This was a difficult game to review because despite the poor and underwhelming play from the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, the game was still very much winnable late.
Ultimately, the poor defensive effort and the injuries on the offensive line were the main culprits as to why the Falcons lost. I’ll talk about the defense a little later, so let’s first discuss the offensive line injuries.
As you know by now, center Joe Hawley suffered a season-ending knee injury on the final play of the third quarter, following injuries that had already sidelined left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Lamar Holmes on Sunday. The Falcons were down to four offensive linemen, and were forced to plug in tight end Levine Toilolo at right tackle for the entirety of the fourth quarter. But despite that obvious liability, the Falcons still had opportunities to win and several of them had little to do with the line’s play following Hawley’s injury.
On the series in which Hawley went down, Matt Ryan attempted two deep shots to Julio Jones. On the first down preceding Hawley’s injury, Ryan underthrew Jones on a 45-yard bomb that Xavier Rhodes was able to break up. It was similar to a missed touchdown to Jones two weeks ago, as that completion could have changed the Falcons fortunes. Then two plays later, Ryan threw a step too far in front of Jones on a 19-yard corner route. Because Ryan threw that latter pass to the sideline, Jones was a half-step slow from getting there because he was more concerned with making sure he kept his feet in bounds than making sure he caught the pass. Had either of those passes been completed (particularly the first one), it’s likely the Falcons would have found a way to score on that drive and push their lead to 35-27 going into the fourth quarter and could have finally played with the lead they desperately needed to get in the game.
That’s not to knock Ryan’s performance, as besides those two throws, I have zero complaints. Both of his late-game interceptions were on Roddy White. Ryan’s first interception came as of a result of White coming very slow out of his break on a corner route. Ryan led him, but Roddy couldn’t get to the spot before Vikings safety Harrison Smith. It was reminiscent of an interception Ryan had a year ago against the Carolina Panthers on a crossing pattern to Harry Douglas, where he threw to a spot and Douglas couldn’t get there in time. On the final interception on the last play of regulation, it was really just a desperation heave by Ryan to try and throw White open, but White stopped his route and it was an easy interception for Josh Robinson.
It was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen from White. He created almost no separation outside a 20-yard catch he had on a crossing pattern on the second series. His lone touchdown catch was purely as a result of Jones drawing coverage on a fake screen and the Vikings defenders blowing the coverage. White looked sluggish and had absolutely no burst coming out of his breaks. He relied on pushing off and using his body to try and shield defenders away from the body in order to make catches, and it proved mostly ineffective as Rhodes and Robinson were able to break up multiple passes to him. White even dropped three more. He moved like he did back when he had that high-ankle sprain at the start of 2013, and thus I believe either that his hamstring/knee injuries are a lot more grievous than the team is letting on, or simply White has fallen off a cliff in terms of his abilities to an unprecedented level. I simply don’t believe the latter is possible, especially since he moved much worse on Sunday than he did the first week of the season.
Ryan clearly did not get the memo that White was essentially operating at 40-percent capacity, otherwise he would not have targeted him so much. Ryan mostly avoided him at the start of 2013 when he was essentially a decoy. I think the Falcons have to consider benching White for a couple of games to try and allow him to recover more, because his performance was so poor on Sunday that he might as well be invisible.
Everson Griffen and Brian Robison both gave Jake Matthews and Lamar Holmes their fair shares of trouble, utilizing their speed and quickness to collapse the edge and force Ryan up in the pocket a bunch. The only sack the offensive line gave up came in the fourth quarter on a very well-designed blitz. Robison beat Toilolo off the edge and Anthony Barr delayed a blitz up the middle, so he was essentially unaccounted for when Ryan tried to step up in the pocket to avoid Robison. That was the lone play where you could truly blame the injuries for the team’s poor blocking late in the game.
Steven Jackson might have played one of his best games as a rusher since joining the Falcons, looking very good through the first three quarters of work. The Falcons essentially had to abandon the run in the fourth quarter to try and come back. Antone Smith had his trademark explosive run. While I certainly understand the rhetoric that he needs to get the ball more, I’m not sure that should involve that many more carries. Smith is very explosive when he gets in space as he runs in a straight line about as well as anybody in the league, but his vision, lateral burst and power appear limited when he’s asked to carry the ball as a “traditional” running back. The Falcons need to continue to dial up screens, sweeps, tosses and other plays that are designed to get him to the edge or out in space where his speed is a huge asset, but in terms of getting him a bunch of “normal” carries that a traditional running back like Jackson or even Devonta Freeman get, is probably misusing of Smith’s abilities.
