As a Falcons fan this was a tough game to watch and it was a tough way to lose. Obviously all of the mistakes that were made will be ignored as Corey Peters jumped offsides on 4th and one inside of the two minute warning, giving the Buccaneers a free first down and they were able to run off the rest of the clock for the victory. That doesn’t mean the Falcons deserved to win though, because they played a pretty poor first half.
I personally think that the Bucs are a similar team to the Falcons last year. They have won some very close games already this year (week two with a comeback against the woeful Vikings, now week three against their division rival Atlanta) and while they definitely have things to work on, they have still impressed me. Their defensive line could be one of the best in the NFL soon if Bowers pans out (despite my worries about Clayborn, he has erased my concerns thanks to how he has played so far. I was worried he was throttling his motor down last year at Iowa, but there hasn’t been a lot of that so far this year. Especially when he blew by Sam Baker and forced a huge turnover by sacking Matt Ryan in this game). McCoy has been good, Brian Price showed some ability with a couple big plays (a tackle for loss in the run game and a sack of Matt Ryan to force a 2nd and goal from the 15), Bowers is the only question mark for me. They are going to be impossible to run the ball against soon, especially with Mason Foster stepping in as the Mike linebacker and making all the calls as a rookie against an offense with a lot of talent like the Falcons. Ronde Barber will retire one day, perhaps before he’s 50, but Aqib Talib and E.J. Biggers looked pretty good today. Not great, but they were pretty good. Biggers may have given up yardage to Roddy White, but a lot of corners do. He got his hands on a pass over the middle to force an incompletion and nearly had two interceptions in the red zone late in the game, he just caught them and landed out of bounds. The safety position is a question mark, but they seem to like Cody Grimm there and Corey Lynch made a couple plays after he went down with a knee injury. This defense is going to be a very good one, especially in their front seven. If Biggers continues to step up and they don’t need a cornerback to replace Barber that badly, then this defense could take off very quickly in the next two years as long as their front four continues to produce pressure.
On offense, they have a lot of the problems the Falcons have had before: A lack of big plays. Josh Freeman is a good quarterback, he has a very strong arm, he’s very athletic for his size, he’s tough to bring down and he can put the ball wherever he wants to. He is going to make the Bucs very competitive for the next 10 years, and with that defense they are going to be in the playoffs more often than not as they continue to fill holes and build continuity from year to year. Plus, they have one of my favorite players in the past couple drafts in Mike Williams, a WR from Syracuse. I had him graded as a top 20 player, a first round draft pick, but noted that he had serious character concerns. He’s had his head on straight since he got to Tampa, and I said that whoever drafted him would get a huge steal if they could keep him on the right track. Well, it’s safe to say he has been on and still is on the right track as he had 11 touchdowns as a rookie last year. That didn’t surprise me in the least, but it did surprise me that he lasted until the 4th round. However, he gives the Bucs a receiving threat comparable to Roddy White. They also have a couple pretty good TE’s in Kellen Winslow and Luke Stocker (though honestly I prefer Stocker to Winslow, a better blocker and has reliable hands) and a power back that I love to watch run in LeGarrette Blount. His leg drive is fantastic, and despite his relatively upright running style he is extremely tough to bring down, and just runs through arm tackles like it’s nothing.
So, after describing all of that, don’t they sound a bit like the Falcons from last year, just with a much better defensive line? I think they do. Their defense likes to bend but not break, and their offense can put together long drives, eat up a lot of clock, and score points late in games when their backs are against the wall. But often times during the first three quarters their long drives that eat up a lot of clock will stall in the red zone and result in field goals. The Bucs are just one year behind the Falcons in development, so that problem will be fixed in time I believe, but for now it will be something the Bucs struggle with the rest of the year. Today against the Falcons they had three possessions I was pretty convinced were going to be touchdowns, but the Falcons defense stepped up and stopped them and they were forced to settle for field goals which kept the Falcons in the game despite a very inept offensive performance.
