It’s clear something’s not right with the Atlanta Falcons. For many, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what that is.
Is it an undisciplined defense with roughing-the-passer fouls that negated interceptions in back-to-back games? Could it be the ill-timed throws by quarterback Matt Ryan, overthrowing receivers or the pass deflections for interceptions? What about the puzzling play calling on offense — like running laterally with a designed jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel on fourth and 1 along the goal line against the New England Patriots?
Or is it the nagging “Super Bowl hangover,” a nationally driven storyline most teams are tagged with after a Super Bowl loss ? Falcons coach Dan Quinn and players, who claim the heartbreak is behind them, are having a harder time masking those frustrations.
My answer to Atlanta’s troubles: All of the above.
These are things fans pick up on when a team is trending in the wrong direction. And that is very much the case for the defending NFC Champions.
Atlanta (3-3) is now in the midst of a three-game skid following losses against Buffalo, Miami and defending Super Bowl Champion New England. Last year’s No. 1-rated offense under former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is having an identity crisis, and to date is scoring only 21.3 points a contest — a significant drop from the 33.8 average a year ago.
The league’s top receiver in Julio Jones has just one touchdown. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, possibly the league’s most dynamic backfield, can’t get enough touches. And Ryan, the league’s reigning MVP, appears unsettled.
The “fire Steve Sarkisian” movement is gaining more traction by the day as the first-year coordinator continues to show some growing pains with the Shanahan blueprint. Since Atlanta’s convincing victory over Green Bay in Week 2 — its third-straight win against the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers — at Mercedes Benz Stadium, the offense has been out of rhythm, totaling only 14 second-half points in the losing streak.
It could be traced back to Grover Quin’s pick-six of Ryan during the Falcons’ Week 3 contest in Detroit, a game which Atlanta escaped by the skin of its teeth due to an overturned touchdown near the goal line in the closing seconds. That was the last victory for the Falcons.
Then Buffalo happened. The following week, the Falcons blew a 17-point halftime lead against the Jay Cutler-run Dolphins at home. It enshrined them as the only NFL team to blow two 17-point leads in a calendar year.
And last Sunday, Atlanta failed to score a touchdown for 3 ¾ quarters on the primetime stage of Sunday Night Football in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
For the time being, the Falcons are in fact playing into the “Super Bowl hangover.” But let’s pump the brakes on this season being over. A clean slate is within grasp of this garbage dump of a situation for the franchise.
Here are three reasons why the Falcons can turn it around.
PLENTY OF TIME: This is not the first time Atlanta has been faced with this predicament.
The Falcons were 4-3 and then 7-5 before catching a hot streak en route to their second-ever Super Bowl appearance last season.
Atlanta still has plenty of football left, starting with one last stop in the AFC East slate today. The New York Jets, coming off a loss, are happy to be at the .500 mark at this point in the season and are very beatable on the road. The Falcons also have yet to play a division opponent despite a hot New Orleans team currently leading the race by one game in the NFC South.
THE CUPBOARD IS FULL: Minus one or two pieces, the Falcons still house last year’s Super Bowl roster. On top of that, the defense is getting pressure on the quarterback, and if you take away the roughing the passer penalties, the Falcons in the last two weeks have shown a knack for creating turnovers.
WAITING FOR THE SPARK: It’s safe to say matching the success of last year’s offense is far from reach at this point. It’s also clear the growing pains are there for Sarkisian, who mentioned earlier this week his struggles to adjust to this personnel-driven NFL when it comes to opposing defenses.
However, the first-year play caller has shown flashes of brilliance. The foundation of the offense needs to start with the backfield of Freeman and Coleman.
The running back tandem is the framework of this high-powered attack and opens opportunities for the quarterback. It’s pretty simple — an effective run game opens up the play-action for Ryan, who excels at throwing receivers open. Then enters the speed of Gabriel in the slot, the physicality Sanu and Jones bring to jump balls downfield even Austin Hooper for those backdoor routes.
Quinn’s tightly-knit “Brotherhood” has said all the right things. Now it’s time to put those words to action.
Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @woodall8sarah on Twitter.