Atlanta Falcons Takeaways From Week 9 – November 3, 2014

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The end is near for Mike Smith

On a Sunday where I wasn’t compelled to watch the Atlanta Falcons, I found myself free from stress.

I could sit back, relax and watch the ups and downs of football games without having the emotional investment in which teams wins or loses. My rooting interest when it comes to non-Falcons games falls primarily along the line of my picks.

But not watching the Falcons gave me the ability to look at the team a little differently, by comparing them against what I saw from the other teams yesterday.

For the early games, much of my focus was on the matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. What stood out to me is that both of those franchises are in the midst of quarterback controversies. With the Buccaneers, the team isn’t sure if Mike Glennon or Josh McCown is going to be the guy. McCown struggled in three games and as a team, the Bucs have really struggled to find the end zone this season.

Cleveland drafted Johnny Manziel in the first round of this past May’s draft, and it’s been a countdown to when he is made the starter. Hoyer has led the Browns to a 5-3 record this season and put the Browns in the mix for a playoff berth. But he had two interceptions against the Buccaneers yesterday, and despite the win, things are inching closer to the day when the hook is pulled and Manziel gets his opportunity.

Watching such a game made me especially appreciative of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

Ryan has kept the Falcons out of quarterback purgatory, which means that there’s reason to be optimistic that a quick turnaround is possible for the Falcons after head coach Mike Smith is dismissed.

As I discussed last week, it’s inevitable that Smith is firedbefore the calendar year of 2014 is up. “Black Monday” as it’s often referred, is on December 29 this year.

That means that Smith has no more than 56 days left on his job. Not unless he can pull off no less than a miracle in the second half of this season.

Technically, it’s possible that the Falcons get their act together next weekend coming off their bye. There certainly are a few pieces available that can make this team a lot more competitive.

It’s why many are critical of Smith. A team that features Ryan at quarterback and Julio Jones at wide receiver, should not be struggling to move the ball and score as much as the Falcons have over the past month.

A year ago, the lull in the offensive output coincided with the loss of Jones to a season-ending foot injury. In the first five games of 2013, the Falcons averaged 24.4 points per game. Over the next five, that figure dropped by roughly a touchdown to 18.4 points per game.

This year, with a healthy center and right tackle in Joe Hawley and Lamar Holmes, the Falcons averaged 32.8 points during their first four games. In their four since their injuries, that has dropped to less than half with an offense scoring 15.3 points per game. Even if you exclude the 56-point effort against the Buccaneers in Week 3 that skews the former figure up, it’s 25.0 points per game in the other three contests. That still represents a drop of nearly 10 points.

In 2013, the Falcons figured that they could effectively replace Jones with the wide receivers already on the roster. They added assistant coach Terry Robiskie’s son, Brian, to the roster. With Jones gone for the season, and fellow receiver Roddy White sidelined for three more games due to a hamstring injury, the Falcons offense stagnated. Harry Douglas was the de facto No. 1 receiver outside of tight end Tony Gonzalez. The rest of the receiver corps including Robiskie, Drew Davis, Darius Johnson and Kevin Cone failed to step up.

Fast forward to 2014, and the Falcons have faced a similar situation along the offensive line. With Hawley and to a lesser extent Holmes out of the lineup, the Falcons have struggled to compete in the trenches the past few weeks. Things seemed to look more promising this past week against the Detroit Lions. There were still too many breakdowns and it ultimately limited the Falcons from being able to add to their 21-0 halftime lead with any second-half points. But the Falcons went up against the league’s most fearsome pass rush with their third options at center and right tackle in James Stone and Ryan Schraeder, respectively, and held their own for some time.

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Jake Matthews

The Falcons’ initial bets to replace Hawley and Holmes were Peter Konz and Gabe Carimi, and they simply did not work. Perhaps Stone and Schraeder will be enough of an upgrade that the Falcons can potentially salvage this season.

