Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Week 8 – October 27, 2014

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Mike Smith is counting down the days to his exit

Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith is doomed.

We are all now just counting down the days until he is fired. It could come fairly soon if the Falcons continue to lose in embarrassing fashion, as they did yesterday against the Detroit Lions.

The Falcons blew a 21-0 halftime lead against the Lions. Hindsight tells us that Smith’s decision to sit on that lead rather than trying to get kicker Matt Bryant in position for a long field goal just before the half arguably cost the team the game. Had they been up 24-0, perhaps the Falcons defense would have found some way to stop the Lions offense in the final minutes of the game if they had to drive 100 yards instead of 63 yards.

It was simply an epic collapse, too similar to some more recent memories of the 2012 playoffs.

This 2014 Falcons team has found away to mix its ineptitude reminiscent of 2013 with its 2012 success. Thus far in 2014, Falcons have just been a bad, uncompetitive football team. Instead in a game broadcast in the morning hours stateside from London, this week the Falcons fan base was privy to watch what nearly happened in that playoff game against the Seahawks, but with much more to play for on the line.

There were rumors that if that game had not gone the Falcons way, the team’s owner Arthur Blank would have fired Smith then. I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of that report, but it certainly seemed like a strong possibility.

The biggest knock on Smith in the past was his inability to win in January. He was highly successful during the regular season, but his success was only adding fuel to the fire that he couldn’t win the “big game.” That all changed against the Seahawks, but barely. And probably only because Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons had torn his ACL the week before.

While the 2014 Falcons offensive line is still mining new depths for poor play, that 2012 group was fairly awful as well. Had Clemons played in that game, he was likely to beat the erratic Tyson Clabo enough times to prevent the Falcons from generating all those points in the first half. The vaunted Seahawks defense just didn’t look like the typical version we had grown accustomed to seeing that season. They were very good then because they had a killer pass rush. Without Clemons, they lost a lot of that prolific rush, and they simply weren’t the same defense.

And so the top-ranked Lions defense has gone down a similar path, a unit headlined by their formidable front. However, the Falcons were able to move the ball early on them by attacking the middle of that Lions defense. On the team’s opening drive, Roddy White and Levine Toilolo converted on big plays over the middle to set up the Falcons’ first score. They also had a very healthy dose of Steven Jackson, who was successful on his first three rushes. Devonta Freeman did a nice job on a swing pass to finish the drive with his first career touchdown.

Falcons Offense Thrived Early Against Top Lions Defense

On their second possession, Julio Jones made an excellent effort after the catch on Ryan’s first pass. The Falcons also took two shots into the end zone, one of which was an off throw by Ryan, which would not be the first time that would happen in the game. The second was a shot to White in the end zone, where he nearly made the grab if not for the early contact from Darius Slay.

Steven Jackson also got two early carries on the drive to help set up that first deep pass to Jones. It’s a lot easier to set up those deep shots if the opposing defense’s safeties have to at least respect the running game somewhat.

The Falcons attacked downfield and didn’t keep forcing Jones to run outside routes. Opposing defenses are already scheming towards Jones, by giving safety help over the top. What the Falcons don’t understand is that if they continue to force Jones to run routes outside the numbers, the sideline is also acting like a buffer. It’s essentially another defender that indicates that Jones is actually getting triple-teamed most snaps based on how the Falcons are employing him.

Many are upset at Jones for dropping a screen pass at the end of the game on a critical third down that the Falcons failed to convert. That failure gave the Lions the ball back with less than two minutes to play and of course the Falcons defense completely crumbled as they consistently have under Smith over the years.

The Lions started slow, but their defense got stops in the second half. They didn’t allow the Falcons to extend their three-score halftime lead. How? Because the Lions were better able to control the line of scrimmage in the second half.

Talented Picks Built Lions Top-Rated Defensive Line

All those pieces they invested into their defensive line were a big reason why the Lions won the game. There are three first-round picks along that Lions front: Ndamukong Suh, Ezekiel Ansah and Nick Fairley. Fairley went down with an injury early in the game, but both Ansah and Suh made impact plays in the end.

Ansah blew past Falcons first-round pick Jake Matthews to sack and strip Ryan to kill the Falcons first fourth-quarter possession.

Suh blew through the A-gap to draw the hold from James Stone on the penultimate play on the Falcon’s final drive of the game. Suh’s penetration completely disrupted that run to Jackson, a one-yard loss doomed from the snap.

Both Ansah and Suh were top five picks, of course they can beat a Falcons offensive line that is featuring two undrafted players as starters. Fairley was drafted with the 13th overall pick in 2011, and his absence probably only allowed the Falcons blockers to compete for as long as they did. Not only is there a talent deficiency along their front line, the Falcons have never put that sort of talent on the field along the defensive line either.

