuries on defense, the Falcons are seeing positive results with their pair of rookie corners. Based off the flashes they've shown in the first seven games, they look like they have the makings of being a tough pair of bookends for years to come if they continue to ascend.
Special Teams Does Their Job
It would certainly appear that it's scraping the bottom of the barrel when you highlight the play of special teams in a 14-point road loss that seemingly ends a team's season. But when looking for positives from a game that saw few in the Falcons' favor, the special teams earned some recognition.
If the Falcons' mission was to keep dynamic return threat Patrick Peterson bottled up, then they accomplished their goal. Peterson had a pair of punt returns for minus-four yards.
If the Falcons' mission was to flip field position and force the Cardinals to have to drive the length of the field on several possessions, then they, again, accomplished their goal. The first two Cardinals possessions started inside their own 20-yard line after Matt Bosher's punts, and all three of his early kickoffs were touchbacks.
If the Falcons wanted to show they are capable of recovering an onside kick, then they, again, accomplished that goal. Bosher was able to recover his own kick after the Falcons' late fourth-quarter score. While the Falcons offense failed to capitalize, special teams did their job.
And finally, if the Falcons wanted to find a viable punt returner to replace Harry Douglas for the remainder of the season, they also accomplished that goal. Despite struggling at nickel cornerback through the first five games, Robert McClain now seems to have found a home on special teams.
He returned two punts for an average of 13.5 yards and also made an excellent play on another punt he did not return. He cleaned the clock of Justin Bethel, preventing the Cardinal cover man from downing a punt deep in Falcon territory.
If the Falcons special teams can maintain this level of play, and the rest of the team steps up for the remainder of the season, it should lead to a few more wins.