Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Week 7 – October 20, 2014

Following their 22-point loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, the 2014 Atlanta Falcons season is unofficially over. Dead. Finito. Vanquished. Regardless of the word chosen, they all mean the same thing.

I say unofficially, because there is the possibility that after the team’s bye next week, the Falcons rally and start to play a more competitive brand of football. With four of their final six games being at home and three of the final four road games coming against divisional rivals, on paper, those are seven games that the Falcons have a realistic shot at winning.

Given this team’s success at home coupled with the knowledge that divisional games are usually close and competitive, I can acknowledge at least on an intellectual level that the Falcons can win some, albeit not all, of those games.

But looking at things from an emotional standpoint, it’s over. I’ve officially checked out of the season and now am just waiting for it to end. Since the team’s disappointing loss to the New York Giants, for the past two Sundays I have awoken with no passion nor excitement for the Falcons games. I’m merely going through the motions.

And despite that sort of intellectual understanding that how a team plays in October doesn’t necessarily indicate how it will play in November and December, it doesn’t appear the Falcons are going to turn things around any time soon.

The hot-button topic remains the job security of both head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. But I’ll touch on that topic later, as discussing the positives and negatives from Sunday should not be avoided. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

The offensive line continues to preclude the Falcons from fielding a competent offense. Sunday’s loss to the Ravens marked the third consecutive game where the inability to protect quarterback Matt Ryan prevented the Falcons from really accomplishing anything from an offensive standpoint.

The team continues to struggle to convert third downs. And while it’s easy to blame the offensive line, given that Ryan has seen the bulk of his pressure on third downs when opposing defenders can pin their ears back, it still is a bit baffling.

Receivers Source of Falcons Third-Down Issues, Not Line Play

Everyone knows that the 2013 Falcons had a terrible offensive line, but they still managed to convert a high number of third downs. The team finished fifth in third-down conversion percentage last season despite the erratic blocking. The Falcons have struggled with identity issues the past few years, but the one thing they have typically excelled in was their ability to keep the chains rolling. The team has finished in the top six among NFL teams in that category every year under Mike Smith, with 2009 being the lone exception when they still managed to rank 11th in the league.

This season in four of the Falcons’ five losses, the team has failed to convert at least a third of their third down attempts:

  • Against the Bengals, the Falcons converted three of 12 third downs or 25 percent.
  • Against the Giants, the Falcons converted two of 13 third downs or 15 percent.
  • Against the Bears, the Falcons converted four of 13 third downs or 31 percent.
  • Against the Ravens, the Falcons converted four of 15 third downs or 27 percent.

In all of 2013, the Falcons failed to convert at least 33 percent of their third downs in just three games: their season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints (27 percent), their Week 10 loss to the Seattle Seahawks (25 percent) and their Week 11 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14 percent).

Why and how did the Falcons lose their third-down magic in 2014? Well, the explanation is fairly easy. They lost their top two third-down targets in Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White.

Between 2008 and 2013, Gonzalez and White combined to catch 270 third downs on 421 targets. That amounts to be 45 and 44 percent of Ryan’s completions and attempts respectively, during that span. When Ryan targeted that pair over that span, the Falcons converted 56 percent of their third-down throws for first downs. Compare that to all other receivers, who only converted 38 percent of Ryan’s third-down passes.

Gonzalez is retired, while White has essentially fallen off a cliff as a go-to receiver. However, White did have his best performance to date on Sunday in Baltimore, catching nine passes for 100 yards and a touchdown. And two of those receptions did convert third downs, but White still was plagued by dropped passes and struggled to separate from former Falcons backup cornerback Dominique Franks. While the box score suggests that White played well, the tape will continue to indicate that he is a shell of the player he once was, particularly the guy that was so money in the past on third downs.

Prior to this season, White caught 63 percent and converted 53 percent of the 262 passes thrown at him on third downs and Ryan’s quarterback rating when targeting him on third downs was 98.1. This season, White has both caught and converted 44 percent of the third-down passes and Ryan’s quarterback rating when targeting him has dropped to 62.8.

Julio Jones continues to impress on third downs. From 2011 to 2013, Ryan’s passer rating was 115.1 when targeting Jones, who caught 56 percent of the 73 passes Ryan threw to him. This year, the numbers don’t appear to have slacked too much, as Ryan’s rating on passes Jones is 96.2, while the standout receiver has caught 55 percent of throws. However, Jones isn’t moving the chains quite as often as he did in the past. In his first three seasons in Atlanta, Jones converted on 45 percent of his targets. This year, that’s fallen to 36 percent.

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Harry Douglas is unlikely to bolster Falcons on third downs upon his return

Unfortunately, no one has stepped up and filled the void left by Gonzalez and created by White’s decline. Devin Hester has shown production, as Ryan’s passer rating on third-down throws to him is 137.5 and he’s caught 64 percent of the passes. He’s converted on 45 percent of his third-down targets, which is significantly better than other receivers.

