The Green Bay Packers are still haunted today by the 4th and 26 almost 12 years ago as they fell to the Eagles after an improbable fourth down conversion in the playoffs. Now the Atlanta Falcons have their own haunting play they will always remember. It’s called third and 19.
Leading with only a few minutes to play Sunday 19-16 the Falcons defense looked as if they were going to hold Tampa Bay to a late long field goal attempt to tie the game. But no. With third and 19 the Bucs Jameis Winston scrambled away from pressure and then looked as if he was going down in a rugby-like scrum. However his knee did not touch the ground and he broke free gaining 20 yards and converting on third down. A few plays later the number one overall draft pick found Vince Evans in the end zone to take the lead with under two minutes remaining.
Trailing 23-19 the Falcons got the ball back. Matt Ryan drops back to throw and is intercepted. Guess who he was throwing to. Yep, Julio Jones. Everyone in the nation knew Julio Jones was going to be the target of the throw. And that therein lies the problem with the Atlanta Falcons offense. Predictability.
Let me harp o this again. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanihan seems to have a limited number of plays in his playbook or he chooses only to use a few. It can’t be that difficult if Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel were able to run it to a degree. Matt Ryan is a more cerebral quarterback than most. He’s to a lesser degree up there with Peyton Manning and to go old school Bob Griese.
Prior to Shanihan’s arrival on average nine different players caught passes from Ryan. This season Jones is targeted over 60 percent of the time so on any given passing play you have a better than 50 percent chance of the ball being thrown to him. That makes it so much easier on the defense.
True, Jones is super athletic and truly talented but this is the NFL. They will figure out how to defend against you. Ryan has become the goat for the offense that has been averaging less than 20 points a game since the win against the Redskins.
This is a far cry from the last two seasons – despite being losing ones that averaged almost seven points more a game. And almost ten points less a game than the 2012 season when they fell ten yards short of going to the Super Bowl.
Still as in years past he Falcons have had an easier time moving the ball in the first half compared to the second. They still continue to not make the right adjustments and often have had to rely on last minute heroics of Ryan and kicker Matt Bryant. When Ryan calls his own plays in the no-huddle the defense moves more smoothly and the ball is moved around between a number of receivers.
Sunday against Tampa Bay the Falcons defense continues to do what eventually got Mike Smith fired. The team moved the ball effortlessly between the 20s where the drive would stall. The Falcons had to settle for four Shayne Graham field goals taking a 12-7 lead early in the third quarter.
“It’s obviously a disappointing loss. We had opportunities, I thought, throughout the game to score more points, we had more opportunities in the red zone,” said Ryan. “We didn’t come away with enough touchdowns and then at the end of the game, obviously you don’t want to turn it over on the first play of the drive so that was disappointing as well.”
But this new-fangled defense that everyone has been praising gave up 16 second half points on the way to the loss. And despite the “genius” that Dan Quinn is supposed to be as a defensive coach the Falcons are dead last – that’s right – dead last in the league with the number of quarterback sacks they’ve accumulated. Sure, pundits have said they’re getting “almost sacks” but this isn’t horseshoes. Close does not count. The inability to tackle Winston on that third and 19 play proves that as the QB broke three tackles once breaking from that scrum to convert and keep the drive alive in what became the game winning drive.
“They came out and played a better football game than we did. Opportunities that we had, we didn’t execute and make the play. And they did when they got the opportunity,” said kick returner Devin Hester who saw his first action of the season Sunday for the Falcons.
“Obviously when you lose games it isn’t good for you moving forward. From that standpoint it’s disappointing but we are where we are,” said Ryan. “As I stand here right now we can’t change anything that has happened up until this point. We have to really focus on what we can do to be better moving forward and that starts this week. We’ve got to find a way to get it done this week.”
“The two stories as I’m looking at it right now – and I’m going to go back and look at it – [are] our ability to get those [field goals] into touchdowns and then, defensively, the third downs. Those I think are the real storylines for us,” said Quinn.
The Falcons remain on the road this week. They travel to take on divisional foe and undefeated Carolina Panthers. Kickoff is scheduled for 1pm and will be aired on Fox.
– Dave Weinthal
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