Takeaways from Week 4

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

‘Sad Arthur Blank’ should be a meme somewhere

Last week, I tried to make the compelling case for why the Falcons 1-2 start wasn’t as dire as many believed.

I’ll have a much harder time trying to make the same argument now that the Falcons are 1-3.

Honestly, losing to the Miami Dolphins on the road wasn’t that shocking to me. Losing to the Patriots at home, however was. I just expected the Falcons to play much better than they did on Sunday night.

Their looking out of sync against the Dolphins, I chalked up to the injuries and being on the road. I can still partially blame injuries for their looking out of sync against the Patriots, but they typically look much sharper at home.

My immediate reaction won’t be to write off the Falcons this season. From the research I did (called Pro Football Reference), 109 teams in the “Parity Era” (1995-2012) have started the season 1-3, and only 17 of them went on to make the playoffs, giving the Falcons about a 15.5-percent chance. Given that you have a 37.5-percent chance to begin win that is not promising.

One of those teams that did manage to make the playoffs despite a 1-3 start was the 2002 Falcons. After their 1-3 start, they didn’t lose their next eight games (seven wins, one tie) to get into the playoffs on a wildcard. Two of their three opening losses came against playoff teams.

Currently, all three of the Falcons losses come against teams that I suspect will make the playoffs, as the chances a team that starts the year 4-0 makes the playoffs is 82.6-percent over the Parity Era. And we know at least two of our opponents, depending on the result of the Miami Dolphins-New Orleans Saints game tonight will be 4-0. And it’s loser will still be in the driver’s seat to finish the year strong and be playing in January.

The Falcons definitely have some work to do. And the honest to goodness truth is that this team is not nearly as good as we thought they would be. They still have the capacity to be a good team, but time is running short.

Their offense needs to get in sync, and their defense got exposed thoroughly for the first time against what had been a struggling Patriots offense.

Tony Gonzalez had a brilliant game, but it happened to coincide with the one game where Julio Jones was far less than that. It seems the Falcons’ offense only has room for one receiver to play well, which is a shame. Matt Ryan, after some critical mistakes last week against the Dolphins, just looked a bit out of it all night against the Patriots. He will need to play better.

While I think people far too often go to the well of “bad play-calling” as a reason for why an offense stagnates, I do think Dirk Koetter is open to some criticism. At least in the sense that he needs to find ways to get the ball into the end zone when the Falcons get into the red zone. The Falcons were downright atrocious in the red zone against New England, only scoring touchdowns on 1 of 6 trips there. It’s a results-oriented business, and Koetter needs to do whatever it takes to get better results. Whether that means he has to change his play-calling remains to be seen, but the Falcons have to do better. The Falcons seemed to have little to no interest in running the football, with only 1 of 18 red zone play calls being runs against New England, and them having a 30:70-percent run-pass balance through the first three quarters. It should be noted that the game was within one score throughout that period, and thus it’s not as if the Falcons were throwing just to catch-up.

Defensively, the Falcons simply gave up too many big plays. That 3rd-and-19 play where Kenbrell Thompkins gained 26 yards was a killer. The very next play they gave up a 47-yard touchdown run to LeGarrette Blount. Not to mention the 49-yard bomb to Thompkins earlier where he made William Moore look like Haruki Nakamura, the 44-yard play to Julian Edelman where he beat Robert McClain on an option route on 3rd-and-8, and the 34-yard bomb to Edelman where he blew past Joplo Bartu deep down the middle. You just can’t get gashed for big gains like that and expect to win.

The Falcons pass rush is non-existent. The early returns on the Osi Umenyiora signing haven’t been promising, even with a two-sack effort against Miami. Nobody else is really stepping up, and it’s not as if the Falcons are going to be able to sign a player off the street tomorrow and think he’s going to add much of anything. Frankly, the Falcons are hanging their hat that the current players pick things up or maybe they can fleece some team out of a promising young pass rusher as we approach the trade deadline at the end of October. I’d love it if the Falcons could get their hands on Lamarr Houston, Michael Johnson, or Brandon Graham, butthose guys are probably unlikely to get traded or the price tag will be a bit too high. But regardless how this season plays out, the Falcons are going to have to look very long and hard at pass rushers in next May’s draft. At this point, I don’t see how the Falcons couldn’t use their top pick on a lineman on either side of the ball.

And that is the main issue the Falcons have had: they can’t win in the trenches. That just doesn’t cover this season, but goes back multiple years.

That inability to win in the trenches in past seasons didn’t hurt them, particularly in 2012 because they got excellent production from their trio of receivers and were able to generate turnovers on defense relatively consistently. But with Roddy White effectively neutralized by an ankle injury, Gonzalez being quiet for three games, and Jones being silent in much of the fourth, you have your recipe for your underwhelming Falcons.