The Lions picked so high because they were a bad football team and have been for a very long time. The Falcons never had the opportunity to reap such premium talent because they never picked that high. They were victims of their own success.

But that isn’t necessarily true as the Falcons did have chances to get premium players in the past. They just never pulled the trigger on those potential moves. In 2010, they passed on local player and defensive tackle Geno Atkins three times. They selected defensive tackle Corey Peters and offensive linemen Mike Johnson and Joe Hawley instead with those picks.

In 2011, the Falcons could have been content to take the best defensive player left available with their late first-round selection. That could have potentially been Muhammad Wilkerson, who was selected 30th overall by the New York Jets, three spots behind where the Falcons were slotted to pick. Instead, the Falcons went all-in on a wide receiver in Jones and the rest is history. As part of that trade, they also sent away a second-round pick that could have been used on current Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston.

Hindsight of course is 20/20. It wouldn’t be so bad if the Falcons had taken good players instead. Peters has developed into one of the defense’s better players since 2013, but his first three seasons were plagued with league-average play. But given that Peters is one of the few Falcons defenders that I still enjoy watching on the All-22 each week, he’s basically teflon to me. Any beefs with his play prior to 2013 were squashed.

Hawley was in a similar boat, hardly contributing to bad lines in 2011 and 2012, before producing last season and early this year before being sidelined with a season-ending injury.

But who else did the Falcons get instead? Very little in the forms of fellow offensive linemen Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes alongside linebacker Akeem Dent. The rest was traded away as part of the move to get Jones.

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Jones among a few bright spots in Atlanta

Jones Trade Worth It In Retrospect

For those who still aren’t clear on my stance on that trade, I don’t think any one should regret the trade to get Jones. I firmly believe that without Jones on the team, there is no chance that the Falcons would have beaten the Seahawks in 2012 to get to the NFC Championship game. Jones essentially saved Smith’s job back in January 2013. Jones didn’t have a huge game against the Seahawks, but his presence on the field really opened things up for the rest of the offense. The Seahawks defense had to focus on Jones because he was a “special” talent, just as Suh and Ansah are for the Lions currently.

To even be “ten yards from the Super Bowl” was an amazing accomplishment on its own, despite the eventual disappointment. That alone made the Jones trade “worth it.”

But it still doesn’t change the fact that the trade clearly is negatively impacting this team today. A major reason why the Falcons defense got gashed by the Lions late is because it has no pass rush. And that lack of pass rush correlates very well with what little the team has invested in that unit over the years.

Falcons Missed Opportunities to Build Defensive Front

They drafted Peria Jerry in the first-round in 2009, a significant investment. But the team knew by 2011 that Jerry wasn’t going to live up to expectations here in Atlanta. I described Jerry as a “non-entity” towards the end of that season and thought the team needed to try and upgrade over him the following offseason.

That attempt came in the form of a seventh-round draft pick: Travian Robertson. Unlike Ansah and Suh who were top five selections in their respective drafts, Robertson was actually a bottom five pick in his. Not exactly a player that was likely destined to set the world on fire. Another opportunity to invest in their defensive line missed by this current Falcons regime.

Yet despite such initial low expectations, Robertson has actually performed above expectations in three years in Atlanta. He was the defensive line’s most dominant player throughout this past summer’s training camp and preseason. His reward for that however was a trip to the practice squad. Meanwhile, second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman is instead rewarded for his erratic and inconsistent play with a steady role in the team’s rotation.

For a team desperate for stronger play in the trenches, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to sit a more productive player like Robertson. But they have to get Hageman snaps or it’s going to be one more player in the trenches that doesn’t develop. Hageman should certainly have a role in the rotation, but not at the expense of a player that was light years better while working alongside him against the exact same competition in preseason games. It seems like the Falcons organization continues to mismanage things.

It’s why change is coming. Very little is going right for the Falcons and it will certainly cost Smith his job.

Blank will seek to cleanse the stink of mismanagement by injecting some new blood and a new atmosphere into the team with a new head coach. It’s likely going to be a well-known coach because Blank needs to buy back as much credibility from the fanbase as he can with the looming expenses of brand new stadium.

I know between now and whenever the Falcons ultimately decide to part ways with Smith, people will ask who I think will or should take over the team next.

Next Falcons Head Coach is a Mystery

I don’t really have a clue, and won’t pretend to. Back in 2007, I wanted the team to hire San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was subsequently hired to coach the Miami Dolphins. The team hired Bobby Petrino instead. While Petrino’s tenure was about as ugly as things get, Cameron was just as bad in Miami. The 2007 Dolphins won just one game, and Cameron was fired. And his stint afterwards as offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens did not bolster his falling reputation.

