The Atlanta Falcons suffered their first home-opening loss in the Matt Ryan Era, losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 31-24 yesterday. The Falcons had previously been 8-0 in home-openers with Ryan under center but that streak came to end on Sunday.
If attempting to summarize one of the key reasons why the Falcons’ streak was snapped, their failures in taking advantage of scoring opportunities and making a few too many mistakes immediately come to mind.
Those opportunities refer to the big plays that the Falcons had or potentially could have had as well as the times they found themselves in the red zone and unable to punch it in for a touchdown.
Any long-time reader of this website probably knows about the high level of emphasis that I put on big plays. That’s because of the strong correlation I’ve discovered over a team’s ability to score points on drives that include plays of 20 or more yards. That correlation was on fully display on Sunday for both teams.
Big Plays Paint Separate Portraits For Bucs and Falcons
Both the Falcons and Bucs each had four drives that included a play that gained 20 or more yards. Also for both teams they all resulted in a score. Additionally each team was only able to score on just one of their seven other possessions that did not include a big play, which discounts possessions that were simply kneeldowns. That basically means that each team was seven times as likely to score on a drive that included a big play than they were on other drives.
But the big difference was that the Bucs were able to turn their big plays into touchdowns while the Falcons were settling mostly for field goals. On their four scoring drives, the Bucs scored 28 points while the Falcons had a lowly 17 points with only one touchdown (with two-point conversion) included.
The Falcons lone big-play touchdown came on a 25-yard catch and run by wide receiver Julio Jones in the third quarter. Meanwhile the Bucs got three touchdowns directly on big plays including a 23-yard reception by running back Charles Sims, a 30-yard grab by tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and a 45-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Mike Evans.
Meanwhile the Falcons’ big plays were getting them into the red zone, as three of their four big-play drives resulted in red-zone opportunities, with the only exception being the Jones score. On their seven other drives, the Falcons managed only one red-zone opportunity and that was only because they began the drive inside the 20 thanks to an interception by cornerback Desmond Trufant that started that series at the Bucs 13-yard line.
These stats should make it clearer that big plays were pivotal as to why one team won the game and the other lost. That doesn’t mean there weren’t several other factors, but it does help paint a more expressive portrait of how and why the Falcons came up short in their first game of the 2016 season.
This is further evidenced by the team’s second big play of the game, which came off a 47-yard catch and run by running back Tevin Coleman late in the second quarter. This put the Falcons in prime position to extend their lead 17-10 before halftime after Coleman was dragged down at the Bucs 10-yard line. But that’s where the Falcons offense ground to a halt.
Two plays later the team tried a misdirection play with a delayed shovel pass to running back Devonta Freeman, but he was wrapped up by Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for a five-yard loss. That was an unfortunate mistake but not a drive-killing one. The Falcons would still have a scoring opportunity on 3rd-and-goal from the 12-yard line on the next play. But left tackle Jake Matthews was flagged for a false start, pushing the Falcons back five additional yards just as the two-minute warning hit. That actually completely changed the tenor of the drive.
Last season the Falcons were able to successfully convert 35 percent of their third-down plays with 10 to 12 yards to go to get a first down. So the odds were long but not impossible with the Falcons facing a 3rd-and-12 pre-penalty. However once Matthews was flagged and pushed the Falcons back to a 3rd-and-goal from the 17-yard line, their odds of converting were essentially halved. In 2015, the Falcons converted just two of 13 third downs (15 percent) that had 15 or more yards to go.
Thus it’s somewhat understandable why the Falcons chose to call a draw play to Tevin Coleman because one of those two conversions last year came off a draw play to Coleman on a 3rd-and-15 against the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2015 season-opener. Unfortunately there was no Roddy White to deliver a perfectly timed block to spring Coleman on the second level for a 20-yard gain in this year’s opener, instead with Coleman being bottled up for a one-yard gain.
