Takeaways from Week 10

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith’s seat is warming up

I’m pretty fed up with the Atlanta Falcons. For the third consecutive week, the Falcons offense looked pathetic.

I’ve been saying for some time that the Falcons need to be more aggressive offensively and try to generate big plays. And they continue to do the opposite by being increasingly conservative and it isn’t getting results.

The common excuse is that the offensive line doesn’t give Matt Ryan enough time for them to go deep. And that certainly is a valid excuse. But it’s not as if other teams don’t find ways to compensate and still generate the big plays. There’s no rule that says you can’t take shots downfield if you have a bad offensive line. It certainly means that you’ll take more sacks, but I’d rather see an offense that gives up five sacks but gets five 30-yard plays, as opposed to an offense that gives up two sacks and only gets two 30-yard plays.

Falcons Can Only Blame Themselves For Offensive Lull

The real issue is that the Falcons aren’t even trying to take deep shots. Clearly, you cannot complete those passes when you don’t even attempt them. Ryan is at the bottom of the league in terms of the percentage of passes thrown beyond 20 yards. And when they have taken deep shots, it has come after they are well-behind on the scoreboard and have no other choice.

A year ago, the Falcons weren’t a dynamic, vertical offense, ranking 27th in the NFL in percentage of passes that resulted in gains of 20 or more yards. But they took measured shots downfield, often utilizing play-action and max protect and sending receivers deep.

These things aren’t happening in 2013. Now most people would contend that because of the Falcons lack of a running game, it makes play-action less effective. And they would be right to a certain extent. The better your rushing attack, the easier it is to run play-action. But even the league’s worst rushing team doesn’t mean that play-action should be non-existent.

Despite having one of the league’s worst running games in 2012, Matt Ryan still attempted 97 pass attempts off play-action and completed 69.1-percent of them. That mark ranked sixth in the league last year and was a higher rate than Robert Griffin III, who operated an offense that was predicated off play-action in Washington. On those 97 throws, Ryan threw 9 touchdowns (putting him in the Top 10) and had the league’s third-best passer rating of 121.5 off play-action.

Through eight games this year, Ryan’s numbers really haven’t dropped off, except for in one category: touchdowns. Ryan has thrown 3 touchdowns, while completing 72.7-percent of 55 play-action pass attempts for a ration of 105.1. (All stats from Pro Football Focus.com)

Through three quarters against the Panthers (and not counting the 2-minute drill at the end of the first half), the Falcons ran the ball 8 times on 13 1st-and-10 situations. Steven Jackson got 5 of those carries for a combined -1 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers had 2 rushes for 14 yards and Jason Snelling had 1 carry for 4 yards. Matt Ryan completed 3 of 5 passes for 35 yards. Clearly, the Falcons found success on Sunday when they avoided handing it off to Steven Jackson, generating a combined 53 yards on 8 plays.

Two or three of those instances where the Falcons are handing the ball off to Jackson, could be play-action situations. Those are perfect instances where opponents could be expecting a run by Jackson up the middle, and the Falcons take a deep shot downfield over the top of the defense. And in comparison of Jackson’s runs against Seattle, an incomplete pass would not be a worse outcome.

A Personnel Shake-up Is Required

If you’re concerned the Falcons lack a deep threat that can be on the receiving end of those deep passes, then they need to go out and find one. I have no problems beating the dead horse that the Falcons decision not to acquire a deep threat following Julio Jones injury is clearly hurting this offense. The Falcons have seven more weeks to get said player.

But this is the crux of the issue, and the biggest reason why I’m frustrated and fed up with the current state of affairs in Atlanta. Not only are the Falcons gameplans been exceedingly conservative, but the way they run their front office and personnel department is even more so.

They signed Brian Robiskie to replace Jones on the roster. In four years Robiskie has not shown anything to suggest he’s a viable NFL wide receiver. And for three straight weeks, he has been inactive. And it’s been proven without a doubt that the absence of a vertical threat at wide receiver is making it easier for defenses to defend the Falcons. And Robiskie is certainly not a deep threat. Yet, the Falcons are still sticking to their guns that Robiskie is worthy of a roster spot and worth developing.

That refusal to acknowledge the obvious is ultimately what might get people fired in Atlanta.

