Patriots vs. Falcons: Takeaways from Atlanta's 30-23 Loss to New England
The Falcons struggled on both sides of the ball throughout the night but seemed to turn it on late to nearly overcome a 17-point deficit in the final six minutes with a chance to tie the game in the final seconds and send it into overtime.
The Falcons' record fell to 1-3, and the hole they find themselves in, in their bid for the playoffs and amid the NFC South race, is beginning to look insurmountable.
The Falcons need to find a way to get their 2013 season back on track, and it will take some wins in the next few weeks. There are several positives and negatives from which the Falcons can try and learn from and build off as they move forward.
Falcons Cannot Maintain the Status Quo
The Falcons' season is far from over, but it's been a disappointing September. There are still 12 games left, and the Falcons have to take it one game at a time to claw their way out of the hole.
The Falcons simply need to play better with their home loss to the Patriots being the most disappointing of the year thus far. Losing at home and being thoroughly outplayed by the Patriots is most disheartening, even considering their late push.
The positive is that the Falcons have lost to only unbeaten teams (until Monday night's matchup between the Saints and Dolphins), but the Falcons have to play better. They cannot hope to start winning games if they continue to be as inconsistent on both sides of the ball as they appeared tonight.
Falcons Continue to Struggle in the Red Zone
Atlanta blew five of their six red-zone opportunities, as their inability to consistently come away with touchdowns inside the 20-yard line is the biggest reason why the Falcons offense has been so inconsistent at scoring.
Mike Smith made a controversial decision on Atlanta's second red-zone trip to go for it on 4th-and-2 at the New England 7-yard line in the first quarter. Roddy White broke open, but Matt Ryan missed him by a mile on what should have been an easy conversion and possible touchdown.
A sack on third down blew Atlanta's next trip into the red zone, and later Levine Toilolo dropped a potential touchdown in the back of the end zone on another trip. And their final blown opportunity came at the end of the game when Ryan and White could not connect again for what could have been the game-tying touchdown on fourth down.
Until the Falcons can find ways to punch it in, they will continue to lose football games. Running the ball could help as the Falcons managed to call a run play only once on 18 total plays in the red zone.
Tony Gonzalez Is the G.O.A.T.
G.O.A.T. stands for Greatest Of All-Time, and Tony Gonzalez proved he was that.
Gonzalez had a great first half, catching a team-leading seven passes for 90 yards. It was clear the Falcons wanted to get him more involved this week with Ryan finding him early and often. His 21-yard touchdown catch capped the Falcons' touchdown drive at the end of the first half. He had a trio of catches on that drive for 46 yards, including the score.
Gonzalez also had a strong second half, catching five passes for 59 yards. Including an 11-yard touchdown catch on the team's lone red-zone conversion. That score set up the onside kick recovery that gave the Falcons that last push to make it a game in the final five minutes. He could have had more, but the Patriots resorted to double-teaming him late in the game. And by double-teaming I mean having a pair of defenders literally mug him at the line of scrimmage to prevent him from releasing into his route.
After three underwhelming performances, the Falcons found ways to get Gonzalez back involved as an integral piece of the offense. And that will be something to build on as the Falcons find ways to expand their offense beyond Julio Jones in the coming weeks.
Julio Jones May Be Mortal
Aqib Talib was tasked with locking down Julio Jones as he did Vincent Jackson in Week 3. Jackson was held to 3 catches for 34 yards. Talib can add another feather to his hat, as he kept the uncheckable Jones in check for most of the game.
Jones and Ryan were unable to connect throughout the first half, and both the receiver and quarterback seemed out of sync through three quarters. Jones caught only three passes on eight targets for 22 yards until the final quarter.
Jones had been a one-man wrecking crew through the first three games but was marginalized against Talib and just looked out of sync. He came up with a number of big plays in the final minutes, but it was a little too late. The Falcons need to find ways to get Jones back into sync, so that the offense can take advantage of both his and Gonzalez's abilities to exploit a defense.
Falcons Need More Balance
After an excellent game on the ground a week ago against Miami, the Falcons offense notably lacked balance this week. In the first half, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers combined for 11 carries and 41 yards. But that paled in comparison to the 25 passes the Falcons attempted.
While the game was still a one-score game through three quarters, the Falcons ran the ball a total of 14 times versus 33 passes thrown. Coupled with their inability to get more than one receiver involved, the Falcons became too easy to defend.
Rodgers did contribute in the passing game with six catches for 56 yards, but the Falcons need to be not so quick to settle for passing the ball. A total of 15 carries just won't cut it, especially for a lackluster 58 yards.
