The Atlanta Falcons offense sunk to new depths of ineptitude and ineffectiveness, despite defeating the Washington Redskins on Sunday.
Against the league’s worst scoring defense, the Falcons offense was only able to mount two successful offensive series, and netting just seven points off those two drives.
Thankfully the Redskins turned the ball over seven times, which helped give the Falcons 20 points thanks to short fields and they were able to win the game.
But of course the key point of the game was Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan’s decision to go for the win rather than settling for overtime. Shanahan called for a two-point conversion with the Redskins down a point with less than 20 seconds to go. Desmond Trufant broke up the throw to Pierre Garcon, and the Falcons were able to hold onto the lead and eventually gain the win. It was a ballsy, and in many eyes stupid call.
I don’t consider myself one of those people that would call it stupid. I generally don’t fault coaches or players for being aggressive. Obviously there is a thin line between being appropriately aggressive and stupidly aggressive. And I wouldn’t argue against anyone that said Shanahan crossed that line.
The reasons why it could be considered stupid is because the Falcons offense really did nothing all game. And thus in overtime, there’s no reason to think that the Falcons can mount a drive to win. The Redskins had marched the ball up and down the field for 476 total yards, and as long as they don’t cough it up, there’s every reason to believe Washington had the advantage if it went into overtime.
You know what I’m going to say. The Falcons didn’t have a single play of 20 or more yards, and it’s not a coincidence in my eyes that their offense really struggled. On those two aforementioned good drives, the Falcons were able to convert five of six third down tries but were zero for eight on their other seven possessions.
People will continue to blame the subpar play of the offensive line for why the Falcons struggle to generate those big plays, but as the win over the Bills showed two weeks ago, having a leaky front doesn’t preclude you from taking shots downfield.
The real problem the Falcons have is that they lack the weapons that can create those plays down the field. Matt Ryan attempted just three deep passes in the entire game, with Roddy White being the lone receiver to reel in one. White had a 19-yard catch on the opening series, the longest play of the day for the Falcons. Again, probably not a coincidence that was the one drive where the Falcons offense managed to move the ball and finish with a touchdown.
Ryan’s deep shot to Harry Douglas just before the end of the first half epitomizes what I’m talking about with their lack of targets. Outside Douglas’ two big catches against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7 which went for a combined 91 yards, he’s caught just one of his nine deep targets for 32 yards according to Pro Football Focus.
That particular pass to Douglas against the Redskins was a bad throw by Ryan, but it’s not a coincidence that the Falcons struggle to generate big plays when they clearly lack deep threats. Their most potent deep threat is White, who is clearly not a deep threat thanks to age and injuries slowing him down.
But it makes me wonder if the powers that be that run this team are seeing the same things and will make a concerted effort to fix this problem in the offseason. Or will they just focus all their attention on the offensive line?
And that’s not to suggest that the offensive line doesn’t deserve the majority of the attention from the front office. But solving this issue at wide receiver is such a relatively easy and simple fix. While I won’t say tall, fast receivers that can make plays down the field grow on trees, they aren’t that hard to find. Or at least guys that will offer significant upgrades over the Falcons current group of receivers won’t be that hard to find. It may just require a late-round draft pick or a low-level free agent signing. The Oakland Raiders have four such guys in Denarius Moore, Brice Butler, Rod Streater, and Andre Holmes, none of which required more than a fifth round pick as an investment. Such a move won’t stop the Falcons from making concerted efforts to improve their offensive line this spring.
But the defense is the issue that requires even more focus this offseason than the offense. I think the Falcons just need to make complementary additions to their offense considering a healthy Julio Jones is going to solve and mask a lot of problems in 2014.
Defensive Improvements Should be Offseason Priority
I’m a firm believer that teams that win championships do so thanks to strong defensive play. And the Falcons have sported a weak defense for too long under Mike Smith. While they have benefited from opportunistic units over the years that have generated a lot of points off turnovers, as they did against the Redskins, they have never really been a unit that ever truly stopped anyone.
They’ve never been able to get off the field on third downs, ranking 24th or worst in third down conversion percentage allowed over the past five seasons (per Team Rankings.com) including dead-last this season.
That’s been a major reason for the Falcons struggles in January. When you face a team that has a good quarterback, as most playoff teams tend to be, and you can’t get stops on third down, you’re going to struggle to win those games.
To remedy that sustained problem is beefing up the pass rush. I look at a team like the Seattle Seahawks with great envy. They already had Bruce Irvin and Chris Clemons to form one of the more feared pass rushes in the NFL in 2012. But with Clemons coming off an ACL injury and Irvin facing a four-game suspension to start the season, the Seahawks went out and signed free agents Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to bolster their pass rush. And they still sport one of the league’s most fearsome pass rushes.
While the majority of Falcon fans are dying to draft a pass rusher like South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney next May, and I count myself among them, I hope the Falcons add much more. I’d like to see the team being very active in free agency to bolster their pass rush even if they do wind up getting Clowney. I’d love to imagine a scenario where Clowney is essentially a situational rusher as a rookie, working in a rotation in a manner similar to Irvin a year ago, or Aldon Smith the year prior.
Falcons Must Make a Big Push Up Front in Free Agency
Topping my list of prospective free agent signings would be Bennett, who is set to hit the market again this offseason. Bennett would be an ideal candidate to take over at left end where he could split snaps with Malliciah Goodman. Goodman is a nice strong-side end, but probably geared better to playing primarily on run downs than being an every-down player. Eventually, I believe that aspect of Goodman’s game can develop, but I don’t want to see the Falcons rushing it by handing him the starting job next season. If not Bennett, then I have no problem settling for other potential free agents like Greg Hardy, Lamarr Houston, Michael Johnson, or Willie Young.
