After suffering a 23-19 loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Atlanta Falcons find themselves on a five-game losing skid with lows now matching the highs from the five-game winning streak that began their 2015 season.
But things could stand to get worse when the Falcons square off against the undefeated Carolina Panthers next week, likely prompting a six-game losing streak. With three final outings against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Panthers and New Orleans Saints, pegging when the Falcons might snap their streak becomes an increasingly difficult task.
A win against the Jaguars two weeks from now seemed like a pretty safe bet for much of the year, but the Falcons’ downturn in play over the past two months erase any such confidence.
It’s practically a certainty that the Falcons are on their way to becoming the sixth team since 1978 to start 5-0 and fail to make the playoffs. But all those previous teams managed to finish 8-8 or better on their way to missing the postseason. The Falcons might become the first to fail to reach a .500 record despite the promising start.
Most Blame Pointed At Matt Ryan and Kyle Shanahan
When searching for blame as to the Falcons recent failures, most fingers aim in the directions of quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
After another subpar effort on Sunday, it becomes increasingly harder to defend either party. Ryan’s game-sealing interception was his sixth turnover in the past three weeks and 16th of the season. Ryan is on pace to finish the year with 21 turnovers, matching the career-high he set in 2013.
That same year Ryan saw the worst five-game stretch of his career shortly following the injury that sidelined Julio Jones in October where the team dropped five straight games to the likes of the Arizona Cardinals, Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, Buccaneers and Saints. Let’s compare Ryan’s numbers over that five games versus his most recent five-game losing streak:
Matt Ryan's 5-game slump (2013 vs. 2015)
|Year||Comp.||Att||Pct.||Yds||YPA||TD||INT||Rtg||Adj. Net YPA|
|2013 (Wks 8-12)||126||199||63.3%||1238||6.22||5||9||70.3||3.88|
|2015 (Wks 8-13)||144||212||67.9%||1479||6.98||8||7||86.8||5.84|
The numbers clearly show that Ryan isn’t playing his worst football, despite what many of his critics will say. However it’s true that Ryan is in the midst of a slump that he’s unlikely to break out of. Reports surfaced last week that Ryan was uncomfortable within the offensive scheme of Kyle Shanahan.
And this is why Shanahan will continue to draw the majority of the heat over Ryan. Largely due a sentiment that the Falcons offense prior to this year was not as bad as it appears to be currently. Although the numbers, when comparing 2015’s first 12 games against last year’s 12, still indicate that from a production standpoint the Falcons are about the same under Shanahan as they were under Dirk Koetter.
Lack of Big Plays Remain Falcons Biggest Deficiency
The biggest deficiency when comparing last year’s offense to this year’s remains the number of big plays. In 2014, the Falcons totaled 52 plays that gained 20 or more yards through their first 12 games. To date, the Falcons have just 43 such big plays.
If there is any failure that can be pinned squarely on Shanahan, it’s the failed promise that opponents would be compelled to defend the deep pass.
Ryan currently ranks dead last among the 32 NFL starters in terms of the percentage of pass attempts that go beyond 20 yards according to Pro Football Focus. Coming into Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers, only 7.1 percent of his passes go beyond 20 yards, approaching the career-low figure of 6.6 percent he had in 2013. What is even more problematic is that Ryan has been fairly accurate on his deep passes, throwing catchable passes on 48.4 percent of his throws according to Pro Football Focus, a rate that currently ranks fifth best in the NFL.
Ryan’s success on those vertical throws is largely thanks to Jones’ ability. Of Ryan’s 14 completed deep passes, Jones has caught 11 of them. Jones has caught a remarkably high 61 percent of the deep passes thrown his way, which is second best rate in the NFL among receivers that have been targeted at least 10 times on vertical throws.
Clearly the offense could improve their big-play potential by finding other ways to connect to Jones. But it’s also unfortunate that the Falcons have been forcing Jones to carry the load too much this year.
However it’s worth noting that during the first three weeks of the season when Jones was on an unbelievable pace, he caught all five of the deep-passes targeted his way. Since then, he’s managed to snag 46 percent of the passes, which is still good for 11th best in the league since Week Three. But it’s worth noting that the Falcons offense just hasn’t been the same since Jones stopped being the dominant force he was to start the season.
The sobering reality may be that Shanahan’s biggest failure is the inability to prevent the Falcons passing attack from regressing into a one-man show. Teams have no doubt adjusted and are doing a better job preventing Jones from making the game-breaking plays he regularly made to start the season.
Falcons Lack of Secondary Receiving Option Hurting their Passing
The Falcons desperately need a secondary target, and like it or not, Roddy White has not been able to provide in 2015. After generating 11 receptions of 20 or more yards through the first 12 games of 2014, White’s production has been halved in 2015 to just six such plays.
These next four games will certainly mark the end of White’s tenure in Atlanta. He’s on pace to finish the year with 41 catches for 463 yards and a single touchdown. Over the past 20 years, only a handful of receivers have started all 16 games and failed to eclipse such low numbers, indicating that White is having the one of the least productive seasons for a starting receiver.
