The Atlanta Falcons managed to avoid the trap with a come-from-behind 25-19 win in overtime over the Washington Redskins in Week Five.
Despite the late-game heroics, the Falcons really began to show chinks in their armor as they push their record to 5-0 in 2015.
While initially I did not expect this week’s Redskins matchup to be a trap game, it clearly became one as the team fell behind early and really struggled to move the ball offensively and got gashed too many times defensively.
Sandwiched between an impressive 48-21 beatdown of the Houston Texans and a short turnaround to face their biggest rival in the New Orleans Saints on the road, it became very easy for the Falcons to overlook this Redskins matchup.
I myself certainly had a high degree of optimism heading into Sunday. While I did not expect the Redskins to lay down, the fact that they had an injury-depleted secondary and were missing some critical weapons on offense like tight end Jordan Reed seemed like this was a game that the Falcons shouldn’t have to break too much of a sweat to win.
But the opposite proved true as the Falcons did not gain their first lead until the game’s 50th minute and watched the Redskins put together three scoring drives thereafter to send the game into overtime.
Even though the Falcons consummated the win thanks to cornerback Robert Alford’s game-winning pick-six in overtime, it felt anything but the trademark emphatic finish that we had grown accustomed to with a Dan Quinn-led Falcons team in the first month of 2015.
It seemed like the Falcons shouldn’t have had this much trouble scoring points against a Redskins team that was playing without several key playmakers in their secondary. The Redskins started Bashaud Breeland, Will Blackmon and Kyshoen Jarrett at cornerback thanks to injuries that kept regulars Chris Culliver and DeAngelo Hall out of the lineup.
Blackmon was only signed by the team in Week Two, while Jarrett is a rookie safety that has been compelled to move to nickel cornerback due to dearth of depth. Not to mention the performances of safeties Trenton Robinson and DaShon Goldson had left a lot to be desired in the first month of the season, all signs pointed to the Falcons having a strong passing day.
Are Ryan’s Struggles Due to Jones’ Limited Impact?
But the opposite proved true as quarterback Matt Ryan struggled his way through four quarters of football. Often times box score stats can be misleading, but in the case of Ryan’s 55.1 passer rating against the Redskins on Sunday, it feels completely accurate in gauging the quarterback’s performance.
That mark tied a 2011 rating against the Green Bay Packers as the eighth worst starting performance of Ryan’s career. Ryan hadn’t been rated worse in a home game since a five-interception performance against the Arizona Cardinals in 2012. Prior to that, you’d have to go back to the season finale during Ryan’s rookie year in 2008 before you found another home game where he finished with a rating below 55.
Ryan looked out of sorts, missing a ton of throws as he and his receivers never really got on the same page. Perhaps that had to do with the absent impact of Julio Jones.
Even though Jones suited up, it seemed that he was a non-factor for a large chunk of the game. Given that the Redskins were essentially deploying a secondary that featured backups, that became Sunday’s biggest surprise.
Jones did not snag his first reception until the first play of the second half. To be fair to Jones, at least three of Ryan’s four first-half targets in his direction were errant throws, with one being snagged for an interception and another nearly being picked off on an overthrow.
But Jones did not look as athletic or explosive in the game, raising concerns about his current health. I first raised this concern after reviewing the All-22 of last week’s blowout win against the Texans. While initial thought indicated that Jones’ quiet four-catch performance last week was due to the Falcons not needing him to make an impact in the blowout, the game film seemed to tell a different story.
After three games of seeing Jones being the primary target and read when Ryan dropped back to throw, that changed against the Texans as offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan purposefully seemed to call more plays designed to go to Leonard Hankerson and Devonta Freeman.
While one could have easily dismissed it as just a one-game aberration, two weeks in a row where Jones has had a limited impact is the beginning of a trend. Despite reports on both Friday and Sunday morning that Jones was sharp in both practice and warmups, his performance in the game was anything but that.
Are the Falcons Still a One-Man Team?
It all raises concerns about whether or not the Falcons are essentially a one-man team. At least versus the Redskins, the answer leaned heavily to the yes column as the Falcons offense really struggled to move the ball with Jones not having his characteristic dominance against the likes of players like Breeland and Blackmon.
While Jones did make a couple of critical catches in the second half, there have to be concerns moving forward about whether the Falcons can rely on him in the coming weeks. With a short turnaround against New Orleans this week on Thursday night, there will be minimal time to heal the toe and hamstring injuries that have kept Jones’ practice reps limited since the season-opener.
One wonders if the Falcons are doomed to be in a situation where they will force Jones to have to “gut it out” over the next few weeks, much in the same way they did with Roddy White at the start of 2013. Then, the Falcons made a clear mistake in trying to ask White to play on a high-ankle sprain despite the continued presences of Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez already on the team. Hindsight clearly shows that the Falcons should’ve rested White for that first month, allowing him the necessary time to recover.
