The NFL season finally arrived.
And for most, it was a dud. Unless you were an Eagles fan, because well, dud, ugly or not, you are sitting at 1-0.
For a Falcons fan, there is frustration and anger. Not with the defense (though people are bummed about the loss of Keanu Neal for the season). But with the offense.
Even when the Falcons put out mediocre/average football squads over the years before they became a football team in the top half of the league on a consistent basis, the one constant was always the offense. From the run-and-shoot days of Jerry Glanville to the Jamal Anderson Dirty Birds time, through Michael Vick with Warrick Dunn, etc and through Matt Ryan with Roddy White and others, the offense was the cog of this team and you had hoped the defense would be at least on par to keep the team competitive for a Playoff.
Are those days done?
The Falcons defense, even without Keanu Neal, have playmakers around, from Deion Jones, Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and quality players of Takk McKinley, DeVondre Campbell, and Robert Alford really give Atlanta something they haven’t had in really ever: a strong quality defense and one of a championship level. You saw it last year in the playoffs, shutting down Jared Goff and the Rams and even the Eagles struggled to score points off them (as opposed to Minnesota and New England, where they just ran those guys ragged). So the defense is not the issue nor was it the issue Thursday (they did give up two TD’s in the 2nd half in part because they were gassed).
The Eagles loss last year may have put more of a sour taste into Falcons fans mouths than the actual Super Bowl loss to New England the year before. Largely because they were right on the doorstep late and had chance after chance. But poor play-calling, and some befuddling plays happened which took out Atlanta from the playoffs not to mention it had been a recurring issue all season long: red zone offense.
The fall guy has been offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. And public enemy #1 for most Falcons fans. You have an NFL MVP in Matt Ryan. You have a strong backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. You have Julio Jones. You have a quality #2 receiver in Mohamed Sanu. You drafted Calvin Ridley in the off-season. High hopes were placed on tight end Austin Hooper this year. You have an embarrassment of riches on that offense. As the local sports radio station in Atlanta says: “you have a Ferrari but you have it sitting in the driveway.” And people have blamed it on Sark’s play-calling all last season and the beginning of this year.
I am reminded in 2015 that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was also ridiculed for his play-calling and fans wanted him gone (myself included). But in 2016, everything clicked perfectly as Shanahan had pieces all over at his disposal. And he used them PERFECTLY. The end result was an MVP for Ryan, a record setting Falcons offense who could score touchdowns seemingly at will, the first division title in 4 years, and the first Super Bowl in 18 years and probably one or two plays away from their first Lombardi Trophy.
Shanahan left and went to San Francisco and the Falcons hired Sarkisian. A guy who had success in college with USC as coordinator back then. And people were like “well, he won’t change much and it will take a lot to screw up this offense.”
Well………………………2017 happened and a major drop-off arrived on the Falcons offense.
Of course the talk of the time from the playoff loss last year in Philadelphia to the opening season in Philadelphia was a simple one: improve the red zone offense. No major personnel moves were made on the offensive side save drafting Ridley and signing Brandon Fusco on the line. And we heard Dan Quinn say, “we will continue to work on the red zone offense and we will add new wrinkles to the line” on what seemingly was a broken record bit.
The same nonsense of the Falcons happened Thursday. They were able to get good field position, drive, and then get to the red zone. A few little movements on pre-snap on the first drive, while they moved the ball smoothly and for a second, maybe Atlanta would have figured things out. Ryan looked sharp on his first drive and then comes the Red Zone. And, yep, failure to break the plane. What was absolutely dumbfounding was that on that series, the guy who pretty much got the Falcons there, Julio Jones, was nowhere to be found as he wasn’t on the field. And Atlanta opted to run Freeman to the corner on 4th and goal at the 1 for the punch-in.
And the end result? Sark didn’t get it.
Atlanta’s defense stopped Philly 3 and out and got the ball back in favorable territory, drove, and got to the red zone again with goal to go. Again, no touchdown. Pretty much after 1, everything showed the game was in Atlanta’s favor, but the score only showed 3-0 Falcons.
