The story behind the Atlanta Falcons 20-17 loss to the Miami Dolphins was one written by the team’s inability to overcome.
The Falcons defense was unable to overcome the relatively simple task of slowing down a Dolphins offense that was among the league’s worst. Yet the team’s offense was unable to overcome the much tougher task of facing a Dolphins defense among the league’s best units.
It should force all fans and observers to have to seriously reconsider this team’s ability to live up to lofty expectations placed upon this season.
Against Miami, a stagnant Atlanta offense is the lesser sin given the quality of the Dolphins defense.
But the Falcons offense reached new levels of stagnation on Sunday. Four second-half possessions consisted of a pair of three-and-outs, a botched punt and a game-sealing interception. One of those miscues is more on the special teams than the offense, but it also capped off a drive that saw the Falcons move the ball before going backward with offensive-line breakdowns thanks to penalties and giving up sacks.
Questions surround new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, given the relatively high expectations that he’d be somewhat able to carry the torch from his predecessor Kyle Shanahan in producing a high-flying, potent Falcons offensive attack. That has not been the case for most of the 2017 season with a pair of 30-plus-point outings against the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in Weeks two and three while averaging less than 20 points in their other three games combined.
The Falcons have been explosive this year and continued to showcase competence in that arena on Sunday against the Dolphins with four plays that gained 20 or more yards, pushing their season total to 19 such plays. Unfortunately that pales in comparison to where the Falcons were a year ago with 29 big plays through their first five games while pacing the league by the end of Week Six with 33 big plays on offense.
Judging in a vacuum, middling, competent, decent, capable or okay could be words worthy of describing Sarkisian’s performance through the first five games. There have been some highs and lows but for the most part, there has been more good than bad with this Falcons offense.
However Sarkisian isn’t being judged in a vacuum as he’s being measured against his predecessor. And right now, there just isn’t any comparison.
The 19 big plays are notable because that’s exactly how many explosive plays the Falcons had through the first five games of their 2015 season, Shanahan’s first year calling plays in Atlanta.
That first year was marred by an offense prone to turnovers, three-and-outs and erratic performances that led to many fans wanting to fire Shanahan. Just like Sarkisian is today, Shanahan was then measured against his predecessor Dirk Koetter, who a year before had produced one of the more explosive Falcons offenses we had seen thus far during Matt Ryan’s career in Atlanta.
The parallels are easy to make and therefore the lesson should be that Sarkisian needs to be compared with Shanahan’s first season in Atlanta instead of the second when everything clicked.
That doesn’t absolve Sarkisian of needing to do a better job, given that his shortcomings are contributing to losses. As it should be noted that after building a 17-0 lead against the Dolphins, the Falcons were blanked in the second half. That’s notable because as a first-time NFL assistant, it’s likely the adjustments where Sarkisian is struggling the most.
Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke may also be a first-year defensive play-caller, but he’s been an assistant patrolling NFL sidelines and booths since 2004. Thus, Burke paid his dues in the NFL. Meanwhile Sarkisian’s only NFL experience came in 2004 as a quarterback coach for the Oakland Raiders. He’s spent the intervening years at the collegiate level not making adjustments against NFL defenses.
That’s even more noteworthy upon realizing the Falcons have yet to produce an offensive touchdown in the third quarter this season. Their lone touchdown in the third quarter in 2017 was a defensive touchdown against the Packers in Week Two. Else, they’ve produced just nine points in five games.
But part of the reason why the Falcons have produced so little points in the third quarter this year has been their inability to possess the ball. Some of that has to be blamed on the offense’s inability to sustain drives. But the team’s defense also shares some culpability with their inability to get off the field. This season opponents have dominated time of possession with a combined 47 minutes and 14 seconds of possession versus the Falcons’ own 27 minutes and 46 seconds.
That translates to opposing team’s having the ball for 63 percent of the time during the third quarter this year. The only game in which the Falcons have won the third-quarter time-of-possession came against the Chicago Bears in the season-opener. It’s much easier to contain the Falcons offense when you are successfully able to play keep away.
The past two games have been particularly deplorable given that the Buffalo Bills and Dolphins combined to possess the ball for 21 minutes of the team’s last 30 minutes of third-quarter play.
