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The Atlanta Falcons are not going back to the Super Bowl. There wholesale jerseys, I said it.
Maybe the Super Bowl hangover is real and maybe it is a media phenomenon, but whether related to their historic meltdown to the Patriots in the title game last February or not, the Falcons are not playing winning football. Even in some victories they have been less than impressive, no one is mentioning Matt Ryan in any MVP conversations (in fact guys like Alex Smith and Deshaun Watson are getting far more accolades) and while there is still plenty of football to be played, the Falcons have seemingly quietly, been among the biggest disappointments to many (although personally I had then pegged for significant regression).
Amid all of the talk of the Patriots’ barely-there defense and Raiders’ collapsing offensive line and Dallas’ overall contraction and Pittsburgh’s Jeckyll and Hyde offense, well, the Falcons have kind of been skating by. Heck, on a national level I’ve heard more about Seattle’s perennial slow start than I have about Atlanta kind of fading away since opening their new stadium. But there are ample reasons for concern, especially with the Saints and Panthers making some power moves in the NFC South this month, and this hasn’t been nearly the same prolific outfit it was a year ago.
Losing Kyle Shanahan as offensive-guru and game planner and play caller was always going to be a massive blow, and its showing up all over. You aren’t seeing a new hero emerge from week to week and lesser cogs like Taylor Gabriel having nearly the impact they did in 2016. People aren’t being as schemed open nearly as often, it seems to me, and the pace, tempo, productivity and unpredictability isn’t nearly what led Atlanta to the cusp of a championship a year ago.
The 2016 Falcons were a force of nature on the offensive side of the ball, storming to early leads, with Ryan playing near-perfect football in the first quarter all season, allowing a still-evolving defense to hunt the opposing passer with a lead and putting the Falcons in position to kill off games in the second half with a multi-pronged run game. That’s hardly been the case this season, Atlanta has been one of the worst second-half teams in the NFL (whether related to choking against the Patriots or not) and the dirty (Bird) little secret is the running game is actually improved over even the gaudy standard set under Shanahan … yet the overall offensive output is shriveling.
Last season Atlanta scored 505 offensive points (eliminating special teams scores, defensive scores, etc), which was 38 more than any other team in the NFL, for a ridiculous average of 31.6 per game. This year, it’s not even close. Atlanta ranks 14th in offensive points scored, at 22.8 per game, almost 10 points less than a year ago. That is a game changer, folks, with the margin for victory – or defeat – now much tighter and leading to more close and late defeats (and had the Bears not dropped a pass in the end zone the Falcons would’ve lost in Chicago and it took a gift call to get them past the Lions in controversial fashion; this team could easily be 1-4).
Atlanta is on the same pace as a year ago in terms of explosive runs – gains of 10 and 20 yards or more on the ground – which helped fuel them a year ago. The yards per carry average is 4.79, up from 4.58 last season, and they are running the ball 26 times a game, up from 25 a year ago. The volume and output on the ground is greater, though the pace of rushing touchdowns is slightly down.
Where it’s fallen apart is through the air.
Ryan has been pedestrian, with six touchdown to six interceptions with a rating of 87.3. he tossed just seven touchdowns all of last season, he is averaging 8 yards per attempt after 9.3 a year ago and his completion percentage is down from 70 percent to 66 percent. He averaged over two touchdown passes per game in 2017 and is barely at one per game now. Ryan ranks dead last, among 24 qualified quarterbacks, in terms of biggest drop-off from his 2016 pass rating to his 2017 rating.
A year ago, that 17-0 lead over Miami at home would have ended up a 41-10 blowout. Instead, the Falcons found a way to lose the game outright, failing to score a single point in the second half. Ryan has looked like his second-half self from the Super Bowl – in the second half of games this season he has three touchdowns to five picks with a brutal rating of 72.6.
Atlanta’s minus-32 second-half scoring differential is third-worst in football (only Arizona and Indianapolis are worse) and, while overall NFL teams are 33-9 when leading at the half at home, the Falcons are just 1-2 in those instances in their new football palace (Dallas is 1-2 as well, accounting for nearly half of such losses in the entire league between 2016 NFC runaway division winners).
Could they reverse some of this? Sure. And getting Vic Beasley back on defense to lead the pass rush should certainly help. Perhaps, a Super Bowl rematch with the Patriots Sunday night will get them going, and if they can’t put up 30 on that atrocious defense they’ve really got issues. But then again, they play four of their next five on the road (Patriots, Jets, Panthers, Seahawks), and their December schedule looks daunting, too. Regardless, it’s not too soon to worry about this team, and where it’s going, especially in light of what went down in Houston in February.
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Anyone looking for some hard news or new policies to come out of the just-completed owner’s meetings in New York didn’t know what they were looking for. This was always about furthering the dialogue between players and owners about means to address social injustice, and showing solidarity in that regard and continuing to identify areas where they can push for reform (criminal justice, mandatory minimums, bail reform, etc.).
While there are certainly still differences among owners about the ongoing matter of players not standing for the national anthem, and some of that sentiment was shared, the league’s hope moving forward, I’m told, is to have owners and teams focus on the tremendous good that players do in their communities. To assist them in that regard and to ignore the inevitable Tweets, rants and tirades from Donald Trump and other politicians who want to continue focusing on the protests as a matter of attacking the NFL and playing to their base and maintaining a divisive rhetoric. I’d suspect we hear a lot less from football people about protests and demonstrations moving forward in hopes that this issue diffuses (only a handful of players are kneeling or sitting around the league).
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The Bucs are the team with the deepest concerns in the NFC South, by far. They are in danger of getting hopelessly left behind and the defense has been nothing short of a failure. Much talk focuses on Jameis Winston and he needs to improve and with him injured right now he’ll remain the primary topic of discussion in Tampa. But that non-competitive defense is bad enough to undermine any offense in the league.
Tampa is getting exposed in the redzone. Opposing quarterbacks have a 119.4 rating, with nine touchdowns and no interceptions and just one sack on 29 passing attempts. You get inside the 20 on the Bucs, there is a good chance you will hit paydirt. Couple that with the fact that opponents are converting at a staggering 46.2 percent on third down, and you have the makings of one of the worst defenses in the NFL.
Tampa has been stout against the run, but the lack of pass coverage is undermining them. Opposing quarterbacks are completing over 70 percent of their passes for a rating of 104, overall, and the Bucs pass rush has been beyond tepid. They are last in the NFL with six sacks, and when they do blitz, opposing passers have a 141 rating against them (behind only Oakland and New England).