Another week and another loss by the Atlanta Falcons, this time to the Minnesota Vikings by a score of 20-10.
The 10-point margin of defeat appears much closer than the game actually was, as the Falcons scored their lone touchdown in garbage time during the final minutes of the game. As has been the case for much of the past few weeks, the Falcons offense looked to be once again their Achilles heel on Sunday.
For the fifth time in six weeks, the Falcons lost the turnover battle. Their three turnovers outpaced the Vikings one turnover.
Credit must be given to the Vikings, who are currently atop the NFC North standings with their 8-3 record and are primed to make the playoffs, while the Falcons are going in the opposite direction with their fourth consecutive loss. The Vikings were able to control this game, particularly on the legs, thighs and back of running back Adrian Peterson, who broke loose for 158 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
It was the first time the Falcons allowed a 100-yard rusher since their last matchup against the Vikings 427 days ago in 2014 when Peterson’s backup Jerick McKinnon broke loose for 135 rushing yards. Clearly the Vikings have cracked the formula for handling the Falcons.
Much of that success is predicated on their ability to marginalize wide receiver Julio Jones from the offense. On Sunday, Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was mostly responsible for holding Jones to just five catches for 56 yards on seven targets. It marked the second lowest number of targets for Jones in 2015, outside his six-target effort against the Houston Texans in Week Four when injuries limited him and the Falcons had no need to get him heavily involved in their 27-point blowout win.
Rhodes did an excellent job against Jones a year ago as well, helping to hold the explosive receiver to six catches for 82 yards on eight targets. Rhodes was credited with four pass deflections in the game, using his 6’1″ frame and nearly 34-inch arms to win in traffic several times against the likes of Jones, Roddy White and Devin Hester.
If you haven’t gotten the memo yet, defenses that are able to effectively contain Jones are effectively able to contain the entire Falcons offense. Because as I’ve explained before, their inability to generate big plays outside Jones is at best intermittent and at worst non-existent. And it’s hard to score points when you become reliant on extended, methodical drives rather than chunk yardage.
The Vikings had little issue generating long drives and turning them into points on Sunday thanks in large part due to the running of Peterson. Peterson showcased exactly why he’s a future first-ballot Hall of Famer and exactly why the Falcons still remain weak at linebacker. Phillip Wheeler replaced an injured Justin Durant on Sunday, and held up reasonably well outside the missed tackle on Peterson’s 35-yard touchdown run. But it was middle linebacker Paul Worrilow that really looked out of his element on Sunday with numerous missed tackles against Peterson. It wasn’t the first time that Worrilow has been exposed this season and it likely won’t be the last. It’s very clear that upgrading the middle linebacker position will be a priority of the Falcons as they enter 2016. Similarly this is not the first time I’ve mentioned UCLA linebacker Myles Jack as a potential Falcons draft target next April and also won’t be the last.
Coleman In Good Company With Fumbles
The Falcons running game wasn’t quite on par with the Vikings on Sunday, which is understandable given that they were without starter Devonta Freeman. His replacement in rookie Tevin Coleman had some positive moments, but by no means did he make anybody forget why Freeman is the starter. On paper, Coleman finished the game with an impressive 110 yards on 18 carries. Although much of that came on a 46-yard play that ended with Coleman being stripped from behind by linebacker Anthony Barr. Coleman fumbled on his fourth carry against the Vikings, which marked his third fumble on a 30-carry span going back to his Week Six performance against the New Orleans Saints.
As I wrote last week, that is unacceptable. But it certainly shouldn’t cause any reasonable person to suggest that the Falcons should give up on Coleman. Ball security needs to improve, but he is not the first running back to deal with those issues early in his career. Peterson is a good example of a player that has dealt with fumbles throughout his career. His six fumbles this year outpace every non-quarterback in the league and his 37 career fumbles average a rate of one roughly every 61 carries. Over the course of a career that has seen him average just under 20 carries in 114 total appearances, it basically tells us that Peterson on average won’t go more than three games without a fumble.
Like Coleman, Peterson has also had a great run wiped out by a defender making an excellent defensive play to force a fumble at the end. By no means am I suggesting that Coleman is going to develop into the next Adrian Peterson, who has proven time and time again that he’s the exception rather than rule to all arguments about running backs. But there were glimpses of Coleman’s potential on Sunday and I for one choose to focus on those rather than the negative.
Coleman busting loose for that 46-yard run was one of those positives despite the fumble at the end, as it marked the longest run of the Falcons season that wasn’t wiped out by a penalty. There was also a good stretch in the third quarter where Coleman was very good running the football, being successful on four consecutive runs and then scoring a touchdown that was nullified by a clipping penalty on tight end Tony Moeaki. For the game, Coleman proved successful on eight of 18 carries (44 percent) which is a solid level of production. There obviously is still room for significant growth, but anybody that is ready to give up on Coleman 11 games into his career is foolish.