With a pair of undrafted rookies in the lineup, nobody should expect the Falcons offensive line to play well moving forward particularly if rookie Jake Matthews doesn’t improve his play. Matthews has struggled the past four games, much of it seeming to stem from aggravating an ankle injury midway through the Week 5 loss to the New York Giants. Matthews played well in the first half, but things completely broke down in the second half. The same thing happened the following week against the Chicago Bears, where defensive end Jared Allen realized that he could simply bull-rush Matthews every snap in the second half of the game. Matthews, with a bad ankle was powerless to plant and anchor against Allen’s power, and Ryan was pressured on a large number of pass plays.

The extra week to rest during the bye could allow Matthews the necessary time to heal somewhat and get back to playing at the level he started the season at. Matthews wasn’t dominating, but he was at least playing at a competent level. He held his own against to start the year, and it’s something that is worth keeping an eye on for the remainder of the season.

Right now, the Falcons insistence on asking Matthews to gut through the injury might wind up having a negative effect on his confidence. A similar thing happened to Sam Baker in 2009. Baker started that season fairly well, but then suffered an ankle injury and saw his production decline thereafter. Baker was questionable with an ankle injury on each of the Falcons’ injury reports during seven of the the final ten weeks of the 2009 season. Two of the ones where he was not questionable, his injury kept him out of the game completely.

Prior to suffering that ankle injury against the Dallas Cowboys that season, Baker had earned a +3.7 overall grade from premium website Pro Football Focus. Afterwards, his grade was -5.1 during the final seven games.

Pro Football Focus had placed a -1.9 grade on Matthews during his first three contests. Since then, it’s at -28.4. Matthews is now sitting at the bottom of that site’s offensive tackle rankings. Following his injury-plagued 2009, Baker continued to be ineffective in 2010 and 2011. The Falcons cannot afford to have Matthews go the same route if they are going to finally start to build a good offensive line around Ryan.

Yet Matthews is not the only one that Pro Football Focus looks negatively upon.

Tight end Levine Toilolo, defensive end Kroy Biermann, along with linebackers Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow are also at or near the bottom of their respective positional rankings according to Pro Football Focus’ grading system. While I’m often quick to point out the flaws in people putting too much stock in that site’s grades, they are all instances where it’s hard to argue with their assessments.

All five players have struggled and it’s not helping the Falcons win games. If Smith has any chance to salvage his job, he needs all five players to step up and perform at a higher level.

If not, then someone else needs to be allowed to do the job.

With Smith’s job on the line, one has to wonder why the Falcons have been reluctant to make such moves. In 2013, Konz started nine games at center before the Falcons finally pulled the plug. This year, a season-ending injury to Konz prompted the team to make a change at center. Who knows if or when the Falcons would have moved on if not for that injury.

The inability to develop players is an oft-used criticism of Smith, and it does seem to be true in that regard. With their recent decisions in regards to their depth at key positions like wide receiver and center, the Falcons have bet on their ability to get players ready if called upon.

It’s often termed the “next man up” mentality. Yet, more often than not in recent years, that next man has been anything but up to the task.

That was the case in 2013 when the team signed Robiskie. That has been the case this year with the team’s insistence on keeping Konz around.

If you’ve read my game reviews over the past year, you’re probably familiar with my criticisms of Konz. My complaints this year are no different than my complaints a year ago. Konz is not physical enough. In a sport where “violent hands” are prized in the trenches, Konz eases into all of his blocks. Konz’s lack of athleticism also shows when he’s asked to make blocks in space. Blocking in space is something the Falcons blocking scheme installed by new assistants Mike Tice and Wade Harman this year has put an emphasis on.

I had this criticism of Konz a year ago when I compared his play at right guard at the end of the year to that of Harland Gunn. I had this same criticism of Konz this past summer during his preseason performances at center.

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Seattle moved on from John Moffitt

This was clear on tape, yet the Falcons kept Konz on the roster. Why? Compare the Falcons front office with that of the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks are an organization that isn’t afraid to admit it was wrong about a player and move on.

The Seahawks had a very similar situation to the Falcons with their own former Wisconsin offensive lineman in John Moffitt. Moffitt was a third-round pick of the Seahawks in 2011. But he struggled in nine starts at right guard that year before injuries sidelined him. He came back in 2012 and didn’t fare much better in six starts. During the summer of 2013, his third in Seattle, the Seahawks attempted to trade Moffitt twice. The first trade with the Browns didn’t go through because Moffitt didn’t agree to take a pay cut. He was shipped to Denver the next day. Moffitt then retired from football two months later.

