“They would’ve used the timeout if we hadn’t.”
Those words might mark the most infamous statement of Mike Smith’s tenure as the Atlanta Falcons head coach. And ultimately if or rather when Smith is fired at the end of the year, it’s those words that will be thrown back into his face.
Smith uttered those words in his post-game press conference following the Falcons’ 26-24 last-minute loss to the Cleveland Browns yesterday afternoon. They were in reference to Smith’s questionable decision to burn one of the Falcons timeouts with 55 seconds left on the clock to set up for a 3rd-and-2 play.
It is a true statement. Yes, the Browns were very likely to burn one of their remaining three timeouts in that situation. And it’s exactly that reason why Smith’s decision to use a timeout was idiotic.
In that situation, the right call is to force the Browns to use one of their three remaining timeouts. Even if Browns head coach Mike Pettine was a half-second away from signaling timeout to the officials, the very fact that you leave him one less significantly helps you in the event that the Browns are forced to march down the field in the final minute to get into field goal, a feat they eventually did accomplish.
Pettine hasn’t been known for his excellent clock management already this year, so there’s a decent chance that if Smith doesn’t burn that timeout, Pettine lets several more seconds tick off the clock, once again helping the Falcons out.
I say to Smith, if you thought they were going to burn a timeout, then let them. There is absolutely no benefit from you preempting their timeout with one of your own.
It’s understandable that Smith wanted a clock stoppage to give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter a bit more time to get everyone on the same page for that pivotal third-down play. The Falcons were within kicker Matt Bryant’s field goal range at the 35-yard line, but obviously wanted to get a little closer. The Falcons had been good on third down throughout the game, converting nine of 15 (60 percent) up to that point.
Koetter’s Play Call is Lesser of Two Evils
But unfortunately, the decision that Koetter made at that point was not his best either. The Falcons opted to try a pass to Devin Hester. Hester was open, but Matt Ryan underthrew him badly on the play, and the clock stopped with 49 seconds left in the game. Bryant hit the ensuing 53-yard kick and the Falcons took a 26-24 lead, giving the Browns 44 seconds to try and win the game, which they eventually did.
Koetter might have opted to run the ball on that third-down play to make sure that the Browns burned another timeout if the Falcons did not manage to convert.
The Falcons have rarely opted to run the ball on 3rd-and-2 over the years. Prior to Sunday, in such 3rd-and-2 situations, they have run the ball just once on six tries this year. They converted on that single instance, on a two-yard run by Antone Smith in Week 4. In two previous seasons under Koetter they have run the ball six times on 30 3rd-and-2 situations. They converted on four of those six tries. In the four years with Mike Mularkey as offensive coordinator, the Falcons were able to run the ball and convert 3rd-and-2 on 11 of 16 tries. But they passed the ball a total of 44 times in that same situation.
Historically, the Falcons have had a much higher percentage converting 3rd-and-2 on the ground than they have through the air. Under Smith, they have converted 16 of 23 (70 percent) 3rd-and-2 runs. Through the air in that same span, they’ve converted 37 times on 69 pass attempts or just 54 percent of the time. Even if you looked at the 2010 through 2012 seasons where Ryan and his weapons were at their respective peaks, the Falcons still only managed to convert 19 of 36 (or 53 percent) 3rd-and-2 pass attempts.
If you include even 3rd-and-1 situations, the Falcons have still been much better when they keep the ball on the ground. Under Smith, they have converted 72 percent of third downs in which there were two yards or less when they have run the ball versus only 52 percent of passes in those situations.
Even if you were to conclude that the years from 2008-13 are irrelevant to this year, the numbers still again show that the Falcons probably would have been better served keeping the ball on the ground. This year, they have converted all 11 of their rush attempts on third down when there are less than two yards to go, but only two of seven passes (or 29 percent) in those same situations.