But that’s the levels of frustration the Falcons recent play has sunk many of its supposedly smarter fans. Coleman is not alone in being the focus of ire from the fan base, as quarterback Matt Ryan had another questionable performance against the Vikings.
Ryan’s Poor Play Caused By Questionable Arm Strength
Ryan’s poor play on Sunday, if it can be called that, was due to two bad throws that resulted in interceptions. Both throws were picked off in large part not because Ryan made poor decisions, but due to his underwhelming arm strength.
His first came when he lobbed a throw to wide receiver Nick Williams over the middle. The ball didn’t have enough zip, floated in the air and Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was able to undercut it to pick it off.
The second Ryan interception came on another underthrow. While many will question Ryan’s decision to throw to tight end Jacob Tamme in the back of the end zone, I will not. Tamme was open and I for one am not going to complain when a quarterback throws the ball into the end zone, considering how often I complain about when quarterbacks do not.
Ryan broke out of the pocket to avoid the pressure by defensive end Everson Griffen, who blew past left guard Andy Levitre on an inside stunt. Ryan was able to escape to his left, saw Tamme break open in the back of the end zone, but once again floated a pass to him. Throwing across his body likely contributed to the underthrow but it’s a 30-yard throw that Ryan should be able to make. It should have been a throw that was high where only Tamme could expect to make a play for it. It goes back to the old adage that Ryan himself has used in the past which is: “if you’re long, you’re never wrong.”
It’s not to say that Ryan can’t make that throw, it’s that he just didn’t. In fact at the end of the third quarter, the Falcons rolled Ryan out of the pocket to his left and he overthrow White along the sideline on what amounted to be roughly a 26-yard throw. If Ryan makes a similar throw to Tamme in the end zone, it doesn’t guarantee it’s a touchdown but the odds of it being picked off by Terence Newman are substantially lower.
Outside those two throws there aren’t too many complaints about Ryan’s play on Sunday against the Vikings. Clearly the lack of scoring output doesn’t indicate that Ryan had a great game or was flawless in his execution the rest of the game, but it would mostly be nitpicking.
Unfortunately Ryan is going to take the brunt of the blame because of those turnovers, coupled with other costly ones made in recent weeks. Ryan has now tossed four interceptions this year at the goal line or in the end zone, which is tied for the league lead alongside Philadelphia Eagles injured starter Sam Bradford. Those plays take points off the board and given the Falcons inability to dial up the big play on a regular basis otherwise, those are scoring opportunities that they simply can’t afford to not take advantage of.
Because of that, the margin for error for the Falcons offense has steadily shrunk over the course of this season. Since the Falcons seemingly did a good job taking advantage of those opportunities early in the year, expectations became that they would continue on that streak even though that has clearly not been the case since September.
Shanahan Faces Heat Despite Offensive Rebuild
When fingers aren’t being pointed at Ryan, they immediately go towards offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan’s unwillingness to utilize the no-huddle offense has created very few sympathizers in Atlanta and for good reason. Ryan has shown much more comfort when playing in the no huddle throughout his eight seasons in the NFL. That was the case early last week when the Falcons built their only early lead since Week Four against the Indianapolis Colts.
However I have difficulty vilifying Shanahan for not wanting to utilize more no huddle. While it wouldn’t be my preference, it’s hard to fault coaches for wanting to do what they want to do, especially in the first year with an organization. That issue gets compounded once you realize how few pieces that Shanahan has to work with in Atlanta.
There is likely to be significant turnover at the wide receiver and tight end positions over the next two offseasons as it’s likely that wideouts Julio Jones and Justin Hardy are the only two players guaranteed to be on the roster in 2017. Roddy White is almost certainly going to be released after this season. Eric Weems and Devin Hester could potentially join him. Leonard Hankerson is an unrestricted free agent that might not be re-signed after the year. Nick Williams will always be on the roster bubble every training camp given his diminutive physical dimensions.
At the tight end position, Jacob Tamme is signed through the 2016 season but will be 32 when he hits free agency in 2017. It’s likely that the Falcons will try to move in a much younger direction before then and thus makes him a likely goner. Levine Toilolo is also signed through the 2016 season, but could easily enter next year’s training camp on the roster bubble. Moeaki is an unrestricted free agent after the year is at best a 50-50 proposition when prognosticating his return.
Also hurting Shanahan from maximizing the team’s offensive output is the fact that it’s been a piecemeal offensive line that the team put together just before the start of the season. While the unit started the year strongly, there have been a lot more cracks and deficiencies as the season has worn on.