Moffitt’s unhappiness with the game likely was the cause of his underwhelming performance with the Seahawks. Who’s to say if Konz is going through similar issues. But regardless, the Falcons should have been unhappy with him and willing to go the route of “tough love” and moved on this past summer.

They did not, and their offense suffered for it. Perhaps James Stone can provide a boost in the coming weeks. It’s not a great bet, but Stone fits the Falcons blocking scheme better than Konz at least. Stone lacks the powerful and violent hands you prefer in a center, but he’s at least a good enough athlete that can hit his second-level and downfield blocks occasionally. Stone has the athleticism to play in the NFL, although whether he possesses the requisite strength and toughness remains to be seen.

But the Seahawks’ loyalty is to what is best for the team. And if that means dumping Moffitt after three seasons then so be it. If that means giving up on wide receiver Percy Harvin after less than two years, then so be it. That’s the sort of attitude a winning organization needs to have.

It’s tough to defend the job that Smith has done. But at the same time, he’s not alone in prompting the problems that currently plague this team.

The Falcons have insisted that they could coach up the next guy. This is exactly what the team insisted would happen with safety Kemal Ishmael this past summer. Yet, if the proof is in the pudding, the Falcons just signed a veteran in Charles Godfrey this past week to bolster that position. The fact that Ishmael struggled in deep coverage for three consecutive games must have had everything to do with that move. After all, the Falcons could have signed a veteran safety prior to training camp but insisted that Ishmael was “ready.”

But yet the team continues to believe that a player that had below average speed, range and coverage abilities coming out of Central Florida would not struggle in the NFL. How can Smith be expected to develop those things?

So while I don’t want to defend Smith and suggest that he hasn’t failed in some capacity as coach, it does appear that in several cases he was set up to fail.

Why would anybody think that Brian Robiskie would be an adequate replacement for Julio Jones? On one hand you have one of the most singular talents in the NFL at wide receiver and on the other, you have a marginal guy that can barely make the rosters of receiver-hungry teams like Cleveland and Detroit. Which is which?

Jones is a rare talent. So, it’s not to suggest that the Falcons should have a second player of his exact ilk on the roster. But at least have someone that sort of mimics his role in the offense. Someone that can get vertical and stretch a defense.

The Seahawks don’t have another player like Percy Harvin. But at least players like Doug Baldwin and Paul Richardson are in the same zip code.

The Falcons inability to develop reserve receivers to fill the shoes of Jones and Gonzalez the past two years is arguably a microcosm of the overall problems that plague the team.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff inherited the likes of White at wide receiver upon his arrival in Atlanta. He essentially replaced him by acquiring Jones in 2011. Dimitroff deserves plenty of credit for adding a tight end like Gonzalez in 2009. But failed to acquire someone that could replace him when he decided to hang it up. The Falcons were fully aware that Gonzalez wasn’t going to play forever in Atlanta, yet still waited four years before making any investment in trying to find his heir apparent.

That player is of course Toilolo, who has struggled in the starting lineup this year at tight end. But this wasn’t something that snuck up on the Falcons again. They just had to watch Toilolo’s performance this summer and know that he was likely to struggle. Yet the team once again bet on their ability to develop him despite being a less than ideal fit. Coming out of Stanford, Toilolo didn’t have the tools that made him the ideal option to replace for Gonzalez. That was something I stated in my scouting report of him from 2013. So is it any surprise he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations in 2014?

It’s a pattern that has repeated itself too often with the Falcons recently. While the Falcons are certainly going to make a coaching change at the end of the year, it makes me wonder if that will be enough. If the Falcons simply hope that their next coach is going to be able to turn square pegs into round ones, then they are probably setting everyone up for further disappointment.

Instead, the team might want to start considering adding round pegs to fit into those round holes. They haven’t done enough of that lately, and thus all the stress they’ve caused me.

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Aaron Freeman
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