The Bills pounded the Falcons with their ground attack, as LeSean McCoy and Mike Tolbert provided 67 of the 82 yards on a 19-play drive that ate over eight minutes of third-quarter play clock in addition to three more in the fourth quarter.
The Dolphins pulled off something similar with a 15-play, 75-yard drive that took up nearly eight minutes of time to start the third quarter. It wasn’t the run game that killed the Falcons but rather the Dolphins’ passing attack that moved the ball effectively downfield. Jay Cutler completed six of eight passes for 46 yards on that drive before capping it off with an 11-yard touchdown to Kenny Stills. The Dolphins converted four third downs on that drive, including the touchdown. They only converted on more all game yet made them count on that particular drive.
But despite not showing up on that particular drive, the Dolphins’ ground game was still effective for much of the game. Runing back Jay Ajayi produced 71 yards on 11 carries in the first half. His success rate was an eye-popping 82 percent, which is about double what a healthy rate of running efficiency would be.
Teams like the Bills and Dolphins have been able to expose a glaring weakness of the Falcons defense: their inability to stop the run as well as their tendency to give up a long, taxing drive in the second halves of games.
Those extended drives help keep the Falcons offense on the sideline where they can do no harm. Opponents are effectively shortening the game, making the Falcons offense less effective. Perhaps the team’s offense might be more effective if they were given more opportunities, but they alas they are not coming due to the effect of the opposing offense’s ability to maintain possession.
That also breaks the will of the Falcons defense, who are readily giving up points afterward. Just like the Bills, the Dolphins were able to convert all their remaining drives after their long one into points. Even when they’re just field goals, that’s enough to keep the pressure on the Falcons offense to keep scoring, a feat they have been unable to do readily this season.
It’s made for a very effective formula the past two weeks in terms of creating wins for the opponents and losses for the Falcons. It remains to be seen if that trend will continue with the Falcons set to begin a three-game road stand starting next week against the New England Patriots.
In fact, it’s very similar to what the Patriots were able to do against the Falcons in Super Bowl 51. The Patriots dominated time of possession in the final three quarters, controlling the clock for 28 of the final 45 minutes, not including overtime. They had five possessions that included at least 10 plays or more during that time frame, causing the Falcons defense to wear down.
The Falcons have hung their hat on their ability to play man coverage, but perhaps that has been a bit too taxing in the early parts of the games, prompting them to lose gas at the ends of games.
Leading to questions over whether the Falcons should dial back the amount of man coverage they utilize to try and keep their guys fresher. Perhaps, but that could potentially open the door to more defensive breakdowns when playing zone coverage, where they are generally less effective. With more zone coverage, the team might have to rely more on their pass rush, which has been particularly hit and miss the past two weeks after a relatively strong start in 2017.
Perhaps the team has to think harder about rotating players in and out of the lineup to give them breathers. It may be to the point where they might give this or that starter a breather for a series throughout the game. That is certainly something worth considering on the back end where linebackers and defensive backs get almost no breaks after trying to chase receivers and running backs every down. It could be worthwhile to give players like linebacker Kemal Ishmael or cornerback C.J. Goodwin a series or two here and there to try and keep some key starters fresher.
Yet it’s unknown how much the team can do right now if the rotation up front is wearing down. They’re already thin at defensive tackle given the season-ending injury to Jack Crawford and Courtney Upshaw still dealing with an ankle injury. Dontari Poe is already a player that shouldn’t be overextended in terms of his workload, and the team is asking a lot for players like Joe Vellano and Tani Tupou to pick up that slack inside.
The edge-rushers, where the team is allegedly stronger, hardly made an impact against a struggling Dolphins offensive line on Sunday. The Dolphins even lost Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey midway through the game due to a concussion, yet the Falcons were unable to take advantage to provide substantial pressure to disrupt Cutler in the second half.
There are simply more questions about the Falcons coming out of the bye than there were going into it a week ago. And now the Falcons will have to find ways to course correct in hostile territory with an upcoming three-game road stand that begins with a highly emotional Super Bowl rematch.
There is little doubt that the Falcons are capable of performing at higher levels, they just have to figure out what is going to be the catalyst to get them there. The coaches can certainly start by making a couple of tweaks on both sides of the ball.
If so, this season can certainly get back on track to where it seemed headed after the 3-0 start. If not, these two losses will surely not be the last ones the Falcons see in the month of October.