With a defensive unit ranked 28th in points allowed heading into their Week 10 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, it’s easy to look at the Atlanta Falcons and say their Achilles Heel is on that side of the ball.
But perhaps Sunday’s 24-15 loss to the Eagles exposed a more troublesome fatal flaw for the Falcons: the offensive line.
With Sunday’s loss added to the total, the Falcons’ record is now 1-3 in games in which the offense fails to eclipse 28 points.
That says a lot about how unreliable the Falcons defense has been, but 10 games into the 2016 season, there’s really no excuse to put any more faith in that unit. With the league’s No. 1 offense through nine games, every win (and loss) is largely going to hinge upon the offense’s ability to put up points.
The Eagles were successful in limiting that side of the ball with what was an underrated defense by many observers. It was easy to overlook after a lackluster first half against the New York Giants that saw multiple breakdowns in the Eagles secondary.
Yet the Eagles still ranked No. 1 according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings in terms of defensive efficiency going into this Sunday’s contest against the Falcons. Also a team statistic the correlates reasonably well to overall success in the standings is offensive and defensive passer rating. And the Eagles still sported the league’s fifth best unit in that regard after the Giants game.
Despite a porous secondary, the Eagles’ defensive success this year has hinged largely on their ability to put steady pressure on opposing quarterbacks and control the line of scrimmage. They did both against the Falcons on Sunday.
And that’s where questions about whether the Falcons’ vaunted offensive line might be more problematic than previously thought comes into play.
It wouldn’t be fair to put all of Sunday’s loss on the offensive line, since there were plenty of mistakes across the roster. Dropped passes, missed tackles and penalties proved problematic for the Falcons also on Sunday. It was by all measures a “team loss.”
But it’s concerning how much the Falcons offense seems to stall this season when they play good defenses. The Falcons converted just two of 12 third downs on Sunday, which combined with their totals against Denver and Seattle, the Falcons offense has converted just seven of 34 for a pathetic rate of 20.6 percent.
The Broncos, Seahawks and Eagles are easily the three best defensive units the team has faced this year, ranking 10th, third and sixth respectively in points allowed this season heading into Week 10. In terms of defensive passer rating this season, their ranks were first, sixth and fifth, respectively.
Their other seven matchups have led to the Falcons converting 37 of 78 third downs (47.4 percent), which would normally put an offense in the top three to five teams in almost any given year.
So clearly the Falcons’ third-down struggles aren’t because they are incapable of moving the chains in critical situations but rather they seem to struggle to do so against quality opponents.
One wonders how much of that rests on the play of the offensive line. According to NFL.com, the Falcons have given up the fourth most quarterback hits this season in 67. The team has also struggled to protect Ryan on critical downs, allowing the third worst rate of sacks on third and fourth downs combined through nine games.
Things become even more worrisome when looking at the upcoming matchups for the Falcons. After their bye next week, they will face the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs in consecutive weeks. Those two teams rank fourth and seventh, respectively, in points allowed this year (through Week Nine) and second and seventh in defensive passer rating.
They follow that up with another game against the Los Angeles Rams, who have a respectable defense as well ranking 12th in both points allowed and defensive passer rating through the first nine weeks of 2016.
All three teams are known to have formidable fronts helmed by a number of Pro Bowlers such as Calais Campbell, and Chandler Jones in Arizona, Justin Houston and Dontari Poe in Kansas City and Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald in Los Angeles.
If the Falcons offensive line cannot improve against quality defensive fronts, they could see their offense stagnate to some degree in the coming weeks. That could then put too much of a burden on a young, erratic defense to have to pull its portion of the weight to win the next few games.
The Falcons were the fourth-worst team in terms of defensive passer rating heading into this past Sunday’s loss against the Eagles. But it wasn’t so much Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz that proved dangerous for the Falcons defense, but instead the former’s running game.
The Falcons went into Sunday with the seventh-best run defense in the league, allowing just 91.2 yards rushing through their first nine outings in 2016.
In what amounted to the first real test for the Falcons run defense in 2016, the unit failed miserably by allowing the Eagles to rush for 207 yards on 38 carries on the ground. And that total includes three kneel downs for minus-three yards at the end of the game with the Eagles in victory formation.
Eagles running backs Ryan Mathews and Wendell Smallwood combined for 178 yards by themselves. Darren Sproles was quiet with just 19 yards on the ground, but contributed 57 yards in the air, second-most for the Eagles air attack.
The reason why this Eagles was the first legitimate test for the Falcons run defense was due to the fact that the latter hadn’t really faced an opponent that had an opportunity to remain committed to the run late in games.
