The Atlanta Falcons’ playoff chances may be in dire straits after losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers at home on Sunday by a score of 27-20.
Although from my perspective, I never really saw the team’s postseason chances to ever be promising despite the team being in firm control of their destiny for the past month. But now the Falcons are compelled to win on the road next week against the New Orleans Saints in order to keep their playoff hopes alive given the latter’s win over the Chicago Bears last night. And that will have to be followed up with a second win in the Week 17 season finale against the Carolina Panthers.
Any Falcons loss over the next two weeks will eliminate them from playoff contention. That would be an epic failure on the Falcons’ part and almost certainly would prompt team owner Arthur Blank to move on from head coach Mike Smith heading into the offseason. Such a move would be understandable given the Falcons’ failure to take advantage of three opportunities to get a one-game cushion on the Saints following losses to the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers and now the Steelers over the past month. The Browns’ loss was certainly disheartening given the poor clock management by Smith at the end. The Packers game saw the Falcons fall into a 31-7 hole at halftime and put forth a resilient second-half effort. The Falcons did much the same on Sunday against the Steelers, falling behind 20-7 at halftime before closing the game to within a score twice in the second half but failing to take it any further.
The narratives of both games change dramatically should the Falcons ultimately miss the playoffs. Rather than being signs of the team’s resilience, things transform into symbols of the team’s lack of urgency and flat starts in critical games. With the playoffs on the line, we’ll only notice the 14 points the Falcons scored in four quarters of first-half play, while largely ignoring the 43 second-half points.
Hurting Smith’s chances is the fact that the Falcons sport a 1-5 when facing the Saints on the road since the coach’s arrival in 2008. Their lone win coming in 2010 on what can certainly be argued a “flukey” overtime outcome. In that game, Saints kicker Garrett Hartley missed a 29-yard field goal in overtime that should have given the Saints the win, but instead gave the Falcons one last opportunity to pull off the victory. The reason why that’s determined “flukey” is that 91.7 percent of field goals attempted from that distance since 2000 have been made. An eight percent margin for error is essentially the difference between Smith being winless in New Orleans.
Thus it would be fitting end for Smith’s stint as the Falcons head coach should he falter once again in New Orleans. But it also could represent a much different narrative should the Falcons actually buck historical trends and win next week.
It would mark the first time since 2005 that the Falcons have swept the Saints in their season series, demarcating the insertion of Saints head coach Sean Payton into the series. Since Payton’s arrival in New Orleans in 2006, his team has dominated the series, winning 13 of the past 17 games. All but three of those 17 games have been decided by eight or less points, a single score.
The narrative for the Falcons-Saints matchups since Payton’s arrival at least from Atlanta’s perspective is that they find a way to keep it close, but manage to find a way to lose the game in the end. That seemingly was flipped on its head at the outset of the 2014 season when the Falcons defeated the Saints in overtime. In that game the Saints were the ones that seemed to find a way to choke away the game with a late fumble by wide receiver Marques Colston.
The outcome of next week’s game will color Smith’s entire tenure. Should the Falcons win, many could say that Smith finally was able to figure out the Saints after seven seasons of misfortune in a do-or-die situation to salvage his job. Or conversely, his inability to overcome the Falcons biggest rival will signify Smith’s inability to take the team to expected heights.
There’s no doubt that the Saints have been a significant thorn in the Falcons’ side, and a big reason for that is due to the latter’s inability to field a prominent defense under Smith. This can be simply illustrated with looking at how easily the Saints have converted third-and-longs against the Falcons defense since 2008.
Saints Success Over Falcons Linked to Third-and-Longs
Against the Falcons, when facing 3rd-and-7 or longer the Saints have converted first downs on 43.5 percent of plays. When measured against the other 31 teams in the NFL, that conversion rate falls to 32.2 percent. For an easier-to-grasp comparison, that margin is comparable to the overall third-down conversion rates of the respective offenses of the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars this season.
Thus it’s analogous to saying that when Brees is facing the Falcons defense on third-and-long, he’s akin to Peyton Manning. Against the rest of the NFL, he’s more often looks like Blake Bortles. If that doesn’t illustrate the Falcons defensive failures, then it’s hard to picture what can.
And for a coach like Smith who possesses a background as a defensive coordinator, those struggles are even more disheartening. And thus it’s easy to see why Blank might look for a coach like Rex Ryan to take over. It’s worth noting that in their two meetings since 2008, no defense has performed better against the Saints on third-and-long than the Jets defense, allowing a first-down conversion rate of just 9.1 percent.
The Falcons defensive struggles were also on full display on Sunday against the Steelers. While the Falcons were able to keep their opponent’s primary playmaker in running back Le’Veon Bell from having a monster performance, he still managed to make several significant plays to help his team win the game.
