Atlanta finds themselves at a dismal 1-3 after four weeks of play. Is there still hope for a playoff run, or should we look ahead to next year?
Sunday’s loss to the Bengals was a huge setback for the Falcons, as a win would have kept the Falcons within a win of the first-place Saints in the NFC South. The loss marks the second consecutive close home loss and a killer on the postseason outlook. Atlanta’s probability of making the playoffs dropped 11%, from 44% to 33%, according to FiveThirtyEight predictions.
Atlanta is clearly a talented team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Falcons have put up 30+ points in every game since the opener and are clicking on all cylinders. The problem lies with the defense, where several players have missed time due to injuries. Also, missed tackles, lack of pass rush, and timely penalties have all contributed in Atlanta’s three losses.
The 1-3 start has been especially frustrating because the losses have been close (3 losses by a combined 13 points). Just three plays separate this team from being 4-0 and atop the league, but the Falcons currently sit in the NFC cellar with a long road ahead of them. Atlanta’s playoff hopes ride on a few factors, starting with the schedule.
Atlanta’s schedule has been grueling already, and it’s not going to get any easier. Dan Quinn’s squad has already played three playoff teams from last year, and there are more on the horizon. This Sunday, Atlanta travels to Heinz Field to take on the Steelers, who have also stumbled out of the gates. Sunday’s game is almost certainly an elimination game, with the loser sitting at just one win while the winner keeps their fading playoff hopes alive for another week.
Looking past this Sunday’s contest, Atlanta still has six road games left on the slate, including three road divisional games and a trip to Lambeau Field in December. Those four games will all be extremely difficult, and Atlanta may even be out of the playoff picture by the time these games roll around. Other challenging games include matchups against the well-improved Browns, Redskins and Ravens. These three teams, especially the Ravens, will all be tough tests.
Atlanta has almost no room for error due to the 1-3 start. The turnaround must start now or else this season will be a lost cause. With an absolutely loaded NFC conference, Atlanta will probably need to go 9-3 the rest of the way to have a shot at the playoffs. This isn’t impossible, but three road divisional games and road trips to Green Bay and Pittsburgh are all going to be extremely tough games.
Schedule outlook: Not promising
Atlanta’s injuries have been well documented and have turned a unit that looked poised for a top-ten year into one of the league’s worst units. Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are done for the year, and Deion Jones can’t return for several more weeks. Takk McKinley missed the New Orleans game but looks healthy now, Defensive tackle and Atlanta’s best lineman Grady Jarrett went down to an injury on Sunday. The team signed tackle Michael Bennett (no, not THAT Michael Bennett), which is a sign that Jarrett will miss some time.
To put it kindly, Atlanta’s defense has been downright pathetic the past 2+ games. The woes started in the fourth quarter of the Carolina game, where Atlanta gave up 14 points and nearly blew a 14-point lead with under three minutes left in the game.
A week later, Atlanta had one of the worst defensive performance that I’ve seen in my lifetime, giving up a whopping 534 yards and 43 points to the Saints in an overtime loss. A lack of pass rush (one sack, two quarterback hits) and missed tackles (17! missed tackles) were the main causes for Atlanta’s struggles in week three.
The struggles continued last Sunday, where Andy Dalton lead the Bengals to touchdowns on all four of their first-half possessions. There was a stretch where Atlanta gave up touchdowns on eight straight possessions, excluding a Saint’s kneel down. Dalton diced up Atlanta’s secondary, throwing for 337 yards and three touchdowns.
The pass rush was non-existent in the first half, but improved greatly in the second half. Takk McKinley racked up three sacks in the second half and now has the second-most sacks in the league (5). The pass rush helped limit the Bengals to just nine second-half points and appears to be the key to Atlanta’s defensive success. If they can continue to pressure the quarterback and take pressure off of the secondary, Atlanta can limit the damage defensively. If not, expect an ugly season filled with shootouts and tough losses.
Defensive outlook: Pass rush will determine success
Red Zone Success
In Steve Sarkisian’s first season, Atlanta struggled mightily inside the 20, scoring touchdowns on under 50% of their red zone trips. The struggles continued into week one this year, going 1-5 in the red zone at Philly. Since then, Sarkisian and Ryan have thrived in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 11 of their last 13 red zone possessions.
Two things have helped turn the red zone offense into a strength for the Atlanta Falcons. First, Ryan appears to be more comfortable in his second year with Sarkisian. The same progression was made with the offense under Kyle Shanahan, where the Falcons increased their points per game by over 12 points in year two under Shanahan.
The offense showed some promise in Sarkisian’s first year, scoring over 30 points four times (compared to 11 times in the 2016 regular season). The lows, however, were very low, as Atlanta scored under 20 points six times in the regular season. To finish off the year, Atlanta could only muster 10 points in the divisional loss to Philly, a microcosm of the season.
This year, Atlanta has already scored over 30 points three times and appear to be on track to be a top five offense in the league. In addition to Sarkisian finding his groove, rookie Calvin Ridley has proven to be an excellent compliment to Julio Jones. Ridley has caught six touchdowns in his last three games, leading the league in touchdown grabs. Expect his touchdown pact to cool down somewhat, but Ridley’s presence should give Jones and other weapons more single-coverage looks and more scoring opportunities.
Red Zone Outlook: Success will continue
Despite the offense lighting up the scoreboard, it’s going to be very difficult for Atlanta to overcome the massive amounts of injuries on the defensive side. Atlanta hasn’t been able to slow down offenses the past two weeks, and looks to be a sign of things to come for the 2018 season.
Expect Ryan and the offense to thrive, but the defense will continue to go through some growing pains. With a loaded NFC Conference, Atlanta’s playoff hopes look mighty slim unless the defense can start improving immediately.