Jonathan Bachman/Reuters
Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Take These Broken Wings

The Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders, but they’re 2-8 and last in the NFC South after winning the division by six games last season. Where did it all go wrong? And who’s to blame?

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

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.


Coach Mike Smith can’t believe his eyes. After going 13-3 last season and advancing to the NFC title game, the Falcons are 2-8 going into Thursday night’s game against the Saints. Their +120 point differential in 2012 has turned into -78 this season.

 

Week 1
23-17 loss at New Orleans

 

Week 2
31-24 win over St. Louis

 

Week 3
27-23 loss at Miami

 

Week 4
30-23 loss to New England

 

Week 5
30-28 loss to the Jets

 

Week 6
Bye

 

Week 7
31-23 win over Tampa Bay

 

Week 8
27-13 loss at Arizona

 

Week 9
34-10 loss at Carolina

 

Week 10
33-10 loss to Seattle

 

Week 11
41-28 loss at Tampa Bay


 Photo by Bob Leverone/AP

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.

GraphicA

GraphicB

GraphicC

GraphicD

GraphicE

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.

caption tk (Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI)
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (56) and defensive end Kroy Biermann (71) suffered, respectively, a foot and Achilles injury, and the defense crumbled without its two leaders. The unit ranked fifth in points allowed in 2012 (18.7 per game) but is now 29th, giving up 29.2 points per game. (Todd Kirkland/Icon SMI)

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.

19 comments
msegreto
msegreto

Smoke and mirrors article.  Many teams have injuries but the reality is that this coaching staff and quarterback are good but not great.  

OK
OK

Where did it go wrong?

Easy. The White Quarterback, Ryan, choked. The White Quarterback failed the Falcons.

And the NFL's Chief PR Man won't type word one about it per Massah Goodell's orders.

mkebere1
mkebere1

This is a good read and the injuries have played a major role. I also think the O-line has to take a lot of the blame. I think they need to bring in a new O-line and D-line coach with fresh eyes. Maybe this is as far as the current coaching staff can take the line. Maybe we need someone to come in and give these guys some different coaching. I think Matt is rushing his throws because he knows that he has no time to make his reads, set his feet and get rid of the ball before a O-lineman is barreling down on him backwards. Same with the D-line. Those are the 2 major achilles heels of this team...protection and pass rush. If they can fix those things, they can be a true Super Bowl contender.

ahrcshaw
ahrcshaw

A good story line, but what you are really saying is that without 3 players that makes the team unable to function.  I thought there were 53 Pros on a team.   Seems to me the coaches and GM are not doing too well.  It makes sense that they would not do as well as originally planed, but to totally bomb out is not a good image for the rest of the players or the coaching staff.

David240
David240

Great read, As a loyal Atlanta fan not only has the this season been a nightmare of disappointment to say the least, and anger is warranted for sure!! But the sheer hate and sense of abandonment by our very own fans is more embarrassing than the teams situation...

First of all, following the Vick/Petrino implosion, Matt Ryan, Mike Smith and company quickly pulled off a recovery that is under appreciated:

'08 11-5, '09 9-7, '10 13-3, '11 10-6, '12 13-3, now this string of seasons doesnt occur by luck or chance so please give me a break with the "QB and Coach need to go hate rave"

gary41
gary41

Good article.  Atlanta played a bit over their head last year and under this year.  When Jones went out mid season, Douglas stepped up & Gonzalez has played well.  There is some intrinsic weakness in both lines.  What can you say---the Niner's & Patriots have had similar problems with receivers for different reasons, both doing better.  That Tampa Bay loss was a watershed type disaster & the schedule ahead is not real pretty......    

CoJoGrant
CoJoGrant

The biggest problem is Dimitroff has been a poor drafter.  He reached on Sam Baker in the first round, and then severely overpaid him this offseason, and Baker is average at best.


Perry Jerry has been a terrible DT.


Weatherspoon has energy and athleticism but his injury history is hard to overlook.


Add in terrible FA signings like Dunta Robinson, Ray Edwards, and Steven Jackson...

ghehsv98
ghehsv98

Let's not overlook the Falcons' O-Line.  Even if everyone was healthy, the lack of efficiency from the O-Line would still have made this season a disappointment. Also, some of the old warhorses, such as Abraham and Turner, are now gone with no one adequate to replace them. Everything that could go wrong in personnel went wrong for the Falcons this season.  The Falcons started showing glaring holes in preseason, losing all four preseason games - an ill omen.  Oh well, this season's in the crapper - on to 2014!