The Falcons settled for three points instead of seven of that drive, but still should have been comfortable with a three-point lead to take into halftime. Unfortunately the Bucs still had something to prove in the final 105 seconds of the first half.
Thanks in part to a pair of third-down conversions, the Bucs were able to move the ball 55 yards into Falcons territory in about 60 seconds. That was followed shortly by the second big play of the Bucs, a 23-yard catch and run by Sims that resulted in him avoiding five different Falcons defenders.
It was just another mistake the Falcons made that came back to bite them. At the point when Sims made the grab, he already had a first down on the 2nd-and-3 play. But at that moment there were four Falcon defenders between him and the end zone with two more (Jonathan Babineaux and Brian Poole) trailing behind. None of them managed to make the tackle and the Bucs score was able to swing the game’s momentum completely in their favor by now taking a 17-13 lead to go into halftime.
The Bucs built off that momentum to start the second half with a quick four-play scoring drive that included two passes of 20 or more yards. First Jameis Winston hit Mike Evans on a deep back-shoulder throw that included a slight nudge by the big receiver to create that much-needed last-second separation against Falcons cornerback Robert Alford. That big play put the ball firmly in Falcons territory, which was followed up by a scoring strike from Winston to Seferian-Jenkins from 30 yards out. Seferian-Jenkins got by Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and made an excellent diving grab. That play saw the Bucs taking full advantage of their big-play opportunities to push their lead to 24-13 to start the third quarter.
The Falcons started their next series well with a 19-yard catch and run by Jones on the first play from scrimmage. But the team failed to take advantage afterwards with too many mistakes. Three plays later McCoy backed the Falcons up once more with a sack on Ryan that was only nullified by a silly celebration penalty afterwards.
Ryan’s next throw was a botched screen to Coleman, who seemingly went the wrong way on a screen pass, releasing to the right when all his blockers released to the left. That allowed Bucs linebacker Lavonte David a free path to make one of the easiest tackles for loss of his career, dropping Coleman for a five-yard loss.
Given it’s doubtful that Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is innovating screen plays that ask intended receivers to run away from blocking, it’s easiest to conclude that Coleman screwed up. That error pushed the Falcons back to another long 3rd-and-14 that they failed to convert, leading to a punt.
One could continue to illustrate further missed opportunities such as a 34-yard deep pass to Jones later in the game that was broken up or the sustained errors such as a personal foul penalty on Alford that extended a Bucs drive, but listing all those instances would only belabor the point that the Falcons didn’t play great football and it cost them a win.
And while there isn’t a direct causality, there’s probably a high correlation between the team’s inability to capitalize on big plays and an untimely injury to Jones.
Jones Injury Likely Contributed Greatly to Falcons Offensive Struggles
Jones is without a doubt the team’s biggest playmaker but he was an unreliable and invisible option for most of Sunday’s game against the Bucs. He was targeted only twice during the first half of the game, which was the lowest since the season-opening overtime win against the New Orleans Saints to kick off the 2014 season.
It’s doubtful that lack of first-half impact it was due purely to the outstanding scheming by Bucs defensive coordinator and former Falcons head coach Mike Smith or due to top-shelf play by Bucs cornerbacks, although there’s a good probability those things factored into Jones’ quiet performance.
Instead one should suspect is that Jones entered Sunday’s game a lot more injured than the team let on. It’s too hard to believe that the wide receiver that led the league with 203 targets last year was accidentally an afterthought early on since it looked as if the Falcons were purposefully designing plays away from Jones.
That is exactly what they did in their Week Four contest against the Houston Texans last year when Jones was reportedly healthy yet finished with a season-low six targets. That game also featured a big performance from former Falcons wideout Leonard Hankerson to the tune of six catches for 103 yards and a touchdown.
This is perfectly illustrated on the team’s second possession after Mohamed Sanu’s big 59-yard catch and run. Immediately following that play the Falcons ran a screen to Sanu that featured Jones blocking for him. Then they tried a swing pass to Justin Hardy on the next play that also had Jones serving as a blocker rather than receiver.