Now, on to the Falcons. I think the responsibility for this game going the way it did is on the offense. They struggled mightily in the first half and really the only glimpse we had of what our offense could be was on a two play drive that involved a huge deep ball to Julio Jones (that had a ton of air under it from Ryan, but it was still completed) and then a perfect pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. They drove the ball down and got a field goal on the next drive, but again they stalled in the red zone. First, Roddy White had two huge drops on that drive, one on a deep ball down the sideline that hit him right in the hands against pretty good coverage from Biggers (meaning that he forced him closer to the sideline, making it a tighter window to throw into) but Ryan still dropped it in there and Roddy let it bounce off his hands incomplete. Then, Ryan stepped up into the pocket against a pretty good pass rush and as the pocket was collapsing found Roddy wide open inside the 10 on 1st and 10 from the 15 or 20 yard line. He threw it to him and Roddy let it hit right off his hands as he turned his head to run upfield and the ball dropped to the turf. Had he caught it there is no reason we wouldn’t have been inside the five, and he may have even been able to fight his way into the end zone. Regardless, it was a monumental drop on a pass he should catch 100/100 times. Then Gonzalez dropped a pass over the middle, but we were bailed out by a penalty on Gerald McCoy hitting Ryan in the head after the ball was thrown. Ticky tacky penalty if you ask me (especially when they didn’t throw a flag on William Moore for hitting Freeman above the head on his scramble on Tampa Bay’s final drive to end the game) but it gave the Falcons possession of the ball on the five yard line. Instead of running the ball like we normally might, we went to the air and Brian Price beat Blalock (despite a holding penalty called on Blalock) to sack Ryan at the 15 yard line. Now, isntead of 2nd and goal on the 3 or 4 yard line (assuming Michael Turner had managed to run straight into a pile of defenders for a yard or two like he had all game) we were in an obvious passing situation on the 15 yard line. That comes back to play-calling, and even though we hadn’t been running effectively at all we still have to at least pretend that we can run the ball in that situation. Run a toss with Jacquizz Rodgers, run off tackle with Turner, but don’t handcuff yourself as a play-caller in that situation by forcing yourself to become one dimensional, especially with the game being 16-10 where we only needed a touchdown to tie and take the lead with a successful PAT.
Regardless, Ryan threw a relatively nice ball on 2nd and goal to Roddy but Biggers made a nice pass deflection to prevent him from having a chance to catch it. At first I thought it went off Roddy’s hands, but it was tipped just before it got to them for a nice pass break up. We failed to score on 3rd and goal and wisely kicked the field goal and gave our defense a chance to come up big again, though we had already asked too much of them already. With 4 minutes left and three timeouts we definitely had a chance to come up with a stop, but we just couldn’t do it.
While I would love to sit here and say that this game is evidence that Matt Ryan can throw us into games and give us a chance, I just can’t say that. If the defense hadn’t held up despite short drives by the offense and being on the field a lot against a pretty good Bucs offense that can really work the clock thanks to Blount’s power running game, then Ryan would have been throwing from a deficit of perhaps 20 or 27 points instead of 13, which would have changed the game completely. It was great to see us strike so quickly to give ourselves a chance to win, and Ryan looked great on the ensuing drive after a 3 and out, but dropped passes and problems in pass protection doomed us again. Sam Baker needs to be upgraded as soon as possible, because he has been an absolutely failed experiment at this point. Blalock played well overall, McClure had a bad snap but overall was solid as usual (better than Hawley I’ll say), and Clabo is arguably our best offensive lineman along with Blalock. Garrett Reynolds is struggling at RG in my opinion. I think he’s too big to play inside given his skill set. He is better in the running game, but in the passing game he lets shorter defensive tackles get under his pads and that means he is very susceptible to the bull rush, which has been a problem the first three weeks. At times, Ryan has stepped up to avoid an outside rush given up by Baker only to be faced with a bull rush from the C or RG position.
I thought Ryan played great in the fourth quarter, and if Roddy had caught that pass and we had scored either on that play or on an ensuing play this might be a totally different post. He threw for 330 yards on 26/47 passing, had one TD and one INT (nearly threw one or two more to Ronde Barber and E.J. Biggers though) and lost two fumbles, resulting in a total of three turnovers. Not his best game by any means, but it’s hard to pin each turnover on him. There were too many dropped passes today though, and again we have proven that when Ryan is asked to throw 30 or 40+ times that we are not going to win. Our team is built to run the ball and stop the run. We aren’t a wide open passing team and we don’t defend the pass well either, but when we are forced to throw like this it’s nice to know that Ryan can run the no huddle about as well as any QB’s in the league. However, he needs to play better than he did through the first three quarters. But if Roddy had caught that pass and managed to score would we be saying Ryan had a bad game? I might say he struggled but found a way to win, but I don’t think we’d be saying he had a bad game. So some of that blame has to be on Roddy and the other guys who dropped passes today.