I’m willing to give the powers that be in Thomas Dimitroff, Mike Smith, and the rest a pass for past miscalculations and mistakes. You can’t change the past but you can change the present.

Shades of Bobby Petrino

I said it during last week’s podcast, but I see little to no difference between this current Falcon team and the one that was fielded during the disastrous 2007 season.

On that team, the Falcons had a limited number of offensive playmakers with Roddy White and Jerious Norwood being the main two. And each week, Bobby Petrino kept indicating how they needed to get the ball into Norwood’s hands, yet every week they failed to do so. And there’s a finite number of times that you can say you’re going to do something, and don’t, before I stop listening to the message and begin to resent you.

The positive for Mike Smith, is that he’s not promising anything beyond vague suggestions that the team needs to play better overall. But for a head coach like Smith, who has built a reputation on getting the most out of his players, there again is a finite number of times before I began to resent the message.

For myself, that point is quickly approaching. And I believe that next week when they travel to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons have their most winnable game of the rest of the season. If the Falcons are lucky, the Bucs will beat the Miami Dolphins tonight and thus take away the pressure of facing a winless team.

And there will be pressure, because if the Bucs first win of the season comes against the Falcons in Week 11, then I believe it will be the death knell to Mike Smith’s tenure in Atlanta.

It will be the rock-bottom point of this year, akin to that 34-point loss to the Bucs in 2007 the week after Petrino quit on the team.

Because Tampa Bay is the worst team remaining on the Falcons schedule, if they cannot win that game then there is no reason to believe they will beat anybody the rest of the year. And thus the potential 2-14 season becomes a reality.

And I don’t believe that there is much of any chance that Mike Smith survives a 2-14 season. You could get away with blaming injuries if the Falcons were able to turn things around and finish this year 5-11 or 6-10. That’s reasonable that a team that was projected to win 10-12 games, due to injuries could become be a sub-.500 team that wins only 5-7 games because they lose a bunch of close ones.

But injuries aren’t a valid enough excuse for why a team that was projected to win that many games, suddenly goes 2-14. You can get away with winning only 2 or 3 games if you’re a first-year coach on a team clearly in rebuilding mode. Especially if you’re offense is helmed by a quarterback like Chad Henne, Matt Cassell, Jimmy Clausen, or Curtis Painter. But you cannot get away with that in your sixth year on a team that was expected to be in title contention, when you have Matt Ryan under center.

But in order for the Falcons to start winning games, they have to start playing better. And that is going to require people coaching and playing like their jobs are on the line. And based off the product I’ve seen in recent weeks, I’m not sure that is currently the case.

I really hope for the sake of my own sanity and that of Mike Smith, that next week’s takeaway column isn’t discussing another Falcons loss.

Elsewhere in the NFL…

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Roethlisberger

I spent most of Sunday morning listening/watching to all of the talk about the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito, with Incognito’s well-edited interview by Jay Glazer airing on FOX in the pregame show. But the most fascinating story was the fact that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is reportedly wanting out of Pittsburgh.

While I think things are close to rock bottom here in Atlanta, the rumor that the Steelers franchise quarterback wants to move on is huge. Things must get significantly worse for Matt Ryan to ever get in that position to be asked to be traded. Roethlisberger has denied the rumors, but the tenuous relationship between him and Todd Haley is likely the root cause of this issue. Mike Tomlin’s decision to move on from Bruce Arians has only looked like a major mistake. And now the Steelers find themselves in a predicament where they’re at the lowest they’ve been in 30 years. The Rooneys are a notoriously patient ownership group, but things haven’t looked this out of whack in Pittsburgh in a long time, and it’s going to make for an interesting off-season. I highly doubt the Steelers oblige Roethlisberger by trading him but they are going to have to start thinking about the next step. Roethlisberger will be 32 next March, which isn’t old for a franchise quarterback. But considering all the wear and tear that Roethlisberger has incurred over the years, his body is more akin to a 35-year old, which is old. Even if they can convince Roethlisberger to stay (and I’m confident they will if/when they fire Haley), they need to look into developing his eventual replacement. Landry Jones just isn’t going to cut it.

There were a lot of dramatic late-game finishes on Sunday:

Yesterday, Baltimore and Cincinnati’s game went to overtime, thanks to a last-second touchdown by A.J. Green on a hail mary. The ball bounced off a group of defenders, and Ravens safety James Ihedigbo tipped the ball back up into the air into the waiting arms of Green.

