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By: Allen Strk
Get into the latest play breakdown session of the Falcons’ latest setback on the road.
Repetition can be your best asset or worst liability as a team. As much as coaches look to be diverse and unpredictable, there are specific aspects of football that you want to be replicated from an execution standpoint. The Falcons have that with their zone read design in the red zone. As long as Desmond Ridder holds the ball in his left hand, the play call usually translates into a touchdown or first down. It’s about the only positive when it comes to repetition. Everything else that has been repeated recently has hindered the team from making any notable progress.
The Atlanta Falcons passing game remains completely discombobulated, especially when they decide to go empty and attempt to spread the field. The offensive line continues to make critical self-inflicted errors. The open-field tackling has become catastrophic during this losing streak. They are allowing far too many easy completions in the middle intermediate area of the field. All of these persistent problems have congealed into three miserable defeats, culminating in losing to a previously one-win team.
This is the eighth GIF review of the season. You can view the previous ones against the Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Texans, Bucs, Titans, and Vikings to get a deeper insight into how the team fared in past games.
Disjointed Passing Game
When the Falcons decided to go four or five wide, they were largely unable to produce any positive plays. An offense that was supposed to be dynamic appeared helpless when using more aggressive formations to create through the air. There is plenty to dissect about this failed third-down conversion. Two of the pass catchers are Keith Smith and MyCole Pruitt. To have a full back and third-string tight end run short whip routes on the same side is wasteful. Even if it’s an attempt to clear space for Drake London over the top, the secondary is going to be all over it as neither player is a viable pass-catching option.
Although Heinicke wants to hit Robinson, who is running a choice route, there is no reason why Smith and Pruitt should be utilized here as pass catchers. There must be more pass-catching threats that the secondary has to account for and for Heinicke to connect with in case a play breaks down. Not having viable secondary options proves to be costly here, as the veteran quarterback can’t find anyone to throw to under duress after Kaleb McGary is unable to adjust and gets penalized for holding. Poor personnel usage to go along with lackluster scheming dooms this play.
Arthur Smith hasn’t called many pass plays where a guard has to pull to the other side and help with the protection. They decide to do that here with Matthew Bergeron in an effort to slide their protection, with Jonnu Smith chipping. It’s an awkward process for most teams, let alone one that rarely does it with a rookie left guard and shaky quarterback.
Nevertheless, this sack doesn’t happen with a decisive quarterback who can quickly go through his progressions and read coverages. The passing window is there for Heinicke to hit London in stride on the post. It’s definitely tight, but the veteran quarterback is known for being a gunslinger, one with a habit of trusting his arm to make tight-window throws. The presence of Budda Baker could absolutely make a difference in being cautious there. That said, Kyle Pitts finds space on a looping deep out. A more aware, quick-processing quarterback is able to avoid the botched protection and make the downfield throw to one of his primary playmakers. Heinicke’s limitations have hindered the passing game more than the coaching staff likely had hoped when deciding to start him at quarterback.
Back to Basics with Bijan
It was a long overdue workhorse type of performance for Bijan Robinson. No longer being shifted between a change-of-pace role or decoy to open up big play possibilities for others, Robinson’s role in the game plan was evident from the start. He was going to get the ball to decimate a vulnerable Arizona front. That includes receiving red zone carries, which has been rare this season. Running in a classic I-formation in 21 personnel, they look to overpower the Cardinals with Keith Smith charging in on the lead block. The running lanes aren’t quite there, as Pitts takes a bad angle and fails to seal off Kyzir White (more on his run blocking soon).
Robinson quickly changes direction and bounces to the outside for the touchdown. The vision and agility stand out when watching the human highlight-reel running back shift to the edge and glide into the end zone. Jesse Luketa’s inability to set the edge does make it easier for Robinson, but this is a terrific play on his part in finding space to get his well-deserved touchdown.
The other main highlight of Robinson’s performance was the coaching staff entrusting him to get the ball in crucial moments. They didn’t use him as a decoy or leave him on the sidelines. It was back to utilizing his tremendous skill set as the focal point of this offense, just as it was meant to be. To run the ball on third and nine shows the Falcons were clearly operating with a four-down mindset. It’s still important for Robinson to get the ball in this situation. He accelerates downhill, capitalizing on Arizona’s soft front to get the yardage to keep the drive moving.
Your most dynamic player is more than capable of turning an unfavorable situation into a big play. His decisiveness and burst were evident to earn a much-needed first down. Drew Dalman does well in providing a combo and transitioning to the second level seamlessly to give Robinson space to flourish. A career-high in carries hopefully means a return for the rookie sensation as the centerpiece of this fragmented offense.
