I apologize for the delay in posting this. Got busy with some other stuff and postponing it a day turned into five before I realized.
Even with the extra time to reflect, I did not gain any further insight into the Atlanta Falcons loss to the Detroit Lions. I think ultimately the Falcons’ failure was the result of the same old problems that have plagued them throughout this season: poor play at both wide receiver and the offensive line along with a porous defense.
However, on the first two issues, I thought the Falcons were able to mitigate things early versus the Lions. I noticed several complementary routes and misdirection plays early that helped open up bigger windows for Matt Ryan to throw into to open receivers, as well as taking pressure off the offensive line to have to consistently win one-on-one blocks. A couple of plays in particular stood out on the early drives:
Roddy White’s 24-yard catch on the Falcons’ first third down of the game was largely as a result of a shallow drag route by Julio Jones over the middle drawing up the Lions middle linebacker, which allowed White to get open over the middle. On that play in particular, Harry Douglas was also wide open on a corner route over the middle, but Ryan did not see him. Had he thrown it to Douglas on that play, it could have resulted in a gain of 40 or more yards.
A few plays later, White’s second catch of the game was a 12-yard play in which he was lined up in the slot and matched up against a linebacker. White ran a quick out, and even against a diminished White, DeAndre Levy just was no match. This play is one of the reasons why I’ve long been in favor of the Falcons utilizing White more in the slot. When the Falcons utilize four wide receivers as they did on that particularly play, there are going to be many instances where a linebacker will be forced to cover a receiver, resulting in a mismatch every time.
Levine Toilolo’s 15-yard play which help set up the touchdown two plays later was an example of the misdirection I was talking about. The Falcons ran play-action to Antone Smith, which caused middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead to bite and Toilolo was wide open over the middle.
On the team’s third scoring drive, the Falcons made excellent use of the screen pass. Justin Blalock absolutely blasted Levy which freed up Julio Jones for the nice 16-yard gain. Then on the next play, James Stone was able to get enough in Whitehead’s way, helping Jacquizz Rodgers gain 13 yards on a screen.
But the Falcons stopped doing this early in the second half, relying primarily on seven-man protections out of fear of the Lions pass rush. The Falcons had every reason to respect the Lions front, but by sending out only two and occasionally three receivers into their routes, one of which being a severely limited White, was extremely limiting to the Falcons offense. The Falcons are better when they spread out their opponents and try to get defenses off-balanced.
Another key element of their early success was the hard-running of running back Steven Jackson. Some might point out to Jackson’s 3.3 yards per carry as a sign that he wasn’t particularly effective on Sunday. Those people would be wrong. While Jackson only had 38 yards on 11 carries in the first half (3.5 yards per carry), he was successful on seven of those 11 runs. When a running back is successful on 64 percent of his runs, that is a very, very good thing.
What many people fail to understand is that yards per carry is really only a reflective measure of how many long runs a back gets. Breaking a long run every now and then heavily skews yards per carry up, but isn’t really reflective of how much a running back is contributing on a per-snap basis. Success rate is a much more accurate way to measure that per-snap value. For the uninitiated, here’s a basic breakdown of how to measure success rate:
A successful run is considered to be one that:
- On first down, gains 45 percent or more of the necessary yardage for a first down. For example, on 1st-and-10, a run of five or more yards is successful.
- On second down, gains 60 percent or more of the necessary yardage for a first down. For example, on 2nd-and-5, a run of three or more yards is successful.
- On third or fourth down, gains all of the necessary yardage for a first down. For example, on 3rd-and-2, a run of two or more yards is successful.
But the Falcons for some reason decided to go away from Jackson in the second half when they were up three scores. Of the team’s first 16 called plays in the second half when they were still up by a touchdown or more, only three of them were called runs to Jackson. This marked the best opportunity that the Falcons have had all season to utilize Jackson’s primary strength: being the hammer that can wear down defenses.
The Falcons showed in this game how ineffective they were at utilizing the strengths of their running backs on a number of plays. On plays where they should have handed it off to Jackson up the middle, they gave it to Antone Smith or another. On plays where they wanted to get the ball outside, they gave it to Jackson instead of one of the team’s other quicker backs. Overall, it’s not an overwhelming number of times when the team incorrectly identifies which back’s number should be called, but it’s enough that it is contributing to why the offense stagnated in the second half when most of these poor decisions were made.
