Perhaps We’ve All Been Fooled

Trying to put a positive spin on what took place at Soldier Field last Sunday afternoon has proven to be a task too daunting to accomplish. In fact, it’s just downright impossible. The simple fact of the matter is that the Atlanta Falcons were a terrible football team on Sunday, and that is not a good thing considering the Philadelphia Eagles are heading to town.

I don’t know if you remember this or not, but the last two times the Falcons have been on national television at home, things have not gone well. Tony Gonzalez can talk all he wants about how people shouldn’t be writing this team off after one game, but the fact of the matter is this, when the lights are on, and it’s a good opponent on the other side of the line of scrimmage, this team has wilted in big moments against big time opposition.

People harp about the lack of national respect given to the Falcons. Well, when you lose at home on national television twice to close out your season, once in embarrassing fashion, and then open the following campaign with perhaps the worst performance in the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era (omitting the Eagles game in 2009 in which Chris Redman started at quarterback), you don’t get respect. You don’t deserve it.

Just how bad were they on Sunday? Well, let’s take a closer look.

For starters, no team in the NFL averaged fewer points per drive than the Falcons did. Thirteen drives resulted in ZERO offensive touchdowns, and just two field goals. That’s bad.

Remember, this is a team that over those two games against New Orleans and Green Bay on national television to end the 2010 season, Atlanta averaged a meager 204.5 yards per game in those two, amassing just three offensive touchdowns. One of those, it should be noted, came in garbage time against Green Bay after the team already trailed 42-14.

Three games against three contenders in the NFC and just three touchdowns have been scored. Yes, that’s a problem, a big problem.

The Falcons, with all the talk of being more explosive, were the only team on opening weekend to not score an offensive touchdown.

Mike Smith would have you believe that poor field position contributed greatly to his teams undoing. Well, Lovie Smith might want to argue that point, the Falcons averaged a better starting field position than the Bears did. They managed to score a few points.

Matt Ryan dropped back to pass 52 times on Sunday, yes, 52. The Falcons averaged a whopping 5.3 yards per drop back. That is an unacceptable number for a team who has boasted all off-season of how much more explosive they are going to be.

Sure, Ryan completed 66% of his passes. But when they’re two yards down the field to a running back standing still in the flat with no chance to make a play with the ball, it really doesn’t matter.

If you give me a .300 hitter who does nothing but hit singles, or give me a guy who hits .260 but puts up 40 doubles and 30 home runs, you can keep the guy batting .300.

The same thing with a quarterback. I’ll take a dip in completion percentage if it comes with more plays made down the field.

John Harbaugh told Joe Flacco before Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh that sometimes he needed to try to squeeze the ball in there, trust his receivers to make a play.

In other words, it’s the NFL, your wide receivers aren’t going to be running around wide open, unless of course you’re being covered by Falcons defensive backs. You’re going to have to fit the ball into some tight spaces and small windows. If you aren’t willing to try, you’re not going to be an explosive offense.

With great risk comes great reward. Matt Ryan needs to take more risks.

Perhaps it is actually the fault of the Falcons defense that Ryan doesn’t make big plays. In practice, against the Falcons secondary, Ryan is probably used to having his receivers run around with nobody near them. Perhaps when he takes the field on Sundays, he expects more of the same, and when it doesn’t happen, he takes too many sacks and checks down way too often.

Sure, the offensive line, particular Sam Baker, struggled to protect Ryan, but Ryan doesn’t do himself any favors in the pocket. He has a tendency to hold the ball too long, waiting too long for someone to get open, or not trusting himself to cut it lose. Not all sacks are the responsibility of the offensive line.

Of course, it wasn’t like the offensive was doing anything to warrant anyone rushing to their defense. Yes, Michael Turner hit the century mark, but that was courtesy of 53 yards coming on one carry.

Oh, who is Michael Turner, you ask? Yeah, it would be understandable if you’d forgotten a bit about him. It seems the Falcons have too.

Against Green Bay and against Chicago, Turner carried the ball for a TOTAL of 20 times. Since joining the Falcons, Turner, when healthy, only had one game in a Falcons uniform where he didn’t total at least 15 carries.

Until the last two games that is. For Turner, he’s had 23 games where he’s carried the ball 20 times or more, and yet, has only been handed the ball 20 times total in his last two.

In their last five games, dating back to last year, playoffs included, Turner has found the endzone just twice, carried the ball more than 17 times only once, and has failed to top the 100 yard mark.

I thought the running game was this team’s calling card and bread and butter. If so, there’s not a lot of evidence to support that’s working, or it’s even the case anymore.

One would think that if a team is abandoning the run they’re slinging the ball over the field and attacking down the field. It’s what Green Bay, and New England and New Orleans and Philadelphia do. And it stands to reason, if you’re not pounding other teams with the run, then you’re drying to beat them with the home run, right?

Not Atlanta.

And therein lies the really concerning part. Who is this football team? What is their identity? Do they know? You could easily argue that they don’t.

People were quick to point out that the Falcons offense isn’t really the big problem, that it’s the defense. These are people who are trying to hard not to say anything negative about the franchise quarterback.

I don’t have the access to the film the coaches see, nor do I know what the plays called in the huddle are, nor do I have the ability to see down the field what Matt Ryan sees. So I can’t say if it’s the play calling, Ryan being gun-shy, or the coaches discouraging balls being thrown down the field, or a combination of them all. What I can see though is an offense that’s becoming increasingly anemic, and instills little confidence that it’s truly the offense of a Super Bowl contender.

Atlanta’s defense won’t be confused with Baltimore’s any time soon. However, it’s a good enough unit for this team to win the Super Bowl with an offense that can score some points. The problem is, right now, the offense is not Super Bowl caliber.

All this time Falcons fans, and NFL pundits, experts and analysts all thought the defense was what was keeping this team from taking that next to step to championship caliber.

Maybe, just maybe we’ve all been fooled. Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s the offense after all that’s keeping a Lombardi Trophy from resting up at Flowery Branch.

Perhaps we’ve all been trying to put a band-aid on the wrong wound, and unfortunately, the other one is festering to a point we might not be able to heal it in time.

Sunday night would be a good time for it to start healing, but I just can’t see any reason to actually expect anything to change. If we aren’t going to throw the ball down the field and let guys like Roddy White and Julio Jones go make plays, then Michael Turner needs to be getting the ball 25 times.

Because whatever it is they’re doing right now doesn’t do the number one job of an offense, it doesn’t put the ball in the endzone, at all.

People say you can’t panic after week one, and they’re right. It is just one game. However, the offensive woes of these Falcons are not just a one game blip. These shortcomings have been present for longer than that, its only recently though that they’ve come to light in the manner that they are now.

So no, the panic button isn’t being pushed because of the loss to Chicago. But the finger is on the button because of a recurring theme with this offense that’s beginning to advance from trend, to being the cold hard truth of what this team is.

As fans, we’d be well served to recognize this, and perhaps temper expectations a bit. Does this team have the talent and pieces to be special? It absolutely does. But it’s getting more and more difficult to believe that it will.

They can go a long way to re-instilling that belief on Sunday night. However, if it’s more of the same against the Eagles on national television this weekend, Peter King might really be wishing he could have that Super Bowl pick back. This will be a team who will be lucky to make it a fourth straight winning season.

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