The real issue in terms of the ground game is that the Falcons simply need to run the ball more, and that will come as a result of being able to play with more leads. Excluding the team’s lopsided Week 3 win over Tampa Bay, in three other games the Falcons have held a lead for just 14 minutes and 36 seconds thus far this season, not even a quarter’s worth of play. And that has almost everything to do with the defense’s inability to get off the field.
The first half of this game was very appalling to watch from a defensive perspective. The Falcons really struggled, giving up several big plays due to blown assignments, missed tackles and guys not being able to get off blocks. Things picked up in the second half presumably when manhoods were challenged during halftime, but the damage was already done. The team just couldn’t find ways to get off the field in critical situations. The Vikings had one three-and-out all game and that was only because Teddy Bridgewater missed a wide open Jarius Wright on a deep pass where he beat Robert Alford on a double move. That should have been a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, which likely would have nailed the coffin lid shut on the Falcons. That missed opportunity on the Vikings part proved to be merely a stay of execution, as the injuries mounted on the Falcons offensive line the following series and Minnesota had little issue moving the ball and scoring to finish the game.
There were no standout performances here. I have a lot less frustration for the cornerbacks with Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and Robert McClain all relatively speaking having okay performances. All got beat a few too many times, but given the nature of the positions they play, that sort of comes with the territory. Trufant was the best of the three. Alford’s mistakes looked to come mostly from breakdowns in technique, while McClain simply lacks the quickness to keep up with receivers like Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright.
Without being privy to the Falcons defensive meetings, I can’t say for certain who was to blame, but there seemed to be too many blown assignments in coverage, and it always seemed like Dwight Lowery was in the vicinity. Whether they were the result of Lowery not playing his assignment or another safety like Kemal Ishmael, I don’t know, but that clear lack of communication could be problematic in the weeks to come with William Moore out for the next eight weeks due to a shoulder injury.
The linebackers were bad as Paul Worrilow got obliterated by fullback Jerome Fulton too often and just seemed lost. Prince Shembo looked slow and unathletic when he found himself playing in space. Joplo Bartu got a few reps inside, but it seems clear that Shembo has passed him on the depth chart and will be the starter moving forward. Bartu is a much better athletic specimen than Shembo, but has done little through the first month of the season to suggest that the Falcons are losing anything by benching him. Both Worrilow and Shembo played better in the second half, but in the first half, they looked like they had no business being NFL starters.
The play of the guys up front didn’t help matters. Tyson Jackson had his best game as a Falcon, but there were still several instances where he looked stiff, slow and unable to get off blocks. He’s a load one-on-one and hard to push back due to his sheer size, but he struggles to move and if he can’t simply overwhelm you with sheer size and strength, he’s not going to do much. His style of play would be far more effective if the team had better linebackers behind him since he rarely ever gets off blocks to make plays himself, instead relying on other defenders to fill the gaps and lanes in order to make stops.
Corey Peters had a decent game, getting plenty of reps both at the nose and defensive tackle. He looked disruptive at times, but he too is not the most fluid mover.
Jonathan Babineaux got overwhelmed a number of times trying to take on double teams and it was one of his least effective games in recent memory. Paul Soliai struggled to absorb double teams throughout the game as well. Malliciah Goodman hardly looked effective and the luster has quickly worn off on him. But he’s been played almost exclusively at defensive end since Peters’ return and that might have something to do with it. Ra’Shede Hageman got pushed around as well when he was in for snaps.
Simply put, the Falcons defensive linemen got pushed around and easily controlled by Minnesota’s interior linemen. While John Sullivan is among the best centers in the league, he was by no means dominant in this game. Vlad Ducasse was absolutely atrocious over four seasons with the New York Jets, and Charlie Johnson is the guard equivalent of Kyle Orton in that he’s not any good, but you can do a lot worse. Yet, both of these players had no problems controlling our defensive linemen and linebackers throughout the game. Left tackle Matt Kalil has been atrocious the first three games of the year, and there were a few times where the Falcons edge-rushers were able to beat him, but he was by no means the liability he has consistently been in the past. Right tackle Phil Loadholt might have been beat once the entire game and it wasn’t cleanly, and he’s notoriously limited as a pass protector. It’s very clear that the Falcons desperately need an upgrade in terms of their edge pressure. Bridgewater had all day to throw, and the few times the Falcons did get pressure, he was able to easily side-step rushers and pick up yardage scrambling.
