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Atlanta Falcons

Falcons Mailbag – Answering the Week 9 Leftovers

Nov 5, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn on the sidelines at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I always get a plethora of great questions from my listener’s each week ahead of my All-22 film review podcasts on Wednesday, but some weeks there are just too many to answer in a concise, half-hour episode. So moving forward, I’ll answer any remaining questions that I don’t get to during the week here on the website.

Let’s jump right in!

Are Special Teams Mistakes Killing the Falcons?

Long time listener who often doesn’t do more than listen and tweet you the occasional question. Usually it is because we are in 100% agreement on the state of the team, players, etc. I too am a pessimistic Falcon fan.

As I watched the game against the Panthers in the 2nd half, my thought was not that we could win the game, it was that we had a chance to ‘steal’ the game. That feeling is not the mark of a good team.

We agree on the offensive regression and that the defense isn’t good (though I think they are decent, but not good enough to carry the team), but I want you to talk about something that is not mentioned enough. Special Teams and penalties on Special Teams are killing us. If we were a better team, we could overcome the awful field position we seem to get each week, but we are not. It seems we get a penalty on every punt return or punt to the other team.

This is an 8-8 team. We aren’t too bad, but we aren’t that good. We get too many penalties overall. We don’t get enough 3 and outs on defense. Sark isn’t that bad, but the offense doesn’t flow like 2016, it is like 2015 and that team was 8-8. That is how this crew looks.

When you look at the All 22, can you focus on the TEs a bit? Watching on TV, it seemed that Hooper and Levine played awfully inconsistent games.

I want to know what positions the Falcons should focus on for the draft. For me, right now after watching 8 games, I’d say DT, TE, WR to start. We need more beef to stop the run (Not sure we should re-up the rental of Poe, especially at his asking price), better blocking and overall TE play and we need a WR to replace Turbo in 3 WRs sets (I assume he gets a contract from SF).

What say you?
— mave2124

I definitely agree that it feels like the special-teams mistakes are hurting the Falcons in 2017, although the stats tell a different story.

Last year, the explosiveness and effectiveness of the offense could easily overcome a series that began inside the 10-yard line. A year ago, the Falcons had 19 offensive drives that began inside the 10-yard line but scored on a whopping 52.6 percent of them, which was the third-highest rate in the league. The league average a year ago was 15 percent.

What is notable is that this year, the Falcons still fare much better in those circumstances than what you might expect. They have 11 such drives that start inside the 10 and are scoring on 45.5 percent, still the third best rate in the NFL. The league average this year at the midpoint is 11.6 percent.

What is likely skewing our perception is that in recent weeks this poor field position has had a more negative impact. Of the team’s 11 drives this season that have started inside the 10, five have come in the past two weeks and only one (their final scoring drive against the Carolina Panthers last week) has ended in a score.

As for the tight ends, yes I think Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo were very inconsistent against the Panthers. I discussed some of the issues Hooper has faced in Wednesday’s podcast, so definitely check that out. But he certainly had some prominent mistakes, including a third-down drop and poor route-running that led to Matt Ryan’s lone interception against Carolina. His blocking was subpar as well and has been throughout 2017 in comparison to a year ago.

That latter aspect has certainly been glaring with Toilolo, as a number of instances where he has struggled to maintain leverage on the edge against defensive ends and linebackers this year have led to negative plays this season, including one of those short-yardage plays in the second quarter when the Falcons offense ground to a halt.

As for team needs, I addressed this topic on Thursday’s midseason report podcast. But I think upgrading the blocking on offense is important, which includes tight end. I think the Falcons need to find a way to upgrade the fullback position as well. Although Derrick Coleman has been outstanding on special teams this year but his blocking leaves a lot to be desired. I think getting more reliable production from Toilolo and Coleman’s spots on the roster would really help in some of those short-yardage situations.

Defensively, I would agree that defensive tackle is the biggest need as they need to find a run-plugger that can play beside Grady Jarrett. Whether Dontari Poe is re-signed as a free agent will depend on price. I’d have no problem welcoming Poe back at a lowered price. I’m not sure he’s had the year he expected that will earn him a lucrative, long-term deal that players like Damon Harrison, Brandon Williams, and others have netted in recent offseasons, so I’m optimistic he could return at a cheaper price.

