Better late than never.
I apologize for the epic tardiness in posting reviews of the final three games of the 2014 season. Honestly by the end of last December, I was pretty fed up with the Atlanta Falcons. So when given the choice of devoting a few hours to reviewing the All-22 film on NFL Game Rewind versus spending time with my family during the holidays, I made the less painful decision of opting for the latter.
Coupled with the drama around January’s coaching search followed by free agency and the draft, I never was really inspired to go back and revisit those games. It was prototypical procrastination since after waiting a couple of months, it became much easier to let another one pass by.
So now we find ourselves in July, only a few days before the start of 2015’s training camp and now these reviews will finally be posted. For the sake of completion, I now present my review of last season’s Week 15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For this review, I’ll try my best to minimize the amount of hindsight used and do my best to put myself in the frame of mind I was in seven months ago, but obviously since such a lengthy period of time has passed, the complete elimination of hindsight is next to impossible.
But let’s start with the offense. It was very clear that the injury that sidelined wide receiver Julio Jones was detrimental to the offense. The Falcons passing game was instead facilitated by Harry Douglas. While Douglas had a solid game, he’s not the sort of guy that can make an offense go. He was Matt Ryan’s first read on a number of plays because truth be told, he was without a doubt the team’s best receiver not named Quintorris throughout 2014 and this game was no different.
As you may recall, a frequent weekly note in many of my game reviews from 2014 was how much Roddy White had declined. While White didn’t play poorly against the Steelers, his inability to reliably create on his own was once again apparent. Most of his positive plays were the result of clear-outs and corners being in off coverage, allowing him to quickly adjust his route on a quick throw to get five to eight yards here and there. White’s best play was his touchdown catch, which was one of the few times in 2014 where he looked like the Roddy of old.
However getting back to Douglas, once again I should note that he did a lot of good in this game. But it was clear that the team really missed Jones in the red zone, as that’s where Douglas’ limitations became more apparent.
The Falcons had two scoring opportunities in the red zone, where they wound up settling for field goals largely thanks to miscues on Douglas’ part. The first was on the opening possession of the third quarter, where the Falcons attempted a bubble screen to Douglas on 3rd-and-8 at the Steelers’ 16-yard line. Ryan tried to lead an open Douglas over the middle, but the receiver stumbled and was unable to convert on a six-yard gain. Here’s a GIF of that play:
While I won’t say that Douglas should’ve scored since Lawrence Timmons made a good play in pursuit. But without the stumble, there’s every reason to believe that Douglas should’ve converted the third down and given the Falcons three more opportunities to score a touchdown from inside the 10-yard line. If the Falcons score a touchdown there, they potentially cut the Steelers’ lead to 20-14 instead of 20-10.
Then on the team’s very next possession, Douglas was flagged for an offensive pass interference call in the end zone. To be fair to Douglas, Ryan’s pass to Devin Hester was too high and off the mark. But even if Ryan had made an accurate pass, Douglas’ penalty on the rub route would’ve negated the touchdown. But even then, Douglas only deserves half the blame with the quarterback taking the other half. If Ryan throws an accurate pass to Hester, who then catches it (which based off 2014 isn’t a given), then even with the penalty the Falcons should get another opportunity albeit on 3rd-and-13. The chances that the Falcons convert that down and distance without Jones is probably close to zero, but it’s still better settling for a field goal than 4th-and-3.
Later on a critical possession in the fourth quarter to try and tie the game with six minutes left, the Falcons tried to go to Douglas on all three downs, failing to convert. On first down, Ryan overthrew Douglas on a deep comeback. Steelers cornerback William Gay was in Douglas’ hip pocket and Ryan tried to make a throw high and outside away from Gay, but it was too high for Douglas. Then on second down, Gay read the quick slant well on the rub route, limiting Douglas to a four-yard gain to set up a 3rd-and-6. Then the Falcons tried a clear-out that had worked twice earlier in the game, once to Douglas for nine yards and a second time to White for eight yards. But the Steelers’ linebackers were sitting on it this time and Vince Williams made the tackle in the open field to stop Douglas two yards shy of the sticks.
Ryan had a fine game for the most part, but you could tell at times he was a bit off his timing with Hester and Douglas, especially. The pick six by Gay at the start of the second quarter could be blamed on that lack of timing/rapport, as Douglas slowed his route when Ryan threw to a spot ahead of him. Gay was able to step in front for an easy interception.
While you look at the box score and see Ryan put up excellent numbers, completing 70 percent of his passes for 310 yards with a passer rating of 102.3, a deeper dive into the tape shows that neither he nor the rest of the offense looked completely comfortable. Despite his production and that of the receivers, the eye in the sky shows that there was a key component of the Falcons offense missing which was clearly Jones.
The Falcons’ running game did a solid job for the most part, but because the team was forced to play from behind all game long, they never got as many opportunities as they should’ve.
Jake Matthews had one of his better games blocking, although there were a couple of times where the strength and power of Cameron Heyward gave him trouble. He managed to get in the way just enough on both his assignments on screen passes to Hester for 46 yards and Douglas for 41 yards. Levine Toilolo however had the key block on the latter screen, taking out both Brice McCain and Mike Mitchell, that really helped spring Douglas for the big gain in the fourth quarter.
James Stone continued to show inconsistency in this game. He was overwhelmed at times by power, did a poor job adjusting to stunts and even had a bad shotgun snap that messed up a key third-down conversion on the opening possession.
The rest of the offensive line performed at their normal levels. Gabe Carimi and Harland Gunn stepped in for an injured Jon Asamoah at right guard. Carimi got the bulk of the reps in the second half and held up fairly well.
The Falcons defense was able to key on Le’Veon Bell and really keep him under wraps as a runner. He really only had two major runs of the game, one for a 13-yard touchdown. He also had a big play on a checkdown that he managed to turn into a 44-yard gain. But outside those plays, he was pretty much held in check.
But the Falcons’ run defense deserves kudos for keeping Bell’s rushing in check. But despite Bell’s sluggish performance, the Steelers offense was still able to rely on him for all four quarters thanks to the early lead they got, and thus were always within their comfort zone.
I think another reason why Bell was also held in check was because he wasn’t hitting the hole as decisively. He seemed to hesitate at times looking for the cutback lane to get a big chunk of yards, seemingly channeling his inner LeSean McCoy. It worked in the Falcons favor, so you’ll hear no complaints from me (although my fantasy football team was disappointed).
Paul Worrilow had a solid game. I won’t say he was great, but so often throughout the 2014 season he appeared to be a liability, and he was not that against the Steelers. However, it seemed to my eyes that Worrilow was to blame for blowing the coverage on Bell’s 44-yard checkdown. It could have also been Prince Shembo who was at fault, but at least initially off the snap, it seemed like Shembo was fully committed to blitzing. Worrilow was keying on Bell, who chipped on his way out of the backfield. Seemingly Worrilow saw that Bell was blocking, then turned his attention to the quarterback because he believed that Bell wasn’t going out for a pass. Bell then made the most of that momentary lapse, weaving his way past Falcons defenders on his way to a 44-yard gain on a simple dump off from Ben Roethlisberger.
Joplo Bartu also made a few positive plays against the run. Both linebackers got a boost because the guys up front like Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson actually did what they were paid a lot of money to do: occupy blocks and hold double teams, freeing up the linebackers to fill running lanes.
Ra’Shede Hageman had a brilliant play where he got a tackle for loss against Bell six yards into the backfield by beating Mike Adams and blowing through the B gap. That was really his only shining moment of the game, but it was another of multiple examples in the second half of the 2014 season where he was able to flash dominance.
The pass rush wasn’t much to write home about. Jonathan Babinaeux provided the most, able to beat Steelers left guard Ramon Foster a couple of times throughout the game. Outside that, the Falcons were too reliant on their blitz, which wasn’t as effective as they had hoped.
Desmond Trufant was asked to shadow Antonio Brown for most of the game, although the Falcons seemingly dialed that back a bit in the fourth quarter. Brown gave Trufant all he could handle, but then again he’s Antonio Brown. While he isn’t often given the credit, one can make the easiest case that Brown was the league’s best receiver in 2014.
Overall the defense had one of its better performances against the Steelers, holding them to field goals early. But their trademark collapses also peeked around the corner at times, especially on the final drive of the first half. The Steelers were able to dink and dunk their way up the field before Brown made a spectacular sideline catch to set them up at the one-yard line. Brown nudged Trufant a little on that play, but it didn’t matter much as Roethlisberger put the ball where only Brown could catch it, and he did indeed.
Then at the end of the third quarter, the Falcons defense allowed another quick score by the Steelers, thanks to a couple of big pass plays. The first came when Kroy Biermann got beat by Heath Miller down the seam for a 26-yard gain. On the very next play, Kemal Ishmael let Markus Wheaton run right by him thanks to poor technique and discipline for a 30-yard gain. Ishmael was then walled off by a pulling David DeCastro for a key block on Bell’s 13-yard scoring run on the next play.
If boiling this game down to a handful of critical moments/situations, it was those two possessions where the defense gave up scores combined with the two missed opportunities the offense had in the red zone, as well as the pick-six which really swung this game in the Steelers’ favor.
I don’t think the Falcons played poorly, as reviewing this game wasn’t as painful as I recall too many others in 2014. But missing Jones made the Falcons play less than inspired.
On special teams, Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher once again had solid games. Dezmen Southward got out of his lane on Wheaton’s 32-yard kickoff return in the third quarter. Drew Davis fell and Eric Weems got out of his lane on Brown’s 31-yard punt return in the second quarter.
Advanced Stats from Week 15:
Poor Throws (3): Ryan
Key Blocks (7): Matthews (2.5), Toilolo (2), Pascoe (1), Stone (1), Blalock (0.5)
Missed Blocks (1): Matthews
Sacks Allowed (0):
Pressures Allowed (4): Stone (1.5), Matthews (1), Schraeder (1), Asamoah (0.5)
Hurries Allowed (3): Stone (2), Matthews (1)
Tackles for Loss (3): Biermann, Hageman, Ishmael
QB Sacks (1): Soliai
QB Pressures (2): Babineaux, Biermann
QB Hits (1): Babineaux
QB Hurries (3): Babineaux, Biermann, Umenyiora
Passes Defended (3): Jackson, McClain, Worrilow
Blown Coverages (6): Lowery (1.5), Trufant (1.5), Biermann (1), Ishmael (1), McClain (1)
Missed Tackles (0):
Key Blocked (6): Ishmael (2), Bartu (1), Jackson (1), Lowery (1), McClain (1)
Stops (9): Paul Worrilow (3.33), Bartu (1.5), Southward (1.33), Matthews (1), Peters (1), Goodman (0.5), Ishmael (0.33)