There’s a clear talent disparity between a defense like the Falcons and that of the Vikings. Young Vikings linebackers like Gerald Hodges and Anthony Barr had no problems defeating Falcons blockers, as they played fast and physical and made plays all over the place. Barr was a top 10 draft pick and Hodges began his collegiate career at safety a la Alec Ogletree or Thomas Davis, and thus those guys have talent and our linebackers don’t. Vikings fullback Jerome Fulton is pancaking Worrilow multiple times, while Patrick DiMarco can’t even get a square hit on Barr.
Robison and Griffen aren’t among the league’s best pass-rushers, but there is still certainly a sizable difference between them and the likes of Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, Stansly Maponga and Jonathan Masssaquoi. As I noted in my takeaways on Monday, there is an undeniable talent gap between teams like the Falcons and Vikings and thus there’s only so much blame and vitriol I can muster up for the Falcons coaching staff.
There certainly were several plays where certain formations were head-scratchers and instances where certain defenders were put in bad matchups, but it was relatively speaking, a small minority of plays. On those plays, I could blame poor coaching but on the vast majority of plays, the Falcons simply weren’t big, strong or fast enough.
A note on the advanced stats below, the Falcons had 13 stops which looks decent, but six of them were padded on in the final six minutes when the Vikings were simply running out the clock. The Vikings didn’t drop back to throw once on their final 10 plays, and it ultimately helped pad the earnings a few Falcons players, such as Kroy Biermann, Ishmael, Shembo, Worrilow and Babineaux to not look nearly as bad as their actual performances merited.
On special teams, Eric Weems almost had another blocked punt. One of these days, he’s going to get there. I also have to give Vikings rookie cornerback Jabari Price credit as he made what was likely a touchdown-saving tackle on Devin Hester’s lone punt return at the end of the third quarter. Price showed great speed tracking Hester down from across the field before he could turn the corner and pushing him out of bounds. Had Hester been able to get to that edge, it’s very likely he would have scored which also could have also pushed the Falcons lead to 35-27 to start the fourth quarter.
With Ishmael pulling extensive minutes on defense, he was pulled off kickoff coverage in the second half, with Southward being subbed in. On Marcus Sherels big 24-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, Joe Banyard got away with a block in the back, nudging Ishmael ever so slightly to allow Sherels to get to the edge.
The issues with kickoff coverage on the two big return by Patterson had to do with guys getting out of their lanes. On the first one, I’d place blame on Weems and DiMarco. The second one, it looked like Roby got sucked up in traffic.
Advanced Stats from Week 1:
Poor Throws (5): Ryan
Drops (4): White (3), Toilolo (1)
Key Blocks (4): Asamoah, DiMarco, Konz, White
Missed Blocks (1): DiMarco
Sacks Allowed (0)
Pressures Allowed (4): Holmes (1.5), Matthews (1), Toilolo (1), Carimi (0.5)
Hurries Allowed (9): Matthews (2.5), Carimi (2), Asamoah (1), Hawley (1), Holmes (1), Toilolo (1), Blalock (0.5)
Tackles for Loss (2): Biermann, Lowery
QB Sacks (0)
QB Pressures (3): Babineaux, Jackson, Umenyiora
QB Hits (1): Peters
QB Hurries (6): Massaquoi (2), Biermann (1), Lowery (1), Shembo (1), Trufant (1)
Passes Defended (2): Alford, Jackson
Blown Coverages (6): McClain (2), Alford (1), Biermann (1), Maponga (1) Trufant (1)
Missed Tackles (2): McClain, Worrilow
Key Blocked (11): Worrilow (3), Babineaux (2), Biermann (1) Hageman (1), Ishmael (1), Lowery (1), Shembo (1), Soliai (1)
Stops (13): Ishmael (2), Worrilow (2), Jackson (1.5), Peters (1.5), Shembo (1.5), Lowery (1), Soliai (1), Trufant (1), Babineaux (0.5), Goodman (0.5), Southward (0.5)