Thanks to the offense’s play throughout this year, the Falcons’ young defense has been blessed to play a large portion of this season with a healthy lead.
Through the first nine weeks this season, the Falcons defense had only played 46 snaps while trailing in the second half, the second lowest in the league only behind the New England Patriots (35).
Against the Eagles on Sunday there were 28 such plays where the Falcons were behind in the second half, not including the three snaps in victory formation at the end. The Eagles ran the ball on 18 of those plays for a sickening 121 yards, an average of 6.7 yards per attempt.
That reveals just how effectively the Eagles were able to dominate the line of scrimmage, not only with their defense but also with their offensive line.
What may be most troubling about it all is how familiar it all seems in regards to the Falcons. Their tendency to get overmatched in the trenches was usually the Achilles Heel of the Mike Smith-led Falcons and was also too often problematic for Quinn’s team last season.
Thus why the team’s investment in center Alex Mack was such a big deal this offseason. The hope was that the additions also made along the front seven on the opposite side of the ball would pay off so that these games in which the Falcons got bulldozed in the trenches were a thing of the past.
One could certainly argue that this past Sunday’s game was just one game and it by no means that the Falcons remain “soft” up front. But nonetheless it continued a pattern of play that has been hinted at throughout the 2016 season. That pattern was most apparent in the Seahawks game and to a lesser extent against opponents like the San Diego Chargers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Broncos. Those teams moreso than others the Falcons faced this year, were successful in controlling the line of scrimmage at times, and it was highly effective in slowing down the Falcons highly potent offense.
Despite that, a lot of the Falcons’ success this year has hinged on their ability to dial up big plays. That was what seemingly helped them out against both the Seahawks and Broncos when the Falcons were unable to consistently move the chains on third downs.
It nearly did so again against the Eagles with Taylor Gabriel scoring on a 76-yard touchdown to give the Falcons a 15-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons continued to take shots down the field in subsequent drives to either extend or regain that lead, but they were unable to capitalize. It’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult to be overly critical about Kyle Shanahan’s aggressive play-calling or the throws made by Ryan late in the game, since it has been so often the offense’s “bread and butter” in 2016.
Jones dropped a wide-open pass on third down with just under six minutes to go that should have been at least a 25-yard completion, putting the Falcons in Eagles territory and scoring position.
On their next possession, a well-designed 29-yard wheel route to running back Devonta Freeman was wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty against Josh Perkins due to the rookie tight end doing a very poor job selling the pick he was trying to engineer against linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
The Falcons could have difficulty getting back on track in terms of generating those explosive plays in the near future as the Cardinals, Chiefs and Rams are relatively stingy in that department.
These next three games will be a very good litmus test to see just how good the Falcons are at imposing their will on their opponents rather than the other way around, as it was against the Eagles.
All three of the Falcons’ next opponents could possess similar tools that the Eagles employed to slow down the Falcons offense as all three sport potentially formidable defensive fronts and also have run-oriented offensive attacks. The Eagles’ strong running game was able to possess the ball for a full 38 minutes, including 11½ minutes in the third quarter where the Falcons have done their best to outscore opponents in 2016 by a combined margin of 56 points in their first nine games.
The Chiefs and Rams both having running games that have disappointed for much of this year, but would love to use the Falcons defense as a springboard to success down the stretch. Arizona’s offense of course features running back David Johnson, who leads the entire league in yards from scrimmage.
So it’s going to come down to Dan Quinn and his coaching staff buckling down this week during their time off by challenging the defense to step up their game, and quit relying on the offense so much.
If both the Falcons offense and defense can successfully navigate these next three games against Arizona, Kansas City and Los Angeles coming off the bye, then their last three opponents against San Francisco, Carolina and New Orleans don’t present alarming matchups.
That’s not to suggest those final three games will be cakewalks (by now you should know that really doesn’t exist in the NFL), but those are all opponents that don’t offer as imposing fronts as the previous opponents. And if the Falcons can survive the likes of Chandler Jones, Dontari Poe, Aaron Donald, etc. they should be able to survive whatever the 49ers, Panthers and Saints can throw at them.
It may ultimately not even boil down to the Falcons offense proving more efficient at converting on third downs against those teams. They just might have to do a better job moving the chains on first and second downs in order to avoid those problematic third-down situations, where the offensive line could get exposed.
Sometimes success isn’t done by actually improving upon a weakness, but simply avoiding the situations that expose said flaw.
It’ll be worth watching to see if the Falcons overcome these issues in the coming games. With a two-game lead within their division and an eye towards the postseason, the Falcons’ success (or failure) could be a strong determining factor to just how far this team can go in 2016.