Falcons Can’t Finish

Sunday, February 5, 2017.  Super Bowl LI (51).  I can’t think of the Atlanta Falcons anymore without recalling that evening.

About halfway through the third quarter, a six-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tevin Coleman pushed Atlanta’s lead to 28-3.  Taking nothing away from New England’s remarkable comeback, the fact remains that Atlanta – with the championship within their grasp – couldn’t finish.

In last year’s Divisional Round game, Atlanta failed to score in the second half, becoming a footnote in Philadelphia’s remarkable run to the championship.

Last Sunday, Atlanta fell to New Orleans, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  The loss – their third straight – leaves their record at 4-7 and their playoff hopes on life support.

All throughout this mystifying season, the Falcons have been close.  As they were close to winning it all a couple of years ago.  But finishing remains elusive.  They were within one score of the defending champions in the season opening game, but lost 18-12.  They have also lost by one score to New Orleans (43-37 in overtime in Week Three), Cincinnati (37-36 in Week Four), and Dallas (22-19 in Week Eleven). The losses to New Orleans (the first one), Cincinnati and Dallas were all at home.

This, of course, was not a one-score loss.  Still, it falls into the familiar pattern.  Eleven-and-a-half point underdogs coming into the game, the 4-6 Falcons gave the once-beaten Saints all they could handle, outgaining them 366 yards to 312, while controlling the clock for 30:59.

In the end, though, they couldn’t finish.

Driving all the way to the Saint 3-yard lineon their first possession, they coughed the ball up on a sack-fumble – the first of six sacks and four turnovers on the day.  That pretty much told story.  After a rare interception of Drew Brees, Atlanta had the ball on the New Orleans 39, still trailing 7-0.  Moments later they had a second-and-6 on the Saints’ 7-yard line.  Another sack forced them to settle for a field goal.  By the time the first half ended, Atlanta was down 17-3 and playing catchup.

The loss not only casts a shadow over the Falcon playoff hopes, but also diminished several good things that the Falcons did accomplish during the contest.  After his first-half difficulties, Matt Ryan did throw 2 second half touchdown passes, on his way to 377 passing yards.  Moreover, both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley had 80+ receiving yards in the second half – part of a second half that saw Atlanta control the clock for 18:30 and outgain the Saints 221 yards to 109.

At 4-7, the Falcons are pretty much under the necessity to win all of their remaining games.  It’s a tall order, as those games include road games in Green Bay, Carolina and Tampa Bay.  Next week’s home game against Baltimore won’t come easily either – although they will have the luxury of playing against a backup quarterback.

Worth noting – I thought – in the loss was the improvement in the Atlanta defense.  Yes, I know that the numbers weren’t all that amazing.  Before the game was over, they had allowed 4 touchdowns, 31 points, and 312 yards – 150 of them on the ground.

But remember, please, that this was the New Orleans offense.  They came in not only as the highest scoring offense in the league, but having scored 144 points over their last three games while racking up 1542 total yards.

In spite of their inability to cope with New Orleans’ running game, the Falcons were able – to a great extent – to make the Saints passing game crawl.  Brees had only two completions more than 20 yards downfield, and only 3 for greater than 15 yards.  This – along with the first interception tossed by the league leader in passer rating since Week 8, and the first sack against him since Week 7 – made this victory more difficult than most – and certainly more difficult than you would have expected against Atlanta – who came into the game with the twenty-ninth ranked pass defense.

In trying to take away the deep pass, Atlanta played some zone defense – still not their strength.  Most of Drew’s short completions came against Atlanta’s soft zones.  But, more and more, Atlanta started playing man coverage against this high-octane passing attack.  They did all this well enough to hold top receiver Michael Thomas to 4 catches for 38 yards, and Alvin Kamara to one catch for 9 yards.

Conceptually, they covered Kamara with a defensive back, and double covered Thomas.  This is an approach tried with some frequency against New Orleans, but few opponents can make it work.  At times, the Falcon defense vaguely resembled the Super Bowl defense of a few years ago.  Some of the coverage schemes were quite inventive.  On one third quarter pass, Atlanta ran what looked like a defensive read-option double team of Thomas.

Still up 17-3, New Orleans faced third-and-5 from the Falcon 43.  There were 11 minutes and 19 seconds left in the quarter.  The Saints lined up with three wide receivers to the right side (Tommylee Lewis, Thomas and Keith Kirkwood).  Tight end Josh Hill was tight to the left of the formation, with Kamara in the backfield to Brees’ left.

The Falcons answered with a man-look with Brian Poole lining up opposite Lewis, Desmond Trufant in position to bump Thomas off the line, and Robert Alford across from Kirkwood.  On the other side, De’Vondre Campbell had Hill and cornerback Isaiah Oliver had Kamara.  In the middle of the field stood safety Sharrod Neasman – perhaps keeping an eye on Brees should he try to run for the first down, or potentially a double cover for Hill.

At the snap, though, when Thomas initially broke to the outside, Alford went with him, forming a double-team with Trufant on Thomas.  Meanwhile, Neasman took Kirkwood’s in-breaking route.  Presumably, had Thomas broken to the inside, Neasman would have been a part of that double-team, while Alford would have gone with Kirkwood.

True to the way this game played out, after his initial outside step, Thomas broke back inside, causing a moment of indecision on Alford’s part.  That was enough for Thomas to lead Trufant on a collision course with Alford, leaving Thomas wide open down the left side.

Brees overthrew him, forcing a rare New Orleans punt.  It would be one of the few breaks the Falcons would get on this day.

A Note on TaysomHill

Every New Orleans broadcast includes some kind of feature on third-string quarterback Taysom Hill.  Listed as 6-2 and 221 pounds (although he looks much bigger) Hill has become quite a story.  He returns kickoffs, plays on all the coverage teams, and lines up all over the field – including tight end and wide receiver.

Hill is said to be the fastest player on the team.  Coach Sean Payton – who is something of a subject matter expert – claims that Hill will be a starting quarterback in this league.  As a receiver, Hill displays down-the-field speed, but none of the nuances (yet) of the position – double-moves, etc.  The same is true of his kick returning and other running.  Hill is a downhill runner, with none of the shiftiness that makes receivers like Tyreek Hill so feared.

So, what Taysom Hill may or may not develop into on the field remains purely speculative.  Here is what we know for sure about him.

Taysom Hill is a football player.

At the very end of the third quarter, Hill took a kickoff at his own 5 yard line.  Finding a crease up the left sideline, Hill exploded through it.  At the end of the corridor stood kicker Matthew Bosher.  Hill lowered his shoulder and blew through him and straight into the three defenders that were moving quickly into the area.  Later in the fourth quarter, now playing quarterback, Taysom kept the ball on a read-option run.  He punctuated his 8-yard run first by running through Foyesade Oluokun’s attempt to stop him in the backfield, and then by lowering that shoulder again and driving linebacker Campbell straight back into Damontae Kazee’s lap.  He then drove both of them a couple yards up the field before plowing into the midsection of Poole, who, with the help of the other two, finally brought Hill down.

There is, seemingly, no aspect of this game that Taysom Hill does not relish – whether it’s blocking from the tight end position or even the special teams roles that aren’t regarded as football’s most glamorous opportunities.  He certainly doesn’t shy away from contact.  In fact, judging from the face-wide grin he wears after hitting someone (or being hit), the contact might be the thing he likes best.

In all of this, everything about him is refreshing.  Whatever his eventual future is in this game, it’s hard not to root for this kid with a rare combination of size and speed.

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