Overall, it was a pretty ho-hum performance for the Atlanta Falcons against the Carolina Panthers in Week 11. I wouldn’t call it a good performance, just a good enough one.
Offensively, the Falcons were fairly vanilla since they relied on a lot of short passing. Matt Ryan seemed to stop looking towards Julio Jones for a significant portion of the game. I’d argue that was because Panthers cornerback Josh Norman was in his hip pocket through the early portion of the game. Ryan figured he had an easier matchup on the opposing side against Antoine Cason, which I’d say is true. The only problem is that while Roddy White has improved in performance in recent weeks, he’s still not performing at a high level. He’s still struggling to separate from coverage, and the Falcons didn’t have a lot of success moving the ball besides their penultimate possession on drives where they didn’t make a concerted effort to get the ball into Jones’ hands.
Of course, one of the ways the Falcons tried to get the ball to Jones that didn’t find success was on their patented wide receiver screen. They have run that play quite a bit this year, and for the most part it has been effective way of getting 8-10 yards on a fairly consistent basis. But it seems that teams, or at least the Panthers, have figured it out. The Falcons ran a wide receiver screen five times on Sunday, with only two of them being completed. One was a three-yard gain to Antone Smith when he was split out wide. The second was a 15-yard gain to Devin Hester, but he fumbled on that play. The one to Hester was a slightly different variation of the play as they lined up Jones wide and had Hester in the slot where he caught the ball. Had he secured the football better, it would have been one of their biggest gains of the year on a screen. It should have been validation of what happens when you switch things up, but I’m afraid the Falcons will only focus on the negative outcome of the play and thus not run it anymore.
Two of those missed screen attempts went to Jones, both times Ryan throwing too high. Both instances Ryan failed to set his feet, an indicator of how important it is for Ryan to have his feet firmly planted to be an effective passer. They also tried it to White on a slight variation of the usual play, but the Panthers safety Colin Jones read it perfectly to break it up. There were multiple times where the Falcons could have faked the screen and tried to find a receiver over the middle, as the Panthers often vacated the middle of the field because of their ability to quickly diagnose the screen. But the Falcons never tried to leak a receiver, back or tight end over the middle. That should be an adjustment they make this week.
Unfortunately, I’m not overly optimistic they will make that adjustment. From my count, they’ve run that wide receiver screen about 27 times this year, with almost no variation to it. They might switch up who’s the target (if not Jones, it’s usually to Hester), or which other players are asked to block on the play, but the nuts and bolts of it is pretty same. It’s easy for defenses to read it within a second of the ball being snapped. But perhaps it’s 28th time is a charm?
What was most disappointing was the Falcons opted to run a screen instead of attempting a pass into the end zone at the start of the third quarter. That series came after Desmond Trufant’s interception to start the second half. The Falcons had three plays inside the Panthers’ 15-yard line, yet none of them called for them taking a shot at the end zone. I try my best not to get too caught up in criticizing play-calling because generally I think that it’s lazy and hindsight-driven, but one of the few pet peeves I have in terms of play-calling is when teams refuse to take shots at the end zone. When you don’t try to throw the ball into the end zone, there should be no surprise when you struggle to convert in the red zone. This was a criticism of the Falcons red zone problems a year ago, and it remains an issue. It’s just another reason why I’m not overly optimistic that the Falcons are capable of making the proper adjustments.
The running game didn’t have much impact, partly because the blocking wasn’t great. A big reason for that was because the Falcons blockers struggled to get hats on both Panthers linebackers: Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Both guys were very disruptive throughout the game and made stops and plays all over the field.
The blocking was decent, relative to some past games against the Panthers. Charles Johnson didn’t wreak the utter havoc that he has on occasion in the past. He finished the game with a sack, pressure and three hurries. Ryan Schraeder only gave up a pair of hurries and a sack to Johnson, which is by no means a strong performance, but we’ve all seen much worse from Falcons blockers in the past.
Relative to the performances of Peter Konz coupled with the fact that he’s an undrafted rookie, I’ve cut James Stone a bit of slack recently. He’s shown improvement since his first appearance, which is not something I can complain about. He has been praised for his smarts and intelligence, which the tape seemingly backs up. But he continues to be underwhelming in the physical aspect of the game. I’ve said multiple times before that I believe Harland Gunn would be a better option at center due to his physicality. But in limited reps on Sunday, Gunn did little to confirm my opinion. He got some reps throughout the game here and there due to Jon Asamoah missing some snaps and didn’t fare well. Most grievous perhaps was his inability to block Kuechly on the Falcons final offensive play. Had he managed to get something on Kuechly, it could have been the difference between Steven Jackson converting on that 3rd-and-6, which would have essentially ended the game as the Falcons would’ve gotten a new set of downs and the Panthers were out of timeouts. Gunn pulled into the hole, seemed a bit confused about who his assignment was, which allowed Kuechly to come downhill and hit Jackson. Jackson’s power nearly carried him the extra few yards to get the six-yard gain he needed to convert, but instead he got five yards and the Falcons were forced to punt.