After that it seemed like the entire wind was taken out of the offense’s sails, and notably Matt Ryan’s. The biggest issue I saw was the lack of punching it in for the Falcons looked like it ate Ryan up. He pressed, he overthought stuff, he was missing targets all over, he was overly locked in on Julio and not getting Sanu, Ridley, or Hooper involved. But even a rookie Matt Ryan wouldn’t have done that and utilized all his weapons. And some of his throws looked like a first year, third string quarterback at times. I was at a loss of words for some of the throws he was trying to make. So to me, my concern of Matt Ryan never winning a Super Bowl as the Falcons quarterback, grew a lot Thursday night. He is a guy, when something isn’t going right, presses, forces, and has that mental block of just sticking to one guy all the time.
And how the final drive was handled showed that. He gets into the red zone and is constantly trying to find Julio when he had other options and favorable options. Philadelphia, analysts, and any football fan knew where he was going every time.
It seemed like Ryan’s attitude was “I’m going to find Julio and I don’t care if my other guys are open.” In other words, it was far too predictable. The entire game, Atlanta did not once make Philadelphia really think about what to do on that side of the ball. And that is not good when you have an excellent Eagles defense you’re going against. Ryan needs to trust his other guys. That’s how he got an MVP in 2016.
We can attribute the offensive line having a rough night too, giving up 4 sacks. Some though I consider it more of coverage sacks as Ryan held on to the ball too long and such, but the offensive line, where Pro Football Focus ranked the Falcons line last year as #1 (how???) has got to play better. And the running game (which wasn’t too horrid Thursday-18 carries for 74 yards with Freeman averaging 6 per carry) was abandoned. Of course, my argument was one of that had Freeman been used right, he could have had a huge game instead of thinking he could get out to the corner and gain big yards.
Of course the Falcons players, notably Ryan, played it cool saying “it is a long season and we will work it out.” Here’s my problem with that: the same nonsense that happened all last year with Atlanta’s offense came back in Week 1, and wasn’t the idea was to correct all of that during the off-season? Something has to give in Atlanta with the Falcons offense.
What should the Falcons do?
Fire Sarkisian? It’s becoming like the Falcons offensive coordinator would have been better suited as a coordinator in a different football era and not this one where the passing game needs to succeed needs to keep the defense honest and on their heels a little bit. Sarkisian’s play-calling is atrocious. Mix it up with some creativity. Heck, Philadelphia showed that Thursday to get themselves out of a rut. It’s getting to that point of “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” mode with him. I honestly believe he doesn’t “get it” with how to run an NFL offense, and one that has this many weapons like the Falcons have. Julio is a huge weapon to have, but he is not the ONLY weapon and that’s what it felt like Thursday.
Utilize the run game better? This may be more on Dan Quinn unless he gave total power to Sarkisian. Again, it wasn’t like the Falcons were just horrid with running the ball, but when this team, notably Matt Ryan, is succeeding it is when the running game is in the mix. Abandoning the running game like Atlanta did was poor. Having Ryan to throw 43 passes in a game where he was not accurate at all was a poorly coached game. I get adjustments are always needed to be made, but some of these adjustments were the wrong adjustments. Involve Freeman. Involve Coleman.
Utilize the other weapons. It was dumbfounding on how Ryan just zeroed in on Julio all game. If you want to know why he’s not on the same level as Brady, Rodgers, or Brees, it is how those guys use all their weapons to a T. Heck, the MVP Matt Ryan did that. The young Matt Ryan did that when he had the crew of Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Michael Jenkins, and Tony Gonzalez with Jason Selling and Michael Turner out of the backfield. The amazement is you are seeing this from an 11-year veteran and something you would see out of a rookie. That is the bothersome bit.
The Falcons issues on offense aren’t permanent which is great to know. But if they want to have a great shot at the Super Bowl this year in their own home, they need to do things, notably with Sarkisian and Ryan. Sarkisian’s offense is far too predictable, even if Ryan utilizes all his weapons. He needs to be more creative than the mess we saw Thursday. And Ryan has to trust other guys on the field and not just Julio. But again, he may have that mental block (which it is, it is very scary to have for a veteran like him) where he is reminded of last year of all the dropped passes by Julio, Sanu, and Hooper. But he needs to have a Teflon brain in how he does things. How many times does Tom Brady or Drew Brees make a mistake and lets it eat at them? That’s why they are Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But with Ryan, something needs to give and he needs to keep playing like what he is capable of playing, because right now, his stock is going to continue to fall.
And if that is the case, so will the Falcons chances for a Super Bowl when he remains on the roster.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat