The Atlanta Falcons continued their four-game slide with a 23-20 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week Eight. The team’s record slips to 6-2 and now they are winless in two games within the NFC South division.
While the Falcons still have a firm grasp of their destiny as far as the 2015 season goes, their play over the past month in comparison to that of the first quarter of the season are practically night and day.
The struggles seem to be centered around the offense, although the defense is far from immune from criticism. They’ve had too many breakdowns in critical situations in recent weeks.
Against the Buccaneers, the Falcons gave up a quick score late in the second half which allowed their opponent to push their narrow lead to two scores heading into halftime. The defense then allowed the Bucs to convert three of four third-downs on a grueling, seven-minute drive to open up overtime, leading to the Bucs go-ahead field goal.
That first Bucs score came off a Falcons turnover, as quarterback Matt Ryan made a horrible decision to force the ball into triple coverage to tight end Jacob Tamme, allowing for Buccaneers middle linebacker Kwon Alexander to make an easy interception. That gifted the Bucs with a short field, beginning their eventual scoring drive at the 50-yard line.
That was not the Falcons’ first turnover of the game that gave the Bucs a short field. In the first quarter wide receiver Julio Jones was stripped by Alexander, who returned it 20 yards to start the Bucs off at the Falcons 21-yard line.
But then the Falcons defense did their job, holding the Bucs to just three points. However in retrospect, they probably were aided by quarterback Jameis Winston completely overthrowing a pair of open receivers on second and third down with the Bucs in prime scoring position.
The Falcons defense caught no such break at the end of the second quarter. Winston nearly threw an interception on 3rd-and-14 on that drive, throwing inside when wide receiver Mike Evans broke outside on a deep out, but Evans’ lengthy 6’5″ frame was able to adjust to the poorly thrown ball and snatch it before Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant could break on the throw. That converted the 3rd-and-long on a 21-yard play, which set up the eventual scoring play.
On that play, Winston made a perfect pass to tight end Cameron Brate, who got behind rookie safety Robenson Therezie on a 28-yard scoring pass to put the Bucs up 13-3 with 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter. At that point, all 13 of the Bucs points came on drives following Falcons turnovers.
That trend continued into the second half, as the next points the Bucs put on the scoreboard came on a rushing touchdown by Winston on their second possession of the third quarter after they recovered another Falcons fumble. That fumble came when Ryan botched a handoff to running back Devonta Freeman.
On the ensuing Buccaneers possession, Winston once again attacked Trufant down the field, who was flagged twice for defensive pass interference on consecutive plays, gifting the Bucs 47 yards in field position.
Those plays are worth mentioning not to disparage Trufant but to illustrate something that the Bucs did that the Falcons did not: they attacked down the field.
Falcons’ Lack of Deep Ball Held Back Offense
Using the official game book’s “deep” designation in its play-by-play charting, which typically indicates any throw that traveled more than 15 yards in the air, the Buccaneers attempted a total of eight deep passes against the Falcons secondary. Winston managed to complete three of them for 69 yards, but the Bucs were also able to draw a pair of pass inteference penalties including the aforementioned one against Trufant for a total of 55 yards. So essentially, the Bucs were able to generate 124 yards on eight deep pass plays, roughly an average of 15.5 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, the official game book says that the Falcons attempted only one deep pass. It happened to be a 21-yard deep out to Jones on the team’s opening drive. Thereafter, the Falcons focused on their short passing game to try and move the ball, which ultimately doomed them.
Once the team fell two scores behind at halftime, the ability to dial up big plays down the field was necessary to try and get back into the game. While the Falcons did eventually tie up the game and send it into overtime, their three late scoring drives in the second half totaled 14:37 of possession over the final 21 minutes.
While I cannot fault Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith for trying to win the game by going for it on 4th-and-inches at his own 40-yard line with two minutes to go, hindsight tells us that the Falcons really needed that short field after the stop to get that quick, game-tying score by Jones. Their two previous scoring drives required them to burn 5:51 and 7:11 off the clock to go the length of the field to score.
It should be no surprise to anyone that read my piece earlier in the week about the Falcons’ inability to properly dial up the big play that I’m harping on this lack of explosiveness in the Buccaneers game. While the Falcons have only dropped two of their last four games, their inert offensive attack has forced them to play down to the wire to a quartet of underwhelming opponents. Even in their two wins against the Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans they barely eked out victories.
I wrote for the umpteenth time about the correlation between scoring points and generating explosive plays by looking at how often teams score on drives that include plays of 20 or more yards versus those that do not. I noted that the Falcons have too often turned the ball over on drives where they were able to generate big plays in recent games. That trend continued against the Buccaneers, where the team’s two plays of 20 or more yards came on drives that ended with the team settling for a field goal and Ryan’s aforementioned interception.
