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Takeaways from Week 9

November 4th, 2013
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How Much of the Falcons struggles are on Matt Ryan?

It’s the halfway mark of the season and the Falcons sit at 2-6. The 2013 season is clearly upside down, as I projected before the season that they would be 6-2 at this point.

The Falcons were competitive on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers through three and a half quarters, but things got away from them in the final nine minutes. The final 34-10 score was not quite an accurate reflection of the game in its entirety.

This was definitely a winnable game for the Falcons. Through the first 51 minutes of the game, there was only 2 minutes where the Panthers held anything more than a one-score lead. But the Falcons offense could not really get anything going throughout the game. They had a total of six possessions where they could have taken a lead and failed to do so.

Three of those drives were three-and-outs, two ended on Matt Ryan interceptions, and one resulted in a field goal that should have been a touchdown but for a holding call on Garrett Reynolds negating a Steven Jackson touchdown run.

Throw in the multiple first downs that the Falcons gave up on defense on penalties and 3rd-and-longs, and the Falcons seemed to keep getting in their own way.

The Falcons aren’t a well-coached team right now as they are playing with little passion and fire. They look like a bad team as opposed to a good team that is playing badly.

There still is a little semblance of hope in the forms of the expected returns of wide receiver Roddy White and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon in the near future. Hopefully White comes back next week against Seattle, and Weatherspoon the following week against Tampa Bay.

But it will probably be too little, too late. Not in the sense that the Falcons are looking for the playoffs. Technically, the Falcons are still in it, but I gave up on that pipe dream after last week’s loss.

Rather in the sense that White and Spoon are so pivotal to this team, that they look so lackluster without them. I don’t want to make light of either players’ contributions, but the Falcons shouldn’t be lacking that much in leadership.

And it seems like they are lacking in that area, both on the field, and more importantly on the sideline and in the front office.

The “Brian Robiskie Experiment” as I will now term it, appears to be an abysmal failure. The Falcons receivers failed to win against Carolina, as Matt Ryan continued to check the ball down throughout the game. Drew Davis and Darius Johnson combined for four targets. Ryan continually targeted Tony Gonzalez on third downs or checked it down to the backs for most of the game. While Harry Douglas made a pair of nice catches for a combined 75 yards, he clearly is not a No. 1 receiver despite his production the past few weeks because he was a non-factor outside those two plays. You have to have guys separate from coverage and give Ryan some targets to throw to on these passing third downs.

I call it the Brian Robiskie Experiment because when Julio Jones went down for the year, the Falcons opted to go with their young group of receivers. They signed Brian Robiskie to be a potential developmental option behind Davis, Johnson, and Kevin Cone.

And while things looked promising with a big day from Harry Douglas against the Buccaneers, the Falcons passing attack has been abysmal the past two weeks. Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANYA), a stat which correlates the most with winning football games besides points scored, has reflected just how bad the Falcons passing attack has been.

In the past two games, Matt Ryan’s ANYA has been 2.16. That’s worst than the 2.31 mark JaMarcus Russell put up in 2009 for the year, or the 2.98 mark Jimmy Clausen had the following year.

Obviously, putting up that sort of number for an entire season is vastly different than doing so for two consecutive games. But I’m just trying to illustrate just how bad the Falcons passing has been.

And there’s really no excuse. The blocking hasn’t been poor and we know that Matt Ryan is a much better quarterback than either Russell or Clausen. So by process of elimination, it must fall largely at the feet of the wide receivers.

I understand it’s a process, and that these young receivers weren’t going to hit the ground running. But it’s extremely frustrating because it seemed like this was definitely coming down the pipe when the Falcons failed to acquire a speed threat. This is why you make the Josh Gordon trade. But even if you opt against Gordon in particular, you have to find someone that can do some of the things that Gordon can do. Robiskie has been inactive the past two games, and in retrospect it seems obvious that the Falcons would have been better off signing a proven veteran. That speaks to the lack of leadership in the front office.

The other frustrating aspect is that because we know Ryan is so much better than those other quarterbacks, it should never have gotten this bad. But he has not played well these past two weeks, as he’s clearly pressing. I understand that he has zero confidence in his receivers, but unlike Tom Brady, these guys aren’t completely new to him. Davis, Cone, Douglas have been here for three or more years.

There’s only so many excuses you can make when he’s turning the ball over like he is, and as I showed last week was tentative at times to make the big play down the field.

Even if he starts to play well with White’s return to the lineup, it still is going to raise a lot of questions about how good a quarterback he really is. Questions that I did not really have two weeks ago. So if there is one successful aspect of the Brian Robiskie Experiment, it has sapped me of quite a bit of confidence in this team’s franchise quarterback.

Elsewhere in the NFL…

I didn’t watch as much football on Sunday as I normally, so I won’t comment too much on the rest of the games. But since we’re at the midpoint in the season, it’s time to take stock on the first half of the 2013 season.

There is always talk of the new teams that make the playoffs each year, and the stat is always that five new teams reach the playoffs every year, and that has been the streak for seventeen consecutive years.

If the playoffs were to begin today, there would be exactly five new teams in the playoffs that weren’t there last year: Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys, and Carolina Panthers.

That means that the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Washington Redskins, and Minnesota Vikings are the five teams that aren’t repeating. Houston and Baltimore still have a shot since the Jets are by no means a secure bet. And Washington is within striking distance of Dallas to win the NFC East, although they need to pick it up in the second half much like they did last year. But we can confidently write off the Falcons and Vikings as having no shot at making the playoffs.

And it looks like I was way off on a number of my preseason predictions. The Chiefs and Oakland Raiders have already exceeded my projected win totals for both this year. The Jets and Panthers have matched theirs. And teams like the Clevelan Browns, Tennessee Titans, San Diego Chargers, and Arizona Cardinals are within a game or two of matching their totals.

That’s balanced out by the number of teams that I predicted to be good that are bad right now. Between the five teams: Falcons, Texans, New York Giants, Vikings, and Buccaneers have seven combined wins. All five of them I projected to win at least 8 games this year. Technically, the Giants, Vikings, and Falcons are still mathematically able to match their projected win totals, although it would take them going 7-1 or 8-0 in the second half.

What also has been interesting about this season is how many surprise players have emerged to have really good years. Players like Philip Rivers, Jordan Cameron, Larry Warford, Julius Thomas, Robert Quinn, Justin Houston, Jason Hatcher, Dontari Poe, Kiko Alonso, Alterraun Verner, and Marcus Cooper are all playing at high levels and many will wind up being Pro Bowlers this year.

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