Philadelphia’s stout defense gave Atlanta more than they could handle.
After an average start to the 2017 season, the Falcons won six of their final eight regular season games, securing the NFC’s six seed with a Week 17 win over the Panthers. Atlanta proceeded to pull off a 26-13 road upset over the Rams, setting up a divisional round matchup with the Eagles.
Entering the game, Atlanta’s defense had allowed just 16.3 points per game over its last six, with many predicting another Falcons’ Super Bowl run in a seemingly weak NFC field. Atlanta’s title aspirations quickly came to an end, however, as the team fell to Philadelphia by a score of 15-10.
The Falcons had a promising start against the Eagles, forcing a Jay Ajayi fumble on the game’s second play from scrimmage, which led to an early 3-0 lead for Atlanta. After both teams traded punts, the Eagles broke through for the game’s first touchdown, though Jake Elliott’s extra point was no good. Atlanta answered back with a Devonta Freeman receiving score, but allowed a field goal as time expired in the first half, clinging to a 10-9 lead.
The second half was even worse offensively. The Falcons came out of the break completely flat, resulting in punts on their first three possessions of the half. Meanwhile, the Eagles added two field goals to their total, bringing the score to 15-10 just past the halfway point of the fourth quarter.
The Falcons went on to have their best drive of the half, marching all the way inside the Philadelphia ten before facing a fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line. Atlanta dialed up a rollout pass to the right designed for Julio Jones, but the Eagles’ defense was all over it, forcing an incompletion to end Atlanta’s season:
After the game, several Eagles’ defenders claimed they knew what the play call was, which would explain their excellent coverage on the play. Regardless of the defense’s knowledge of the play pre-snap, the call was a head-scratcher.
By rolling to the right from the right hash, the play forces the field to become smaller, while also putting a cap on how long Matt Ryan has to get rid of the ball before he hits the sideline. In addition, the Falcons split fullback Derrick Coleman out wide, leaving him alone on the left side. Knowing Coleman wasn’t a receiving threat at all (13 career receptions since 2012), the Eagles completely ignored him and flooded play side, leaving Ryan without any windows to fit a pass in.
While the fourth-and-two play put a nail in the Falcons’ coffin, there was another game-swinging play that proved huge for the Eagles down the stretch. Up 12-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles faced a third-and-seven from their own 20. Nick Foles took the shotgun snap and dumped the ball off to Ajayi on a designed screen. Both Jason Kelce and Stefen Wisniewski dished out textbook lead blocks, paving the way for a 32-yard gain and placing the Eagles in Atlanta territory.
5/ Screen to @JayTrain: Buoyed by blocks from Jason Kelce and Stefen Wisniewski, Jay Ajayi motored for 32 yards. “Sometimes you can catch a group off guard when they don’t expect two screens back to back,” Pederson explained. https://t.co/zy7fMHoGYn pic.twitter.com/VDPwzbvejg— Philly.com (@phillydotcom) January 17, 2018
Per Pro Football Reference, the play boosted Philadelphia’s win probability by 19.3%. By converting on third down deep in their own territory, the Eagles avoided giving the Falcons favorable field position on a punt. More importantly, however, was that the drive resulted in a field goal, forcing the Falcons to go for a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Had the Ajayi screen not happened, there’s a strong chance Atlanta wins the game on a field goal.
4-of-13 on Third Down Conversions (31%)
Although they finished fifth in the NFL in third down conversion percentage, the Falcons couldn’t string together conversions against Philadelphia, punting six times compared to just three times for the Eagles. Four of the six punts were right near midfield, meaning Atlanta’s drives kept dying right outside of field goal range. If one of these failed conversions went differently, the Falcons just might’ve won the game.
Issues this Season
On the surface, it seems like the Falcons had their fair share of issues this year, declining significantly compared to last season. In actuality, the team was never going to match its 2016 performance, when the offense finished top five in nearly every major category. Expectations were far too lofty, and the team was set up for disappointment. Even in a vacuum, however, Atlanta had some notable problem areas.
The first issue was simple – scoring. After finishing 2016 ranked first in points for (33.8 per game), Atlanta fell all the way to 15th in 2017 (22.1 per game). Some of the blame can be attributed to the team’s change in offensive coordinators, hiring Steve Sarkisian after Kyle Shanahan left to become San Francisco’s head coach last offseason. This season marked Sarkisian’s first as an NFL coordinator, and early on it became clear he lacked the creativity or scheme that Shanahan brought to the table.
Whether it was Sarkisian’s fault or not, Matt Ryan took a significant step back from his MVP campaign in 2016. His touchdown-to-interception ratio fell from 38-to-7 to 20-to-12, which is serviceable, but far from elite. All year, Ryan experienced accuracy problems and often tried to fit throws into non-existent windows, as evidenced by his three-interception performance against the Saints in Week 14:
Defensively, Atlanta had trouble forcing turnovers, finishing 27th in the league with just 16 takeaways on the year. The number came as a surprise given Atlanta’s stock of talented young defenders, including Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Desmond Trufant, among others. With so few takeaways, Atlanta ended the year ranked 31st in average starting field position, a perfect demonstration of how poor defensive play can lengthen the field for an offense.
Plan for the Offseason
1) Fire Steve Sarkisian
It’s difficult to justify the firing of a coordinator whose unit ranked in the top half of the league by almost every measure, but the Falcons need to move on from Sarkisian if they want to see improvement next season.
An offense with a former MVP at quarterback, a generational talent at wide receiver, and two highly productive running backs should be a top-five unit year in and year out. Sarkisian’s fourth down call against the Eagles certainly isn’t doing him any favors, either. Perhaps he can improve in his second year, but there’s a slim chance the offense gets back to the level it reached under Shanahan.
2) Draft a cornerback
According to Football Outsiders, the Falcons ranked 25th in DVOA defending both #1 and #2 receivers this year. The team’s secondary has flashed at times, but adding another piece could bring the unit from solid to great. Atlanta has invested more premium picks on defense than offense over past few years so it’d be no surprise if the team went in that direction again. Some CB prospects that might be available at the tail end of the first round include Josh Jackson (Iowa), Jaire Alexander (Louisville), and Mike Hughes (UCF).
3) Bring in a guard
Atlanta fell to 13th in rushing this season after finishing fifth in 2016, partially because of poor guard play. Once Andy Levitre went down late in the regular season, the unit had replacement-level players at both starting guard spots. The Falcons would be wise to look for help in free agency with many quality starters available, or to the draft, where prospects like Billy Price (Ohio State) and Isaiah Wynn (Georgia) could be available at the Falcons’ selection.
Atlanta still has one of the most complete rosters in football, but the NFC has several quality teams that will all be in contention next season. With smart free agent additions and savvy drafting, the Falcons should look a lot more like they did in 2016, primed to make a Super Bowl run.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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