What happened to the Falcons? It was widely presumed entering the season that they would be spearheading the playoff race in late November, and yet, they’re 2-8 after getting steamrolled by the lowly Buccaneers in Week 11. This was a team that narrowly lost the NFC championship to the 49ers last season and then upgraded its roster in key spots over the offseason. But look at them now: a last-place team in the same division they won by six games a year ago. What chance do they have Thursday night against the first-place Saints? Where did it all go wrong?
Injuries have hurt Atlanta in the worst way. Wideout Roddy White began the season severely hobbled by a high ankle sprain. Just when he started to look moderately healthy, Julio Jones—arguably the best receiver in the league not nicknamed Megatron—broke the three-year-old screw that was in his surgically repaired right foot. Shortly after Jones went on injured reserve, White hurt a hamstring.
An offense built around two superstar receivers was suddenly devoid of any. Making matters worse, running back Steven Jackson (one of the key offseason acquisitions) also pulled a hamstring in Week 2 that sidelined him for six weeks. And left tackle Sam Baker missed five games with a knee problem before going on IR in mid-November.
The injuries, especially at wide receiver, transformed Atlanta’s offense—the unit ranked 7th in points and 8th in yards last season, but is now, respectively, 22nd and 14th. The premise might seem simple, but it’s worth emphasizing: When a star player goes down, the team doesn’t just lose a major weapon, it also loses the threat of that weapon. For a creative schemer like offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the latter can hurt more than the former.
In 2012, his first season in Atlanta, Koetter crafted exceptional route combinations that leveraged White and Jones down the field. Defenses were compelled to keep safeties back deep, meaning their coverages were plainer and easier for quarterback Matt Ryan to decipher. As a result, Ryan led the NFL with a career-high 68.6% completion rate and threw for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns, both career bests. He had the most fourth-quarter comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (seven) in the NFL, and the Falcons were second only to the Patriots in scoring efficiency, putting points on the board on 44% of their drives.
But now most of Atlanta’s perimeter passing game has disappeared. Defenses believe they can beat fill-in receivers Harry Douglas (who usually plays the slot) and Drew Davis with man-to-man coverage outside. More importantly, defenses have come to realize that Ryan believes this, too. (More on this in a bit.) That’s why defensive coordinators are concentrating their coverages between the numbers, creating a compressed field for Ryan to negotiate.
The shorter the field, the more pronounced the compression. This is a big reason why the Falcons have dropped from 10th in red zone offense in 2012 to 24th this season. They used to dominate in the red zone with two tactics: wide receiver screens and throws to tight end Tony Gonzalez, who put off retirement for one more year believing the Falcons were still Super Bowl contenders. (When the field wasn’t compressed last season, Gonzalez had his most productive season in four years, catching 93 balls for 930 yards and eight TDs, and was an All-Pro for the sixth time in his career.) This season, because cornerbacks aren’t compelled to play with a cushion outside, there’s less space for receivers and blockers to execute screens. Gonzalez, even at 37, can still make contested catches, but not when he’s getting jammed by two guys off the line as he did against the Patriots and Jets.
For the most part, Ryan has played admirably well given the circumstances. But lately that’s started to change. The sixth-year pro doesn’t have outstanding raw tools. His arm strength is stellar when he has room to step into throws. His athleticism is acceptable, assuming he doesn’t have to improvise outside the pocket too much. But having to compensate for the offense’s unexpected deficiencies, his screws are starting to loosen on the cerebral side of his game. Ryan has been throwing more balls into traffic and it’s a trend that could snowball given his history of being susceptible to trick coverages (particularly in the middle of the field). Defenses will try to bait him.
More telling are the throws Ryan is not making. With young right tackle Lamar Holmes forced to bring his slow feet and inconsistent mechanics over to Sam Baker’s void on the left side, Ryan no longer has trustworthy protection on his blind side. Or even on his front side, considering that Holmes’s replacement, Jeremy Trueblood, is iffy at best in pass protection.
Quarterbacks play with a different mindset when they don’t trust their receivers and linemen. Ryan is no exception.
Injuries have also stricken the Falcons on the other side of the ball. Their biggest problem on defense is their inability to generate consistent pressure with a four-man rush. This was a known concern heading into the season, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith figured they could manufacture pressure through blitzes and pre-snap disguise as long as rookie corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford held up in coverage. Those corners have indeed held up, but Dimitroff and Smith couldn’t have foreseen linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot) and defensive end Kroy Biermann (Achilles) going down.
Weatherspoon and Biermann aren’t star-caliber players like White and Jones. After all, Weatherspoon was part of a linebacker corps that floundered in coverage down the stretch last year, and Biermann was inconsistent as an edge-rusher. But both defenders have unique strengths that made them load-bearing pillars in Atlanta’s scheme.
For Weatherspoon, it was his speed and agility to dominate in the flats. Maybe the former first-round pick couldn’t always cover tight ends man-to-man, but he could cover ridiculous amounts of ground playing zone. That was critical for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s zone blitzes and pre-snap disguises. Equally as critical was Biermann’s versatility; he could line up anywhere up front, including linebacker. He could also do almost anything after the snap, even drop back from the defensive line to assume free safety duties in certain coverage rotations. Just being able to get from the line to that spot was enough to give offenses pause.
The Falcons have tried to fill Biermann’s role with other athletic defensive ends—Jonathan Massaquoi, most notably—but it hasn’t been as effective. The same goes for Weatherspoon’s role. His replacement, undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu, runs well but hasn’t yet developed an incisive football acumen. (Bartu will play less now that Weatherspoon has returned for a classic case of “too little too late.”) With key pieces missing up front, more pressure has been placed on high-risk, high-reward safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. They haven’t responded particularly well. Both are at their best when they can fly around, not when they have to read and react with sound discipline and fundamentals.
So what’s next for this club?
After another six meaningless regular season games, there will be an offseason filled with more roster tweaks and refocused workouts. Some believe Mike Smith and his staff will be fired. But that would be ludicrous. Smith’s .644 winning percentage is seventh best among active coaches. His Falcons are tied for third in victories since he took over in 2008, and this will be the first time during his tenure that they fail to finish above .500. A perfect storm of injuries is to blame, and nothing else.