The biggest reason why I was so late with the All-22 reviews of the final three games of the 2014 season was because of my dread in watching the Atlanta Falcons’ Week 17 matchup against the Carolina Panthers. By watching both the Steelers and Saints games, I would become one step closer to having to relive the disappointment that was this game.
It wound up being a lot like being a child and having a loose tooth pulled. Besides a little bit of blood, it’s pretty painless. That was what re-watching this game felt like. The Falcons certainly got their butts kicked, but it was far less frustrating than I thought it would be. Likely due to the fact that things are looking so much better today than they were eight months ago.
There are two main causes as to why the Falcons only managed to score three points in a do-or-die situation that would have allowed them to make the playoffs last year.
The first was their inability to win on first down. According to some, a successful play on first down is one that achieves at least 45 percent of the needed yardage for a first down. So a run or pass that gains at least five yards on 1st-and-10 is considered a successful play. Well, the Falcons finished the game being successful on just seven of 26 first downs, or 27 percent. And four of those successful first downs came in the fourth quarter when the game was pretty much over. Through the first three quarters, it was a success rate of 15 percent (three of 20).
Contrast that to the Panthers who were 10 of 24 (42 percent successful) on first downs. And on the first two drives that figure was seven of 11 (64 percent).
What those first-down failures did was put the Falcons behind the eight ball too often on second down, forcing them to try to have to get something to create a more manageable third down. Early in the game the Falcons were more successful in winning on second down, but as the game wore on and the Panthers’ lead became larger, the Falcons struggled. Panthers’ pass-rushers were able to pin their ears back increasingly on second and third downs and overwhelm the Falcons, making it harder for the Falcons to get in manageable third downs later in the game.
The Falcons had only two plays where they managed to get a first down on a first down. The first was a 20-yard play to Roddy White late in the second quarter, which he fumbled, negating the gain. Their only other instance came on the final play of the game in which Jacquizz Rodgers ran 17 yards on a draw play when the Panthers’ backups were in and the Falcons were running out of the clock.
The second reason why the Falcons offense faltered was due to two failed opportunities to cut the Panthers’ early 24-3 lead to a one or two-score game. The first of those opportunities came late in the second quarter when the score was just 17-3 after Ryan’s first pick-six. As mentioned previously, it ended in a White fumble, which the Panthers quickly turned into seven points, pushing the lead to 24-3. But even thereafter the Falcons had another opportunity with under two minutes remaining in the first half to move down the field and score points. But unfortunately pressure by the Panthers front pretty much killed that drive and the Falcons were forced to punt it away with under a minute left in the half. If that drive turns into seven points, the score is 24-10 with the Falcons getting the opening kick in the second half to then potentially cut it to a one-score game.
However the Falcons started the second half with a three-and-out, once again thanks to pressure dropping Ryan twice. Basically at that point with the Falcons giving the Panthers the ball back with 13 minutes to go in the third quarter, the game was essentially over. The fact that the Falcons got zero points on those three drives completely killed any chance of reclaiming momentum.
The pass protection was particularly poor in the second half when the Panthers were just teeing off on Ryan with a substantial lead. Before the Falcons’ final possession, I counted 13 plays in the second half where Ryan was pressured, sacked or hurried on a total of 29 dropbacks.
It was clear that some blockers were injured. Justin Blalock really struggled against Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short and was playing with a noticeable limp in the second half. All but a single hurry allowed by Blalock came in the second half. He had very limited ability to anchor and Lotulelei and Short’s power was just collapsing the pocket too many times when he was left on an island. Blalock was flagged for a false start at the end of the third quarter, but no matter how many times I re-watched it on both the television and All-22 copy, I didn’t see him nor any other Falcon blocker flinch. That just appeared to be a missed call on the officials’ part.
Both Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah exited this game before it was over with injuries. Matthews struggled against the power rush, giving up too much ground as well. Players like Wes Horton, Mario Addison and Kony Ealy were each effective beating him, often going straight through him when you’d hope he’d be more effective redirecting them wide around the pocket. His earnings don’t accurately reflect his poor performance because I don’t subtract for individual hurries and pressures.
Ryan Schraeder earned worse than Matthews because every time he got beat, it resulted in a sack, pressure or missed block. He replaced Matthews at left tackle for the final series, but looked out of place there.
Gabe Carimi subbed in for Asamoah at the start of the fourth quarter at right guard, but once Matthews went down with 11:33 left in the game, he moved out to right tackle. Carimi got quickly overwhelmed by power in his limited reps. Harland Gunn finished the final series at right guard and did a nice job pulling on a pair of meaningless running plays.
James Stone didn’t have too many bad individual plays and was effective getting downfield on screens and blocking on the second level. The biggest negative I can say about Stone was that he left Blalock out to dry too often in the second half when the latter was clearly not capable of blocking either Panther defensive tackle one-on-one. I can’t necessarily blame Stone too much because I believe the Panthers were doing things with blitzes and stunts that to sort of facilitated all those one-on-ones against Blalock.
Ryan didn’t play especially poorly, but it was very clear that by the middle of the second quarter, the pressure was causing him to get a little too antsy. He was running for his life and getting hit way too much, so I can’t really blame him.
He threw three pick-sixes, although one was wiped out by a penalty on Thomas Davis for illegal contact. His first one was to Roman Harper on an overthrow. I know Roddy complained about being held by Bene Benwikere, but if it was there it was any malfeasance, it was very minor and not to blame for Ryan not making the throw. Ryan overthrew it because of pressure from Charles Johnson against Schraeder.
