Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Week 14 – December 14, 2015

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsArthur Blank lurks along the Falcons sideline

The sixth consecutive loss by the Atlanta Falcons proved to be the worst thus far, getting blown out 38-0 by NFC South divisional rival Carolina Panthers on the road.

While the venue may have changed from a year ago when the Falcons were blasted 34-3, very little has changed in the past 350 days since that other beatdown at the hands of the Panthers.

Even should the Falcons put together a stronger effort in two weeks when they face the Panthers again in the Georgia Dome, it won’t erase the embarrassment of Sunday’s loss.

The similarities between the two losses prompted me to go back and read the takeaways column following that last lopsided loss to the Panthers to prepare to write this one. That column discussed many of the problems that surfaced in that game that propelled the dismissal of former Falcons head coach Mike Smith.

Sadly a year later, very little has changed for the Falcons if judging by their two most recent efforts against the Panthers. In 2014, the Panthers sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan six times and hit him a dozen times in the season finale. Fast forwarding to 2015, the Panthers were able to drop Ryan and his backup Sean Renfree a total of five times with just one less hit.

A year ago I opined that the Falcons offensive line had a promising future considering the potential development of offensive tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder coupled with the solid play of center Joe Hawley and guard Jon Asamoah to start the 2014 season.

Now such optimism appears misguided. Hawley was unceremoniously cut prior to the start of the season, prompting the Falcons to plug converted guard Mike Person into the starting lineup at center. Asamoah was benched during the summer amidst trade speculation and finished the summer on season-ending injured reserve.

Falcons Offensive Line Remains a Work In Progess One Year Later

The Falcons interior offensive line remains one of the more glaring weaknesses heading into the 2016 offseason and will once more motivate the team to make additional changes. The team traded for former Tennessee Titans left guard Andy Levitre just before the regular season started and despite a fairly solid start to 2015, Levitre has struggled mightily in recent weeks.

Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short dominated him in the Sunday’s game, tallying a pair of sacks that forced fumbles. One knocked the Falcons out of scoring range in the second quarter and the second forced one of four Falcons turnovers on Sunday. Levitre seemingly can’t handle simple stunts, which was also a problem a few weeks back against the Minnesota Vikings.

Right guard Chris Chester replaced Asamoah to start the year, but is a free agent that has not played at a high enough level to guarantee his return in 2016.

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Joe Hawley is sorely missed in the Falcons lineup at center

Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has taken a lot of criticism this year, and probably none is more deserving than the decision to part ways with Hawley. To be fair, Hawley was still recovering from the knee injury that sidelined him a month into the 2014 season and set to count $4 million against the Falcons 2015 salary cap. At least in the preseason, there wasn’t much discernible difference between Hawley and Person in their competition for the starting job, causing the Falcons to understandably go with the cheaper, healthier option in Person. Like Levitre, Person looked serviceable to start the year but since injuring his ankle midway through the season, he has been next to abysmal.

Person’s inexperience at center has seemingly contributed to the team’s struggles with handling blitzes. Not to mention the fact that Shanahan has restricted the team’s usage of the no-huddle, limiting how much of the offense Ryan can control at the line of scrimmage, which could potentially alleviate some of that problem.

No doubt the Falcons should certainly make a bid to upgrade their center play in the upcoming offseason. Should Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent, he would make a perfect upgrade given his experience in Shanahan’s system coupled with the fact that he’s been one of the league’s best centers over the course of his seven-year career.

Falcons Remain One-Man Offense Under Shanahan

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Kyle Shanahan continues to face increased scrutiny

But upgrading the center position won’t be the only issue the Falcons have to solve next offseason. A year ago, it was very clear that the Falcons were still a “one-man” offense led by wide receiver Julio Jones. Another criticism, albeit probably not a fair one, leveled against Shanahan is the fact that the team has yet to go beyond that truth now a year later.

Last year I noted the difference in Ryan’s passing production when throwing to Jones versus the other receivers. That difference was stark over the second half of the season after Ryan seemingly “disappeared” during halftime of the London game against the Detroit Lions in Week Eight.

In the final seven-and-a-half games, Ryan’s yards per attempt went from 10.7 on throws to Jones to 6.3 to all other Falcons receivers. In the first half of the 2014 season, Ryan averaged 9.6 yards per attempt on throws to Jones, which fell to 6.9 when he targeted everyone else.

To be clear how much better Ryan is with Jones catching the ball, Tony Romo led the entire league in 2014 with an average of 8.5 yards per attempt. An average of 6.9 yards would’ve ranked 27th best in the league and an average of 6.3 would have been third from the bottom ahead of only then rookies Blake Bortles and Derek Carr.

Now in 2015, Ryan is averaging 9.0 yards per attempt on throws to Jones through 13 games and 6.4 yards on throws to all other receivers. The top average overall in the league currently belongs to Ben Roethlisberger (8.9 yards per attempt) with the 6.4 average once again being third from the bottom.

It all indicates the wide disparity between how effective the Falcons offense looks when the ball is going in the direction of Jones versus when it is not. Essentially when throwing to Jones, Ryan is statistically one of the best quarterbacks in the league. When not, he’s one of the worst.

