Under head coach Mike Smith, the Atlanta Falcons have often been defined by their offensive prowess. In the early days of quarterback Matt Ryan’s career, the team was a run-oriented offense led by the hard-running of running back Michael Turner. Since 2011, the Falcons offense has morphed into a pass-first unit defined by its playmakers on the outside, most notably in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
As things stand currently in 2014, the Falcons offense has no real definition. While the team continues to rely on their passing attack, with the second highest percentage of passing plays in the league, it has netted the team very few positive results in recent weeks.
Suspect play from the team’s wide receivers and offensive line have prevented the Falcons in recent weeks to do what they’ve always done best: convert third downs.
The Falcons have converted just 25 percent of 48 third and fourth-down plays over their past three games, which ranks as the second worst in the NFL over that span.
If the Falcons are going to beat the Detroit Lions on Sunday in London, England, they will need their offense to step up. That will mean getting stronger performances out of their wide receiver group and offensive line.
For the wide receivers, the team might get a boost from the possible return of wide receiver Harry Douglas, who returned to practice this past week for the first time in four weeks. Doulgas has missed the Falcons past four games with a foot injury. However, Douglas is expected to be a game-time decision, suggesting that even if he does suit up for the game, he’s not quite healthy enough to really tip the scales in the Falcons’ favor.
Instead, the Falcons will have to try and facilitate more production from their receiver group by turning more towards No. 1 option, Julio Jones. Jones has drawn all of the attention from opposing defenses throughout this season and for good reason. When the Falcons offense has been clicking, particularly in their two wins, it has largely come because Jones is impacting the game.
Jones Critical to Falcons Offensive Success
Against the New Orleans Saints in the Falcons’ season-opening win, Jones had a quiet first half, catching just a single pass for 20 yards. The Falcons had just 10 points in that first half. In the second half, Jones went off for six catches for 96 yards, helping the team put up 27 more points.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3, Jones got off to a much more promising start with eight catches for 121 yards and a touchdown in the first half. That helped the Falcons score 35 points in the first half. Jones added another pair of receptions and a touchdown in the third quarter, helping the Falcons score another 21 points before the night was done.
Correlation does not imply causation, but it’s clear the Falcons tend to score a lot of points when Jones is heavily involved in the offense. Thus, the Falcons must find ways to get Jones more involved.
Throughout the year, the team has relied heavily on screens to get Jones touches on offense. But they must find other ways, instead of being content to let opposing defenses bracket him with double coverage, which then forces the Falcons other receivers to have to step up. And despite a nine-catch, 100-yard effort from Roddy White last week, it didn’t help the Falcons on the scoreboard as they only generated one touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens.
Jones will be matched up against the Lions’ most reliable cornerback in veteran Rashean Mathis for most of Sunday. But the Falcons might want to do more to mix up their looks, by putting Jones on the other side of the field where he should see a more favorable matchup from second-year cornerback Darius Slay, who has had his fair share of ups and downs this year. The Falcons can also try to put Jones in the slot more where he could be matched up against journeyman Danny Gorrer.
The Falcons have been reliant mainly on Douglas and Hester to play inside throughout this season. According to premium website Pro Football Focus, only about 13 percent of Jones’ offensive snaps have involved him playing in the slot. It’s potentially the most favorable matchup for the Falcons offense and will serve to mix up their looks and make it a lot harder for the Lions to defend them.
Essentially the Falcons’ usage of their receivers has gotten increasingly predictable in recent weeks. Jones continues to run deeper routes on the left side of the field, but against bracketed coverage, it is not somehting that the Falcons have been successful in taking advantage of. White continues to line up on the right side of the field and run a lot of quick outs and curls, mainly because White continues to struggle to separate from coverage. Hester remains in the slot, but has mostly been an afterthought in recent weeks.
Another key reason why the Falcons have struggled to convert on third downs is simply because Matt Ryan has had very little time in the pocket, particularly in passing situations such as on third down.
Falcons Offensive Line Could be Major Liability vs. Lions
The Falcons will need their offensive line to step up this week against one of the league’s most formidable pass rushes. The Lions currently rank fourth in the NFL in sacks on defense. Their defensive passer rating of 76.4 ranks second in the league, thanks in large part due to their front’s ability to mask some question marks on the back end.
That front is led by defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley as well as defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. The Lions pass rush features ample usage of stunts, something that the Falcons have struggled to defend in recent weeks.
The Ravens were very effective with their usage of stunts, as it was a pair of stunts that led to a sack-strip that thwarted the Falcons momentum on a potential early scoring drive, and also generated a safety late in the game as the Falcons attempted a comeback.
With an undrafted rookie in James Stone making his first career start at center, it does not bode well for the Falcons ability to communicate and effectively defeat those stunts this week. Stone also struggled last week in terms of his individual blocking and it remains to be seen if the likes of Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah can handle Suh and Fairley if Stone is not up to par. The play of the Falcons offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Gabe Carimi has also been subpar in recent weeks thanks to both suffering from ankle injuries.