But all that said, I won’t fault the Falcons coaching staff too much for opting to throw in that situation. Ryan is being paid a lot of money, and I understand if they feel more comfortable with the ball in his hands. After all, Hester did get open and Ryan just missed him. It was one of several missed passes that Ryan had on the day, particularly down the field.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s more than fair to say the Falcons should have run the ball in that situation. It’s a makeable play with a run and it behooves the team to not risk stopping the clock. Had it been 3rd-and-3 or 3rd-and-4, it would’ve been a different situation and likely prompted the pas. But among the two bad decisions: calling the initial timeout versus deciding to throw, the latter was probably the lesser of the two evils.
But Bryant hit the kick, giving the Falcons the lead and all they needed to do was get off the field in the final 44 seconds of the game. So I don’t quite buy the rhetoric that Smith’s poor clock management cost the Falcons the game since they were winning the game at that point after Bryant’s kick. What cost them the game was letting the Browns march 61 yards down the field in seven plays in under 45 seconds to kick the game-winning field goal.
Smith’s bone-headed decision helped give the Browns a better chance to win the game, but they certainly hadn’t achieved it yet. That was left up entirely to the ineptitude of the Falcons defense on that final drive.
Falcons Defense Cost Team Game
The Falcons had gotten three turnovers earlier in the game, including interceptions on the previous two Browns drives. Those turnovers gave the impression that the Falcons defense had played well throughout the game, but that was not the case. The Browns had their most successful game of the season offensively with a season-high 475 total yards. The Browns had struggled to move the ball on the ground throughout the past five weeks, outside a 170-yard performance against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10. In four other contests, they averaged just 54 rushing yards per game. The Browns needed to run the ball 52 times against the Bengals to achieve their 170 yards. Against the Falcons, it only took 29 carries to reach 162 yards.
And of the three interceptions that Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer threw on Sunday, two of them had more to do with Hoyer’s shortcomings than stellar plays on the part of Falcons defenders. His first to Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael near the end of the first half was a result of Hoyer not seeing the underneath defender, and floating a pass out to his tight end Jim Dray. Ishmael made a nice play to make the leaping grab, but Hoyer had no business throwing that pass.
His second interception was a result of cornerback Desmond Trufant making an excellent play in the back of the end zone. I’ll certainly give Trufant credit when it’s due for making that play. But he certainly got help from Hoyer heaving up a desperation throw off his back foot to wide receiver Josh Gordon, who made a less than stellar effort on the errant throw. Generally, I don’t fault quarterbacks too much for being aggressive but that perhaps was an instance where Hoyer shouldn’t have gone for it all on 1st-and-goal.
Hoyer’s third pick to Dezmen Southward was another missed connection to Gordon. Gordon ran a post-corner route, but Hoyer threw inside and up the field when he should have thrown outside towards the sideline. It was an easy play for Southward to make over the top. It was a nice play by the rookie safety to get his first career interception, but that play had a lot more to do with Hoyer’s inaccuracy and poor placement than Southward’s playmaking abilities.
Overall, while the Falcons defense did manage to give the team several opportunities to win this game, they ultimately gave it up in the end. However, things started well for the Falcons on that final drive, as Osi Umenyiora hit Hoyer from behind to force an incompletion.
The Falcons dialed up the corner blitz from Josh Wilson on the following play. Wilson managed to get to Hoyer, but a step too late as he was able to throw to Miles Austin, who Wilson vacated and was in single coverage against Ishmael. Despite a strong performance last week, Ishmael has had more breakdowns than success when in coverage this year and Austin was able to make the easy grab for an 11-yard gain.
The Falcons got some pressure on Hoyer on the following play with Kroy Biermann beating right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. But Hoyer stepped up in the pocket and made a throw 24 yards down field to Gordon, who got behind Southward in the Falcons zone coverage. Think back to two weeks ago when Southward had a couple of breakdowns in zone coverage that allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to march down the field late in the fourth quarter. On Sunday, Southward was too shallow over the middle, as he was stuck between a rock and a hard place of trying to be in position to make a tackle against tight end Gary Barnidge if Hoyer made the underneath throw or getting depth in case a receiver like Gordon snuck behind him.
