With their 23-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week Four, the Atlanta Falcons’ last two losses have come at the hands of top-ranked defenses from the AFC East.
While the fact that the Bills and New England Patriots both hailed from the same division is probably a coincidence, there is still something worthwhile to glean from the fact that both teams sported defensive units that sat atop the league rankings at the time of their matchup against the Falcons.
It speaks volumes to the narrative that a great defense can slow down a great offense. However, calling either the Bills or Patriots units “great” may not apply by many’s standards, the fact of the matter is that both were more than great enough to keep the Falcons from earning a win.
The Bills handing the Falcons their first loss of the 2017 season resurrects concerns over whether the Falcons offense is poised to suffer from regression under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. It comes after two strong performances by the offense that ended such questions after a lackluster opening-week performance against the Chicago Bears.
Yet it is tough to be overly critical of Sarkisian given the hand he was dealt. Facing a top-ranked defense without a full deck of cards is certainly a disadvantage, given that the Falcons lost both starting wide receivers in Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu for the second half and were also without starting right tackle Ryan Schraeder from the start.
It would be a tough task going up against any defense without those weapons, let alone the Bills. The Bills went into the week ranked seventh in the league in terms of generating sacks on 8.3 percent of their opponent’s dropbacks. They managed to drop Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan only one time but hit him seven times.
The Bills defense allowed a passer rating of just 64.9 through three games, the fourth-best unit heading into Sunday. They held Ryan to a passer rating of 61.8, a far cry from his 99.2 rating through the first three weeks. Losing his starting receivers definitely hurt the Falcons passer, who had a combined rating of 55.0 when throwing to reserves Justin Hardy and Nick Williams.
However with Jones and Sanu active in the first half and Taylor Gabriel playing the entire game, Ryan still had a combined passer rating of 7.6 to his three top wideouts. When looking at the numbers, it was clear that Ryan missed Jones the most. His passer rating on four throws to Jones in the first half was 95.8, while it dipped to 42.4 on three passes to Sanu and an eye-popping zero rating on five passes to Gabriel.
The Bills’ young corners in Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines were very effective in keeping both Sanu and Gabriel in check. According to Pro Football Focus, the pair had a combined passer rating allowed of 45.1 heading into the week.
It all raises concerns over whether the Falcons have reverted back to their pre-2016 reality when their offense revolved heavily around the play and performances of top wideout Jones.
In 2015, Ryan’s passer rating on throws to Jones was a whopping 105.3. His rating on throws to every other receiver on the Falcons roster was a combined 81.1.
That extreme dropoff wasn’t truly the case against the Bills on Sunday, as Ryan was successfully able to distribute the ball to his running backs and tight ends, sporting a passer rating of 99.4 on throws to those players.
But a key element of the Falcons offensive success last year was the fact that they didn’t require Jones to have to produce at high levels to still be explosive on offense. But the Falcons were anything but explosive on Sunday.
Tevin Coleman produced all three of the team’s plays of 20 or more yards, with two of them coming on runs. The team’s lone big play in the air came on a 39-yard heave from Ryan to Coleman along the sideline that was only completed thanks to Coleman’s magnetic hands. That play helped facilitate a score at the end of the first half.
But the Falcons failed to dial up any big plays through the air the rest of the afternoon and not coincidentally struggled to score. Ryan failed to complete any of the other four deep shots he took on Sunday, with two of them resulting in interceptions.
It’s no mere coincidence that the two games in which Sarkisian’s play-calling have been questioned the most thus far this year were games in which the Falcons struggled to connect on their deep throws.
While Sark can’t be blamed for Ryan’s failure to connect on his downfield throws, the reality is that when his quarterback is off, it becomes paramount that the play-caller can find ways to dial up explosive plays in some capacity.
When he cannot, the Falcons offense goes from one of the league’s most dangerous to one of the league’s most mundane as the differing results of 2015 and 2016 can attest. The struggles of the offense in the former year versus the latter year can be owed partially to their inability to dial up explosive plays.
Whether deserved or not, the offensive coordinator will carry a heavy burden of blame when this offense doesn’t produce at expected levels, as Sark’s predecessor in Kyle Shanahan can attest. And that predecessor’s success means that the standards upon which the Falcons play-caller is judged are considerably elevated. Certainly raised beyond the normal standards that a first-year offensive coordinator like Sarkisian with minimal professional coaching experience would be held to.
Sark’s inability to dial up big plays wasn’t his only “sin” on Sunday, as much of the focus in the coming two weeks will likely be focused on his last two plays calls where the Falcons opted to throw it twice on third and fourth down with one yard to go with under a minute to go in the game.
While I personally don’t completely fault Sarkisian for opting to throw rather than run, attempting at least one run in that situation probably would have been a smart call. With it guaranteed that the Falcons would attempt to go for it on fourth down, opting to run it on third down was potentially worthwhile, especially since their leading running back Devonta Freeman has not failed to convert a third-down run all year long. But even more damning was the decision to go max protect with only two receiving options for Ryan on fourth down.
That play looked like the Bills had successfully made an adjustment to stop the Falcons impending slants after calling a timeout. The Falcons seemingly came out with the exact same play they were likely to run had the Bills not burned their last timeout. And that raises questions about whether Sarkisian’s inexperience burned the Falcons there with Bills head coach Sean McDermott able to anticipate and thwart that final play call.
Those questions will linger a bit longer with the Falcons poised to be off next week due to their bye. They can answer those concerns by coming out in Week Six and thrashing a struggling Miami Dolphins team at home.
If they do, then this week’s loss will be seen as a lone hiccup that occurred thanks to facing off against a quality defense without a full complement of weapons. If not, then there’s likely to be more columns like this reexamining the offensive play-calling and performances throughout 2017.
Only time will tell which narrative will be written.