One of the biggest gripes directed in Shanahan’s direction has been his inability to maximize White’s production in what will be his final year. There’s no doubt that there will be changes after the season, and the onus will be on Shanahan to get more out of whomever is lining up across from Jones than he has out of White this year.
There are plenty of folks that question whether Shanahan will get that opportunity to redeem himself in 2016. I don’t count myself among them.
Shanahan’s Job Likely Safe For 2016
Reports surfaced within hours after it was first broken that Shanahan was removing himself from the situation in Cleveland last January that he and Quinn were likely a packaged deal. It was very clear from the jump that Quinn had pegged Shanahan to be his offensive coordinator. That indicates a great deal of confidence in the two coaches that had never directly worked together.
Unless there has been some major friction between the two behind the closed doors at Flowery Branch, there’s little reason to believe that Quinn will have done a complete 180-degree flip within 12 months. Especially in light of the fact that the Falcons are a team that is rebuilding.
While the “R word” may not have been something that owner Arthur Blank wants to hear, that reality has arrived in Atlanta. Despite the team’s current 6-6 record, their postseason hopes are ostensibly finished unless the Minnesota Vikings and Seahawks completely fall off cliffs from this point on.
Quinn is trying to build a Falcons team that has a comparable identity to the Super Bowl-winning Seahawks teams that he was a part of previously. The Falcons still stand quite a ways from that point, although they have made strides thus far in 2015.
Bigger Commitment to Run Important For Falcons
The running game has improved immensely under Shanahan and Quinn’s guidance, although it still has a ways to go before it reaches Seahawk levels. No team ran the ball more than Seattle did during the two-year span in which Quinn coordinated the team’s defense in 2013 and 2014. The Seahawks were the only team in the NFL during that span that ran the ball more than they threw it, accounting for 51.8 percent of their offensive plays.
Notably, no team ran it less than the Falcons during that span with only 33.8 percent of their offensive plays being runs. This year the Falcons have gotten a bit more balanced, but they’ve only ran the ball on 38.6 percent of their offensive plays.
The lack of running can be partly attributed to how often the team has been forced to play from behind this year. Since their 5-0 start, 41 of the Falcons 67 offensive drives (61 percent) have come when the team was trailing in a game. That percentage is the fifth highest in the NFL.
But another worthwhile criticism of Shanahan is how quickly he’s abandoned the running game even when the Falcons have been up in games. That was evident on Sunday when on the 16 offensive plays where the Falcons held a lead against the Buccaneers, only seven (43.8 percent) of them were called runs, including one that was wiped out by a holding penalty on White.
The Falcons have equally abandoned the running game when they’ve been down by a single score throughout the year. Against the Bucs, the Falcons ran it just 10 times on 38 plays (26.3 percent) when down eight or less points, bringing their season total to a run rate of 35.7 percent.
Despite a reputation as a rushing guru, we should not forget that ex-Falcons quarterback Matt Schaub led the NFL with 583 pass attempts during his second year under Shanahan with the Houston Texans in 2009. Frankly, it’s unlikely that the Falcons will ever approach a commitment to the run comparable to the levels that the Seahawks displayed in previous years due to the presence of Ryan. Despite Ryan’s slump in 2015, there’s always going to be a reasonable expectation that the ball is best left in either his or Jones’ hands when the team’s back is against the wall.
Improved Defense Could Help Re-Establish Falcons Run Game
If the Falcons are expected to run the ball significantly more, it will likely require them to play better defense. League-wide teams tend to run the ball more often when they hold leads, which requires defensive stops. Over the past three years, running plays account for 50.6 percent of all offensive plays when teams are up by one point or more in comparison to 41.4 percent of all plays regardless of score margin.
While the Falcons defense has also made significant strides under Quinn, it still pales in comparison to the units he coached in Seattle. That was no more evident than on Sunday when Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston was able to convert a 3rd-and-19 thanks to a second effort on a 20-yard scramble. Winston looked like he was initially tackled when hit by a trio of Falcons defenders nine yards shy of the sticks, but merely had fallen on top of the pile. He got up and ran the rest of way for a first down. It was the critical play on what ultimately proved to be the game-winning drive by the Bucs as four plays later Winston hit wide receiver Mike Evans in the end zone for the touchdown that pushed the Bucs lead to 23-19 with 1:39 left in the game.
That scramble by Winston was a testament to the fight that the Bucs have showed twice late in wins over the Falcons, an energy level that has dissipated in Atlanta despite the coaching staff’s endeavors to preach finishing games.
For a variety of reasons the Falcons aren’t finishing games. All that is left is that the Falcons can finish what remains of their 2015 season with some level of effort that resembles a team that isn’t quite ready to lay down and die.
If not, then there’s always next year. Any improvements the Falcons attempt to make in the upcoming offseason will have to bear fruit in order for the team get things back on track in 2016.