That’s not to put all of it on Southward, as it appeared Trufant was also indecisive about whether he should get depth or try and follow Gordon over the middle. All told, it’s just another example of the Falcons defense really struggling to be in position when asked to play in zone coverage. It’s been something that has been a regular occurrence under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, where the Falcons call zone coverage in crunch-time situations and opposing offenses simply carve them up at will.
There’s nothing inherently wrong at zone coverage, but the Falcons appear especially bad at it. I would love to see what statistics the Falcons coaching staff apparently have that suggest to them that their continued usage of zone is beneficial to the defense. It certainly was not on Sunday with zone coverages giving the Browns 35 yards on two consecutive plays.
So what did Nolan do afterwards? He understandably made the switch to man coverage. But of course the Falcons failed on that with Barnidge beating safety Dwight Lowery over the middle on an option route. Ishmael was on hand to try and deliver a blow to Barnidge in mid-air to jar the ball loose, but Barnidge absorbed the hit and got an additional yard or two before Ishmael and Southward eventually tracked him down. That was a 15-yard play that put the Browns firmly in field-goal range at the Falcons’ 30-yard line.
The Browns burned their final timeout with 16 seconds left and had enough time for one more play to try and get Cundiff a little closer. The Falcons once again stuck to man coverage, but Barnidge picked cornerback Javier Arenas over the middle, freeing up Austin to make an 11-yard grab over the middle to set up the game-winning 37-yard field goal.
So while many may focus on Nolan’s play-calling and coverages as a reason for why the Falcons lost, those people can’t completely dismiss that the Falcons players simply didn’t get the job done. Nolan called both zone and man coverage and in neither situation did Falcons defenders make the necessary plays.
Many will ignore the defensive breakdowns at the end, focusing solely on Smith’s poor clock management. They will contend that it’s the duty of the coaching staff and particularly the head coach to put the team in the best position to win the game, and Smith’s decision to waste a timeout with 55 seconds left was anything but that. And those people will be absolutely right in that belief.
Mike Smith is an Easy Target For Team’s Problems
Yet people have a tendency to want to whittle their blame down to one thing. It’s a lot easier to process if you can focus your vitriol on one thing than the plethora of issues that are facing this team.
In the case of Smith, who I dubbed a dead man walking four weeks ago, he’s an easy target for that blame. I certainly don’t want to get between folks and that blame, if for no other reason than people suspecting that I’m defending Smith in any capacity.
His decision to call that timeout at the end of the Browns game was indefensible. But it certainly is not the only reason why the Falcons lost the game. Football is rarely ever that cut and dry.
When ranking the multitude of issues why the Falcons lost to the Browns, Smith’s ill-timed timeout is certainly first and foremost. I previously mentioned the breakdowns on the final drive but the Falcons’ inability to stop the Browns run, particularly in the second half was also a contributing factor. The Browns were successful on nine of 14 runs (or 64 percent), which should hardly be considered “winning” defense.
Those breakdowns in the secondary could have potentially been avoided if the Falcons’ pass rush had been a step or two faster, which has been problematic for a number of years.
Despite two late-game interceptions, the Falcons generated just three points off those turnovers. Simply turning one of those turnovers into another field goal probably would have also marked the difference between winning and losing.
Ryan certainly had one of his worst days passing in recent memory on Sunday. It capped off what has been a subpar month of play from Ryan since the first half against the Detroit Lions in London in Week 8. No one will say that the Falcons problems start or end with Ryan, but so little has gone right for this team this season that one of the last things they can afford is for their quarterback to suffer a dip in performance.
And in that same vein, Sunday’s game could be described somewhat of a microcosm of the Falcons season and their current state as a franchise. Firing Mike Smith would certainly be a good start to fixing their problems, but it is only a start and not the final solution. The Falcons have a long way to go before this team is competing back at the highest levels.
Firing Smith won’t suddenly solve the Falcons pass-rush and third-down defensive woes that have plagued them for years. That will only be solved with multiple years of improved drafting and free-agent acquisitions.
Falcons Offense and Defense Still Have Several Holes
The Falcons are going to have to get younger at wide receiver and continue to bolster the running back and tight end positions. The team also still has question marks at the backup quarterback position.