The beauty of players like Bennett, Hardy and Houston is their ability to also line up inside on third downs similar to Justin Tuck and still provide heat on the quarterback.
Johnson is more of a weak-side end that isn’t a dominant pass rusher but would be an upgrade nonetheless. The risk with signing Johnson is the fear that he’s basically another Ray Edwards. Like Edwards in Minnesota before his Atlanta arrival, Johnson has traditionally been the third-best pass rusher in that Cincinnati Bengals front. He’s been outshined by Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins over the years, much like Edwards was with Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. So if he’s the Falcons target, it needs to be at the right price that won’t place expectations on him that he’ll a perennial double-digit sack guy. In fact, Johnson has only recorded 26 career sacks in 77 games played. That’s roughly a 5.5-sack average over 16 games. That pales in comparison to Dunlap and Atkins, who both average over eight sacks per 16 games.
A player like Young is intriguing because of his versatility, a factor that has been missing from the Falcons lineup since the injury to Kroy Biermann. Young isn’t a sack machine, as he’s having a career season with just three sacks after being held without a sack a year ago as a situational player. But Young is a long, lanky athlete that could be a great fit in a hybrid 3-4 scheme like the Falcons currently run. Like Johnson, he isn’t likely to become a prolific sack artist, but he could give them another athletic outside linebacker to play opposite Biermann in a 3-4 look.
Scheme Changes Potentially Coming for Defense
Which brings up another point about what exactly the Falcons offseason plans could entail, which is dependent on what sort of defensive scheme the Falcons intend to run in 2014. There have been whispers that defensive coordinator Mike Nolan won’t be back in Atlanta. Whether that is because he’ll be dismissed by Mike Smith or will choose to leave on his own volition, it does raise concerns about whether the Falcons will be trying to install a brand new defense.
I don’t really have a preference for either scheme. I do like the fact that the Falcons have acquired personnel in recent years that would allow them to play either the 3-4 or 4-3, or continue with a hybrid scheme. If the Falcons run a three-man front, Goodman could play the strong-side end spot, while Corey Peters mans the nose. The Falcons would need to find a weak-side end to replace Jonathan Babineaux long-term, which could come in the draft. In a four-man front, Goodman and Peters still have their same roles, and you could plug in Jonathan Massaquoi as the weak-side end. Biermann would also be in the mix, and again you’d need to find a three-technique to replace Babineaux inside at tackle.
On the second level, Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon can play inside in a 3-4, with Biermann likely manning one of the outside spots. Massaquoi could be in the mix for the other spot, but it’s likely the Falcons would look for an upgrade there such as UCLA’s Anthony Barr at the top of the draft. Perhaps they could find such a player in free agency like Washington’s Brian Orakpo if he became available, or a cheaper option like Young could also work. Joplo Bartu would also be in the mix on the outside, as he’s shown himself to be an adept blitzer off the edge. He’s undersized for a 3-4 outside linebacker role, but one could envision him bulking up and trying to become a poor man’s James Harrison.
The three linebackers in a 4-3 would be Worrilow, Weatherspoon, and a combination of Biermann and Bartu on the strong side. The Falcons could add another athletic outside linebacker in the draft to continue developing that spot and help out in coverage.
Now, you’ve probably noticed that I have yet to mention Osi Umenyiora. It’s mainly because I don’t see a compelling reason why Umenyiora should return next year. While his presence could be a nice situational option in the rotation, Osi becomes very expendable if the Falcons are successful in revamping their front in the draft and free agency.
The ideal scenario for Osi to retain his spot on the roster would be if the Falcons were able to sign one of those inside/outside ends like Bennett or Hardy, while also adding another edge rusher in the draft. That would allow the Falcons to utilize Osi much like the Giants did, with him coming off the bench on passing downs. One of the starters ahead of him would kick inside on third downs like Tuck, and the other would act as the Jason Pierre-Paul in that equation opposite Umenyiora.
But the main point is that neither of those players are currently on the roster, and the Falcons need to make a strong effort this offseason to potentially add them. This may be an offseason where the Falcons normal strategy of maintaining patience at the start of free agency may not be the best plan.
Elsewhere in the NFL…
The playoff races are getting interesting in both conferences. If the postseason started tomorrow, there would be five AFC teams that I initially predicted to make the playoffs that would be in: New England, Miami, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver. The only miss for me was thinking Houston would be in and Kansas City would not. It’s a pretty big miss considering the Texans are the front-runners for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
I wasn’t as accurate with projecting the NFC playoff picture before the start of the season. The Saints, Seahawks, and 49ers are the only currently projected playoff teams I saw ahead of time. I figured the Eagles would be better than most people expected, but I had the Giants winning the NFC East. I also thought the Bears would be on the cusp of a wildcard spot too, but they are currently leading my predicted NFC North winner in the Packers. The Giants are out of their division race, but the Packers still have a fighting chance with a big comeback win against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
The sixth team I predicted to make the NFC playoffs was obviously the Falcons, who have been bumped out by their NFC South rival Panthers.
Those playoff races in the NFC East and NFC North will likely come down to the season finale as the Cowboys host the Eagles, and the Bears host the Packers. The Packers potentially control their own destiny if they can get a Ravens win over the Lions tonight.
And if the Ravens do pull out the win, they too will control their own desinty if they can win out thanks to the Bengals losing to the Steelers on Sunday night. The Ravens still are alive for an AFC North division crown, while the Steelers are counting on the wildcard. They basically need both the Ravens and Dolphins to slip up if they want to land that sixth seed.
The beauty of the end of the season is that we get things like ESPN’s Playoff Machine that I can waste huge amounts of time trying to tweak the scenarios and playoff seeding. I only wish they had the same thing for the No. 1 pick.