EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 08: Corey Peters #91 of the Atlanta Falcons hangs his head dejected on the bench against the New York Giants during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at MetLife Stadium on January 8, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The GIants won 24-2. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
With their 24-2 playoff loss to the New York Giants, Falcons' season is over. Both Mike Smith and Matt Ryan, now 0-3 in the playoffs, will look to head back to the drawing board and determine how to improve into 2012 and beyond. But as far as the 2011 Falcons go, a closer look reveals that playoff failure was an inevitability.
One and done. To be quite frank, I'd be lying if I said I didn't foresee something like this happening. I honestly believed that the Giants would be able to manage a few long passing plays, and ultimately they'd win at home by a couple of scores.
Now, did I think the Falcons offense would be that horrendous? No. In fact, not in a million years. Even I thought they'd at least put some points on the scoreboard. But again, I'll be honest: those of you who thought this team could make a deep playoff run were sorely mistaken. The simple fact of the matter is that this 2011 Falcons team, though talented, was still fatally flawed from the beginning.
For a minute, recall the season opener against Chicago. Spirits and optimism were sky-high. The Falcons, who had posted a 13-3 record the previous season, had addressed two big needs by trading up to take Julio Jones in the NFL draft and then signing free agent DE Ray Edwards to a long-term deal. Atlanta, thought to be only a couple of pieces away from a championship-caliber squad, suddenly became a preseason Superbowl favorite.
Except the Falcons weren't "a couple of pieces away." Not even close.
Though the offensive line had only lost one starter (Harvey Dahl) to free agency, a group that was solid in 2010 remained otherwise intact, and Dahl was replaced by the assumed-to-be-decent Garrett Reynolds.
Matt Ryan would be sacked five times in the season opener as the offense managed only two field goals and zero touchdowns. Ryan was never afforded enough time, and the scoring deficit got to a point where running the ball with Michael Turner did not make sense.
The defense, while solid, couldn't hold up after being kept on the field for so long. Jay Cutler was afforded all sorts of time, and a few missed tackles in the Falcons secondary led to some back-breaking plays.
Atlanta's Archaic Offense
Mike Mularkey's run-first offense is a dying breed. In fact, at many times the Falcons appear to be a misfit in today's NFL, whose rules lend themselves to the success of a pass-heavy offense (see: GB, NO, NYG, DET, NE).
Now in 2010, this system worked because running the ball with Turner and converting those short third downs kept the opposing defense on the field and Atlanta's on the sidelines. When it doesn't work, you can pretty much pick any Falcons loss and correlate it to a poor running effort.
Look no further than all three playoff losses Falcons fans have had to suffer through. In each, Turner was held below 50 yards rushing. The Falcons defense couldn't get off the field, and Ryan was generally ineffective trying to play catchup. If teams have been able to figure out this Falcons offense for the past four years, why shouldn't the Giants have been able to on Sunday?
It's obvious the offense needs to be restructured from the top down, and that starts with head play- caller Mike Mularkey. I know he's a popular guy around here and I understand he's dearly beloved by all of the Falcons faithful, but I think at this point the postseason strategy of relying on Turner for the entire game isn't cutting it.
Those Free Agents Aren't Exactly Free
The defensive front seven is Mike Smith's forte. That means he understands the position well, knows what to look for when drafting or signing a player, and can generally maximize the talents of his linemen.
I'll never understand why Ray Edwards was almost a non-factor this season. I won't say I didn't see this coming either, but again I realistically figured he could maybe manage seven sacks and a couple of turnovers. Instead, 3.5.
And there's the case of Dunta Robinson. While he's earning boatloads of money for what has been some pretty mediocre cornerback play (the busted coverage on Hakeem Nicks' 72-yard TD catch comes to mind), Abraham, Curtis Lofton, and Brent Grimes are all slated to become free agents.
This leaves the Falcons defense, which has finally started acquiring some really special players since Thomas Dimitroff's arrival, subject to some big changes as well this offseason. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
For as good as Brian VanGorder's unit was against the run (top ten), the Falcons still weren't anything special defending against the pass. The pass rush was lacking, and at times so was the coverage. I can't count the number of times I saw a pass zip in between two linebackers towards Thomas DeCoud, who would whiff on a tackle and watch the receiver gallop to the end zone.
Here's to hoping that the Falcons make the right moves on defense this offseason, and not simply "let's sign this guy because he's the best available on defense.
Average Team Is Average
The Falcons had some great individual performers, sure. Despite a slow start, Ryan surpassed 4,000 yards for the first time in his young career. White managed 1,200 receiving yards, and Jones about 900 in only 13 games. Turner again eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark. In fact, he still might be the team's MVP.
But if he's the MVP, then Sam Baker and Reynolds win a split-LVP. For all the good skill players, the offensive line was sorely lacking. Despite two great linebackers and an elite No.1 cornerback on defense, the defensive line also let the Falcons down in a pretty big way.
Ultimately, there's no easy "the Falcons are good" or "the Falcons are awful" in this situation because neither apply. Like always, they beat the teams they were supposed to but struggled against most playoff-caliber teams.Until I see some significant changes start to take place, I'm inclined to believe that will happen yet again in 2012.
Now folks, if you'll excuse me I've got some hardcore disappointment to confront.
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