The Atlanta Falcons at a Crossroads, and Other Week 4 Observations

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan

Sep 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes against the New England Patriots during the second half at Georgia Dome. The Patriots defeated the Falcons 30-23. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

If you didn’t watch Sunday night’s game between the Falcons and Patriots, you could be excused for thinking the 30-23 score indicated how close the two teams are in talent and status, but that final score is inflated. The Falcons clawed back in it late with an onside-kick recovery, which is always fairly random at best; a botched snap on a probable sneak attempt by Tom Brady, a play which nearly always works; and one amazing catch by Julio Jones. 

The major difference is this: the Patriots are missing all of their key skill players. Just consider this list of players:  Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Amendola – those are key players from last year or expected key players from this year still not with the team.

Still, the Patriots keep winning.

Patterns and rhythms keep developing as Brady and the receivers have improved timing and familiarity with one another, and, coupled with a strong defense – Aqib Talib was absolutely a beast out there – they’re 4-0 and trending upwards, and those skill players will eventually be back.

The Falcons, on the other hand, have no serious problems at the offensive skill positions. Matt Ryan threw for over 400 yards, Julio Jones is having one of the best seasons in the league this year, and I’m not seeing any reason Tony Gonzalez should ever retire. Yes, Roddy White is banged up, and that gave them one less reliable option to go with in the passing game, and Steven Jackson was out which hurt their run-game.

To be fair, the offensive line is in shambles. Losing Sam Baker was a big blow, even though he had not been playing well as he battled through injuries. Losing Baker meant Lamar Holmes had to come back into the lineup after being benched for extremely poor play in the first three weeks. He was replaced by Jeremy Trueblood.  Holmes and Trueblood were the only options to begin with because Mike Johnson broke his leg in the preseason. Right now they really miss Tyson Clabo, let go in free agency and signed by the 3-1 Dolphins. The coaching staff has been forced to call a lot more quick outs and short reads, because they simply don’t trust the offensive line to hold up.  If you can’t stay in the pocket, it’s hard to use all of your weapons.

Their defense isn’t in great shape either, especially against the pass, as they haven’t been able to generate a decent pass rush yet.  Some of it is a result of playing a couple undefeated teams so far this season – their game against the Jets next week is their first against a team with anything in the loss column – but these problems are concerning for a team that made the NFC Championship Game last season. The Falcons look like a fantastic fantasy team, but unless they can weather the storm of these injuries and find contributors from some unexpected places, they’re going to struggle though a disappointing season the rest of the way.

Other observations from week 4 in the NFL:

  • It’s better to be lucky than good, and when you have both working for you, you’re dang near unstoppable.  The Seahawks, in their second road game, started out looking a lot like they did in their week 1 road squeaker at Carolina, with an inability to move the football against the Texans. It looked like all the talk about the huge boost Seattle gets from Home Field Advantage, coupled with the difficulty for the west coast teams with 10 a.m. local starts, were coming into play.  In the second half they started to make some adjustments, with Russell Wilson making great plays with his legs, and increasing the amount of pressure they were applying to Matt Schaub, and that ended up paying off.  This game should never have been in question – holding a seven point lead with less than five minutes left in a game they had been utterly dominating, the Texans needed to take the air out of the ball and grind the clock down to zeroes. Instead, Schaub is pressured and makes one of the worst decisions I’ve ever seen, putting the ball right in Richard Sherman’s breadbasket for a back-breaking pick-six. Instead of being handed a narrative-correcting beatdown, the Seahawks instead have their best start in franchise history – and they’re both lucky and good. Frightening.
  • It wasn’t a good week to be an undefeated team in the NFC, as the Bears went into Detroit and turned the ball over four times, as Reggie Bush and company simply steamrolled right over them. Bush had 173 yards of total offense, dashing right up the middle through holes created by Henry Milton’s absence.  The Bears believe that Israel Idonije was giving the Lions their line calls, explaining Bush’s success, but that’s still their own fault for not changing their verbiage or tactics against a team with that kind of knowledge. Credit to the Bears for a late comeback, but this game was over in the third quarter, and we therefore have the NFC North-leading Detroit Lions. Not very many people had that happening a quarter of the way through the season.
  • Someone on twitter commented that the Ravens paid for Joe Montana and got Joe Flacco after his star postseason turn last season. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but the Bills surely made Flacco look bad on Sunday, intercepting him five times despite missing three starters in their secondary. The defending Super Bowl champions are a work in progress, at best, and the Bills defense made them look even worse – another unexpected comment to make in 2013.  Flacco is what Flacco is at this point – a good, but inconsistent, quarterback.  His phenomenal run in the postseason wasn’t the turning of a page, or the development from star to superstar, but just a good player having one of the best month-long stretches of his life. He’s more than adequate – great, even – when his supporting cast is good around them, but when you don’t call a single run play in the second half until there are five minutes left in the game, and you’re missing so many offensive weapons (Boldin in San Francisco, Jones and Pitta on the IR, and so forth), you’re not giving him the best chance for success. The Ravens are still atop the AFC North, so it’s not time for panic, but they need to put this ugly performance behind them and get ready for a surprisingly tough Miami team, followed by matchups with Green Bay and then the divisional matchup against Pittsburgh, which is always tough despite the Steelers shoddy season so far.  Things don’t get easier from here on out               .
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Bryan Knowles is a writer and hopelessly devoted sports nut, with strong opinions that are subject to revision near-daily. A graduate of UC Davis and San Jose State University, Bryan spends his days teaching high school English and his nights watching far too many sporting events.