Kyle Pitts’ Blocking Woes Hinders Ground Game
The natural immediate response to Pitts’ ineptness as a blocker is a question: Why would the coaching staff use him as an in-line tight end on blocking plays? If they use Jonnu Smith and MyCole Pruitt consistently, how does Pitts end up having major blocking responsibilities as one of the main blockers on a running play directed to the right? These are valid questions that the coaching staff should seriously ask themselves. It became a reoccurring theme in the second half with Pitts. He continuously lost leverage and failed to maintain a solid base at the point of attack.
Those individual losses greatly affected the running game when they were starting to find a rhythm. Dennis Gardeck plays with excellent pad level and gets under him here for the big third down stop. This led to Ridder’s failed quarterback sneak on 4th and one. The inability to execute in certain moments adds up in these close defeats.
Pitts bursts off the line of scrimmage and blocks with authority. The urgency is there to create a lane for Robinson. What derails him this time is his inability to sustain a strong base. Despite shielding Gardeck away, his left leg goes up at the point of attack. That ends up affecting Robinson’s path, allowing him to get tripped up.
Attention to detail has been a problem for the Falcons during this losing streak. This is one of those examples where not playing with proper technique hinders the team’s ability to succeed. Although this looks minor, Pitts was struggling to block all game long. He was getting overpowered or caught off balance far too many times.
Red Zone Progress
Seeing Arthur Smith use some form of mesh was refreshing. It’s a concept bound to create an opening against man coverage. Adding Robinson to the mix coming out of the backfield creates further disruption for the defense. All the chaos caused by these crossers leaves Scotty Miller roaming free into the end zone. Heinicke does well, remaining firm in the pocket as the pass protection holds up.
His primary read does appear to be Robinson, who does get eventually open as two defenders collide, with Miller going underneath as Robinson splits outside. Heinicke could loft it to either player but ultimately goes the safer route in hitting a wide-open Miller. These are the types of schematic play calls that Smith must continue to do to create high-percentage looks for whoever is under center to bolster an anemic aerial attack and convert within the red zone.
Get the Ball to Drake London
There have only been three games this season where London has received eight targets or more. The Falcons are 2-1 in those games, with wins over Green Bay and Houston while losing to Washington. The rising star wide receiver is too talented not to be peppered with opportunities. His ability to make consistent contested catches is a valuable asset in an offense where the pass catchers aren’t creating great separation, and the coaching staff has struggled to scheme players open.
This is an outstanding individual effort on London’s part to stay composed and maintain concentration to reel in a tough completion. A special talent like London can’t be underutilized. Regardless of the game plan, there must be a coherent plan to get the ball in the hands of the former eighth-overall pick. He can have a Mike Evans-like effect on the team with his skill set, physical attributes, and high energy.
Edge Defenders Not Finishing
When a team starts to freefall, you begin to pinpoint basic, unforced errors that good teams don’t allow to happen. They have defenses where edge defenders handle their gap responsibilities and make open-field tackles when in prime position to do it. Lorenzo Carter is unblocked and positioned to prevent James Conner from picking up decent yardage on the cutback. Kaden Elliss does well, crashing into a potential open gap and forcing the veteran running back to change direction. Conner is one of the stronger backs in the league, though, one who possesses underrated elusiveness.
The way Carter manages to go high on him with all the time and space to properly position himself to make a fundamental play is unacceptable. A veteran defender shouldn’t whiff in a situation like that, especially when no blocker is around him. Mistakes like this have accumulated for a once well-organized, technically proficient defense that never beat themselves in the first seven weeks of the season. They are now beating themselves frequently with self-inflicted blunders like this.
Another week, another highlight-reel scramble allowed by the defense due to not finishing and taking smart angles. Arnold Ebiketie gets caught up trying to cut off Kyler Murray instead of playing contain and not allowing him an angle to switch the field. It’s understandable to say he should get the sack, but it takes being positionally sound to stop a quarterback when they are more than capable of creating magic out of structure. They bring Grant off the edge to blitz, with Bud Dupree looping in inside. It’s a well-crafted design, along with Ebiketie using a nice rip move to get around the edge.
The opportunity is there to put Arizona in a fourth-and-long situation to be within distance of securing a win. They once again get caught out of sorts and get punished, going against an ultra-athletic, dynamic quarterback. No defense is in more dire need of a pass-rushing finisher off the outside who knows how to play contain and make sharp, instinctive decisions more than the Falcons.