Falcons Offensive Line Will Be Shuffled in Years to Come
Similarly, there could be significant revamping up front along the offensive line over the next two offseasons. Right guard Chris Chester is a free agent after the year and turns 33 in January. Even if he’s re-signed, expectations can’t be that he’ll be a viable starter for more than one season.
Levitre restructured his contract before the start of the season, which increased the odds that he’ll be retained through next year. But beyond that is anyone’s guess and without significant improvement between now and the end of 2016, the smart money is on the Falcons moving on since he’ll be turning 31 that offseason.
Right tackle Ryan Schraeder’s status as a restricted free agent after this season means his status should be safe for another year. But he’ll be facing some stiff competition in 2016 as potential opponents like Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks like to line up some of their best pass-rushers in Von Miller, Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, respectively, on the left side where they will face Schraeder more often than not. It’ll be a huge test for Schraeder in what will amount to a contract year and how he fares against some of the league’s top edge-rushers will go a long way to determine if he cements his starting role beyond 2016.
The biggest immediate concern may be the center position where Mike Person’s relatively solid start to 2015 has petered out in recent weeks with the Falcons really struggling to handle the blitz coupled with Person not hitting as many of the key second-level blocks that sprung the likes of Freeman on many of his better runs through the first several weeks of the season.
There’s little doubt that Falcons are going to be revamping their offensive personnel over the next few offseasons. While it’s fair to be critical of Shanahan’s play-calling today, it seems awfully premature to declare that the Falcons should be prepared to get rid of him after the season. Especially when on paper the Falcons offense isn’t performing any worse than they were a year ago.
Falcons Still A Far Way Away From Seahawks Identity
The reality is that the Falcons are in their first year of a brand new regime that are still working on getting their roster in place. It’s worth noting that head coach Dan Quinn’s mentor, Pete Carroll, didn’t have his first successful season in Seattle until his third year. Prior to that the Seahawks had two consecutive 7-9 seasons.
It’s fair to say that a big part of why the Seahawks didn’t quite achieve at the highest level was due to their quarterback play with Matt Hasselbeck, Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst starting in 2010 and 2011 before the arrival of Russell Wilson in 2012. Quarterback certainly shouldn’t be a deficiency for the Falcons with Ryan.
But it’s also fair to say that Wilson wasn’t the driving force behind the Seahawks newfound success in 2012. Wilson didn’t really emerge until Week 13 of his rookie year when he helped facilitate a come-from-behind overtime win over the Chicago Bears back when the Bears still had a formidable defense. Up until then, the Seattle’s success was facilitated by their powerful running game and a strong defense.
That ground attack had gotten the brunt of the work with a league-leading 54 percent of offensive plays being runs. It’s hard to say that the quarterback is primarily responsible for a team’s success when said team prefers to hand the ball off the majority of downs.
The Seahawks defense up until that point was also ranked third in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. It was those same two entities: the run game and their defense that helped the Seahawks go to the Super Bowl in back-to-back years in 2013 and 2014 with Wilson at the helm.
While the Falcons running game has made significant leaps forward this year in production, it hasn’t quite reached the level where it can take pressure off the quarterback completely. The Falcons currently rank 19th in the NFL with a run-play percentage of 39.5 percent, which is below the league average of 40.7 percent.
Slow Starts and Lack of Big Plays Continue to be Offensive Bane
The Falcons haven’t been able to capitalize on their improved running game thanks partly to their inability to start fast in games. The Falcons have scored just 13 points in the first quarter of their last seven games, which is only ahead of the San Francisco 49ers’ 12 points as the league’s lowest over that span. The slow starts keep putting the team behind the eight ball and make the running game and the play-action passing game that builds off it and is the central identity of Shanahan’s offense less effective as the game wears on.
The early turnovers also don’t help as the Falcons have a quartet of first-quarter turnovers over the past seven weeks, which is among the highest in the league. Coleman’s fumble on Sunday notably occurred in the first quarter.
A team like the Arizona Cardinals has five first-quarter turnovers over that same span, but can often compensate thanks to the big plays they generate over the next three quarters. The Cardinals have generated 24 plays of 20 or more yards in the second, third and fourth quarters over their last six games entering Sunday, which was tied for the sixth most in the league. Meanwhile the Falcons 13 plays of 20 or more yards after the first quarter is tied for dead last with the Washington Redskins over that same span.
The inability for the Falcons to dial up big plays prevents them from being able to climb out of the holes that they keep digging for themselves early in games. Coupled with the fact that the team doesn’t quite have the personnel to fully establish the identity that Quinn and Shanahan would like to have on either side of the ball and you have the bulk of the recipe for the Falcons recent mediocrity.
The Falcons won’t be able to sovle these issues long term until they get another crack at the draft and free agency. As for the short-term, their best hopes center on avoiding the turnovers and the early deficits.