If you watched both of the Atlanta Falcons two regular-season games played thus far in 2014, you would see two very different teams.
The Falcons lost on the road on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, in a very lop-sided game. That followed on the heels of a very impressive and resilient Week 1 win over the New Orleans Saints at home.
Resiliency was the key difference. The Falcons had an opportunity to show some resiliency yesterday against the Bengals, but failed to do so and the game was never really interesting after the second quarter.
The Falcons had an early opportunity to take the lead, but after that point, the game never really looked close. That opportunity came with nine minutes to go in the second quarter, where Matt Ryan threw deep to Julio Jones into the end zone off a play-action fake. Jones made an excellent leaping effort on the play, but the ball bounced off his arms, which allowed Bengals safety George Iloka to wrestle the ball away from him on his way down. On the very next play, Ryan was sacked for a 10-yard loss thanks to tripping over the feet of Steven Jackson. The Falcons dialed up a predictable bubble screen on 3rd-and-20, it failed and they punted. It was obvious the Bengals knew that play was coming because it was the first time they chose not to blitz on third down.
Had Jones reeled in that catch, the Falcons would have taken a 10-3 lead and put the Bengals on the defensive. But instead, the Bengals capitalized on the missed opportunity and moved the ball 91 yards on 10 plays, nine of which were runs. But the key play on the Bengals scoring drive was a 46-yard gain on a broken play. It was one of the few plays in which the Falcons actually put some pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. But Corey Peters couldn’t make the play, and Giovanni Bernard scampered 46 yards to set up the Bengals next score.
That sort of big gain off a broken play was exactly what the Falcons got against the Saints last week with Antone Smith on his 54-yard touchdown. Those sorts of big plays went the Falcons way last week, but not this week.
Just like the Falcons did in Week 1, the Bengals got several big plays on the day. The Bengals had five plays that gained 20 or more yards, compared to the Falcons’ two. Last week, the Falcons won the big play battle with eight 20-plus-yard gains to the Saints’ three.
That disparity along with the turnover margin went against the Falcons this week in comparison to last week. Last week, the Falcons forced a pair of Saints turnovers, while giving up the ball only once. This week, the Falcons forced no turnovers, while giving away the ball three times to the Bengals.
In the third quarter of last week, the Falcons outscored the Saints 14-0, while the Bengals flipped that this week with a 14-0 margin of their own.
The Falcons protected Ryan last week, allowing him to buy time out of the pocket to generate some of those big plays. The Saints only hit Ryan three times, which allowed him to throw for a career-high 448 yards and three touchdowns. This week, the Bengals were able to hit Ryan nine times and the Falcons quarterback wound up with three interceptions and one garbage-time touchdown.
However two constants, both negative, from either games stem from the Falcons defense. The Falcons have had little success stopping the run thus far this year as well as pressuring the quarterback.
The Falcons spent big this offseason to beef up one of those units, showing a preference to beef up their run defense as opposed to getting after opposing passers. Defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson were given $25 million in guaranteed money, while a second-round pick was used on Ra’Shede Hageman, another powerful run-defender.
The Falcons gave up 137 yards on 27 carries (5.1 avg) to Saints runners (not including quarterbacks) last week. The Saints were successful on 55.6 percent of those runs.
Rushing success rate is essentially a measurement on whether a team’s running game keeps them on schedule to potentially earn another set of downs. The basics are if a runner gains 45 percent of the needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down or moves the chains on either third or fourth down, he had successful runs. Offenses strive to be successful on over 50 percent of their runs, but are willing to accept 40 percent as suitable. Clearly, the Saints running game could consider their Week 1 success rate a win.
But the argument could be made that Falcons were gashed by the run because so much of their defensive game plan centered around slowing down Saints receivers like Jimmy Graham, Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston.
But such an excuse cannot be made about the run defense’s performance against the Bengals. The Bengals lost wide receiver A.J. Green after the first series to a toe injury, effectively making the Bengals offense one-dimensional with their running game needing to carry the team.
And the Bengals ground attack did exactly that. Bernard and rookie runner Jeremy Hill combined for 164 yards on 42 carries. The Bengals were successful on 18 of those runs, for a success rate of 43 percent.
However, the Bengals were successful on nearly half of their 21 first-half runs for a percentage of 48 percent. The Falcons run defense got their act together to start the third quarter, halting the Bengals first six attempts in that quarter. Three of those came on the Bengals possession following Ryan’s first interception of the day. But by then, the Bengals were at the Falcons 10-yard line. Hill would cap off that drive with three successful runs, including a one-yard score. At that point, the Bengals had a 24-3 lead and the game was essentially over.
The Bengals devoted the rest of their game plan to running out the clock, with 12 of their final 15 offensive plays being runs. They were successful on five of them, so even the Falcons when they knew that the run was coming, they still could not prevent the Bengals from being successful on 41 percent of their remaining runs.
The Falcons run defense is going to have to step up, particularly their offseason investments Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson. While Soliai did have a pair of tackles for loss to show that he was contributing somewhat to the run defense, Jackson made no tackles. And through two games, Jackson has just one tackle.
Granted, Jackson’s position and role is more about controlling blockers and gaps than it is making tackles but Jackson hasn’t done enough of either. On Sunday, the Falcons linebackers looked out of position consistently and Bernard and Hill were able to earn big gains whenever they seemed to get in space.
