Falcons vs. Panthers: Takeaways from Atlanta's 34-10 Loss to Carolina
The Falcons kept it relatively close and competitive unlike previous losses, as the game was within one score until midway through the fourth quarter. Then the Panthers were able to put up three scores in the final nine minutes of the game and blow up the scoreboard.
Now officially at the midpoint through the 2013 season, the Falcons' record stands at 2-6 and will need an improbable second-half comeback to even sniff the playoffs. Instead of playing for the postseason, the Falcons have reached a point in their season where they are simply playing for pride and respect.
As they do so in the second half of the year, there will be both positives and negatives that they can take away from Sunday's game.
Falcons Offense Taking Steps Backwards
Looking at the numbers going into Sunday, it would appear that the Falcons sporting the 22nd-ranked scoring defense as opposed to the 15th-ranked offense was their biggest liability.
Well, their fortunes were reversed against Carolina. Despite the Panthers scoring 34 points, the Falcons defense held strong for much of the game and allowed the Falcons numerous opportunities to tie it or take the lead throughout the second half.
But instead, the Falcons offense put up only 289 total net yards, its third consecutive game finishing below 300 total yards.
That number is significant given that the Falcons only had four total such games under 300 yards last season.
It's not a coincidence that the past three weeks the Falcons have been without both top wide receivers in Julio Jones and Roddy White, and they have struggled to move the ball offensively. Jones is done for the season of course, but White could potentially return next week against the Seattle Seahawks. He was inactive today, but did seem to make some progress late in the week in his recovery from his ankle and hamstring injuries.
Matt Ryan Is Plagued Again by Turnovers
His first came on the opening drive by the Falcons in which Ryan forced a throw to Tony Gonzalez into coverage. Luke Kuechly was in perfect position to step in front of the throw and get the pick.
His next interception came once again when Ryan threw into coverage, but this time his target in Harry Douglas was open. But Ryan's throw was a bit too far out in front of Douglas, who tipped the ball into the waiting arms of Thomas Davis.
His final pick may have been his most egregious one, where he tried to throw a quick out to Drew Davis in the fourth quarter. Drayton Florence read the throw the entire way and picked it off for a 38-yard return and score. It marked Ryan's first pick-six since Week 5 of last season.
This Falcon offense cannot deal with turnovers on top of their other struggles.
Falcons Wide Receivers Struggle to Get Open
One of the reasons for the struggles on offense has been the Falcons wide receivers' inability to separate from coverage.
In a game where the Falcons gave Matt Ryan good protection, the Falcons quarterback continually checked down throws to his running backs. Jacquizz Rodgers and Steven Jackson combined for nine catches, nearly half of Ryan's 20 completions.
His wide receivers, on the other hand, only combined for five catches. Three of which came by Harry Douglas, who only really showed life on a pair of catches for 41 and 32 yards.
Whether Ryan's numerous checkdowns were because his receivers weren't getting open or because of his own lack of faith in them when they were, the message is clear that the Falcons need somebody that can consistently make plays on the outside.
Tony Gonzalez and the backs formed the bulk of Ryan's targets on third downs throughout the game. Ryan finally completed a third-down pass to Douglas in the final minute of the game, having only targeted him once before in such a situation.
If the Falcons get White back into the lineup next week, it could be a huge boost to the Falcons offense because it will give the team a receiver that Ryan definitely trusts.
Steven Jackson and the Ground Game Get Back on Track
One of the few positives for the Falcons offense on the day was its ability to move the ball on the ground. Running backs Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers combined for 76 yards on 18 carries.
That comes after Falcons running backs have combined for 30 and 14 yards, respectively, in consecutive weeks.
Given the toughness of the Carolina Panthers front, their success gives hope that there is a possibility the Falcons can become a more balanced offense in the coming weeks. They lead the league in terms of percentage of passing plays called on offense, indicating that there is no balance to their offense.
The Falcons offensive line was challenged to improve this week and seemed to answer the call to open holes for Jackson. The 30-year-old running back flashed his trademark power with a couple of nice runs. There are still areas where the unit needs to improve, as Jackson had a touchdown run wiped out by a holding call on Garrett Reynolds. That would have been Jackson's first rushing touchdown since joining the Falcons.
But that at least gives them something to work on for next week.