The offensive line has made strides this year, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to move in that direction unless they can secure long-term options at left guard, center and right tackle. Perhaps Joe Hawley and Ryan Schraeder can solve those issues at the latter two positions, but they are far from proven with just 14 career starts for Hawley at center and nine for Schraeder at right tackle. Blalock turns 31 next month, and it’s probable that the Falcons are looking in a different direction at that left guard come 2016, if not sooner.
These problems and issues don’t get resolve simply by firing Smith. Either Thomas Dimitroff or the Falcons next general manager is going to have to address these areas if he intends to get more out of the Falcons offense than Smith has.
And clearly, the Falcons defense still has a ways to go. It’s not as simply that the Falcons can simply change up their defensive scheme and everything will fall into place.
They need pass-rushers and probably three or more good ones before this rush gets to any respectable level. People are quick to point out that Jonathan Massaquoi has future worth developing, but as noted earlier this season, he would likely be a situational backup on many top pass-rushes throughout the league. So the litmus test for when the Falcons have successfully solved their pass-rush problems is likely when Massaquoi is clearly their third best option off the edge.
They have several bodies at defensive tackle, but most of those guys are best used in a rotation rather than guys that can play every snap and make an impact. Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson had much of their success in recent years when they were playing less than half the defensive reps. Jonathan Babineaux once was a player capable of a high workload, but has not been that sort of player since 2012. Corey Peters is a good run-stopper but would come off the field in passing situations if he played for several top-tier defensive lines. Ra’Shede Hageman has certainly made strides in his rookie season but is probably at least another season or two from being able to contribute as an every-down starter. While it might not be atop their list of priorities, if the Falcons have the opportunity to get a potentially dominant defensive tackle in the near future, they should fully take advantage of it.
Safeties like Ishmael and Southward are still young and developing, but it’s concerning when you have as many breakdowns in coverage as they have had this year. Part of it is youth and inexperience, but it’s not as if they didn’t start and play in college. Ishmael started 49 games at Central Florida, while Southward started 30 games at Wisconsin. It’s not as if the Falcons are throwing completely brand new coverage concepts at them as they both played plenty of Cover-1 and Cover-2 during their collegiate careers.
The knock on Ishmael coming out was his lack of speed and range to make plays in coverage. One only has to look at the touchdown to Golden Tate in Week 8 to see those shortcomings in effect. Southward was knocked for lacking coverage instincts and experience, and his tendency to be stuck covering grass in recent weeks suggests those criticisms were well-founded. Firing Smith isn’t going to make Ishmael a step faster, nor is it going to suddenly instill Southward with the innate grey matter to be a more instinctual coverage safety.
The Falcons linebackers aren’t a problem that is simply going to go away by firing a coach either since this isn’t a new issue that arose only in 2014. Back when the Falcons linebackers were better at defending the run in the heydays of Curtis Lofton, Stephen Nicholas and Mike Peterson, we constantly complained about their inability to cover tight ends and running backs. This current group of linebackers with Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and others have made strides in coverage, but have taken a big step back in terms of defending the run. Seven years under Dimitroff, and we still haven’t find out that sweet spot at the position.
Even in 2012 when the Falcons were “ten yards from the Super Bowl,” the collective play of Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez masked a lot of other holes on this roster. That Falcon team was at or near the bottom of the league in terms of running the ball, pass protection, run defense, pass rush and third-down defense. You might find a great team that is bad in one of those areas, but rarely two and certainly not five.
Several of these long-standing issues are a major reason why I believe that Dimitroff should also be shown the door right alongside Smith at year’s end. Both have done little over the years to believe that they are capable of solving this team’s plethora of problems. Fortunately for Dimitroff, there is nothing as tangible as Smith’s late-game decision against the Browns to point to as why he must go. And certainly Dimitroff hasn’t tried to explain his poor decision-making as ineptly as Smith did with quote I cited at the start of this column.
I’m not defending Smith in any way as he’s more than deserving of all the criticism he receives this year and this week. But I would caution people from believing the Falcons’ problems start and end with their head coach. I don’t think that was the case on Sunday against the Browns, and I don’t think it will be the case moving forward.