For those thinking that Harry Douglas’ eventual return to the lineup will provide a significant boost to the Falcons third-down attack will probably be disappointed. From 2008 to 2013, Douglas caught 49.6 percent of his third-down targets for a total conversion rate of just 36 percent. Ryan’s rating when targeting Douglas was just 66.1.

But at this point, the Falcons are desperate to find any sort of hope that even a minor boost from Douglas will be a step in the right direction.

In that search for hope, there is one positive to take away from the Ravens loss. That positive centers on the Falcons pass rush looking competent on Sunday.

Massaquoi: A Bright Spot in Falcons Pass Rush?

Jonathan  Massaquoi made Ravens left tackle James Hurst look like the undrafted rookie that he is, something that I pointed out needed to happen in my preview of the game. Massaquoi was held without a sack, but recorded several quarterback hits, tackles for loss and pressures, while also drawing three holding calls from Hurst.

One of the frequent criticisms of former Falcons pass-rush maven John Abraham over the years was that he would shine against weak competition but fail to show up against premium competition. Contrary to popular opinion, that is often the case with all top pass rushers. They tend to pad their stats against the weakest competition. That’s what truly distinguishes them from lesser pass-rushers, their ability to go up against a backup-quality tackle and absolutely destroy him.

It’s why having a premium left tackle like Joe Thomas or Jason Peters is so valuable, because they can face such quality pass-rushers and effectively marginalize them no differently than an elite cover corner can against a No. 1 receiver.

I’d have to watch the All-22 before I’d be willing to definitively declare Hurst’s destruction at the hands of Massaquoi, but the initial impression is very positive. And it’s the second week in a row where he was able to take advantage of lesser competition, as he did a number on Bears right tackle Jordan Mills last week, who is many regard as the league’s worst starting right tackle.

That doesn’t put Massaquoi on the Abraham level’s, since Abe was still known to work over premier left tackles like Thomas and Jake Long from time to time. But it does solidify Massaquoi as the team’s top pass-rusher and deserving of being on the field on every passing down.

I still maintain that Massaquoi would be a backup on most playoff-caliber defenses, but that isn’t a bad thing. Pernell McPhee is a backup and situational rusher for the Ravens, but was able to make his presence known with a pair of sacks on Sunday. Typically playoff-caliber defenses have a pair of edge-rushers like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil or Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks to relegate good, but not great pass-rushers like Massaquoi and McPhee to backup roles.

It will be interesting to see how Massaquoi matches up next week against Detroit’s pair of tackles. Left tackle Riley Reiff is no star, but he certainly can be considered an above average left tackle. Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle is also at least considered to be competent. If Massaquoi impresses against either, it’ll go a long way to changing my opinion on whether Massaquoi is starting caliber.

Overall, the Falcons pass rush looked disruptive and that’s at least a step in the right direction.

But I’ve beaten around the bush enough already, it’s time to discuss Smith and Dimitroff and whether or not either will stick around beyond this season.

One-Sided Losses Put Falcons Among NFL’s Cellar

Sunday’s loss and all five of the Falcons losses have not helped Smith in any fashion. All five of the Falcons losses have been by double digits this season. That’s already matched the total set in 2013 for most losses by 10 points or more.

From 2008 to 2013 and including playoff games, the Falcons have lost a total of 17 games by 10 points or more, less than half of the 40 total losses under Smith in that span.  And most of those losses, 12 to be exact, came at the hands of teams that were playoff teams. Another two came at the hands of teams that finished the season with winning records. The three remaining losses were the team’s 2011 season-opener against the eventual 8-8 Chicago Bears, their 2012 late-season loss to the Carolina Panthers and last year’s Week 11 loss to the Buccaneers.

Obviously, there is still a lot of football to be played this year, but the idea that some of the teams the Falcons have already lost to will make the playoffs seems a bit of a stretch. The Giants, Bears and Vikings look to be on the outside in regards to the NFC playoff picture. The Bengals are in a bit of a slump but it’s likely that between them and the Ravens, at least one of them will wind up in the playoffs.

So it’s possible that the Falcons have lost handily to at least three teams that will be lucky to finish this season .500 or better. That’s the main reason why I don’t expect the Falcons to recover from this tailspin and save Smith’s job. Again, it remains mathematically plausible but the fact that the Falcons have struggled to be truly competitive in those losses against mid-tier competition is another indicator that this 2014 Falcons team isn’t very good.

It’s hard as things stand today to put them on a different level than some of the cellar-dwelling teams in the NFL like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Tennessee Titans. And while difficult for many to accept the Falcons fall from grace, it’s time to accept and live in that reality.

Last season, the Falcons were joined by the Houston Texans as a team with Super Bowl aspirations that fell far and fast to the bottom of the league. The simple explanation was that the Falcons fell because they were hit hard by injuries, while the Texans saw horrific quarterback play transform them into a turnover factory. Both teams were expected to bounce back once those two issues were rectified.