I don’t think wide receiver is a pressing need at all. Even if Taylor Gabriel departs in free agency, I think the Falcons should focus on trying to get more out of Justin Hardy and Marvin Hall than investing in another young wide receiver, that likely will need a year to develop. Certainly the possibility of losing Gabriel means that the Falcons will lose some speed at the position, but the existence of players like Hall, Reggie Davis, Robby Anderson, Allen Hurns, Brandon Coleman, Eli Rogers and others in recent years means that finding a young guy that can help stretch the field isn’t impossible to do in undrafted free agency.

Thanks for the great questions mave!

Can Dan Quinn Find a Way to Fix the Falcons Offense?

I don’t think it’s just you, but since Dan Quinn is a defensive coordinator at heart, he certainly is better positioned to speak at length about the specific problems that need to be addressed on defense rather than those on offense.

One of the benefits of having a defensive-minded head coach is that if there are issues on that side of the ball, the head coach can get more involved with fixing them. We saw this a year ago when Quinn took over play-calling from then defensive coordinator Richard Smith after the bye week and saw improvement on that side of the ball down the stretch.

However the opposite is also true and it means that the offense may be somewhat neglected if it proves a bit more problematic with a defensive-minded head coach in place. This was, of course, a problem throughout 2015 during the first year under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. But Shanahan seemingly got things straight during the ensuing offseason with some adjustments and improved personnel. But those improvements did little to salvage the offense during the 2015 season, with the Falcons finishing 21st in points per game after a ranking 12th in 2014 under Dirk Koetter.

Of course we know things got turned around for the offense in 2016. But now the Falcons are seemingly in the same predicament with an erratic offense and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not overly optimistic that current offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is going to get things fixed before the year is up. That didn’t happen two years ago under Shanahan, who had nearly a decade’s worth of professional play-calling experience to fall back upon to try and address those past issues. Red-zone struggles and turnovers were those main issues plaguing the Falcons in 2015.

Sarkisian, on the other hand, is practically brand new to the NFL, so everything he’s experiencing is brand new. Arguably the most prominent issue slowing down the Falcons offense is their ability to make mid-game adjustments, an area where NFL experience is critical.

Without the support of a head coach that can lend a hand and a relatively inexperienced group of offensive assistants to lean on, Sark is unto an island by himself. Remember passing-game coordinator Raheem Morris, essentially Sarkisian’s right-hand man, is only in his second year coaching on offense and of the team’s eight other offensive assistant coaches, only two are returning in the same capacity they served in a year ago: offensive line coach Chris Morgan and tight ends coach Wade Harman. Where is the experienced staff to provide strong support?

So at this point, I’m just waiting until 2018 to see any significant growth, if any from the Sarkisian-led offense. In the meantime, I’m hopeful that Quinn can help clean up many of the issues on the defensive side of the ball and get them to pick up some of the slack.

Causes of the Front Seven’s Issues

It’s hard to blame coaching, at least as far as the individual mistakes are concerned. Perhaps you could say that coaching is at fault because those “messups” you refer to are a reoccurring event dating back to 2016.

But I think it mostly boils down to individuals on defense not doing their job. There are simply too many instances where individual players are out of position or simply being out-executed by their opponents that are leading to big gains on the ground.

For example…

And yes, I would happily vote for Keanu Neal in 2020. Watching him this year has been one of the few joys I’ve reliably had when reviewing film of the Falcons games each week. If he’s as willing to punish the ills of our current society as he is running backs and receivers over the middle, then he has a bright future in politics ahead of him!

Does Possible Byron Maxwell Signing Spell End of Jalen Collins’ Time in Atlanta?

You mentioned on yesterday’s podcast that the reason for bringing in CBs could be because Jalen Collins is about to come off suspension…I’ve seen this elsewhere as well…can you explain the logic behind this? It seems exactly backwards. If someone is hurt and we’re planning on releasing JC upon his return from suspension, that I can understand…but if we’re not releasing him, his return would add a CB to the depth chart rather than deplete one…which in theory then would leave us w/ either 1 extra CB then we’ve had all year, or if someone is injured the same #…I think I’m lost.
— Riley Streit

I should preface this by saying that the aforementioned statement about the rationale behind why the team might want to bring in Byron Maxwell is purely speculative on my part. Quinn indicated earlier this week that the reasoning behind the move was the pro personnel department wanted to see what was possibly out there.

