What if. If only. If it wasn’t for. They just got lucky. Those are all phrases that the Falcons and Falcons fans would be saying non-stop if they had lost the ball game. Honestly, the Falcons were outplayed for 59 of the 60 minutes in the Georgia Dome. The Panthers were doing everything just as good as the Falcons were, and maybe even slightly better. With a minute left in the game, the Panthers punted the ball away, and essentially left the Falcons for dead at their own 1-yard line. Only a miracle could get the Falcons a win, but somehow they still eked away with a win. But let there be no doubt about it: this was a game the Falcons were, for the most part, outplayed in.
Just look at how the first two possessions of the game went. The Falcons who had scored on the opening drive of the first three games of the season, went three and out, including a big sack, against a less than spectacular Carolina defense. For an offense that has been so hot, this wasn’t great news. To make matters worse, the Falcons gave Carolina good field position and the Panthers scored a touchdown five plays later. That’s not a good formula for winning. It’s actually exactly the opposite of what they have been successful at the past few weeks.
Right after that the Falcons get the ball. They run over a dozen plays, and are in the red-zone. On a pass intended for Julio Jones in the middle of the end-zone, Ryan does something he has only done one other time up to that point on the season: he is intercepted. Not only did the Falcons turn the ball over, but it was a turnover in the red-zone, an area where you absolutely must get points. Touchdowns are obviously preferential, but at least some points are better than a turnover. That’s something the Falcons need to really work on, and they need to fix it in a hurry.
Red-zone efficiency is all important, and the Falcons were very poor in that department. The best offensive teams in the NFL are exception in that department as far as getting touchdowns, and the Falcons were only 1-for-4. Shoot, that’s just not going to get it done, especially if one of those was a turnover. That’s really, really not good, and as good as Matt Ryan & Co. have been on the whole this season, they have to be much, much better in the red-zone.
Part of the offensive problems was the pass protection. The previous three weeks the Falcons offensive line only surrendered 4 sacks in three games to three very good pass-rushing teams. Against the Panthers, Ryan was sacked seven (7) times, and I’m not entirely sure how many times he was hit, but it was significantly more. That’s really poor protection. Defensive end Charles Johnson had a part in five different sacks, and generally had his way with the Falcons o-line. I don’t have a particular culprit as of right now, because he line up on both sides. I’ll touch on this topic again once I have a chance to watch the game film. The fact of the matter is that if we want Matt Ryan to survive, he needs to remain upright, and he can’t take any shots. No exceptions, no excuses, no surrender.
Defensively, we weren’t miserable on third downs, but at the same time we just weren’t very good. That being said, Carolina wasn’t predictable at all because they were so balanced. The team as a whole ran for 199 net yards, and a 5.7 yards per carry average. That’s tremendous, because it allows you as a team to run the ball and throw the ball with equal effectiveness, and it also allows you to use play-action passes to really free your receivers up in the intermediate and deep passing game. Carolina was outstanding running, threw the ball off the run-action very well, and had little difficulty moving the ball.
Look at the scoring drives that the Panthers had. None of them finished with a big, scoring play. It wasn’t like the Panthers were just busting off 80-yard touchdown runs and passes, something that while bad, has a reason like blown coverage or missed assignments. Instead, the Falcons surrendered sustained, drives composed of plays where they were consistently gashed by the Panthers offense. Ten yards here, thirteen yards there, 8 more yards, 2 more, 27 yards, and a 13-yard touchdown run. That is a sample of the Panthers 7 play, 4 minute, 79-yard touchdown drive. I find it more disturbing to give up several ‘gashing’ type gains than one big play due to blown coverage. This certainly wasn’t a strength of the Falcons. It probably has a lot to do with why they weren’t worse on third downs: many times the Panthers didn’t even have a third down situation come up.
The defense also only created one turnover on the day. The previous three games against Kansas City, Denver, and San Diego, the Falcons defense created at least three turnovers in each game. Atlanta only created one turnover against Carolina (a fumble recovery) which is less than their norm. Considering that the Falcons had two less turnovers than normal and also had a rare turnover offensively to overcome, small wonder the game was so tight and that the Falcons nearly lost the game.
Alright, that’s enough doom and gloom about the game. As bad as it was, it was still a victory, and there were some really good statistics put up.
With the exception of the interception, Matt Ryan continued to look sharp. Not as sharp as the first three weeks, but a 107 passer rating is something that is really solid and can’t be complained about. He completed a lower percentage of passes than the past weeks, but that had a lot more to do with being under pressure and throwing the ball away to not lose yardage than inaccuracy or excellent coverage. Not his sharpest game of the season, but 369 yards and 3 touchdowns is a very good offensive performance, especially if you look at what he did down the field and late in the game.
Roddy White was nothing short of sensational. He can truly do it all. Short, intermediate, and deep, he can run the entire route tree. The three passes that everyone will remember from the game were his 49-yard touchdown catch, the 14-yard TD strike, and the 59 yard catch with under a minute to go in the game. The Falcons have been needing to get the ball deep down the field better, and Roddy proved that he is still a tremendous threat to do that, in addition to being reliable on his other types of routes.
Perhaps more important is that Ryan is A) on the same page with his receivers down the field, B) has accuracy deep, and C) has the arm to heave it deep and not simply throw fluttering passes to the receivers. We know Ryan has options who are outstanding in the passing game, but some have questioned his ability to get the ball deep. Any questions now?
Also, Michael Turner has been fantastic for the Falcons since his arrest. I would never suggest it’s a good thing that he was arrested or it was a good thing he got a DUI, but against the Chargers and the Panthers, Turner has been his old productive self. 13 carries for 103 yards is very productive, but nothing is more productive than his 60-yard touchdown catch that he had on a screen pass. Believe it or not, that was the first touchdown catch of Turner’s 8-year NFL career. He looks like a rejuvenated player, and the Falcons needed every bit of his productivity against Carolina to pull out a win.
Defensively, the Falcons showed the ability to contain Steve Smith in the passing game. True, they got beat up in the run game and by many of the other receiving options the Panthers have, but one thing stood out: when it was crunch time, the Falcons got a defensive stop. They can’t do anything except exactly what they can control. However, on the Panthers last possession before the Falcons game-winning field goal, the were able to force a third down. On that down, Cam Newton carried on a quarterback sneak up the middle, but was stripped of the football by John Abraham. The Panthers recovered, but it brought up a fourth down. Instead of getting a first and running out the clock on the game, the Panthers were forced to punt, setting up the Falcons in a situation to win the ball game. It isn’t much to be proud of, but defensively that is about the extent of it. The Falcons won the ball game.
Despite gaining a win, it was an ugly win for the Atlanta Falcons, and they certainly have more than ever to work on in the week of practice ahead of them. Being better on the offensive line is critical, as is being more stout on the defensive front both against the run and rushing the passer. If the Falcons are going to have continued success and aspire to get to the playoffs and do something while they are there, they are going to have to be a lot better in the trenches than they were on Sunday.