Up front, the Falcons continue to have too many lapses. Even with their seven-man protections, there were still instances where one of their blockers was put in a one-on-one situation against somebody like an Ndamukong Suh or Ezekiel Ansah. And too often in those instances, the Falcons blocker got beat which allowed the Lions to rush four against seven and still create effective pressure.
Jake Matthews struggled throughout this game, particularly when he was facing Ansah on an island. Suh didn’t make a ton of plays in the game, mostly because he was consistently being double-teamed. But many of the instances where he was matched up one-on-one against Jon Asamoah, the former got the better of the latter. And of course, Suh was able to take advantage of Stone late in the game.
Relatively speaking, James Stone was serviceable. He was far from good, but if nothing else, Stone was an upgrade over Peter Konz. That’s not saying much since Konz was not very good, but at least Stone showed the sort of athleticism necessary to fit the Falcons blocking scheme, which asks its center to get downfield quite a bit. Stone missed quite several second-level assignments, but he hit enough such as the aforementioned screen play, where there is hope that he might be competent by year’s end with continued development. I still believe that Harland Gunn would be a better option given that Gunn is equally if not more athletic, and also has the physicality and aggressiveness to help push the pile when necessary at center. But at this point, that’s probably a belief that will never be proven or disproven unless Stone gets injured. The Falcons have always been slow to make changes in these sort of instances.
Ryan Schraeder did a solid job at right tackle, although I did see enough lapses that will give me pause to completely sign off on him at the position. But Schraeder continues to be an effective run blocker. I believe he was helped by the limited number of stunts the Lions ran against the Falcons. I’m not sure why the Lions didn’t try stunting the Falcons to death from the opening whistle, but that decision probably contributed to why the Falcons offensive line didn’t look terribly for large portions of this game.
If you’re curious as to what Ryan was thinking on his grievous interception to Cassius Vaughn in the third quarter, it looked as if he was trying to throw the ball away in the general vicinity of where he thought Jones was to prevent an intentional grounding. Of course that was a mistake since Ryan was already outside the tackle box and could have simply thrown the ball out of bounds without drawing the penalty. On that play, Ryan had an opportunity to pull the trigger on a deep post to an open White, but did not. Hitting White would have required Ryan to make a throw roughly 45 yards in the air without the inability to step into his throw. It was just another example of the limitations of Ryan’s arm strength and/or willingness to pull the trigger when that arm strength is likely to be tested. Usually those instances tend to cut down on the number of turnovers Ryan has because he’s unwilling to take those chances.
And before people misinterpret that statement, I’m not saying that Ryan’s lack of arm strength is a huge limitation for the Falcons offense. I’d estimate that 85 to 90 percent of the time, it’s inconsequential. But the remaining portion of the time, it can be a significant obstacle that the Falcons offense struggles to overcome. There are big plays that are often left on the field because Ryan is averse to taking a risk. I wouldn’t put that all on Ryan, as Mike Smith’s emphasis on avoiding turnovers probably only heightens Ryan’s aversion to taking risks, but that’s a conversation and debate for another day.
The Falcons’ early defensive success in slowing down the Lions offense I think had a lot to do with pressure created by Osi Umenyiora. While Osi didn’t have a dominant game on par with what we’ve seen from John Abraham in the past, there were a number of plays throughout the game where he was able to take Lions left tackle Riley Reiff to school. A few of them came on some critical third downs in the first half of the game, which led to off-target throws by Lions quarterback Matt Stafford.
As was the case in 2012, Stafford’s poor mechanics continues to hold the Lions offense back. He missed on throws at times because he was unable to step into them because of pressure from Osi, or simply because his feet get sloppy when he’s forced to speed things up and his passes tend to sail or wind up in the dirt. He’s made strides since that 2012 game, but Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi still have a long way to go in order to clean things up and make him a more accurate passer. Stafford has been able to get away with his sloppy mechanics and erratic accuracy primarily because of the ungodly catch radius of Calvin Johnson. With no Johnson in the lineup, it becomes a significant obstacle for the Lions offense because their quarterback suddenly morphs into a well below average passer. I feel it necessary to point that out because the last thing I’d want to be accused of given my earlier criticism of Ryan, is that arm strength is the end-all-be-all of being a quality quarterback.