Thus Shanahan’s biggest failure this year is his inability to crack the code of how to make the Falcons other receivers more effective. Yet this is an understandable failure since this is no different an issue than what former coordinator Dirk Koetter was dealing with a year ago.

It all goes back to what I pointed out several weeks ago, which is the perception that the offense is demonstrably worse under Shanahan doesn’t quite mesh with reality.

Much criticism has been directed at Shanahan for the Falcons struggles in the red zone. Yet, the team’s red-zone conversion rate is marginally lower (61 percent to 57 percent) than what it was a year ago. The third-down offense in 2014 and 2015 are roughly the same as well, improving from 44 percent to 45 percent conversion.

Shanahan is taking a lot of heat for the realization that many are having that the Falcons offense isn’t particularly good. But the problem is that this was also the case a year ago, but the horrid play of the team’s defense obscured this reality.

Falcons Lack Reliable, Playmaker Outside Jones in Red Zone

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Julio Jones (right) needs a new partner in crime besides Roddy White

Like the offensive line, upgrading the receiver corps is imperative for the Falcons this offseason. They desperately need another playmaker opposite Jones. The warming seat under Shanahan likely won’t buy him enough patience to go with rookies, likely prompting the Falcons to also be heavily involved in the free-agent market at wide receiver and tight end.

While Shanahan certainly is not immune from criticism for his play-calling and stubborn refusal to utilize more no-huddle, he is not the sole problem with the Falcons offense. After all, he inherited a flawed offense thanks in large to the team’s poor personnel moves in past years.

One of the reasons why the Falcons lack playmakers at wide receiver and tight end is simply due to their unwillingness to draft players at said positions under the previous regime. How can one expect the Falcons to improve at this positions if they refuse to add more talent at them?

Under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Smith, the Falcons drafted just three wide receivers over a seven-year span. During that time, 254 other receivers were drafted by the other 31 teams, an average of 8.2 receivers per team. With the Falcons acquiring barely a third of the talent that the average NFL team is acquiring, there are certainly going to be ramifications such as what we’re currently seing with the lack of weapons outside Jones on the roster.

The arrival of new head coach Dan Quinn prompted the team to draft a wide receiver in Justin Hardy, who has flashed as a rookie, but a lone fourth-round project from East Carolina isn’t simply going to erase seven bad years of poor decision-making.

The same thing applies at tight end where after passing up the opportunity to take any one of the talented tight ends in the vaunted 2010 draft class, the Falcons settled on undrafted rookie Michael Palmer. Then after three years of trying to develop Palmer the team gave up, swapping in fourth-round selection Levine Toilolo in 2013. Neither Palmer nor Toilolo proved to be sufficient replacements for Tony Gonzalez.

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Jacob Tamme pales in comparison to Tony Gonzalez

The Falcons knew when they acquired Gonzalez back in 2009 that he was on borrowed time. But instead of trying to find his eventual replacement, the team ignored that roster position forcing Quinn and Shanahan to bring in tight ends Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki this offseason to provide a short-term band-aid.

Tamme has been the team’s second most reliable pass-catcher outside Jones for much of 2015, but is a far cry from the playmaker that Shanahan has regularly featured in his offenses over the years. Not to mention a big part of the Falcons’ past success in the red zone was thanks to the play of Gonzalez in that area of the field.

The former Falcons great scored 33 red-zone touchdowns over the course of five years in Atlanta, accounting for 32 percent of all of the team’s red-zone touchdown passes from 2009 to 2013. Gonzalez also accounted for 108 red-zone targets in that same span, 25 percent of all throws in that area.

Tamme has just one of the team’s 15 (seven percent) red-zone touchdown passes and accounts for just 12 percent of the team’s red-zone targets with eight. Running back Devonta Freeman’s 10 targets ranks second behind Jones’ 20 for the most red-zone targets this season, indicative of the dearth of quality options the Falcons have as they venture closer to the goal line.

Not having a security blanket as Gonzalez once was likely has something to do with Ryan and the team’s propensity to turn it over in the red zone this year. Getting a more reliable option is another thing that the Falcons should look to acquire this offseason.

Panthers, Not Saints Stand in Falcons Path in NFC South

Whether the Falcons find a way to reverse their struggles against the Panthers two weeks from now remains to be seen, but it’s clear that team from Charlotte has replaced the one from New Orleans as the team to beat in the NFC South.

For years and years, the Falcons seemingly tried to embrace more of a high-powered, finesse style of play to dethrone the rival Saints to little avail under Smith, who sported a 5-9 against them over seven years.

Over that span the Panthers have embraced a physical style of play that will likely revert the Falcons towards the sort of “fast, physical style” that Quinn has championed since arriving in Atlanta. Yet Sunday’s paltry performance clearly shows that the Falcons are a long way away from achieving that goal.

It all signals the budding reality that the Falcons are in the midst of rebuilding despite team owner Arthur Blank’s denials. What will be critical to watch in the coming weeks is Blank’s reaction to this truth.