I’m not sure how much I buy that since the only reason that you’d be compelled to see “what is out there” is if you feel that what you currently have is inadequate. I’m not sure I feel the same way about the play of the cornerbacks thus far this year, but perhaps the team feels like they’d be better served with another corner like Maxwell working in the nickel sub-package rather than Brian Poole.

However you’re right in your assessment that bringing Collins back from suspension to the 53-man roster would have to prompt another player getting cut. My assumption since the team’s roster was finalized in September that cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson would be a likely candidate given his current spot as the fifth cornerback on the roster. Wreh-Wilson has been inactive for five games so far this year, and has seen only minimal snaps in the other three. So far, he’s seen three snaps on defense and 16 on special teams. Compare that to fourth cornerback C.J. Goodwin, who has seen six snaps on defense and 154 on special teams in all eight games. So it would totally make sense that given Wreh-Wilson’s minimal contributions this year, the Falcons could release him to make room for Collins.

It’s also possible that the Falcons could make room for Collins by cutting someone elsewhere on the roster. Linebacker is a possibility, where the team is currently carrying seven due to the injury to Duke Riley. Assuming he misses an additional two weeks, he’d be ready to return during the same week that Collins is also eligible to return the roster. The Falcons could create space for Collins by cutting Sean Weatherspoon, currently the seventh linebacker on the depth chart.

Where Maxwell figures into the mix is that perhaps the Falcons are preparing to move on from Collins when he comes off suspension in little more than 10 days. Perhaps the team would cut Collins and sign Maxwell to the roster in his place. They’d still have to make the corresponding move to free up a roster spot. Again, Wreh-Wilson and Weatherspoon become two obvious candidates.

At this point, it’s purely speculative. But the fact that the team kicked the tires of a veteran cornerback like Maxwell suggests that a corresponding roster move may be looming on the horizon.

Desmond Trufant’s Performance vs. Carolina

I thought Trufant had a good game. What does the film say?
— Charlie Rogers

I agree Trufant played very well. Cam Newton avoided him for the most part. Aside from the play where he got “dunked on,” Trufant had a strong game in coverage as well as contributing in run support. He nearly had an interception as well. It’s been a strong season overall for him, even though he’s faced a lot more scrutiny and criticism from certain corners of the Falcons fan base and media.

Breaking Down Takk’s Performance vs. Carolina

Takk McKinley success at pressures.
— Jim Ottinger

I like it Jim, short and to the point. Although perhaps a bit too short to really know if it’s a question or more a declarative statement. But let’s assume it’s a question.

Re-watching the film and focusing on Takk during passing downs, I thought he did a fairly solid job using his power early on to create pressure against both of Carolina’s offensive tackles: Matt Kalil and Darryl Williams. The first half was when he was most productive, as he had one pressure and three hurries. Williams, in particular, did a much more effective job adjusting to Takk’s power in the second half, where he was not much of a factor.

I personally like to distinguish between a pressure and a hurry. In a nutshell, a pressure is when the pass-rusher is successful at disrupting a throw. Basically a pressure is only going to result in an incomplete pass either partially or primarily due to the positive pass rush from the defender. This also includes times when he forces the quarterback out of the pocket to scramble, which of course does not result in a completed pass.

A hurry, on the other hand, is essentially any other time the pass-rusher does his job, but due to whatever circumstances, it doesn’t necessarily result in an incomplete pass. This is most often when a pass-rusher is able to move the quarterback off his spot, but the passer still manages to deliver a completion.

Here are two plays from Takk on Sunday, showcasing his success and failure using his power against Williams:

 

That’s it, guys. I’ll be back next week to answer your film and Falcons questions on Wednesday’s All-22 review as well as any I don’t get to in my next mailbag “leftovers” article.

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Aaron has covered the Atlanta Falcons since 2006 on his website Falcfans.com. He is the host of the Locked on Falcons podcast and co-host of Falcons Central Radio podcast at Pro Football Central.com. He’s also contributed in the past for draft website, The Huddle Report, and been a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. He currently resides in North Carolina, is an alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh and has a deep abiding passion for chicken wings.

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