Atlanta Falcons Must Find Offensive Identity to Stay Afloat in NFC South

Aaron Freeman@falcfansContributor IOctober 28, 2013

Oct 27, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks on during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

With the Atlanta Falcons coming off a disappointing 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, it would appear that their season is over.

The possibility of making a run at the playoffs has essentially ended now that they find themselves at 2-5 and near the bottom of the NFC.

But while it is easy for outsiders to say that the Falcons are "done," internally the team must still find ways of competing for the remaining nine games this year. And they will accomplish that by trying to find a new identity to build around.

The offensive identity of the Falcons a year ago on their way to the NFC Championship Game was a highly efficient passing attack led by quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Truthfully, there was little else to like about that 2012 Falcons team. Their running game was among the league's worst, and their defense was average. But the latter was highly opportunistic with turnovers, giving that passing attack more scoring opportunities.

Fast-forward a year, and the Falcons are now a completely different team.

A season-ending injury to Jones and a season-limiting one to White have eliminated the Falcons' passing attack from overcoming what remains a weak rushing game. The defense isn't generating many turnovers and is now being exposed as one of the weaker units in the league.

At this point, the defense might be considered a lost cause. The Falcons have too much youth on that side of the ball and not enough top-level playmakers to compensate.

Veterans like Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux and Asante Samuel are over the hill and frankly on their last legs. Expecting them to elevate their games at this point in their careers simply would not be fair to them.

And let's face it, the Falcons invested $100 million in quarterback Matt Ryan a few months ago, and the bullseye is on his and the offense's collective backs to elevate their play. But in order to do so, the Falcons must find a different way to win than what they were accustomed to doing a year ago.

Not only does the Falcons rushing attack remain a weakness, it's actually gotten weaker. The Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in terms of rushing yards and rushing attempts. They are the most unbalanced team in the NFL, running the ball a league-low 28.8 percent of the time.

And sans a playmaker like Jones on the outside, their passing game just isn't good enough to compensate.

The Falcons were able to generate a few big passing plays thanks to some coverage breakdowns against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7, but they could not against a stingier Arizona Cardinals defense this past week. The Falcons settled for a lot of short throws and really had no dynamic presence on the field.

When the Falcons get a healthy Roddy White back in the lineup, it will certainly help. But White's ability to generate big plays last season rested largely on the presence of Julio Jones on the opposite side of the field drawing coverages.

White's 14.7-yard-per-reception average last year was a sharp uptick from the three previous seasons, when the Falcons offense was known for limited ability to generate explosive plays. Then, the Falcons could lean on a running back like Michael Turner to compensate, an impossible proposition given the current state of their rushing attack.

The Falcons must find ways to generate big plays in the passing game. Relying on screens and pick routes in the hopes that a speedster like Harry Douglas can break one wide open won't accomplish that goal.

Matt Ryan flees from pressure against Arizona.
Matt Ryan flees from pressure against Arizona.

Part of the problem is that the Falcons don't trust their pass protection enough to allow Ryan to make the deeper drops often required for deep passes.

The hope has always been that whatever early struggles the offensive line went through this season would subside as the unit jelled down the stretch. The Falcons have found very little success against the good defensive lines they've faced this year, and things only look to get worse. They have upcoming matchups against the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks over the next two weeks.

If the Falcons have to use max protect more, then so be it. But they must give Ryan more time in the pocket and allow the lesser Falcon receivers more time to get downfield.

But at the end of the day, players like Drew Davis, Darius Johnson and Harry Douglas are not going to suddenly morph into playmakers like Jones or White. And the Falcons must find a way to be more balanced, with much of that resting on the offensive line.

The Falcons aren't creating any push up front. If the current five are incapable of creating lanes for the running backs, then perhaps the Falcons need to find a new starting five.

The Falcons have reached the point in the year where it might be time to start evaluating a lot of their young talent. A player like undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder might deserve some looks. Perhaps the Falcons might want to look to rotate and platoon him into the lineup for a couple of series in the upcoming games to evaluate him.

Schraeder flashed promise during the summer. With his size and toughness, he might be a better option at either tackle than current starters Lamar Holmes and Jeremy Trueblood. Sam Baker should be healthy soon, but Baker has always been a weak link in terms of his run-blocking, so his return to the lineup is unlikely to help matters.

The Falcons have to add some toughness and balance to their offense with a healthier ground attack. And if the current blockers aren't capable of doing it, then the Falcons need to look at options elsewhere.

If the problem was an easy one, it would have been solved by now. Whether it's shuffling the offensive line, running the ball more or throwing more downfield, the Falcons must find something that they do well offensively to hang their hat on for the rest of this year.

And throwing short, underneath passes to Douglas, Gonzalez or White is not going to be good enough.

They have to find something they can dial up that can keep them competitive in upcoming football games, or else it's going to result in several more lopsided losses like they suffered against Arizona.


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