The Atlanta Falcons had numerous opportunities to win on Sunday against the New York Giants, but failed to take advantage.
The inability to score touchdowns on two red-zone chances were two of those blown opportunities. Had the Falcons converted on those two, they could have had a 21-10 halftime lead and completely changed the outcome of the game thereafter.
Watching the game live, it felt as if the Falcons needed the Giants to “lose” the game rather than being able to go out and “win” it themselves.
That almost happened with the Giants turnovers, particularly the strip of Quintin Demps after his interception in the third quarter. But that play came in the midst of what essentially amounted to a trio of consecutive three-and-outs for the Falcons offense. Demps interception came on a five-play drive to start the second half, but Jacquizz Rodgers stripped him on his return, giving the Falcons a new set of downs. That was followed shortly by a three-and-out, however the Giants again shot themselves in teh foot when Jason Pierre-Paul ran into Matt Bosher on fourth down. But once again, the Falcons followed up with another three-and-out.
Outside of Antone Smith’s 74-yard touchdown on their next series, the Falcons had three more three-and-outs in the second half. And that Smith play felt largely like a broken play on the part of the Giants as opposed to anything great the Falcons did.
Most glaringly, the Falcons struggled on third down against the Giants. That has been a relative rarity in the Mike Smith/Matt Ryan Era. Even in a bad year such as 2013, the Falcons were still among the best teams in the league on third down.
The Falcons only converted two of 13 third downs, while the Giants converted nine of 15. I went back and took a quick glance at all of the Falcons and Giants third and fourth-down pass attempts prior to the final possession of the game, trying to figure out why the Falcons struggled to convert and why the Giants were so successful. I ended up looking at 13 Falcons plays, including their fourth-down try at the end of the game versus 10 for the Giants.
I noticed how consistently effective the Giants blitz was early in the game. The Giants blitzed six times on those 13 plays and the Falcons only managed to prevent pressure on two of them. The other four times the Giants were able to put pressure on Ryan, and only thanks to the breakaway speed of Smith were the Falcons able to convert any of those four tries. The other seven times where the Giants did not blitz, they were able to get pressure with just four rushers five times. Several of those times included both tackles, Jake Matthews and Gabe Carimi, getting beat by Giants edge-rushers, and another where Harland Gunn got beat by Johnathan Hankins on that fourth-down try. On that particular play Hankins beat Gunn off the snap, but part of me is upset that Peter Konz wound up blocking no one on that play. That would have been a good opportunity to give the team’s lesser left guard a bit of help, but alas Konz did not.
That is not meant to blame Konz for that play, because it was ultimately Gunn’s man and he’s primarily responsible for blocking him. But it’s those types of breakdowns that plagued the Falcons throughout the day, and it’s unlikely that it is a coincidence that such breakdowns were rife with a backup in Konz at center. The sooner Justin Blalock comes back, certainly the better for the Falcons moving forward.
As for the Giants’ ability to convert third downs, they can thank the Falcons for generating no pressure. The Falcons did wind up dialing up five blitzes on the 10 plays, but all of them came in the second half. On the Giants’ four third-down pass plays in the first half, the Falcons did not blitz once. And they only made a stop on one of them. And that stop was only because Dezmen Southward knocked Preston Parker out of bounds a yard shy of the sticks, nearly another conversion.
Even more concerning is that every single one of the Falcons blitzes were picked up. They didn’t get a hint of pressure on any of the five blitzes in the second half and if not for Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant breaking up two passes, it’s likely the Giants third-down conversion rate would have been ever better. Two of the Giants’ 10 third downs resulted in touchdowns, and a third was the 42-yard pass to Preston Parker where Dwight Lowery completely forgot his man. That was a play where middle linebacker Paul Worrilow lined up at safety, an odd defensive look for the Falcons.
And that look is one of the reasons why defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks. Lowery got caught looking in the backfield on that particular play, probably hoping that Worrilow would fill the task of picking up the deepest receiver. Worrilow did not and Parker could have scored if Eli Manning had made a better throw.
On one hand, it’s very clear that Lowery blew the coverage and thus there’s only so much control a defensive coordinator has over that. But at the same time, why would Nolan put Worrilow in that position?
And as this Falcons team is looking for solutions to solve their defensive crisis, you have many people falling into one of two camps: one is to blame it on poor coaching, while the other blames weak personnel and their inability to execute.
The aforementioned play could be considered a microcosm of the situation as it’s a combination of both. What is the exact split between coaching versus talent? That is certainly a worthwhile debate, and I certainly don’t pretend to know the answer.
And many can point to that Worrilow play and the other three third downs in the first half where the Falcons opted not to blitz as a failure on the coaches’ shoulders. Poor scheme leads to breakdowns and easy conversions for the Giants. That is certainly a fair criticism, but it’s not everything. Because if it was, that would ignore the fact that in the second half when the Falcons did dial up the blitzes, they were completely ineffective. And that points to players on the field not being able to get the job done.
That strikes at the heart of the team’s failure in personnel. Six months ago, a huge topic of discussion was this team’s need to upgrade their pass rush by splurging in free agency. The team did not. And that put pressure on the team to address that concern in the draft. The Falcons opted to select Jake Matthews and Ra’Shede Hageman with their top two selections at a point in the draft where a quality pass-rusher could have potentially been had. It’s hard to complain about the selection of Matthews in retrospect, even with the fact that Pierre-Paul took him to school several times on Sunday. Just imagine where the Falcons would be right now without him given that Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes have both been lost for the season.