A series of unfortunate events have befallen the Falcons since the 2010 season in regards to their respective lines. After that season following the lockout, they opted to pay Justin Blalock a hefty $38 million contract, and let Harvey Dahl walk to St. Louis for a measly $16 million. Personally, I thought Dahl was the wiser choice. But I could understand the Falcons opting for Blalock. Choosing the young player with a bit more upside wasn’t the crazy aspect of the move. What was crazy was paying Blalock almost 2.5 times as much as Dahl ultimately got. Blalock just wasn’t worth that much money.

That was followed up by the Ray Edwards signing, which the Falcons got a relative bargain of $27.5 million given that the Carolina Panthers had just given Charles Johnson $76 million a few days before. Johnson was the better player, but similarly he didn’t seem to be that much better than Edwards at the time. But Edwards fell flat on his face in Atlanta and Johnson continues to excel in Carolina, thus disproving that assertion.

Those moves really set the tone for what we’re seeing currently with the Falcons lines today. Kroy Biermann has tallied 16.5 sacks in 82 games over five-plus seasons in Atlanta, while the other seven defensive linemen the Falcons have drafted since then (not counting this year’s rookies) have totaled 18 sacks collectively in 229 combined games played.

The Falcons simply haven’t gotten production out of their mid and late-round attempts to shore up the defensive line. And unless players like Jonathan Massaquoi or Malliciah Goodman make significant strides over the next three months, the Falcons will be in a position where they will need to make a bold move for some young stud pass rusher next off-season. Whether that comes in free agency or the draft remains to be seen, but they can’t expect to think that they’re likely to hit on the next sixth or seventh round pick, when so many have fallen by the wayside.

And while many are quick to point the finger at the Falcons’ off-season decision to let go of Tyson Clabo as the root cause of their current offensive line woes, it really goes back further than that. The Falcons could have potentially gotten away with starting Holmes at right tackle, had the other four starters up front been better. Blalock is far from a bad player, but he’s not the caliber of interior blocker you normally build around. Typically that’s reserved for guards/centers that excel either as run blockers or pass protectors. Blalock is more than capable in both areas, but has rarely stood out in his six seasons in Atlanta. Sam Baker certainly hasn’t gotten off to a good start fresh off his $41 million windfall this off-season. And since Dahl departed, the right guard position has been in a constant state of flux. Garrett Reynolds is playing relatively well thus far this year, but again he’s just a stopgap rather than a building block. Right now, Peter Konz is the only foundation piece, and even he isn’t having a prodigious start in his first year at center. If the other four players were more capable, then the Falcons could probably successfully compensate for one weak link in Holmes, as opposed to trying to deal with multiple breaks in the metaphorical chain.

But one promising takeaway from the Falcons loss to the Patriots is that Jeremy Trueblood looks to be a serviceable if not capable starter at right tackle. He’s not really been exposed in pass protection and has gotten the job done in the ground game. After a disappointing career in Tampa Bay and making no headway in Washington this past summer, this could be a nice little turnaround for Trueblood if he continues to play at this level or better. He probably won’t face his first major test until the Falcons Week 9 matchup against Charles Johnson and the Panthers. Between now and then the Falcons’ offensive line as a unit will have to deal with players like Muhammad Wilkerson, Gerald McCoy, and Calais Campbell, who are three of the best in the business. They collectively will have to step up their play if the Falcons are going to get their season turned around.

Elsewhere in the NFL…

It proved to be another bad week of picking games for me on Sunday, as only four of the teams I picked yesterday managed to cover their respective spreads.

One of the hard things about picking NFL games is you never know when a guy just is going to have a bad day, particularly with a number of the mid-level starting quarterbacks we have in the NFL today.

I’m looking at you, Joe Flacco, and your five interceptions. Flacco isn’t a bad quarterback, but how anybody can possibly argue that he’s an elite quarterback is beyond me. Flacco has just been downright atrocious in road games over the past several years with his Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANYA) falling steadily in each of the past four seasons. Through two road games this year, it’s fallen to an abysmal 4.23 in 2013 from 5.03 a year ago. For the sake of comparison, Mark Sanchez and Matt Cassel, the two worst starters in the league last year, had overall ANYAs of 4.36 and 4.31, respectively. Why I put any faith in him to play well on the road is my sheer stupidity.

Another bad quarterback is Andy Dalton as I should have known better than picking the Bengals over the Browns. It wasn’t purely because of Dalton though, it was because I continue to underestimate how good the Browns defense is. And I should have known that a good defense like theirs against Dalton would lead to a very stagnant Bengals offense. I guess I was holding out the hope that Brian Hoyer would just completely fall apart and his 3 interceptions from a week ago was a sign of his inconsistency. That wasn’t the case.

I picked the Steelers for some silly reason, even though I saw all the reasons why not. The Steelers defense got carved up for three plays of 50 or more yards, something that has never happened to them since Dick LeBeau began coordinating that defense in 2004. If there was any doubt whether the Steelers defense has jumped the shark, I think we now have confirmed it. But I guess it is a positive that their offense looks to be on the upswing which will probably make me tempted to pick them again in Week 6 against the Jets coming out of the bye.

I will never learn…

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Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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