They'll have to find ways to reverse that trend in the coming weeks if they want to get back to their winning ways. Ideally that will involve rushing the ball at least 20-25 times for over 100 yards.
Jeremy Trueblood's Ascension May Be Permanent
The Falcons made the surprise decision to bench Lamar Holmes at right tackle in favor of Jeremy Trueblood getting the start at the position. But with Sam Baker aggravating the left knee injury that has bothered him the past two weeks in the first quarter, Holmes was inserted back in the lineup.
Last week with Trueblood in the lineup, the Falcons gave up no sacks. While Holmes and Baker struggled against Chandler Jones at various times in the game, Trueblood managed to hold his own. Matt Ryan was sacked twice, but given that he dropped back to throw 56 times, that is not so bad a number.
What the Falcons do at left tackle going forward remains to be seen. Holmes is struggling, and Baker is nursing a bum knee and foot, fresh off a $41 million contract signed in the off-season. But Trueblood through his first two performances has earned the right to continue to start at right tackle. And if he can continue to stabilize that position, that will certainly be a step in the right direction for the Falcons' offensive line.
Falcons Are Losing the Big-Play Battle
One of the issues the Falcons have struggled with through the first month of the season is generating big plays on offense. It was something that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter resolved to fix this week, but to little avail against New England. Besides a trio of passes to Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons struggled to generate explosive plays of 20 or more yards.
That all changed in the final six minutes of the game, when the Falcons added four big plays. That pushed their total to seven, the same as the Patriots up until that point in the game. Those big plays were instrumental in getting the Falcons back into the ballgame to give them the opportunity to tie it late.
Turnover margin, which measures takeaways versus giveaways, is well-known in its importance to the outcomes of games. Perhaps we should start considering big-play margin as well, looking at how many plays of 20 or more yards made versus given up as another factor that matters. In the case of the Falcons, until they were able to close the gap against the Patriots, they looked the weaker team.
If they hope to start generating more wins in the coming weeks, they can't be on that wrong side of that metric anymore.
Falcons Pass Rush Borders on Non-Existent
One of the reasons why the Falcons gave up big plays was because they struggled to get any real pressure on quarterback Tom Brady. Even playing at home with the benefit of the home-crowd noise, the Falcons pass rushers couldn't create any consistent heat on Brady, who had all day to pick apart the Falcons' secondary.
That secondary was fairly inexperienced at corner as the Falcons were without Asante Samuel for ostensibly the third game of the year. With such young corners and given their struggles on the night, the Falcons needed their pass rush to try and take pressure off them. They failed.
While the Falcons need defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi to start to fill the shoes left by injured Kroy Biermann, they also need veterans like Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux to step up. Umenyiora is coming off a two-sack game against Miami, but he and the Falcons defense were shut out in the sack department this week.
Thanks to injuries, the Falcons are going to be heavily reliant on young players to fill key roles this year on defense. But the veterans need to start pulling their weight as well if the Falcons are going to get their season turned around.
Matt Ryan Is Missing Too Many Chances
Matt Ryan is having a good season, but some of the Falcons red-zone woes and inability to score points after the first quarter must lie on his feet.
He missed some throws in this game, some at critical moments including on Mike Smith's controversial fourth-down decision.
Ryan also threw his first interception that could really be blamed on him. He tried to throw deep to Julio Jones, but threw too far inside which allowed Aqib Talib easy position to make the pick.
Ryan is still one of the top quarterbacks in the league, but he did not play particularly well against New England and had some critical mistakes against the Dolphins.
With all the injuries the Falcons have, they need to rely on their stars to pick up a lot more slack than they are used to. That starts with the quarterback. There is little doubt that moving forward, Ryan will be better, but the margin for error is shrinking.
Young Corners Still Have Some Growing Up to Do
The Falcons' young corners have faced more talented receivers in the first three weeks of the season than they did against the New England Patriots, but they had their roughest outing of the year on a night when Asante Samuel was sidelined with a thigh injury that has nagged him since August.
Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman often had their way with cornerbacks Desmond Trufant, Robert McClain, and Robert Alford as they combined for 13 catches, 245 yards, and a touchdown.
Growing pains from the young corners was certainly to be expected, particularly the rookies, but McClain's dropoff in play is the most disappointing. After solidifying the Falcons nickel cornerback spot last year for the first time in three seasons, McClain has struggled in each game this year, to the point that if things don't change, the Falcons might have to consider making a change when Samuel returns healthy. But until then, the Falcons really have little choice but to rely heavily on McClain.
Atlanta did mix in Dominique Franks early, and he is another option in the slot. Franks has historically struggled when working inside versus outside, but if McClain doesn't step up, the Falcons will at least have to contemplate making a change.