Jazzaloha
Jazzaloha

Injuries definitely hurt this team, and it does explain the decline in offense and mounting losses. However, I'm not sure if this answers where things went wrong for the Falcons. Here are a few speculative thoughts: 

1. The Falcons seemed to give a lot away for Julio Jones. They also went after Steven Jackson in the off season. This suggests to me that they cared about building an unstoppable offense, more than building a team that was solid on both sides of the ball. If this is true, then I believe this is bigger problem than the injuries they've sustained. In my view, last year's team couldn't go far because of their defense, particularly in the playoffs. I got the same impression at the start of this season. Even if the offense ran on all cylinders, I think the defense would have severely limited their ability to go deep in the playoffs. 

In the my opinion, the best teams in the league--Seattle, New Orleans--have balance, and they can beat you in a variety of ways. A team like Atlanta, at their best, has a potent offense with a so-so defense. It would be very difficult to be more balanced teams like the 'Hawks and Saints, in my view. 

2. If we argue that the offense needed to be better, I have to look at the coaching. I'm thinking specifically of the tendency of the  Falcon offense to play poorly in the second half of a games. This was certainly true in last year's playoff games, and I recall it happening early in the season. If this is true (and maybe it's not),  then I tend to think coaching, not the players, is more of the problem. 

JamesDeaux
JamesDeaux

It isn't just injuries. We're seeing the fallout of five years of largely failed drafts from Thomas Dimitroff. Besides Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the vast majority of Dimitroff's draft picks have been underwhelming or outright failures.

BryanSuggs
BryanSuggs

and the Saints weren't lucky last week on the Bree's fumble? Anyway, we have no game changer on defense. We have some quality guys, but we need a Clowney or a Barr to step in and pressure the QB. We also need to draft a OG in the second and DT in the 3rd. Also sign a vet DE and OT for depth and to push the starters. 

nola_d
nola_d

"He had the most fourth-quarter comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (seven) in the NFL"

I think this is a telling statistic.  This team was not very good last year, just very lucky.  This year they have not had the ball bounce their way as much.

David240
David240

Somebody has some racial issues...

David240
David240

Now, on to the players and lack of play;

No team has ever showcased the importance of the O-line more than Atlanta this season. Their O-line has been suspect for far too long, its just been sugar-coated by a tremendous receiving corp and a QB that has made due with being under duress almost all of his NFL career thus far :/ Please!! Fix this O-line!! it should be top priority this offseason!!

Speaking of O-line, Steven Jackson... dont hate on him, how can anyone run the ball when the line looks like a row of bowling pins? He might as well be alone on the field against the opposing team. St. Louis Rams O-line is far superior to Atlanta's :/

By the way, for gods sake at least attempt to use Jacquizz Rodgers like the Saints use Darren Sproles!! Furthermore, Antone Smith needs more playing time to see what he can do.

JeremyMcAllister
JeremyMcAllister

@JamesDeaux This situation reminds me of the Seahawks circa 2009. Slippery slope at this point. My Seahawks unfortunately hit rock bottom and had to have a complete and total rebuild to get where they are today, 


forrest_atl
forrest_atl

@nola_d Besides, Matt Ryan's been among the league leaders in late comebacks every year of his career. You don't get by on flukes for that long. He's legitimately good at leading those drives.

forrest_atl
forrest_atl

@nola_d They did have some luck go their way last  year, but you don't go 13-3 on sheer luck alone. They were still a very good team, at least on offense. The defense was always pretty sketchy.

David240
David240

Lastly, this inconsistent and unorthodox defense;

They cant stop the run. Period. Why? Its mind-boggling to think these guys are so terrible that they made unknown Bucs RB Bobby Rainey look like an NFL legend.

This defense is actually not as bad as many think (but needs its share of tweaking)

I know Im not the only one that has noticed that when this defense starts a game with big plays, stops or turnovers not only do they look good but they keep it going, and start looking really really good.

This Atlanta D is not scary, or even well respected for that matter, but this group thrives of being underestimated and feeds on momentum. When their out there forcing multiple fumbles and picking off elite QBs five times in a game they got that attitude about them. Problem is there is no momentum to feed off of this season, we need someone out there that can get it jump started. Paul Worrilow is out there playing like his life is on the line and nobody knew who he was a few months ago. They need more surprise deals like him to build confidence in consistency.

The worst aspect of this season is how our beloved Tony Gonzalez will end his career (sigh) well he's out there, and out there to play so lets get that beast Levine Toilolo out there with him on some 2 TE sets?

Newsletter