My real problem is with the offensive line though. Their pass protection has been very problematic through the first three weeks of the season and it’s not going to get any better. This has been a problem since Ryan was drafted in 2008 and it still hasn’t gotten much better. We have two offensive linemen who should not be eligible for replacement, Blalock and Clabo (and even Blalock give up critical pressure to Brian Price on that 1st and goal pass play). Baker needs to be replaced ASAP, McClure needs to be replaced soon simply because of age, and we need to get Mike Johnson in at RG and see what he can do, because Reynolds is not getting the job done as of now. The worst thing is, because of the Julio trade we won’t be able to draft a quality LT to compete with Baker and perhaps take his job as a rookie. We will be stuck with Baker not only the rest of this year, but the rest of 2012 as well. That is more problematic than anything else for our roster, at least in my opinion.
We are still a few players away from being a contender. If Hawley and Johnson can step up at C and RG (no guarantees there at all though), then that leaves LT as the only huge hole on the offensive line. TE is going to be a big need once Gonzalez retires, and we really need to get one that can block but also catch passes effectively in traffic because Gonzalez has done that very well for us since coming here, and it’s something Ryan has grown accustomed to. Turner is going to wear down in the next year or two in my opinion, so RB could be a need sooner than people think. I like Snelling, but I’m not sure he’s a feature back kind of player.
On defense RE is going to be an insanely huge need unless Sidbury steps up in a very big and unexpected way, and even if he does I’m not sure that he will create even half of the pressure Abe is able to create when he isn’t held consistently. LT and RE are two of the most critical positions in football, and the Falcons have a huge hole at one and are about to have a huge hole at the other once Abe either retires or isn’t brought back once his contract runs out. That should terrify Falcons fans, because we don’t have a replacement for either one and we don’t have the draft picks in 2012 to pick one up either thanks to the huge trade for Julio. That might seem like a devastating blow right now, but it will be over in a year and we saw exactly why Thomas Dimitroff moved up for him today. He was getting yards after the catch (YAC) every time we threw the ball to him, and he produced the critical deep ball that resulted in our only offensive touchdown of the game. Still, our pass protection and our pass defense are such areas of concern that it is frustrating that we won’t be able to address them like I would want to in the next draft. LT and RE aren’t positions you can sign in free agency, they will cost you a boatload and more times than not they don’t even hit the free agent market because of how hard it is to find good or great players at both positions. That puts us in a tough spot, especially since Baker likely won’t ever be much better than he is right now and because Abe is getting older and isn’t under contract much longer either.
So while this was a tough loss for the Falcons today, it also highlights problems that won’t be easily resolved in the near or short term future thanks to our lack of draft picks and eventually losing one of our best play-makers over the past five or six years in John Abraham.
The good news is, Julio Jones is playing better than I could have imagined him playing, and hopefully he will be able to open the offense up more and keep defenses from taking Roddy away. They combined for 255 yards receiving on 15 receptions today against a pretty good Buccaneers defense, and it could have been even more if Roddy hadn’t dropped two or three passes in this game. He was targeted 17 times and only had 9 receptions. I’d say two or three of those incompletions were a result of Roddy dropping it, and nothing else.
But when Michael Turner and our running game is slowed down (Turner had 11 carries for 20 yards, as a team we had 15 carries for 30 yards. Our long run of the day? Matt Ryan scrambling for 12 yards) it makes it hard for us to win. That’s why we need to make sure we have a replacement lined up for Turner. If he wears down or gets hurt and is no longer effective it will spell disaster for our team, we just aren’t built to throw the ball 35+ times a week.
Sorry for the long rant, but I think all of this had to be said. The Falcons have a lot of talent, but pass protection and pass defense are still significant issues. And when Ryan has to throw the ball for us to win games, we still can’t win games. That’s tough to acknowledge, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the truth.
Hopefully you enjoyed the read, but if you’re a Falcons fan it was probably a little depressing. If so, hopefully you at least thought it was well stated.