The second one (shown above) came late in the game when he lofted up a throw to Harry Douglas on an out-and-up that Tre Boston read easily and picked off. He didn’t really try to hold Boston in the middle of the field with his eyes, and it was just an easy play for the defender to make. But at that point, I can’t be too upset since the Falcons were just looking for any big play to spark their offense.
The running game was non-existent. All of Jacquizz Rodgers’ earnings came on the final drive. Julio Jones was once again limited by injury and the fact that Josh Norman was in his hip pocket for much of the game. Ryan didn’t really look in Julio’s direction early in the game.
It once again illustrated the limitations of White and Douglas in their inability to facilitate this offense without Jones. White’s box score production was solid, but he had a minimal positive impact on the game. There was a third-quarter play where he was being covered by Luke Kuechly in the slot, and White had to push off to create the necessary separation to make a 14-yard play. The refs didn’t call it, but it just illustrated the point I kept harping on throughout 2014 that White couldn’t separate from coverage, even against a linebacker.
After a strong defensive effort against the Saints in Week 16, the Falcons just lacked energy against the Panthers. On the opening drive, the Panthers moved the ball with ease down the field and it was only once the field began to shrink in the red zone that Falcons defenders were able to start making tackles and get off blocks to force Carolina to settle for a short field goal. And it might have more to do with the fact that despite having a couple of plays inside the 10-yard line, the Panthers didn’t attempt a pass into the end zone.
Desmond Trufant did a good job shadowing Kelvin Benjamin. He got beat once on a third down for a blown coverage, but did a good job jamming Benjamin on that play. But the opposing receivers’ large size and good placement by Cam Newton on the out pattern allowed for the completion.
The run defense was soft. The Falcons got a bunch of stops towards the end of the game when the Panthers were trying to run out the clock. On that one fourth-quarter drive where the Panthers bled over eight minutes of clock, the Falcons got seven of their 15 total stops. The Falcons got stops on first and second down, but then on 3rd-and-11 and 3rd-and-5 when it counted, the Panthers converted twice on runs.
The first third-down failure came where both Sean Baker and Dezmen Southward missed a tackle on a draw play and Joplo Bartu got pancaked by Greg Olsen on the second level, allowing Fozzy Whittaker to run for an easy 13-yard gain. The second time came when Southward and Prince Shembo did a poor job defending the outside run and Whittaker was able run for a seven-yard gain. Eventually they did get off the field with Shembo making a pair of stops while working in pursuit. That’s why his earnings look good because on the final three plays of that possession, he got two stops and a tackle for loss. But for much of the game he looked hesitant and ineffective trying to defend the run.
Baker’s limitations in run support and coverage were apparent, but he at least tried to make up for it with aggressiveness by attacking receivers and ballcarriers. I can’t say the same for Southward, who was too often slow to react to plays and took some bad angles on others leading to multiple missed tackles. Both guys got plenty of reps on defense thanks to injuries to Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael.
Overall, it was just a pretty non-descript performance for the defense. Despite the Falcons giving up 34 points, the defense was really only responsible for 20 of them so I really can’t say they were horrible.
Besides Trufant, Paul Soliai and Jonathan Babineaux were the only guys that I felt like had mostly solid performances simply because there weren’t too many instances where I saw either of them getting overwhelmed up front. Paul Worrilow had a couple of decent plays here and there interspersed with a couple of bad ones. That sort of epitomized the overall defensive performance. He was able to get effective pressure on Newton at times when he was unblocked as a blitzer.
On special teams, Southward did have a couple of nice plays working as the gunner. So did Javier Arenas and Drew Davis.
Devin Hester did a good job when he actually returned the ball, but made a critical mistake not fielding one punt in the third quarter. Instead of calling for the fair catch, he waved it off presumably because he expected the ball to bounce out of bounds. It didn’t and rolled down to the six-yard line, losing the Falcons about 15 yards of field position from where he should have just fair caught it instead. To a degree, I can understand Hester’s poor decision because up to that point the Panthers had made a concerted effort to punt the ball out of bounds to avoid him after his 66-yard kickoff return at the end of the first quarter. But they caught him sleeping on that play.
Advanced Stats from Week 17:
Poor Throws (4): Ryan
Drops (2): White, DiMarco
Key Blocks (1): Gunn
Missed Blocks (4): Schraeder (2), Blalock (1), White (1)
Sacks Allowed (6): Blalock (1.5), Schraeder (1.5), Carimi (1), Freeman (1), Matthews (1)
Pressures Allowed (10): Blalock (3), Matthews (3), Schraeder (2), Carimi (1), White (1)
Hurries Allowed (6): Matthews (4), Asamoah (1), Blalock (1)
Tackles for Loss (3): Bartu, Goodman, Shembo
QB Sacks (0):
QB Pressures (3): Worrilow (2), Biermann (1)
QB Hits (2): Massaquoi, Worrilow
QB Hurries (5): Biermann (2), Jackson (2), Peters (1)
Passes Defended (1): Trufant
Blown Coverages (2): Trufant, Worrilow
Missed Tackles (8): Baker (2), Southward (2), Biermann (1), Ishmael (1), Jackson (1), McClain (1)
Key Blocked (10): Bartu (2), Hageman (1), Ishmael (1), Jackson (1), Matthews (1), McClain (1) Peters (1), Southward (1), Worrilow (1)
Stops (15): Biermann (2.5), Shembo (2.5), Soliai (2), Babineaux (1.5), Hageman (1), Matthews (1), McClain (1), Worrilow (1), Baker (0.5), Goodman (0.5), Peters (0.5), Southward (0.5), Wilson (0.5)