However, Hageman’s selection did and still raises a few eyebrows. While no one can deny Hageman’s raw potential, emphasis should be placed on the word raw. The Falcons needed someone that could step in immediately and be an asset to their pass rush, as opposed a player like Hageman who might be a quality pass-rusher several years down the road. And I’ll reiterate the point I made in my May scouting report on Hageman, in that I think it’s much likelier that he’ll become a top run-defender versus a pass-rusher if he does wind up developing in the future.
But before anybody accuses me of throwing Hageman under the bus, that’s not a knock on him. Hageman is who he is and he can’t change that. The consensus on him coming out was that he was a long-term developmental project as opposed to a guy that would be an immediate boost to a defense. So either the Falcons front office felt differently than the consensus, or were completely aware that he was a project and ignored their pass-rush need anyway.
Why did the Falcons ignore their obvious need for a pass-rusher this offseason? The cynical fan in me wants to say because they’re run by fools. But the more fair-minded analyst in me says because they believed they could “scheme” pressure. But as we saw against the Giants, that belief appears to be mistaken. In this case, the front office and coaching staff both are at fault.
The NFL’s trading deadline now stands 22 days away. And it’s going to be extremely difficult to understand if the Falcons don’t make a move by then. If not, that’s when the cynical fan in me tends to leap out and want to start throwing around disparaging labels at every decision-maker within the organization.
I’m no expert but even I can clearly see that through five weeks this current group of players aren’t getting the job done. It’s unfathomable that people as intelligent as the Falcons coaching staff and front office are reputed to be can watch the same tape and come to the complete opposite conclusion.
Ultimately, it does not even really matter to me who the team tries to acquire. I’ve suggested names in the past, but I’m sure there is one decent pass-rusher available via trade. And whether they give up two first-round picks for Justin Houston or a sixth-round pick for Benson Mayowa, I just want to see the team try to improve the position.
But to stand pat again as they did last year at wide receiver when they signed Brian Robiskie following Julio Jones’ injury is another poor decision I simply cannot abide. And as I’ve explained several times before, the Falcons opted to stand pat after Jones injury last year and roll with Robiskie and their in-house stable of wide receivers. In retrospect, I believe that decision was largely based off the hope that Roddy White would return and carry the load. But White missed three games due to injury and was ineffective for three more recovering from those injuries. For those six weeks where Harry Douglas was the team’s No. 1 receiver and Robiskie was inactive for all but one game, the Falcons morphed into one of the league’s worst offenses.
No one expects perfection, but learning from one’s mistakes is critical. Time travel has yet to be invented, so it’s impossible to go back and fix the Robiskie mistake from a year ago. But the team has the potential to fix this problem now if they would simply make a move.
But let’s say the Falcons shock me and do in fact make a move for a pass-rusher. That is by no means a team-fixer. This team is not one decent to good pass-rusher away from competing at the highest levels because there are several problem areas on the roster.
As far as the offensive line goes, the hope is that a quick, healthy return of Blalock to the lineup can help alleviate those problems so that the team can piece together a competent unit the rest of the season. But another thing Sunday exposed was how shallow the team’s depth is at wide receiver and tight end.
Julio Jones is magnificent, but the rest of the Falcons receiver corps leaves a lot to be desired. Over the past seven seasons in a Falcons uniform, White has been similarly magnificent. White’s problems last week seemingly stemmed from injuries. But it’s now been four games this season where his impact has been minimal. Perhaps next week or some week after, he’ll shake out of this funk and become a top receiver once again. However, one must ask: what happens if that day never comes?
The Falcons lone hope for the remainder of this season appears to rest on their ability to outscore their opponents. What happens if Jones gets hurt again?
White currently is not playing at a level where you can rely on him to pick up that slack. Harry Douglas and Devin Hester have proven more often than not over the years that they are not that guy either. The scenario I imagine in the event of another Jones injury is similar to that six-week period last season that I referred to earlier when the Falcons offense was among the league’s weakest.
It’s not realistic to think that the Falcons six weeks into the season are going to go out and find a wide receiver that is going to add a Jones-esque element to their offense. But I do think it’s realistic that they could potentially add someone that can give them more than what White has given them through the first five games. Thus, wide receiver is something else that the Falcons may want to add to their to-do-list before the trade deadline.
Oakland’s Denarius Moore is a name that immediately jumps to mind as potential option and I’m sure there are others. Will any of them come in and be a savior right away? Probably not, but if you can get them sooner rather than later, it gives them more time to pick up the Falcons system before they might need to be turned to. And I would certainly feel a lot more comfortable if Moore is my “break glass in case of emergency” option at wide receiver in the event that Jones goes down or White doesn’t improve as opposed to Courtney Roby.
Roby has languished mostly on the inactive list thus far this season, and has only played when White or Douglas have been scratches due to injury. What is there to lose? Worst-case scenario is that Moore or another receiver is inactive every week just like Roby. Best-case is that the Falcons offense doesn’t go into the tank the minute some further adversity hits at the position.
I won’t pretend to believe that such in-season moves will transform the Falcons into one of the best teams in the league, but they certainly at least have the potential to possibly avert disaster.
And in the great debate in the blame game between coaching and personnel, the Falcons front office can at least cover their butts.