It looks like Asamoah’s name can be added to the list of walking wounded along the offensive line. He wasn’t moving quite the same in this game and it’s a concern when the two healthiest blockers up front are also the greenest: Stone and Schraeder.
The lack of a pass rush was very disappointing considering that the Panthers offensive line has been absolutely atrocious the past month, giving up 19 sacks in their past four games. At this point, the only real excuse is that perhaps the Falcons were “mush-rushing” in the hopes of confining Cam Newton to the pocket.
And to a certain extent, you could say they were successful with that strategy. The Falcons got a lot of help from poor accuracy and decision-making on Newton’s part. Newton left a lot of throws on the field, and it was a big reason why the Falcons were able to keep the Panthers’ offense contained for the first three quarters of the game. But the Panthers started to push the ball downfield in the fourth quarter, and the Falcons didn’t do much to stop them. And one imagines had the Panthers tried that earlier in the game if the outcome of the gam would have gone differently.
Jonathan Babineaux was the team’s only effective pass-rusher on the day. He got a couple of pressures, although a few of them came thanks to Newton’s propensity to hold onto the ball a few beats too long, giving Babs extra time to disengage from his blocker.
Linebacker Paul Worrilow had another solid effort, seemingly playing a little more fast and loose and showing some physicality at times. His “sack” as well as that of Dezmen Southward were considered tackles for loss since in both instances it appeared Newton was trying to run with the ball. Based off Moneyball rules, sacks are only considered when a quarterback is in the act of passing. Both “sacks” came as the result of Babineaux creating pressure up the middle.
Kemal Ishmael made a couple of nice plays in coverage, which is a welcome change from recent weeks. Trufant was asked to shadow Kelvin Benjamin for much of the game, and while he did get beat from time to time, really did a nice job keeping Benjamin contained for the first three quarters for the most part. Trufant’s earnings were hurt by the touchdown he gave up and a couple of missed tackles, all of which came in the fourth quarter. He had excellent position on the touchdown, but the fact that Benjamin is 6-5 is what allowed him to extend for the jump ball and tip it to himself for the score. That’s one of the benefits of getting tall receivers, as a guy that is just a few inches shorter potentially doesn’t make that catch.
Outside the aforementioned players, there were really no standouts for the defense as everybody else for the most part was quiet or nondescript. Biermann was out of position a couple of times early in the game against the run. McClain got beat for a touchdown, once again indicating his troubles when it comes to fast wide receivers.
On special teams, Nate Stupar and Eric Weems both stood out in coverage. Stupar came close to blocking a punt in the second quarter. Antone Smith went down with an injury when Southward dove into his leg while they were trying to converge on a punt. McClain and Charles Godfrey alternated at gunner in his stead for the remainder of the game. Jacquizz Rodgers replaced Smith on kickoff coverage.
I don’t know what was up with Matt Bosher’s kicking in this game. He had a pair of touchbacks early and purposefully squibbed his second kickoff at the end of the first half. But then he had a short kick and that was before Fozzy Whittaker’s big 46-yard return. His last kick was another pooch kick, which somewhat makes sense if the Falcons were afraid of another big return for Whittaker. But overall, it gave me the impression that some of those short kicks were just instances where he just didn’t hit the ball squarely as opposed to kicking it short on purpose. If that was indeed the case, it’s amazing to me how “mediocre” Bosher can look the minute you take him outside the Georgia Dome.
Advanced Stats from Week 11:
Poor Throws (4): Ryan
Drops (2): White
Key Blocks (4): Douglas, Pascoe, Rodgers, Schraeder
Missed Blocks (1): Toilolo
Sacks Allowed (2): Ryan, Schraeder
Pressures Allowed (3): Matthews (2), Asamoah (1)
Hurries Allowed (7): Schraeder (2), Asamoah (1), Blalock (1), Carimi (1), Gunn (1), Stone (1)
Tackles for Loss (4): Babineaux (1), McClain (1), Southward (1), Worrilow (1)
QB Sacks (0)
QB Pressures (2): Babineaux
QB Hits (0)
QB Hurries (3): Babineaux (1), Goodman (1), Ishmael (1)
Passes Defended (3): Ishmael, Lowery, Trufant
Blown Coverages (5): Trufant (2), Lowery (1.5), McClain (1), Worrilow (0.5)
Missed Tackles (5): Biermann (2), Trufant (2), Ishmael (1)
Key Blocked (3): Babineaux, Hageman, Peters
Stops (6): Soliai (2), Biermann (1), Hageman (1), Babineaux (0.5), Bartu (0.5), Peters (0.5), Worrilow (0.5)