Le’Veon Bell Was Difference Maker for Steelers
Bell had been averaging 94.6 rushing yards per game prior to facing the Falcons, but was limited to just 47 yards on the ground. But Bell managed to convert on a trio of critical third-and-short plays on separate critical scoring drives for the Steelers. The first came on a simple checkdown into the flat where Bell received a questionable block from wide receiver Martavis Bryant on Robert McClain, and then eluded several Falcon defenders on his way to a 44-yard gain. That Steelers drive ultimately stalled as the team reached the red zone, forcing the Steelers to settle for a field goal, but extending their lead to 6-0.
The second came at the end of the first half on a two-yard run as the Steelers looked to drive to extend their lead after the Falcons had finally got on the board to cut their lead to 13-7. The Steelers were able to drive the length of the field in the final four minutes of the second quarter to push their lead to 20-7 at halftime. That drive eventually saw Antonio Brown make a critical 28-yard catch along the sideline to set up a one-yard Bell touchdown.
The third Bell third-down conversion came at the end of the third quarter on a drive where the Steelers once again had to answer the Falcons after the former’s lead was cut to one score. But that run was hidden amidst three big passing plays by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Falcons had used six minutes of clock on 13 plays to drive 75 yards to cut the Steelers lead to 20-13. It only took the Steelers three-and-a-half minutes and six plays to go 80 yards to push their lead back to two scores thereafter.
Those two drives marked significant contrasts between the Steelers and Falcons, who were forced to rely on “dinking and dunking” to move the ball for the most part on Sunday thanks to a hip injury sidelining their big-play threat in wideout Julio Jones. While the Falcons remaining three wideouts: Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester each managed a big play of their own, only one of them required the Falcons to throw the ball down the field. That was White’s 24-yard catch on a deep dig route that helped kick off their first scoring drive in the second quarter. Both Douglas and Hester’s plays each went for over 40 yards, but both were screen passes where both receivers got a critical block to spring them.
Falcons Failed To Dial Up Big Plays Downfield
While both screen passes led to Falcons scores, it was very clear that a struggling Steelers defense got a reprieve in their efforts to defend the Falcons. As broadcasters noted in their pre-game analysis, the absence of Jones meant that the Steelers had little to fear of the Falcons offense going over the top. Hester represented the lone downfield threat for the Falcons, but prior to Sunday, Ryan had only attempted seven passes of 20 or more yards to him this season according to premium website Pro Football Focus. That figure only increased by one by Sunday evening.
Prior to Sunday’s loss, 34 of Ryan’s 59 deep passes this year were targeted at Jones. In fact Pro Football Focus tells us that 24 percent of all of Jones’ 141 targets this year have been deep throws. Comparatively, of Ryan’s 363 attempted passes to other receivers this season, only seven percent have been deep throws. That number mostly held up on Sunday, as only three of Ryan’s 37 pass attempts went longer than 20 yards in the air, accounting for just eight percent of his throws.
Their inability to dial up big plays was a fatal flaw of the team’s struggling offense a season ago. And while many praise Ryan for his efficient numbers, the core truth is that despite that production, the Falcons offense becomes easily defended for even flawed defenses. That includes the Steelers, who ranked 31st in pass defensive efficiency per Football Outsiders heading into their contest against the Falcons, lower than the Falcons own lackluster pass defense.
While some might suggest the Falcons putting up 20 points and 407 yards of total offense represents a solid effort offensively, it doesn’t truly indicate so. The Steelers defense had been surrendering an average of 24.5 points per game this season, indicating that the Falcons scoring output represented a below average performance relative to others. Falcons did produce an average of 8.4 yards per pass attempt against a Steelers defense that had been surrendering 7.7 on average this season, but that production on the former’s part was skewed heavily by the two big screen plays by Hester and Douglas. In their other 35 pass attempts, the Falcons averaged just 6.4 yards per play. That’s not meant to suggest that those two screen plays should be discounted, but they do represent two relative outliers of production. Most are aware that such large plays on screens to Falcons receiver have been virtually non-existent prior to Sunday. And one could likely argue that those screens proved effective thanks in large part because the Steelers weren’t expecting them given that the Falcons have been rather one-note approach with their screens to Jones all year long.
However, this inability to dial up the big play without Jones represents another indictment of Smith and current Falcons management. Besides their ineffective defenses over the years, one can also argue that Smith & Co. have had their priorities out of whack in regards to their offense.
