After coming into the season with Super Bowl expectations, the Falcons have struggled to a 2-3 start and currently sit third in the NFC South. What has been ailing the Dirty Birds?
Green Bay possesses a talented football team. There's no doubt about that. What makes Sunday night's loss so much more frustrating, however, is knowing that the Falcons have the talent to match any team in the league.
Outside of losing Harvey Dahl and Michael Koenen to free agency, the team has only made additions to the roster that went 13-3 last year. The coaching staff also remains unchanged. Guys like Harry Douglas and Peria Jerry are presumably healthy after running on half a tank for most of last year.
So what gives? It doesn't make much sense for a team that is remarkably similar to the elite one of just a year ago to barely scrape out a 2-3 start on the season. Or does it? Could it be that what the Falcons didn't change remains cause for concern in 2011? Join me as I open up a six pack of warm, Natty Light-flavored answers:
1- The Falcons offense is no more explosive than last year
They are currently averaging a whole 5.2 yards per play, good for 25th in the league. Not much better than the 5.0 average from last year. The offense also has only managed 13 passing plays of 20+ yards, which is tied for 26th in the NFL. Especially noticeable has been the second-half offense, which can only be described as "non-existent."
What's even more alarming, however, is the following statistic: on pass attempts of 20 yards or more, Matt Ryan is two-for-fourteen. The Falcons are simply not a deep threat, and when the defense knows you can't stretch the secondary, all they have to do is load eight guys in the box to shut down Michael Turner.
I hate to keep pointing back to the same guy, but if you're Mike Mularkey at what point to you head back to the drawing board and say "this won't work for all four quarters?" I already admitted his first-half game plan for the Packers was excellent, as was Brian VanGorder's. But football games are sixty minutes, not thirty. More on that later. For now, we'll tackle the other major criticism of last year's team, which still remains...
2- The Falcons' lack of a consistent pass rush
Prior to notching four sacks against Green Bay, which featured two backups logging most of the time at offensive tackle, the Falcons had only five through the first quarter of the season. The other underlying issue easily noticed on Sunday night was that the pressure generated by the defensive line was not consistent. Too many times I saw Kroy Biermann get manhandled by Marshall Newhouse.
Yes, John Abraham was injured. But on several plays, Aaron Rodgers was allowed five, six, seven seconds to stand in the pocket. Inevitably someone would be open. We thought acquiring Ray Edwards would fix this. Thus far, it really hasn't. The defense played a much better game than the clunker, but I'm not done with them yet. That's because...
3- Poor tackling is still allowing big plays on defense
We saw it in the Bears loss, and we saw it again on Sunday night. Thomas DeCoud failed to wrap up James Jones, and Jones took it 70 yards to the house on a one-play scoring drive. Later in the game, Dunta Robinson would simply throw himself at a Packers receiver hoping to, I don't know, knock him over, maybe? Robinson would watch as he dashed down the sideline for 15+ extra yards. The Packers would score on that drive as well.
I see the same players week after week fail to wrap up, most notably Dunta and DeCoud. Through five games, the defense is allowing an average of 6.1 yards per play, eight in the league, which has been made possible by poor tackling. Playoff-caliber teams don't make these kinds of fundamental mistakes. The Packers certainly didn't. That and...
4- Committing penalties at inopportune times
They have gone from being one of the most disciplined teams in the league last season to committing the eighth-most penalties on offense this year. Last night, for instance, a 47-yard pickup on a pass to Harry Douglas was called back because of a holding call against Tyson Clabo.
Last night was fairly penalty-free in comparison to some other games, but the fact that a couple were stupid (i.e.Roddy White unsportsmanlike conduct) and a couple came at bad times put the Falcons at a disadvantage at several key moments. These penalties also directly affect...
5- Special teams and poor field position
By no means would I ever put any blame on Matt Bryant. He is god of kicking, in my opinion. Everyone else, however, can now take their seat on the hot stove. After making his first Pro Bowl last season, Eric Weems has managed to average only 21.6 yards per kick return. That ranks second-worst among return men with at least eight run-backs.
And then there's the punting. Oh yes, that thing we have to do when our offense doesn't score. Matt Bosher is averaging 36.4 yards per punt, also second-worst among fellow punters. It may not seem like a huge deal, but when Green Bay is consistently starting their drives on the wrong side of midfield, you have to show at least some concern. Poor field position makes it that much easier on opposing offenses, which in turn makes it so much harder for the Falcons to...
6- Finish games!!
Or in the case of the Bears, Bucs, and Eagles: start them. In fact, let's just see one complete game. I don't think I've seen the Falcons play one since beating t the 2-14 Panthers last season. The main issue behind this recent stagnation, in my humble opinion? Halftime adjustments.
Green Bay found themselves thoroughly struggling against a pretty effective Falcons game plan in the first half. So what did they do? Mike McCarthy fixed some things at halftime, and they got some pretty astonishing results. Why can't the Falcons do that?
*As a final note, I'm writing this having just witnessed the unthinkable: the Detroit Lions are 5-0. The franchise has gone from perennial doorstep team to NFC elite in what seems like no time at all. Shows you what a talented team can do when they're (mostly) healthy. The Falcons most assuredly are not.
That's certainly not an excuse. But it plays a big part in the most recent loss, at least. Whatever, the reason for their demise, the Falcons need to get on track this week against Carolina. Hopefully Mike Smith's actions speak louder than his words, because right now, his words aren't spoken with much conviction.
For more, check out SB Nation's Falcons blog The Falcoholic.