I never quite had as high hopes as many in regards to the 2014 Atlanta Falcons. If asked during the spring and summer, I would have stated that there was a much greater chance the Falcons would finish 6-10 than 10-6 this season. The team just always appeared to be too poorly constructed so that if one too many things went wrong, it would be another losing season for the Falcons.
Despite those internal thoughts, I bit my tongue and did the best I could to try and paint a more optimistic portrait about the upcoming season. After all, I’ve been accused of being overly negative a lot over the years and understanding that, nobody likes to read about doom and gloom. And I honestly felt that predicting the team to finish 8-8 this season was me being optimistic.
But right now, the negativity feels well warranted because the Falcons would be lucky to get to 6-10 by year’s end based off how they are playing currently. Despite all my pre-season negativity, I never expected it to reach these lows. While losing games were to be expected, I at least expected the team to be a lot more competitive than they have been.
After watching the All-22 of Sunday’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens, I’m having flashbacks to that four-game period last season between Weeks 8 and 11 where the Falcons were among the worst teams in the league. That was the lowest point of the Mike Smith Era. But I think one could have a really good debate whether the team that has played the past few games is actually worse.
In 2013, the Falcons got a late-season boost from the healthy return of Roddy White to the offense. I’m struggling to discern where that boost is going to come from this season. I’m not being negative for the sake of being negative. I wish I could come up with some legit reason to give you hope that the Falcons down the stretch are going to be a better football team than they are currently showing.
And speaking of White, he continues to struggle to separate from coverage. Both of his 20-yard catches basically came where he found a soft spot in the zone. The fact that ex-Falcons cornerback Dominique Franks had little issue blanketing him throughout the game is a sign that he’s doing anything besides pulling his weight. I think the knee is a much, much, much more serious issue than the team has led on, but that’s speculation on my part.
So I don’t think there’s much of any hope that there will be a late-season resurgence from White unless the Falcons
bench rest him for several weeks to try and give that knee time to heal/recover. And without that, the Falcons will continue to be an offense with only one reliable receiver , who also happens to get doubled every play. I’m referring of course to Julio Jones for the uninitiated. That’s no different than what the team was a year ago during that dark time in the middle of the season with Tony Gonzalez being that lone, frequently doubled option.
The lack of weapons coupled with some less than ideal play-design is why the Falcons passing game has suddenly become inept. The majority of plays it appears the Falcons receivers are asked to run x number of yards downfield and turn around and catch it. It makes the offense exceedingly easier to defend. But I feel as if I will have nine more weeks to parse out my complaints about Dirk Koetter, since last year told me he will do little to alleviate the problems at wide receiver.
So now I do believe that the Falcons, by default, will get a boost upon the healthy return of Harry Douglas. But at what point will that be? Who knows? He could return next week, or he could miss another month. Your guess is as good as mine.
And frankly, if the biggest hope this team has is Harry “Garbage Time” Douglas returning to the lineup to provide a spark for this offense, you see the predicament the team is in moving forward.
I have to talk about the poor protection and play from the offensive line, of course. It’s a glaring issue for the team. I believe it has less to do with the absences of players like Joe Hawley and Lamar Holmes, and more to do with the fact that Jake Matthews, Justin Blalock and Gabe Carimi don’t appear to be healthy. Losing Hawley is no minor issue, since his replacements in Peter Konz and now James Stone have performed poorly. I didn’t think that the Falcons could possibly put a worse center on the field that Konz has been the past few games, but Stone might have changed that opinion.
The one positive for Stone over Konz that I can say is that at least the former is athletic enough to play in this blocking scheme. But that’s about the only positive I can say based on his performance against the Ravens. There were a couple plays where Blalock had breakdowns due to his clear efforts to help Stone out. Stone missed assignments, whiffed on blocks, and got pancaked one too many times by linebackers like Daryl Smith and Albert McClellan that he outweighs by 40 or more pounds. It was clear that he was in over his head, and yet the Falcons have already named him the starter for next week against the Detroit Lions. It makes me wonder what has been occurring behind closed doors for the past several months that has soured the coaching staff so much on Harland Gunn. My theory is based on the team just simply being utterly clueless, but that would be me becoming overly negative again.
But going back to my earlier point about Matthews, Blalock and Carimi being injured, it’s clearly been affecting their play. It’s not hard to see when you look at the All-22. Matthews’ return to full participation in practice this past week paid no dividends. He missed run-blocking assignments, particularly on the second level (i.e. when he was asked to move) and struggled to deal with Terrell Suggs’ speed on the outside.
Blalock missed a few too many assignments although I’m not sure if the poor center play is more culpable there due to miscommunications with assignments when it comes to blitzes. But there were also times when he seemingly got overpowered, and I don’t think that back injury is fully healed.