Sloppy Secondary Play Continues
According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons missed 13 tackles against Arizona. Six of them were by defensive backs. A.J. Terrell and Richie Grant have endured their share of abysmal tackling in recent weeks. This is the latest one, as Terrell tries to break on the route to Michael Wilson and gets caught on a rough angle attempting to break the pass up. Murray throws the ball with impressive velocity and ball placement to give Terrell no chance to make a play on the ball.
Grant expects Terrell to break the pass up before realizing he needs to prevent a touchdown. He lunges in and doesn’t make much contact, trying to wrap up Wilson. This is another example of players not making the fundamental play and getting caught out with poor technique.
Grant has been on the receiving end of several big plays in the last three games. Opposing teams are running more empty sets and spreading the Falcons’ defense out to exploit mismatches. The most favorable matchup for them is when putting Grant in a position to cover in isolation. As much as a ballhawk he can be, the former second-round pick doesn’t respond well to being placed in man coverage situations. He is often stiff trying to change direction or gets caught trailing, leading to him face-guarding and unable to make a clean play on the ball.
Trey McBride had himself a career game but found particular joy in going against Grant. This proved to be the game-winning play, as he ran a deep corner out of the slot. Whether Grant was caught off guard by the route or underestimated McBride’s deep speed, he is completely off balance and falls aimlessly to the ground. If any play summed up the Falcons’ current losing streak, this is it.
Second Half Blitz Barrage
One of the best aspects of Ryan Nielsen’s defense is what he does at the line of scrimmage to confuse quarterbacks. He will have both linebackers lined up in both B-gaps with a three-man front. Both could blitz, one of them could blitz, or they can each drop into coverage. This is something Nielsen did often with Demario Davis and Pete Werner in New Orleans. Nate Landman blitzes on this occasion as Elliss slides into coverage in the short middle area to defend any shallow crosses or potential checkdowns.
To add an effective wrinkle to this, Clark Phillips blitzes from the weakside as the nickel corner. That puts Murray on notice as he moves upward into a collapsing pocket. The traffic generated by Landman and Carter puts the returning star quarterback in a precarious position. He is unable to escape the rushing Landman, who fights hard to cause chaos and earn the hustle sack. This is a clever design to create pre-snap disruption and generate pressure. The stellar coverage across the field must be mentioned as well in earning this crucial third-down stop.
Sometimes, an effective blitz can come from overloading one side and having too many defenders for the opponent to block. Nielsen loves bringing extra pressure in one particular area while having one edge defender drop into coverage. Carter is comfortable handling spot-dropping duties as one of the more athletic edge defenders in the league.
That leaves Kelvin Beachum confused, as the rest of the Cardinals’ front doesn’t adjust to the overloaded strong side of Elliss and Grant bursting in. The lane is clear for Elliss to get the sack as Will Hernandez neglects the open gap. It took far too much time, but the defense finally started to make Murray uncomfortable in the second half.
Linebacker Tandem Shines
Elliss had one of his best performances as a Falcon. He was active against the run by shooting gaps and effectively taking on blocks. The way he bends into the lane to get into the backfield showcases his athleticism and savviness. The former Saint isn’t known for being this sideline-to-sideline linebacker with blistering speed and extraordinary range in coverage. He is the kind of linebacker who embraces stopping the run and plays fundamentally sound football.
He wraps up firmly and makes a terrific stop to put the Cardinals in a second-and-long scenario. Zach Harrison deserves praise for staying compact in being ready for a potential zone read. Without David Onyemata, the run defense held up better than expected, thanks to plays like this.
Outside of Jessie Bates and Onyemata, the most consistent player on the Falcons’ defense this season has been Landman. He makes multiple standout stops in the run game every week. His tackling is consistently on point, as he takes excellent angles and resists getting sloppy with his technique. While he will never be exceptional in coverage, he makes up for his physical limitations by having tremendous awareness and ability to read the quarterback’s eyes.
What makes the veteran linebacker so efficient as a run defender is his ability to stay composed and know which angle is best for him to pounce on the ball carrier. The way he stays patient and waits to see where the running back is moving toward shows how much he trusts his decision-making. Grant does his share of being a nuisance on the outside and occupying multiple blockers. What Landman does to beat Beachum to the edge and take the perfect angle to close down Keaontay Ingram is textbook linebacker play.
Originally posted on The Falcoholic – All Posts