But White ultimately struggled his way through the first five games before the Falcons were compelled by further injuries to sit him for the next month. White returned to the lineup in Week Ten of that year but really didn’t have his first impactful game until Week 13 when he caught 10 passes for 143 yards against the Buffalo Bills. Had the Falcons rested him during the first month of the season, White could’ve been able to carry the offense much earlier in 2013 once Jones was sidelined for the year after five games.
Fast forwarding to 2015, the Falcons are without the capable complementary targets like they had in 2013 to make this an easy decision in terms of giving Jones time to recover. While Jacob Tamme certainly emerged and had his best game on Sunday with a team-leading 94 yards on eight catches, it would seem a tall order to ask him to carry the offense in the same way that Gonzalez could years ago.
Roddy White’s Production Has Fallen Off a Cliff
The biggest issue is the sheer dropoff in performance in White since that 2013 season. Even though he was nursing an injury, White still managed to snag 14 of 22 passes thrown his way through the first five weeks of 2013 for 129 yards. Comparatively this year, a seemingly healthy White has just caught eight passes on 17 targets for 115 yards through the first five games of the year.
Over the last four weeks, White has snagged just four receptions for 31 yards and Ryan has a 13.9 passer rating when targeting the Falcons all-time leading receiver. Even if you included the four passes to White over the past four ga,es that have been nullified by penalties, it would only push Ryan’s rating to 26.8, still far below what any reasonable standards should be.
Ryan has attempted 151 passes over the past four games and only nine percent of them have gone White’s way. To help put that into perspective, during the first half of White’s rookie season back in 2005 when he was a reserve for the first seven games, he still managed to be targeted on 11 percent of the Falcons throws.
Coming off a week where White expressed frustration over his limited targets, those stats illustrate the cause of his frustration but also may illuminate exactly why Shanahan hasn’t been too compelled to force the issue. While it should be beyond any doubt now that White is a diminished player from recent years, he still should be capable of doing more than what he has since the season-opening win against the Eagles where he caught four passes for 84 yards.
All these struggles mean this might be a good time to see if the Falcons can try and get something out of rookie Justin Hardy in the coming month. Hardy has been inactive for the first five games, but White’s production has been so poor over the past four weeks that there’s every reason to think that Hardy could do more.
Freeman Leads a Transcendent Running Game
Despite the concern over the Falcons aerial attack, they certainly managed to get it done on the ground for the third week in a row. Devonta Freeman continues to be impressive, totaling nearly 200 yards from scrimmage on Sunday against the Redskins.
If the Falcons aren’t able to lean on their passing game as much in the coming weeks, they certainly have the option of trying to win by pounding the ball and rewinding the calendar back to becoming the run-first team they were during Ryan’s earliest days in Atlanta.
Even though the Redskins knew that stopping the run was important, Freeman gashed them for 153 yards on the ground and another 44 yards in the air. The Redskins run defense was the second best in the league going into Sunday’s contest allowing just 78 yards per game, yet the Falcons pounded them to a tune of 176 yards on the ground.
That is a habit the Falcons have done each week since Freeman’s emergence two weeks ago against the Cowboys. Then, the Falcons put up 158 rushing yards on a defense that has allowed just 79.5 yards in their four other games this year. Last week against the Texans, the Falcons ran for 135 yards on a defense that has allowed 109 rushing yards in their other four games.
Breaking out the calculator, the Falcons’ 469 combined rushing yards the past three games is 76 percent higher than what the average rushing output has been against those opponents in their other 2015 matchups.
Considering their next four matchups against the Saints, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers feature defenses that have surrendered a collective average of 114.5 rushing yards per game this season, there is a strong possibility that the Falcons’ trend of rushing success will continue. If the Falcons continue to produce a running game 76 percent better than expected output, then there are some 200-yard games potentially on the horizon in the coming month.
That seems even more plausible if rookie running back Tevin Coleman gets back on track. He made minimal contributions with two carries for three yards against the Redskins in his first game back after missing two weeks due to a rib injury. But there is hope that there should be a sharp rise in his production as he heals up a little more.
It all points to optimism that if the Falcons can adhere to an identity centered on running the ball and playing stronger defense, then they can extend this five-game winning streak against some upcoming opponents.
Even though the Falcons don’t face any great teams over the next month, they will have to find a way to dig deep and overcome some issues in that span. It’s probable that there will more games like the win over the Redskins that despite playing an inferior opponent, the Falcons may struggle towards a victory due to some of the aforementioned concerns about the passing game.
But it’s a testament to the new culture instilled by Quinn, that the Falcons will show grit and determination by finding ways to win even if it looks ugly.