Carimi was never the world’s best athlete, but he’s also struggling to move. I’m not sure if it’s the old knee problems or the more recent ankle ones that are currently affecting him more, but to no one’s surprise, he was no match for Elvis Dumervil’s edge speed. The most positive thing I can say is that, given my extremely low expectations going into that matchup this week, Carimi wasn’t as bad as I expected.
Among the three, I probably have less concern with Blalock. But the statuses of Matthews and Carimi is a major cause for concern and another reason why I struggle to find hope. Do you “rest” them in that hopes that a week or two off will allow them to bounce back? What happens if you rest them, they return and then re-aggravate those injuries? I can only speculate, but that probably is a likelihood. Is 70 percent of Matthews/Carimi better than 100 percent of some combo of Ryan Schraeder, Cameron Bradfield or Jonathan Scott?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, and it’s just another reason why I struggle to find reasons for being optimistic.
Steven Jackson did not earn anything, but the blocking in front of him wasn’t particularly great. Jackson was not an ideal matchup against the Ravens. His ability to break tackles and get yardage after contact does make him an effective runner, but his lack of lateral quickness and change of direction ability can be limiting against a defensive front like the Ravens possess. The best runs against their formidable front would have been misdirection plays like counters and the like and Jackson is not the ideal back for those types of plays, especially in comparison the Falcons’ other backs. But there were so many runs where Jackson was about to hit the hole and go one-on-one against a defensive back (which is obviously to Jackson’s advantage given his hard-running style), but because one of the Falcons offensive linemen whiffed on his assignment against a linebacker on the second level, the hole collapsed and Jackson was stuffed for minimal gains. Jackson only saw eight carries, but I’d estimate that all but one or two were poorly blocked.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss Matt Ryan to a certain extent. I don’t think he played particularly well. But I don’t know how much of that is because of the poor protection and inability of his receivers to get open. I do think there were a couple of throws he made that were purely on him. He could have easily had two interceptions, that I simply think were bad throws on his part. And it was just another reminder of what occurred in 2013 during the middle part of the season where the offense went into the tank and his interception rate spiked.
Things looked better for the Falcons defense, mainly because they were able to create some turnovers and thus have some stops. Although in all three instances, I think they were more the fault of the Ravens making mistakes than the Falcons defenders necessarily making plays.
The most egregious Ravens error came on Robert Alford’s first interception. It was just a poor throw and decision by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Alford was covering Torrey Smith on a go route, but at no point during that play did Smith ever have a step on Alford. Flacco just simply decided he was going to take a deep shot coming out of the huddle, and even though Alford had blanketed Smith in coverage, Flacco threw it up anyway. That poor decision was coupled with the fact that Flacco did not make a great throw, as he threw inside instead of outside where Smith might have had a better chance to make a play on the ball.
However that throw contrasts with the last touchdown that Flacco threw, which was a perfect throw on a play where Smith did have a step on Alford. Alford got credited for a blown coverage, but there is no defense for a perfectly thrown pass.
Outside one other blown coverage that set up the Ravens field goal at the end of the first half, Alford played very wlel. So did Desmond Trufant, and both continue to be the two brightest spots on the defense. They are the lone two defenders that I can point to that have the talent to be high-level NFL players currently playing for the team. William Moore and Sean Weatherspoon also have that ability, but obviously both are injured and not playing.
Safety Kemal Ishmael did not have as good a game in coverage. Ishmael had two “almost” blown coverages in the second quarter. He left Trufant out to dry on a deep shot to Steve Smith with about seven minutes left in the first half. The Falcons were supposed to be in Cover-3, but Ishmael bit on the run-action in the backfield, and Smith was wide open down the center of the field. But Flacco overthrew him and that should have been a touchdown and it would have been 100 percent on Ishmael.
He made the exact same mistake later on that drive on that post to Torrey Smith, where Smith was tackled at the one-yard line. Ishmael bit hard on the run-action in the backfield and left the center of the field wide open for Smith to make the 20-yard grab. Thankfully, Trufant caught up to him before he could cross the goalline. Of course, Bernard Pierce scored on the very next play.
Ishmael is an excellent tackler and run defender, but his coverage skills leave a lot to be desired. While Moore is also limited in coverage, he doesn’t make the sort of mentor errors that Ishmael is making. Ishmael is still young, but I’ll need to see growth there before I’m personally ready to proclaim as anything more than an adequate reserve.