It just illustrates that a team that wants to be known for their ability to finish games is not finishing drives on the rare times they are able to get the highly beneficial big play.
Red Zone Struggles and Turnovers Crippling to Falcons
I wrote a month ago about how the Falcons were atop the league in red-zone conversion rate as they converted 80 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns through the first four games. Since then, the team has converted just 47 percent of their red-zone trips, with those failures often due to turnovers.
The Falcons have had at least one turnover in the red zone in each of the past four games, with a total of eight turnovers coming with the ball in scoring position, i.e. when they were 35 yards or closer to the goal line. They had three such plays against the Buccaneers on Sunday.
Based off the numbers at Sporting Charts, the average NFL team scores about 3.1 points off each turnover over the past five seasons. With the Falcons sporting a plus-six turnover margin over the first four games, that ability to create turnovers helped them tremendously in what wound up being three fairly closely contested wins against the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.
Since then the Falcons are minus-eight in turnover margin and the script has been flipped against them twice in four close games against the Redskins, Saints, Titans and Buccaneers. The Falcons clearly are going to have to find ways of protecting the ball in the upcoming weeks.
It might be easy to dismiss many of the turnovers on “flukey” plays with bad snaps and botched handoffs, but they’ve occurred multiple times in recent weeks which sort of negates the notion of a fluke.
The bad throws from Ryan can be eliminated, which seem to be more controllable by the players and coaching staff. But the last thing the Falcons need to do is to get more conservative offensively.
As noted earlier this week, Ryan is already dead last in the NFL in terms of the percentage of passes that are deep throws according to Pro Football Focus. The Falcons aren’t going to break out of their big-play slump by dialing back the offense and relying even more on the dink-and-dunk passing attack.
This song was played too many times before in the final two years under former head coach Mike Smith, particularly in 2013. Then the team’s excuse for dialing back the offense likely centered on the poor pass protection and trying their best to limit the amount of hits on Ryan.
But it also was caused by the team’s lack of viable vertical options at wide receiver once Jones went down with an injury five games into the year. As someone that often focused on the team’s inability to dial up deep shots back then, it’s very obvious to me to see the team going through the same issues once more in 2015.
Ryan and Jones’ Box Scores Are Misleading
While Sunday’s box score indicates that both Ryan and Jones had strong games, the scoreboard says otherwise. Ryan completed 82 percent of his passes, but as noted earlier, it’s much easier to be efficient when you’re never taking any real shots down the field. It’s a perfect reflection of what occurred in 2013 when Ryan ranked fourth in the league with a completion rate of 67.4 percent, but finished 37th and last among qualifiers with 10.3 yards per completion.
While it’s not always obvious in offensive play-calling, NFL teams certainly understand that the fastest way to give up points is by giving up big plays. Defenses guard against it and a team like the Bucs doesn’t mind giving up a bunch of short completions especially when they are winning in the second half. That leads to prolonged drives and require teams to have to convert multiple third downs and even the best teams in the league still convert less than half of their third-down attempts over the course of a season. Simply put, it’s a losing strategy.
People are going to look at Jones’ stat line and see that he caught a team-leading 12 passes for 162 yards and proclaim that he is back and close to full health. Guess again. Outside the aforementioned 21-yard play, none of Jones’ receptions were down the field. Also take away the 35-yard gain that ended in his being stripped by Alexander, and Jones had 10 catches for 106 yards. To better illustrate how averaging 10.6 yards per reception isn’t exactly beneficial to an offense, I should note that Eric Weems’ career average in seven seasons in Atlanta is 10.6 yards per reception.
Jones had five receptions for 99 yards in the first quarter. Thereafter none of his next six receptions generated more than nine yards from scrimmage. Jones’ seventh and final catch was a 19-yard gain in overtime, but it came on a six-yard out pattern that saw cornerback Mike Jenkins miss a tackle and Jones did a good job keeping his feet to get the yards after the catch.
Even though first glance at the box score might suggest otherwise, the Buccaneers can certainly say they did an effective job containing Jones despite allowing a dozen receptions. As mentioned earlier this week, what makes Jones a special receiver is not only his own ability to generate big plays, but also to open up big-play opportunities for teammates. He did not do that on Sunday because the Falcons were too reliant on the short stuff.
Until the Falcons are able to dial up more big plays to Jones and other receivers, I’m not sure how they’re going to break out of this recent offensive funk. Unless the defense can somehow compensate by generating a multitude of turnovers on their own, this slide might continue.
Fortunately the Falcons are playing a weak San Francisco 49ers team next week and as it did against the Redskins and Titans, things might break their way even if they don’t break out of this slump. But as the season continues to progress, these recent performances are simply not going to cut it if/when the competition starts to get better.