I was also initially skeptical of Mike Smith when he was hired in 2008. But Smith led to team to success quickly with a faster-than-expected turnaround. After that, I resolved that I’m simply clueless about who is the next big thing as a coach. Thus, my opinion on who the next Falcons should be is neither enlightening, nor should be desired.

Under Smith, instead of rebuilding over the long haul under a green Matt Ryan, the Falcons were already in playoffs and vying for a Super Bowl with a quarterback that was better than any other quarterback in NFL history during his first five seasons.

Again, it’s easy to understand why the team felt the need to trade so much for Jones. They weren’t that far away. But the problem was that besides Jones, the team failed to acquire any other quality players to add to the pieces already there.

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This could mark the last time Ndamukong Suh hits Matt Ryan

The Falcons got beat on Sunday by a Lions team that had built a team the complete opposite of the Falcons. It wasn’t a team that preached and talked about being tough and physical, but lived and embodied it. Suh has earned a reputation as a player that is as mean as they come.

Suh Could Be on Falcons Radar in 2015

So much so, that one could easily imagine the Falcons making a play for him this offseason to try and revamp their image as being “soft” if given the opportunity. That certainly wouldn’t mesh with the typical approach of the Falcons regime under Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

But it’s possible that Dimitroff could be shown the door alongside Smith. And if that’s the case, then Blank might be willing to bring in a different G.M. to run the team that would be willing to make that “bold” move for a player like Suh.

Given the recent extension of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, whichever team adds Suh will be spending a pretty penny. McCoy signed a seven-year deal worth nearly $100 million earlier this week. Suh is likely going to make just as much if he hits the open market next March. It will be similar to the Falcons’ opportunity to sign defensive end Mario Williams in 2012. Once more, the Falcons failed to take advantage of that opportunity.

Could they reverse course in 2015? Adding a top-level player like Suh would certainly earn back some respect from the fan base. The idea would be that the Falcons could employ a pair of $100 million guys to anchor either side of the ball: Ryan on offense and Suh on defense.

But again, that doesn’t sound like a Dimitroff move. Perhaps the Falcons stringent filter on character has had more to do with Blank though. After the events of 2007 that prompted Petrino’s cowardly exit, there’s no way that Blank would be willing to suffer such embarrassment again, prompting the team to target players that would be least likely to draw negative headlines off the field.

But that’s not Suh since his problems aren’t off the field, but rather on it. He’s a great player, but that same greatness has been mired at times by overaggressive and ugly play.

Is Blank willing to accept a prominent face of the franchise that might not always draw positive headlines? At this point, I would imagine he would be more willing than he was six years ago. Blanks needs the Falcons to win, and soon. Otherwise, it’s going to be tougher to sell his stadium to a notoriously fickle fan base.

Blank should be also willing to open up his wallet to bring in top-level players like Suh because essentially he can get reimbursed with all the revenue the new stadium generates from sales of personal seat licenses. Not to mention the lucrative broadcasting deals that make owning an NFL franchise a money-making machine, Blank doesn’t have too much to worry about from a long-term financial standpoint.

Unlike some NFL owners, Blank doesn’t appear to be purely in it to rake in the massive profits. He also wants to be the guy that brings a winner to Atlanta, a city that does indeed deserve one. The Falcons nearly reached the mountaintop under Smith, but it has all come rolling down the other side in the way of an dream-crushing avalanche the past two seasons.

Bulding that winner starts with the dismissal of Smith. It could come in a matter of days, or it could wait until the end of the season, but it’s definitely coming.

While the Falcons still have a mathematical chance at making the playoffs if they can win the division, nothing this team has done over the past five weeks indicates they are poised for that sort of turnaround.

They play two NFC South opponents in Tampa Bay and Carolina coming out of their bye next week. Winning both those games could transform their playoff hopes from an ethereal dream to actually gaining some substance. But it’s simply not going to happen given the way the team is currently playing.

If the Falcons were going to climb out of this slump, they should have done it by now. Getting the time off during the bye week isn’t likely to fix the problems. It will give some key players like Jones and Jake Matthews some time to heal up a bit. Certainly, the grind of the season isn’t helping them improve their play as of late. The Falcons will also still be relying on undrafted players like Stone, Ryan Schraeder, Paul Worrilow to shoulder significant loads down the stretch. Instead of first-round talent like the Lions have, the Falcons’ best hopes for a pass rush are embodied in a pair of late-round picks.

But again, if the Falcons were going to do something about that like trade for an edge-rusher, it should have happened by now. Holding onto that hope that the Falcons somehow find a way is no different than the same hope that was vaporized in the final minutes on Sunday against the Lions. A Mike Smith-led Falcons team is just destined for let downs.

We’ll have to just wait and see if the next head coach’s teams change that.

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Aaron Freeman
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