The best player on the defensive side of the ball was obviously Jonathan Massaquoi. He abused Ravens rookie left tackle James Hurst multiple times in the first half. Basically, Massaquoi used the same exact move to beat Hurst several times. That move consisted of the quick inside move off the snap. Hurst had no ability to adjust to it and off that move alone, Massaquoi collected two quarterback hits and a hurry. That doesn’t include a hurry and a pressure that were nullified thanks to holding calls on Hurst. The Ravens would adjust in the second half, but Massaquoi was able to still collect a hurry on an outside speed rush versus Hurst. He had another hit working against right tackle Rickey Wagner, utilizing his motor to hit Flacco after he failed to pull the trigger on a third-down throw. He also had another hurry where he was unblocked as a blitzer off the edge.
It was overall an impressive day for Massaquoi, where he was effectively able to take advantage of weak competition for the second week in a row. I will be curious to see if he can play at this level if there is an uptick in competition in the coming weeks and months.
Kroy Biermann had impressive earnings, although both of his pressures came when he was working against backup rookie tight end Crockett Gilmore. Other than that, Biermann did nothing as a pass-rusher. But he continues to be a plus run-defender for the most part. There are still a couple of plays per game where he struggles to set the edge against the outside run, and many of his positive plays against the run come when he’s working off the backside pursuit.
Paul Worrilow had a nice sack where he blitzed unblocked, although again, I think Flacco is partially to blame because he was late to recognize the blitz and wasn’t even looking for his hot read when he saw Worrilow. Worrilow also was credited with the blown coverage on Owen Daniels’ touchdown, as he was too deep in the end zone to defend the quick curl at the goalline. He also struggled to beat fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the hole on a couple of occasions, and the only time he did was with seven minutes remaining in the game, when the Ravens were running out the clock.
It goes back to previous observations I’ve had where Patrick DiMarco, a competent NFL fullback, struggles to win against opposing teams linebackers in the hole, and yet almost every opponent we face, their fullback shines against our linebackers. I just continue to believe that when you compare our linebacker play with that of other teams we’ve faced this year, there is a clear deficiency in terms of our talent. Clearly youth cannot be blamed too much, since I’m referring to players like Gerald Hodges, Anthony Barr and C.J. Mosley.
Worrilow has made only a few mental errors as far as I can tell this year, but the physical aspects of being the guy in the middle have consistently overwhelmed him. Unless his play drastically improves, I think if/when the Falcons get an opportunity this offseason, they should look to make a major upgrade at middle linebacker and move Worrilow back to being a reserve weak-side linebacker behind Weatherspoon, assuming the latter returns in 2015. That’s where he began to shine at last season, and then his move to the middle had its ups and downs in the second half. But given his youth, a lot of those downs were forgiven. This year, that has turned into mostly downs. It’s not to suggest that I’ve given up on Worrilow, but I don’t think it’s smart for the Falcons to count on him to be long-term option as a starter any longer. If he does continue to develop and improve down the road, then essentially that becomes a huge bonus. Given Spoon’s durability issues, that still could come in handy.
Most of the plays Joplo Bartu made was when he was free to pursue to the ball. He continues to struggle at the point of attack and is essentially showing himself to only be effective when he’s free of blockers and can chase. He got beat a few too many times in coverage as well, showing tight hips and poor awareness.
Dezmen Southward continues to be an effective gunner on punt coverage. If/when Drew Davis returns, it’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons make a swap there. I don’t think it’s necessary, especially since Southward is arguably more valuable on defense than Davis is on offense, thus the Falcons can probably afford to deactivate Davis most weeks.
Massaquoi also worked in punt coverage in the role normally reserved for Prince Shembo (or Joplo Bartu when Shembo has started). If Massaquoi continues to emerge as a defensive standout, then I’d like to see Shembo, Bartu or Stansly Maponga take over his snaps on coverage units.
Advanced Stats from Week 7:
Poor Throws (6): Ryan
Drops (1): White
Key Blocks (1): Blalock
Missed Blocks (1): Matthews
Sacks Allowed (5): Carimi (2), Blalock (1), Matthews (1), Stone (1)
Pressures Allowed (6): Matthews (2), Stone (2), Carimi (1), Toilolo (1)
Hurries Allowed (7): Blalock (2), Asamoah (1), Carimi (1), Matthews (1), Stone (1), Toilolo (1)
Tackles for Loss (3): Babineaux, Hageman, Massaquoi
QB Sacks (1): Worrilow
QB Pressures (3): Biermann (2), Peters (1)
QB Hits (3): Massaquoi
QB Hurries (7): Massaquoi (3), Babineaux (2), Jackson (1), Peters (1)
Passes Defended (1): Trufant
Blown Coverages (4): Alford (2), Ishmael (1), Wilson (1),
Missed Tackles (1): Bartu
Key Blocked (8): Worrilow (3), Wilson (2), Bartu (1), Massaquoi (1), Peters (1)
Stops (15): Biermann (3), Bartu (2.5), Massaquoi (2), Peters (1.5), Goodman (1), Jackson (1), Lowery (1), Soliai (1), Trufant (1), Worrilow (1)