In what universe is Julio Jones not the normal recipient of at least one of those plays? Certainly not one that shares time and space with some version of Shanahan that is coordinating the Falcons offense.
Jones’ ankle injury wasn’t so debilitating that he could not play and run some routes, but it’s extremely telling how little of the Falcons offense was designed to go his way. Especially given how readily the Bucs were giving him free releases off the line. The last time the Falcons found themselves behind entering the third quarter and their opponent was letting Jones get off the line of scrimmage with little to no jamming, he put up 137 second-half yards.
It all suggests that Jones’ primary role on Sunday was as a decoy and that
possibility reality also probably contributed to why the Falcons struggled to convert in the red zone.
Last season Jones saw 21 targets on 151 red-zone plays, representing roughly one seventh of the team’s offense in that area of the field. He converted five of those plays into touchdowns for a conversion rate of 24 percent. The rest of the Falcons offense converted 24 touchdowns on their other 130 plays, a rate of little more than 18 percent, indicating that Jones should easily be considered the team’s most valuable red-zone option.
On Sunday the Falcons had 14 plays from scrimmage in the red zone against the Bucs. Odds are that at least one or two of those plays should have been designed plays to Jones. Albeit without looking at the All-22, it appeared that none of those plays were designed to get Jones the ball. The closest example to a play designed for Jones appeared to be the team’s final red-zone play that saw Ryan throw to Coleman underneath. It seemed that that was an opportunity for Ryan to try and hit Jones in the end zone had he not be as quick on the trigger. But even that isn’t necessarily a designed play for Jones, just rather one that featured him as a favored option.
Instead his primary role in the red zone seemed to be as a decoy to open up opportunities for other players by drawing coverages. For example on Sanu’s touchdown grab, Jones can be seen crossing the field to draw an extra defender to make sure Sanu gets a one-on-one situation against cornerback Brent Grimes.
It’s troubling then to realize that Jones further tweaked the same left ankle late in the game on a deep pass broken up by Bucs safety Bradley McDougald. He returned to the game and was quick to indicate afterwards that his injury wasn’t anything to get worried over. Although it’s hard to fully take Jones completely at his word especially since his post-game comments seemed to only definitively indicate that he was prepared to play at less than 100 percent in the coming weeks.
If there is a positive that Jones’ limited presence highlighted on Sunday, it was that the team won’t necessarily be solely reliant on him to generate big plays moving forward. Both Sanu and Coleman got involved with a couple of big plays, suggesting that the Falcons have additional playmakers to turn to if Jones’ injury lingers beyond this week.
However on top of the questions surrounding Jones’ health, now the Falcons also have to deal an injury to Sanu that he suffered late in the game after stumbling coming out of a break with the Falcons trying to tie the game in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
The severity of that injury is unknown as of yet, but Sanu was seen limping heavily after the game. Hopefully it’s also one that won’t linger and debilitate the offense significantly in the coming weeks.
That’s important because the Falcons aren’t set to see many breaks anytime soon on their schedule. They go on the road the next two weeks against the Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints, respectively, followed by a home game against the Carolina Panthers before another two-game road stand against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
The latter three opponents featured some of the league’s premier defenses a year ago and the Raiders are an up-and-coming group that is trying to crack the upper echelon. The Falcons really can’t afford any additional handicaps that injuries to Jones or Sanu might present given the increasing quality of competition.
Hopefully neither of those injuries are too serious but regardless the Falcons are going to have to find ways to play better football. One way will be reversing what happened on Sunday against the Buccaneers by doing a better job taking advantage of their big-play and red-zone opportunities and another is limiting their own incessant mistakes like penalties, missed tackles and botched play calls.
If they can do those things, the Falcons’ 2016 season should start to look up. However if not and they have injuries to key players on top of their other many shortcomings, this may be a team that is in for one of the rougher seasons they’ve experienced in an ever-growing series of fairly hard-to-swallow years.