The team’s six-game skid (with the potential for a few more) has certainly created an environment in Atlanta where someone’s head is likely to roll in response. With the team in the midst of constructing a new stadium and needing to sell more personal seat licenses, Blank is going to be in a position in his annual year-end press conference to win back the “hearts and minds” of the fan base.

Pressure Now on Blank to Make Changes After the Season

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Thomas Dimitroff (right) and Scott Pioli are on the hot seat

The usual fashion under the team’s owner is very determined statements and action, such as the goal to “get tougher” after 2013 and their need for change a year ago. What sort of declarations will be heard from the Falcons owner a month from now?

That remains to be seen, but given his past, it’s almost a certainty that Blank won’t remain idle. As an involved owner that not only wants to sell seats in a new stadium but also wants to see his team become a league champion, Blank will push for something to happen within the organization to prompt increased confidence of the team’s constituency.

Many believe that Shanahan deserves to be fired due to his stubbornness and the struggles of the Falcons offense over the past two months. But as I’ve outlined previously, that may be a knee-jerk reaction since Shanahan arguably deserves more time and the opportunity to add the players that his offense needs in order to see offensive improvement.

That likely leaves members of the front office with their necks outstretched on the headsman’s block. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and his confidante Scott Pioli are the two likeliest candidates to get the axe. Dimitroff slipped out of the noose a year ago, but may not be so lucky this year. Given that Dimitroff brought Pioli to Atlanta, it remains to be seen if the three-time Executive of the Year would remain without his finest protégé.

As outlined previously, there are certainly reasons why the Falcons would cut the cord with their current front-office leaders due to past draft and free-agent miscues.

Yet no one should be under the illusion that this will be a panacea to the Falcons’ problems. Frankly all it means is that the faltering general manager is being held accountable for past mistakes, not necessarily meaning that his potential replacement will avoid future ones.

The Falcons are still going to need to solve the aforementioned holes on their roster, and whether Dimitroff is bicycling the streets of Metro Atlanta or not doesn’t guarantee them future success.

But Blank needs to embrace the reality that his hand-picked GM has not built a roster capable of winning at the highest levels. With the Panthers well on their way to a Super Bowl run, they showed on Sunday the massive gap between the two teams.

Writing my penultimate takeaways column of 2014 prior to the Panthers loss, I made this poignant statement:

If Falcons ownership is of the mindset that this team should be on the cusp of winning a Super Bowl if it only had the right head coach, then that might create a potentially troubling dynamic for the next regime. Will the next head coach be expected to pick up where Smith left off in 2012?

After Sunday’s game, there’s no doubt that any such delusion should be shattered.

The Panthers reached their current heights thanks to smart drafting and money management with the change in general manager back in 2013 upon the hiring of Dave Gettleman. He replaced Marty Hurney, whose poor decision-making helped lead the Panthers to go from a second-seeded playoff team in 2008 to holding the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2011. While the Falcons fall from grace hasn’t been as stark to be picking first in next year’s draft, it remains comparable given the heights of 2012.

Panthers Recent Turnaround a Blueprint For Falcons

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Panthers GM Dave Gettleman

The Panthers were able to climb out of their hole by drafting the likes of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, cornerback Josh Norman, defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Short over a three-year period from 2011 to 2013, all of whom now form the brunt of the core of a potential Super Bowl competitor. Veteran additions over the past five seasons like tight end Greg Olsen, left tackle Michael Oher and safeties Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman have also made significant contributions this year.

If the Falcons hope to follow suit, they will have to go down a similar path of smart drafting and free-agent spending. The dismissal of Hurney didn’t solely cause the changes in Carolina, since he was still running the show when the team acquired Newton, Kuechly, Norman and Olsen. But Hurney’s firing was certainly a signal from Panthers owner Jerry Richardson that the mistakes of the past would not go unpunished.

As I wrote a year ago, the cupboard isn’t completely bare in Atlanta should Dimitroff soon find himself out of a job. Like Hurney did for Gettleman, Dimitroff certainly added pieces like Jones, Desmond Trufant, Matthews and others that could become core pieces of a very good future Falcons team under a new general manager.

Additions like Hardy, Tamme and others that the team made this past offseason were steps in the right direction, but far from the long-term solutions the team will need moving forward. The next general manager, if a change is ultimately made there, will have to continue to build off what has already built in Atlanta.

While Blank may hope for a quick turnaround before his new stadium opens in 2017, such expectations were unequivocally erased thanks to Sunday’s 38-point shutout, which was the first the Falcons had suffered in their last 184 games played since 2004.

It boils down to whether Blank is willing to the enough patience required to allow Quinn’s regime the necessary time to build up a roster capable of going toe-to-toe with the Panthers. The emotional response would be for a quick overreaction, throwing whomever responsible for Sunday’s loss and the six-game skid under the bus.

Yet again, it’s not as simple as thinking that firing one or two people is going to cause any more improvement than what occurred last season when the Falcons took a similar approach with dismissing Smith and his staff.

As the team’s owner, Blank has to be much more considerate and decisive. Otherwise the Falcons’ upcoming rebuild will take much, much longer than anyone desires and there could be many more lopsided losses at the hands of the Panthers in the future.

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Aaron Freeman
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