Desmond Trufant probably had one of his weaker games at least if judging from the past dozen or so dating back to 2013. But despite a couple of blown coverages, Trufant still had a fairly solid game. Most of his blown coverages were quick throws or rub routes.
Paul Worrilow had one of his worst games. He got credited with two blown coverages on the Lions game-winning drive. Golden Tate got behind him when the Falcons were using zone on that 32-yard play that kicked things off. Then Worrilow made a mistake by biting outside against Theo Riddick on an option route, which allowed Riddick to make the quick cut inside for an easy 20-yard gain. On the Lions’ previous scoring drive, Worrilow also got stiff-armed on an open-field tackle that could have stopped Joique Bell on a screen. Instead of a 2nd-and-9 at the Falcons’ 15-yard line, it became 1st-and-goal from the five. It’s not to say that the Falcons still would’ve prevented a touchdown had Worrilow made that tackle, but it certainly would have made things a little harder. And at least that would have been one positive play for Worrilow on a day that featured very, very few.
Joplo Bartu at least had a few positive plays, but also had a number of mistakes. Many of them being the same old mistakes where Bartu shows a lack of awareness. Speaking for myself, whatever promise I had in both Worrilow and Bartu a year ago, has all but evaporated. Both might still eventually turn into decent players down the line, but I no longer expect them to, nor do I believe the Falcons should count on it happening. I think it’s time the Falcons give players like Nate Stupar a look at middle linebacker. From limited film study of Stupar this past summer in Jacksonville, I don’t believe there’s really any reason to expect much of any drop off from Worrilow to him. Particularly given that Worrilow is playing so poorly, it’s much likelier that Stupar will be an upgrade.
Kemal Ishmael’s poor deep coverage ability reared its ugly head for the third week in a row. I’ve heard some complain about the Falcons called coverage on the 3rd-and-25 play where Tate got behind Ishmael for the 59-yard score. I think that’s a pretty silly issue to have. Whether the Falcons should have been in Cover-2 (as they were), Cover-3 or Cover-4, really doesn’t change the fact that Ishmael played it so poorly, that Rahim Moore might even scoff.
It’s nice to see the Falcons finally make a move at safety to bring in a veteran like Charles Godfrey, although it took three consecutive games where Ishmael struggled before they felt the move was necessary. This is what I was referring to earlier in the Falcons being sluggish to make a change. Of course, this is an issue that could have been avoided had the team followed my advice three months ago and signed a veteran safety between then and now. It’s these sorts of situations why I’m much more critical of Thomas Dimitroff than others in causing many of the team’s current afflictions.
On special teams, Matt Bosher had a bad punt in the third quarter that went off the side of his foot. Other than that, he was fine.
Noticed that the Falcons had Jonathan Massaquoi working on kickoff coverage instead of Stansly Maponga as I had previously hoped. Cliff Matthews took over for Maponga on kickoffs, but Massaquoi continued to work on both punt and kickoff coverage. Obviously, that is an issue because Massaquoi has without a doubt proven his value on defense the past few weeks. It’s time the Falcons start trying to fill that special teams mantle with others players such as Maponga, especially if he continues to get very limited reps on defense.
Advanced Stats from Week 8:
Poor Throws (2): Ryan
Drops (3): DiMarco, Douglas, Jones
Key Blocks (7): Matthews (2), Asamoah (1), Carimi (1), DiMarco (1), Pascoe (1), Stone (1)
Missed Blocks (5): Asamoah, Carimi, Schraeder, Stone, Toilolo
Sacks Allowed (1): Matthews
Pressures Allowed (1): Schraeder
Hurries Allowed (4): Blalock (3), Matthews (1)
Tackles for Loss (3): Hageman (1), Wilson (1), Ishmael (0.5), Soliai (0.5)
QB Sacks (0)
QB Pressures (2): Umenyiora
QB Hits (2): Biermann, Umenyiora
QB Hurries (4): Biermann, Jackson, Massaquoi, Umenyiora
Passes Defended: Trufant (2), Jackson (1), Lowery (1), Umenyiora (1)
Blown Coverages (8): Trufant (3), Worrilow (3), Ishmael (2)
Missed Tackles (4): Worrilow (2), Lowery (1), Wilson (1)
Key Blocked: Hageman (1), Massaquoi (1)
Stops (7): Ishmael (1.5), Bartu (1), Hageman (1), Lowery (1), Southward (1), Biermann (0.5), McClain (0.5), Peters (0.5)