Wait, How Old Is Tony Gonzalez?
The answer is that Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez is 37 years old. The 16-year veteran still looks spry and capable at his age.
Today, he was the team's leading receiver with six catches for 81 yards, as the Falcons seemed to make a strong effort to get him the ball early and often.
A lot of buzz centered around Gonzalez this week as the trade deadline passed on Tuesday. Various reports in the preceding days suggested that the veteran tight end was "open" to a trade, although Gonzalez continually denied ever asking for one.
Well, judging from his play on Sunday, it was a smart move for the Falcons to not move him as he almost single-handedly carried the Falcons passing attack and kept them in the game for most of it. Until White's return, Gonzalez is undoubtedly the Falcons best option in the passing game. It will behoove him to keep finding ways to get him the ball to try and restore this offense back to its previous form as a strength.
Falcons Pass Protection Improves
As noted earlier, Matt Ryan was protected well by the Falcons offensive line against a formidable Carolina Panthers pass rush.
Ryan was sacked only once, coming late in the fourth quarter where the Panthers were already up 21 points and could pin their ears back in the final seven minutes.
The improvement in pass protection could have had something to do with the return of left tackle Sam Baker to the lineup, although the unit had been slowly but surely trending up over the past month without Baker.
This "win" by the Falcons offensive line could inspire much-needed confidence going into next week's contest against the Seattle Seahawks, where they will be once again tested by a formidable group of pass rushers.
Defense Is Able to Dial Up Pressure but Not on Third Downs
One of the intriguing stories of this game seemed to be the contrast in how well-protected Matt Ryan was versus how much heat Panthers quarterback Cam Newton saw.
While the Falcons only finished the game with one sack and four hits on Newton, he did seem to be under duress early in the game which threw off his timing a bit.
Another fascinating aspect of the game was the Falcons defense's inability to get off the field in 3rd-and-long situations. The Panthers converted all four of their third-down tries with seven or more yards to go.
They were 4-of-10 on all their other third-down tries. Obviously while the Falcons were able to get some pressure, it wasn't enough in those obvious passing situations on 3rd-and-long to get Carolina's offense off the field.
Such 3rd-and-long situations are usually advantageous for the defense, but it seems to be the opposite for the Falcons. Even though the Falcons defense had flashed a better output today, that is something they will still need to improve the rest of the year.
Falcons Are Uncharacteristically Undisciplined
The Falcons have been known for their disciplined play over the years under head coach Mike Smith. In both 2010 and 2012, they finished the year as the least-penalized team in the NFL. And they had top-10 finishes in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Going into Sunday, the Falcons were ranked 16th in the league, averaging 6.4 penalties per game, according to TeamRankings.com. They added seven penalties for 59 yards on the day, continuing to have an inordinately high number of penalties.
A holding call on Garrett Reynolds nullified a touchdown for the team at the outset of the second quarter. The Falcons wound up settling for a field goal on that drive.
The team also had three defensive penalties on third downs that gift wrapped first downs for Carolina. Two of which came on Panther scoring drives.
These costly mental errors are going to have to end, and the Falcons will have to get back to the disciplined play if they want to start winning games in the second half of the season.
Young Cornerbacks Continue to Impress
While two of those costly third-down penalties came at the expense of rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, he and fellow rookie Robert Alford finished the day with fairly impressive performances as both tallied interceptions.
Trufant's pick marked the first of his NFL career and came on an overthrow by Newton on a deep pass to Ted Ginn in the second quarter.
Alford's came on another overthrow by Newton at the end of the first half, where he made an excellent toe-tapping catch in the back of the end zone. It was initially ruled an incompletion, but the officials reviewed it and overturned their initial call.
While both young corners have experienced their share of growing pains this year, both have flashed excellent potential. In conjunction with veteran Asante Samuel, Falcons corners held Panthers top wideout Steve Smith to four catches and 52 yards.
And if they can start creating more turnovers as they did today, it's possible the Falcons defense could begin to make major strides in the second half of this season.
The team's lack of turnovers is a big difference between 2012 and this current season's defensive slide. At the midpoint a year ago, the Falcons had created 17 turnovers on defense. This year, that number has fallen to eight. Any added opportunities this defense can create for the struggling Falcons offense will be very beneficial in the coming weeks.