The Current State of the 2-3 Atlanta Falcons

It's gut check time for the Falcons. (Seth Wenig)

It’s gut check time for the Falcons. (Seth Wenig)

We’re only entering Week 6 of the 2014 NFL season and while there is plenty of football left to be played, there are glaring issues with the Atlanta Falcons that prompt questions as to whether or not this team will advance to the postseason.

As it stands, the Falcons hold a 2-3 record, having lost two in a row. However, that record qualifies for second in the NFC South, as the division has not looked impressive. The Carolina Panthers lead with a 3-2 record, but they were blown out in their two losses. The New Orleans Saints are ranked third with a 2-3 record, and their defense has looked as bad as Atlanta’s. At 1-4, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in shambles.

The Falcons’ three losses have all come on the road. The Cincinnati Bengals served them a 24-10 beat down back in Week 2. Don’t let the score fool you – it wasn’t anywhere close to a two-score game.

In Week 4, the Falcons were embarrassed by a Minnesota Vikings team that gave quarterback Teddy Bridgewater his first NFL start and an offense that appeared to be undermanned with Adrian Peterson suspended and Kyle Rudolph out with an injury. Atlanta lost 41-28 as Minnesota piled up an absurd 558 yards of offense.

Last week, Atlanta started out strong against the New York Giants. They built a 10-point lead in the third quarter, but ultimately lost 30-20.

Atlanta’s two wins have come in home games against divisional opponents: a thrilling 37-34 overtime victory over the Saints in Week 1 and a 56-14 shellacking of the Bucs in Week 3.

The Falcons need to get their road woes figured out quickly as they’re currently in the midst of a seven-game stretch – including the previous losses to the Vikings and the Giants – in which they’ll play just one game in the Georgia Dome.  Atlanta hosts the Chicago Bears this Sunday, and they have a “home” game against the Detroit Lions in Week 8, but that game will be played in Wembley Stadium in London.

Atlanta’s offense is one of the best in the league. It ranks third in the league in both points scored per game with 30.2 and yards with 434.6. The passing game averages 319.2 yards per game – second only to the Indianapolis Colts. And the 17th-ranked rushing offense has shown marked improvement after finishing last season as the league’s worst. Lastly, the Falcons offense leads the league in yards per play with 6.6.

On the not-so-great front for the offense, the Falcons have lost three starting linemen already: left tackle Sam Baker was ruptured the patella tendon in his right knee in the second preseason game, and center Joe Hawley and right tackle Lamar Holmes both suffered season-ending injuries in Week 4.

However, the defense is as bad as it was last season. Currently, Atlanta is ranked 29th in points and yards allowed per game with 28.6 and 407.2, respectively. The 28th-ranked defense allows 147.6 yards per game on the ground, and the passing defense is just a smidgen better, coming in at 24th with a 259.6 yards-per-game average.

More rankings: Atlanta’s four sacks are good for a three-way tie with the Arizona Cardinals and the Oakland Raiders. Those four sacks are only better than the St. Louis Rams’ sole sack. The 6.1 yards per play that Atlanta allows ranks as third-worst in the league.

Let’s point out the ineptitude of the rush defense. I was absolutely certain the Falcons would be significantly better than they were last season in their ability to slow down the run. Free agent additions of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson – big linemen who have shown a knack to stuff the run – haven’t exactly provided Atlanta with a respected run defense.

That’s not saying Jackson and Soliai are at fault for the Falcons’ ability to prevent teams from running all over them. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has Atlanta’s defense coming out in a 4-2-5 to start the game. The four linemen consist of the aforementioned Jackson and Soliai at tackle, with Jonathan Babineaux at right defensive end and Kroy Biermann at left. Just two linebackers are on the field with five defensive backs.

To put it simply: it’s not exactly a formation that’s conducive to stopping the run, and through five games, it’s been painfully clear Atlanta isn’t going to stop the run using it.

I don’t necessarily blame Nolan for the defense being in the shape it’s in; he can only do so much with what he has. As has been illustrated with the Falcons’ rankings on offense and defense, there’s a night and day different between the two units.

The Falcons drafted Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Since then, they’ve largely made moves to build around Ryan and the offense. Before the draft, the Falcons gave a nice-sized contract to running back Michael Turner. They also traded up for Baker in the same draft. The following year, Atlanta traded for tight end Tony Gonzalez. In 2011, the Falcons put together a blockbuster trade to draft wide receiver Julio Jones.

The same attention hasn’t been given to the defense under this regime. That’s not to say the front office hasn’t tried. In 2010, they made a splash in free agency by signing prized free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson. That same year, they took linebacker Sean Weatherspoon with the 19th overall pick. In 2011, they attempted to complement pass rusher John Abraham with Ray Edwards. In 2012, they pulled off a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for ball-hawking cornerback Asante Samuel. In the 2013 NFL Draft, the Falcons double dipped, taking cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first and second rounds, respectively.

Both Edwards and Robinson were free agent busts. Weatherspoon, while a playmaker when he’s healthy, has been oft-injured throughout his career – including suffering a season-ending injury in the offseason.

Noticeably, however, is the fact Atlanta hasn’t drafted an outside pass rusher in any of the first three rounds under the current regime. With the exception of trying out Edwards, the Falcons largely relied on Abraham to generate a pass rush, until they released him and signed Osi Umenyiora in the 2013 offseason.

And thus, it should come as no surprise that Atlanta has had a tremendous amount of trouble getting to the opposing quarterback.

The Falcons are facing a must-win scenario against the Bears on Sunday. A win gives them a .500 record. A loss drops them to 2-4, and with road games against the Baltimore Ravens and two divisional opponents in the Bucs and Panthers, they would have their backs pinned to the wall. If Atlanta manages to go 3-2 over the next five games, they’ll be in pretty good shape to get into the playoffs as four of the last six games will be played at home.

Owner Arthur Blank won’t say it, but if the Falcons miss the postseason for the second consecutive year, there could be major changes on the way. There’s a chance head coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and the aforementioned Nolan could no longer be employed by the franchise.

It’s time to – dare I say it – Rise Up.
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