Those Falcons linebackers have more of an excuse given they aren’t being paid huge sums of money. Inside linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu received $7,000 in combined signing bonuses a year ago as an undrafted free agents. Prince Shembo’s guaranteed portion of his contract tops out just above $300,000 when factoring in his signing bonus.
Jackson and Soliai received over 80 times the linebackers’ combined amount in guaranteed money this past offseason. The Falcons also have other players they’ve paid in recent off seasons including Jonathan Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann that also have to improve their play.
Babineaux’s past success in Atlanta probably earns him somewhat a reprieve. As a player that turns 33 next month, expectations can’t be too high on Babineaux’s ability to add more than he’s already is brought to the table.
But the others in Jackson, Soliai, and Umenyiora simply haven’t done enough in their brief stints with the Falcons to earn such absolution. Biermann, while he certainly can be lumped into the group of underachievers, at least has the excuse that he’s coming off a torn Achilles tendon. Biermann just turned 29 this past week, but given that injury and the way he’s played thus far in 2014, he might as well be considered just as old as Babs.
As far as the pass rush goes, much of the blame also rests at the feet of those veterans. That leaves really the Falcons one alternative, to go with a youth movement on defense for the second consecutive season. Last year, the Falcons played their young defenders in the second half of the season due to their struggles to get into the win column. This year, it may be because the veteran alternative is no better. What really do the Falcons have to lose at this point?
When the team failed to address their horrid third-down defense in either free agency or the draft, it became an inevitability that it would be a high priority in 2015’s offseason. But at this point, why should the Falcons wait until then?
Last week I mentioned that the Falcons have time between now and the trade deadline at the end of October to potentially make a move. If the Falcons can acquire a promising young edge-rusher like Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles), Jabaal Sheard (Cleveland Browns) or Jerry Hughes (Buffalo Bills), then they should pull the trigger.
All three players are in the final years of their contracts, which means they could be available via trade if any of their respective teams are hesitant to hand them long-term contracts next spring. That may be the case with all three.
Graham was the Eagles top selection in 2010, but when the Eagles used their top pick on outside linebacker Marcus Smith this past May, it signaled they didn’t really consider Graham to be in the picture long-term. Reports surfaced in April before the draft that the Eagles were looking to move Graham.
Sheard might be left out in the cold given the Browns spent a lot of money on Paul Kruger and then drafted Barkevious Mingo in 2013. Rumors that the Browns have been willing to part with Sheard have existed since that very offseason.
Hughes is the newest member that could be dangled via a trade, and the one that is mostly speculation on my part. The Bills traded for Hughes last offseason after he had three lackluster years with the Indianapolis Colts as their top selection in 2010. Hughes rewarded the Bills diligence by recording 10 sacks last season. But reports surfaced this summer that Hughes and Bills head coach Doug Marrone have been butting heads, culminating in a screaming match between Marrone and other Bills officials.
The Bills might be willing to part with Hughes despite his solid 2013 production to mend some fences with Marrone. Also given the money they’ve already paid Mario Williams and the likelihood of another expensive contract to defensive tackle Marcell Dareus before 2016, the Bills might shy away from paying market value to Hughes should he hit free agency next March. Thus my speculation that for the right price the Bills could be willing to part with him now in order to get something back for a player that could just walk scot-free in six months.
The right price for a player like Hughes or any of these other pass-rushers is a matter of more speculation. I’d imagine, none would come cheap since the Eagles, Browns and Bills would still all be giving up valuable pass-rushers and there is always a premium on such guys. I’d imagine the Falcons would be expected to trade at least a third-round pick, if not a second-round pick for any of them.
While the second-round pick seems a bit too pricey, a third-round pick would be more than worthwhile for the Falcons to part with. Given all three players are still working off their rookie contracts and will be 27 or younger by the start of the 2015 season, their upside alone is worth more than a third-round pick.
But regardless if it’s one of the aforementioned three, the Falcons have to do something about their pass-rush. And if they have to part with a third or fourth-round pick to get any decent young pass-rusher, then it’s a move that must be done.
Both Umenyiora and Biermann are in the final years of their respective contracts and thus far have done little this year to indicate that they should return in 2015. With Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga waiting in the wings, it’s time for the Falcons to give their young guys an opportunity.
If Massaquoi and Maponga fail to provide the much-needed pressure off the edge, then the Falcons need to turn to the trade market to see if they can solve this problem sooner rather than later.
If the Falcons can’t get any more pressure on quarterbacks and must resort to blitzing the rest of this season, then more plays like Mohamed Sanu’s 76-yard touchdown from Sunday are waiting to happen. On that play, the Falcons dialed up a blitz, leaving their defensive backs on an island. Sanu beat Robert Alford for an easy score. One can certainly say that Alford made a mistake by selling out for the pass deflection, which he failed to get, allowing Sanu to sprint untouched for the touchdown. Yet the root cause of the problem was the Falcons reliance on the blitz to get pressure since their current front seems incapable of doing it on its own.
Unlike the run defense, the Falcons have yet to make the necessary investments to expect success from their current group of pass-rushers. As mentioned earlier, the Falcons already tried to beef up their run defense and they need those investments to now pay off. If not, then they too might find themselves replaced with better options sooner rather than later.