Jan 20, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith reacts after losing the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome. The 49ers won 28-24. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Falcons find ways to throw away trip to Super Bowl

The Atlanta Falcons just seem to have a knack for finding a way to blow leads, especially in big games. Against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round, the Falcons squandered a 20 point lead, but with a last-second field goal emerged victorious. In the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Falcons squandered a 17 point lead, only this time they wouldn’t find a way to comeback.

How is it that the Falcons find a way to blow these leads? The best teams in the NFL should be able to put teams away by keeping their foot on the accelerator and blowing teams out. In the very least, they should be able to put some points up, or run significant time off the clock. There are the bare minimums that teams have to be able to do to hand onto the lead. I don’t think there’s any doubt the Falcons are one of the better teams in the NFL. So why can’t they shut teams down?

The Falcons haven’t just done this in the postseason. Look at their performance against the Philadelphia Eagles this season. The Falcons started extremely fast in a foul-weathered environment in Philly, but they didn’t keep it up. They only score 6 of their 30 points in the second half, and were it not for a pair of turnovers by the Eagles, Atlanta very well could have gotten themselves into hot water.

Fast forward to the playoffs. The Falcons struggled in the second half against Seattle, but did find a way to score ten critical points in the second half, the points that ultimately gave them the victory. But the offense notably slowed, and wasn’t helped by the Falcons desire to run the ball extensively and refuse to put the dagger in the heart of their opponents. Extremely prominent in my mind is the Falcons decision to call an end-around to Julio Jones that went for a loss of one yard, not nearly good enough for moving the chains. Silly play-calling in addition to foolish playcalling slowed Atlanta’s offense. And the inability of the Falcons linebackers to cover tight end Zach Miller nearly doomed the Falcons.

And then today. Atlanta got to a hot start against what was widely regarded as the most explosive, dominant, and well-rounded team in the entire NFL. They put up 24 points on their vaunted defense, something that just wasn’t expected. No way was that expected. And they did a good job of not just slowing down Colin Kaepernick, but they completely stuffed him running the ball, and held the explosive Niners to 14 points. I’d consider that a victory.

But then the old demons came back to haunt them. The Falcons didn’t allow Kaepernick to run the ball, and they didn’t give the wide receivers much lee-way. But they didn’t stop much else. They couldn’t stop Frank Gore or LaMichael James running up the middle or off-tackle, and they absolutely couldn’t cover the tight ends. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the Falcons even tried to cover the tight ends. The safeties sure couldn’t bring them down, and the linebackers couldn’t drop fast enough. Too many times they were wide open, and the Falcons couldn’t do a damn thing about it.

But the defense was only half of the equation. The Falcons turned the ball over twice in the second half. The first was an interception where Roddy White fell down in the middle of his route. Perhaps that pass would have been harmlessly incomplete had White not fallen. But the fact is that it was picked off, and while the Falcons didn’t get beaten by points off that turnover, but they sure needed to score on that possession. I’ll give Ryan a pass on that one, because at least the Falcons were trying to stay aggressive.

But the biggest turnover was the fumbled snap by Matt Ryan. Fox’s camera’s clearly showed that immediately after the snap, but before the ball reached his hands, Ryan took his eyes off the ball to look down the field at the coverage. And he didn’t do the one fundamentally critical thing that is often overlooked, but without which no play is possible: handling the snap. Ryan just didn’t do it, and again, it didn’t cost the Falcons immediate points. But this time they were in field goal range, and not scoring on a possession is as bad as a turnover against a team like San Francisco.

So what’s the answer? Why do the Falcons give up these leads that should be insurmountable?

I think the problem begins in the most basic area: up front on both sides of the ball. When you have a lead, teams like to run the ball, to grind out the clock and then put points on the board. The Falcons did a great job in pass protection, outside of the late 4th quarter, and really threw the heck out of the ball. But in the second half, when the Falcons needed to and tried to run the ball, they were unable to do so. It caused drives to stall, and even though Matt Ryan did a good job completing passes and keeping the chains moving, there are only so many third-and-long situations that the passing attack can keep on getting. Atlanta just has to get into more short yardage situations, and be able to successfully convert on the ground in those spots. The Falcons need to address their run-blocking on the offensive line, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them upgrade at guard in the upcoming draft.

Up front defensively, the Falcons have some nice players, but nobody who is dominant. The one dominant player on the defensive line that they do have is John Abraham, and he’s old and was injured this postseason. As they are, the Falcons defensive line isn’t going to stop much of anyone in one-on-one situations, let alone a tremendous offensive line like the Niners have.

And the problems on the defensive line have a trickle down effect. When you can’t stop things with your line, you have to commit your linebackers and safeties more to defending the run than being balanced and reading the play to defend the intermediate passing game. Sean Weatherspoon, Stephen Nicholas, and the other linebackers are good against the run, and I believe that ‘Spoon and Nicholas are two of the better cover linebackers in the NFC. But the Falcons had to commit them closer to the line of scrimmage, limiting them as far as how they could cover the tight ends and the intermediate part of the field. They couldn’t stop them from moving the chains extensively, and they certainly couldn’t prevent San Francisco from punching it in.

Clearly, the Falcons are lacking something from a personnel standpoint. But I wonder if there is something about Mike Smith that is holding the Falcons back. I wonder if his conservative nature, and seeming unwillingness to run up the score on opponents is finally coming back to bite him. The Falcons don’t look like they have any clue how to keep beating up on opponents, and it’s something that has to change, ASAP.

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