While the Texans haven’t seen significant gains in terms of their quarterback play under Ryan Fitzpatrick, they do at least look like a competent and competitive football team with a chance to get above .500 in tonight’s primetime matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The same cannot be said for the Falcons. While injuries on the offensive line and in the secondary have certainly hurt the team, it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest that the presences of Joe Hawley, Lamar Holmes and William Moore would somehow morph the team into a consistent winner.

Blaming injuries as the primary source of the Falcons’ current problems is just too easy and frankly lazy a case to make. Injuries happen in the NFL and can’t be held as an excuse, especially when the Falcons were extremely lucky prior to 2013 in avoiding them. If injuries are the cause of the team’s decline, then injuries are just as equally the cause of the team’s success prior to last season.

If a team doesn’t have the depth to be able to handle multiple injuries to key players, that is a problem and a sign that the team lacks talent. I’ve already argued that the inability of the team to add depth and quality players in recent drafts is much more problematic than the random occurrence of an injury.

I have been vocal with my criticism of the choices and decisions that Dimitroff has made in the personnel department over the years and will continue to be until I start to see improvement. But that being said, I don’t think he’s as likely to lose his job as Smith is.

I think there’s a real possibility that if the Falcons get blown out next week by the Lions, Smith may not be flying back from London as the Falcons head coach. Losing by two or so scores probably won’t prompt such a move, but a loss to the Lions by four or more scores might do the trick.

However, I doubt Arthur Blank is going to be as quick to pull the hook on Smith as many fans might hope. Firing a coach midseason doesn’t appear to accomplish a lot besides maybe eking out a few more wins. If any justification exists, it’s that Blank feels that winning four or five games down the stretch is feasible and that another coach would be more capable of accomplishing that goal.

Smith’s Past Success Could Keep Him in Atlanta For Awhile Longer

The other thing that Blank must consider is that while much of the fan base has turned against Smith, it’s doubtful that many outside observers have. And while keeping the constituents happy is a goal of Blank, outside perception remains highly relevant. Because outside perception is going to have a direct effect on Blank’s ability to hire Smith’s replacement.

While the Falcons have been on a skid since their NFC Championship Game appearance, it is still worth noting that it wasn’t that long again that the team was “ten yards from a Super Bowl.” And that colors outside perception that Smith isn’t necessarily a bad coach, rather is just coaching a bad team.

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Matt Ryan will be a big part of attracting Atlanta’s next head coach

Firing Smith midseason won’t help change that perception and could send off the vibe that Blank is a “meddler.” So I believe there is a decent chance that even if the Falcons continue to lose, Smith could make it until the end of the season or at least to a point where an 8-8 finish is mathematically impossible.

It won’t be extremely difficult to attract a coach to Atlanta simply due to the presences of Ryan and Jones on the roster. Many coaches dream of having a quarterback as good as Ryan. Jeff Fisher took the job in St. Louis over the one in Miami mainly due to the presence of quarterback Sam Bradford.

So there shouldn’t be a shortage of quality coaches willing to accept the job in Atlanta even if the outside perception believes that Smith got a raw deal. But it is interesting how the potential presence of Dimitroff will affect things.

Dimitroff Might Be Safer Than Many Assume

Compared to head coaches, general managers in the NFL tend to be teflon. As in the case of Rich McKay here in Atlanta, often times general managers will get an opportunity to hire two head coaches before they are shoved out the door.

Other examples include Mike Tannenbaum hiring both Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan during his tenure with the New York Jets, and Jeff Ireland hiring Tony Sparano and Joe Philbin during his time in Miami, and Tampa Bay’s Mark Dominik hiring Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano.

Generally speaking, one can say there is a two-coach limit with general managers. For that reason, I doubt that Dimitroff is dismissed at the end of this season. It’s possible, but would likely require the Falcons to go finish at 3-13 or worse, indicating that the team has regressed from last season. It would also likely need to be coupled with Blank targeting a prominent (and power-hungry) coach to take over the team.

That certainly is a possibility, particularly if Blank goes after someone like Jim Harbaugh, Mike Holmgren or Jon Gruden, i.e. coaches that would likely want complete (or majority) control atop of the organization.

I think it’s certainly plausible that Blank targets someone like that, but I also believe he is aware of the preferred dynamic within a franchise, which is to have a separation of powers between coach and general manager. But if the Falcons target someone like Rex Ryan or a hot, up-and-coming assistant, then it’s very likely that Dimitroff will survive.

The simple fact that Blank referred to the Falcons possessing “tremendous talent” last week is an indicator that he’s not as down as Dimitroff’s performance as myself and others are. For those reasons, it appears that Dimitroff might be safe for at least one more year.

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Aaron Freeman
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