Falcons Missed Offseason Opportunities to Upgrade Wide Receiver Depth
In an offseason that featured one of the deepest draft classes of wide receiver talent, the Falcons failed to acquire any draft pick of note. Instead, they wound up selecting four linebackers and a pair of defensive backs with six of their final seven picks in the draft. All of whom’s primary contributions currently to the team, if any, are on special teams. And the two most prominent of those six being safety Dezmen Southward and linebacker Prince Shembo, both raw defensive prospects that likely were immediately destined for such roles all along as I projected in their respective scouting reports. The Falcons saw one of those receivers selected after Southward on Sunday in Pittsburgh’s Bryant. Bryant has been a notable deep threat for the Steelers this year, with 38.6 percent of his targets being deep passes per Pro Football Focus, which tops all receivers in the NFL who have been targeted at least 40 or more times.
When looking to add wide receiver depth during the summer in light of the injury to Drew Davis, the Falcons opted for special teams maven Courtney Roby instead of an offensive threat. It’s not as if the Falcons had a ton of options to sign in late June, but it’s notable that the Falcons felt the need to maximize their special teams potential at the position rather than offensively. The fact that following the draft where the team failed to find any developmental receiver that can stretch the field, the Falcons sat on their hands until late June as other veteran receivers were snatched up such as Miles Austin, Anthony Armstrong and Greg Little. None of whom would be considered adequate replacements for Jones, but certainly represented bigger offensive threats than Roby did.
That becomes doubly troubling when noting that the Falcons have opted to keep a potential speedster like Bernard Reedy on the practice squad all season. While Reedy’s short stature likely limits his potential as a vertical threat, he still possesses speed that deserves a small degree of respect from opposing defenses. Instead, Drew Davis was quickly eased back into the lineup as a gunner once running back Antone Smith was lost for the season. And Smith is himself a player that had shown significant ability to impact on offense, but his primary value to the team has been his abilities to cover punts and kickoffs.
And again, their lone addition to the wide receiver corps this offseason that could help stretch opposing defenses was Hester, whose primary role was going to be as a return specialist.
It’s not to suggest that there was one specific move the Falcons could or should have made over the past nine or so months that could have averted the potential problems that were on display Sunday with Jones out of the lineup. Rather my point is only to illustrate that the Falcons have clearly made a series of roster decisions over time designed to prioritize and bolster special teams as opposed to maximizing offensive output.
And so while Blank may be mainly focused on improving the defense if/when he decides to hire a new head coach, it should not be at the expense of ignoring the offense. Special teams is certainly not inconsequential, but if there is going to be one phase of the game marginalized with the mind of favoring the others, it’s likely that third phase.
But it seems that Smith and his colleague in general manager Thomas Dimitroff seem to be of a differing perspective. I can’t fault them for prefering to spend a mid or late-round draft pick on a player that can immediately contribute on special teams rather than a player like Bryant or any other receiver that might be inactive most Sundays because he can’t crack the four-man rotation. But if a team approaches their drafts that way, then it should be augmented via free agency with a desire to add those missing offensive weapons. That is a desire that the Falcons clearly lack.
Personnel Failures Continue to Undermine Falcons
A year ago, the Falcons added wide receiver Brian Robiskie upon Jones’ season-ending injury, a player that few would describe as a potential field-stretcher. That proved to be a critical mistake in 2013, but certainly one that the team could learn from this past year. Yet, the Falcons haven’t quite learned that lesson. And it could be argued that it potentially cost them this Steelers game, which coupled with next week’s result could be the significant factor deciding Smith’s future in Atlanta.
Let’s not forget what has been a perennial deficiency in the team’s pass rush, a topic that deserves it’s own lengthy column but I won’t provide here. But of course, both drives where the Steelers were able to answer Falcons scores came largely as a result of the latter’s inability to provide any substantial pressure on Roethlisberger. Along with their inability to develop and supplement wide receiver depth over the years, it’s just another sign of this team’s inability to self-evaluate and ultimately address other prominent needs.
If Smith should lose his job by the end of this month, much of the narrative will focus on coaching mistakes such as those perpetuated against the Browns and Lions this year as ultimately costing his job. But when factoring in this past week’s loss to the Steelers as well as all the losses last season and those against the Saints over the years, most have much more to do with personnel deficiencies. And those losses far outweigh those that came via coaching mistakes by Smith.
That’s not meant to be a defense of Smith, but rather once again asserting the point I tried to make a few weeks ago that the Falcons have lost far more games over the past seven years because of personnel issues. Those issues including injuries that have exposed a lack of depth along the offensive line and/or wide receiver corps, as well as their inability to get defensive stops in critical moments because opposing quarterbacks have had all day to throw in the pocket. The Steelers loss represents a microcosm, exposing at least the two latter issues. Smith certainly should not be absolved of those issues, as he certainly asserts considerably influence over the Falcons’ roster makeup and player development.
But if you’re looking for a single way to eulogize the Mike Smith Era should it find itself receiving its last rites a week or so from now, then look no further than those problems with personnel.