However, Ihedigbo made up for it, as he finished the game with a team-leading 9 tackles and a pair of interceptions. He also busted up the Bengals 4th down attempt in overtime on a swing pass to Gio Bernard. The Bengals opted to go for it on 4th-and-2 at the Ravens 33-yard line rather than trying for a 50-yard field goal from Mike Nugent. Nugent had missed a 42-yard field goal earlier in the game and the Bengals had attempted four previous 4th down conversions, including the hail mary to Green. They did manage to convert 2 of the 3 earlier ones, but both were with 1-yard to go. With 2 yards to go, I think I would have settled for the field goal and taken the points. But I can understand Lewis having more confidence in his offense getting 2 yards than his kicker. The Ravens got the ball on the turnover on downs, and moved down the field to allow Justin Tucker to hit a game-winning 46-yarder.

In the Chicago-Detroit game, head coach Marc Trestman also made an interesting late-game decision, pulling starter Jay Cutler for Josh McCown in the final two minutes. Cutler came back from his groin injury this week, but seemed to re-injure it in the third quarter. McCown was able to able to move the Bears down the field to score to cut the lead to two points with less than a minute to go. But the Bears were unable to convert on the two-point conversion and were unable to recover the onside kick, giving the Lions the win. But it shouldn’t have come to that, as the Bears had an earlier fourth quarter touchdown by Matt Forte nullified by a holding penalty, when they would have taken a 17-14 lead. Ultimately after a dropped touchdown pass by Alshon Jeffery in the end zone, the Bears settled for a field goal on that possession. Had they scored touchdowns, McCown’s last-minute touchdown to Brandon Marshall would have been the game-winner.

The Titans also had a chance to win their game against the Jaguars with a last-second onside kick, but did not recover. The Jaguars got their first win of the season essentially because the Titans played a very sloppy, mistake-ridden game. Chris Johnson fumbled on the opening snap of the game, essentially gifting the Jaguars a touchdown to start the game. Neither offense really was effective at moving the ball from that point on. That was no surprise since the Jaguars offense has been bad all year long. Their second touchdown came off a Jake Locker interception giving them favorable field position. The Titans offensive struggles took a turn when Locker left the game in the second quarter with a season-ending foot injury. His replacement in Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to get a couple of scores, but a holding call on rookie Chance Warmack in the end zone gave Jacksonville another two points on a safety, and Fitzpatrick was stripped by cornerback Will Blackmon, who returned the fumble for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick led Tennessee back down the field and deivered a strike to Delanie Walker in the final minute to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 2 points. But they didn’t recover the ensuing onside and the game was over. Mistakes by the Titans essentially gave the Jaguars 23 of their 29 points.

The Cardinals managed to score even quicker than the Jaguars off an opening-play fumble against the Texans. Case Keenum was stripped by John Abraham on the opening play of that game, and Matt Shaughnessy took it 6 yards for a touchdown. But that game went back and forth, with Houston taking a 17-14 lead in the second half. The Cardinals would come back and take a 27-17 lead in the fourth quarter and the Cardinals would get a stop. But Rashard Mendenhall coughed it up on the next play at Arizona’s 5-yard line, and Andre Johnson made a magnificent catch to cut the lead to 3 points with 4:34 left. Smartly, Arizona went with Andre Ellington for the rest of the game, but Houston had another possession with 2 minutes left in the game. But they could not capitalize and the Cardinals held on for the win.

The Panthers-49ers game was another one that came down to the wire. It proved a defensive battle to no one’s surprise. But it really was the Panthers defense that stepped up, sacking Colin Kaepernick six times and holding him to just 91 yards passing. The 49ers converted just 2 of 13 third downs, and turned the ball over twice in a performance that was reminiscent of Alex Smith’s poor performance in the NFC Championship game two years ago. The 49ers still had a chance to win it as Carolina’s offense didn’t do much themselves. The 49ers nearly recovered a fumble by Jonathan Stewart in the final two minutes. But it was for naught, as when the 49ers did get the ball back a minute later, Kaepernick forced a deep pass that was picked off by Drayton Florence to seal the win with 30 seconds left.

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Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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