Until Pernell McPhee stripped Ryan on a sack against the Ravens, one of the few drives in which the Falcons showed they could move the ball last week was on a series that featured a lot of screens. That drive came at the end of the first quarter where on 10 total offensive plays, four of them were called screens. Given Suh and Fairley’s reputations for being a little bit too eager to get upfield at times, screens could be effective way the Falcons can slow down the Lions pass rush.
If the Falcons are going to dial up more screens, then it will be another way in which running back Antone Smith can get involved in the offense. Besides Jones, Smith has proven to be one of the team’s few reliable offensive playmakers, although last week against Baltimore he was held without a touchdown for the first time in four weeks.
Defensively, the Falcons shouldn’t have to be overly concerned about the Lions offense. Without wide receiver Calvin Johnson, they have been limited in their ability to score points. Mostly, the Lions have relied on their outstanding defense to win games during Johnson’s absence.
Containing Golden Tate Will Be Focus of Falcons Defense
Even though the Falcons defense has struggled this year, they should be able to effectively contain a Lions offensive attack that will be without Johnson, running back Reggie Bush, and down to their fourth-string tight end.
Johnson’s absence has put most of the onus of the Lions offense on wide receiver Golden Tate. Tate has caught 32 passes for 448 yards and a pair of touchdowns over the past four games since Johnson has been either out or injured. That far outpaces the combined production of second and third options in Jeremy Ross and Corey Fuller, who have combined for 15 catches, 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns in that same span.
So a key for the Falcons will be containing Tate to the best of their abilities. Tate spends the bulk of his time playing in the slot, which means it will be on the shoulders of Josh Wilson and/or Robert McClain to handle those duties as opposed to either Desmond Trufant or Robert Alford, the team’s best corners.
But the Falcons might try their best to bracket Tate with an extra safety over the middle. Free safety Dwight Lowery might be more than willing to lend an extra hand in defending Tate, since it was a blindside hit from Tate that ended Lowery’s 2013 season prematurely. Without having to fear any one of the Lions’ top three tight ends, it will also allow the Falcons linebackers to be utilized in trying to contain Tate by dropping them into zones over the middle.
Another key for the Falcons on defense will be showcasing the pass rush that has begun to emerge in recent weeks, thanks largely to the play of defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi. Massaquoi was able to feast against the likes of Chicago Bears tackle Jordan Mills and Ravens tackle James Hurst the past two weeks the tune of collecting one sack, four quarterback hits and four hurries in those two games combined per Moneyball reviews.
Massaquoi will face tougher matchups this week against left tackle Riley Reiff and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, both of whom are a bit more proven than the likes of Mills and Hurst. But if Massaquoi, along with other Falcons players up front can generate more pass rush, it could force Lions quarterback Matt Stafford to make the sort of mistakes that have plagued him at times during his career.
While Stafford has done a much better job avoiding the erratic mechanics and costly turnovers this season, he still will make them from time to time. If the Falcons can create enough pressure to get Stafford out of his comfort zone, it could lead to a couple of turnovers which should give the Falcons offense a few more opportunities to score points and potentially pull off the upset in London. Despite forcing three turnovers against the Ravens last week, the Falcons scored zero points.
Special Teams Play Could Be a Deciding Factor
Another area where the Falcons could compensate for a lackluster offense is potentially on special teams. Hester has been relatively quiet since taking his lone punt to the house in Week 3, but has had a couple of opportunities since then to break some long gains as a returner. However, it seemed one or two more blocks were needed to spring him for the scores that never came.
The Lions have their own formidable return specialist in Ross, who is looking for his first return touchdown of the year. He had a pair last season as one of only two returners to take both a kickoff and punt to the house in 2013.
It’s possible that special teams could play in an important factor in deciding the winner of the game. While neither team has allowed a kick or punt return for a touchdown this season, any sort of boost that either Hester or Ross could provide to their respective special teams could certainly put either offense in more favorable settings.
The Falcons would certainly help themselves if they put a little less pressure on their offense by generating some points on defense and/or special teams.
Since scoring 35 points in their season-opening win against the New York Giants, the Lions have averaged just 17.5 points per game. Since injuries have sapped their offensive line the past three weeks, the Falcons have averaged just 13.3 points per game.
This game has the makings of a low-scoring affair, although the Lions defense is a lot more capable than that of the Falcons. If the Falcons are going to win in London, they will need their offense to rise up. If the Lions play their usual game, it’s possible that just generating 20 points could be enough for the Falcons to pull off the victory.
If so, then the Falcons can end their four-game losing streak and head into their bye with a little bit of momentum in the hopes of getting back into the NFC South divisional race.