Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Once again, the Falcons don't run the ball. Someday they'll learn

Once again, the Falcons needed a yard against a team from the AFC East. Steve Sarkisian didn’t run the ball, either.

Which is understandable. It’s not as if that other game got much attention. Nobody remembers the Falcons losing to the Patriots, do they?

For the record, this offensive coordinator – Sarkisian, in for Kyle Shanahan, who infamously ordered a pass on third-and-1 in NRG Stadium on Feb. 5 – is different. Still, this play wound up being a pass, same as on that fateful snap in the Super Bowl in Houston.

There was, however, a difference. That night, Matt Ryan had Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu at his disposal. On fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 10, he had neither, both having been injured – hip flexor for the former, hamstring for the latter. Ryan had driven the Falcons toward a winning touchdown using the likes of Nick Williams and Austin Hooper, but with 49 seconds remaining the Falcons’ best shot should have been  DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who’d combined for 137 rushing yards against a good defensive front.

Said Falcons coach Dan Quinn: “We had two plays called – one for a certain look, one for the other.”

The Falcons got the look that said, “Fake a handoff to Coleman and throw,” which is what Ryan did. Nobody popped open. Ryan scanned the field and, harried now, threw in the general direction of Taylor Gabriel, who was bumping in the right flat with Tre’Davious White. Ryan’s pass had no chance.

The Falcons lost 23-17 on a day they should have lost by more. Three second-half turnovers, all debited against Ryan, should be enough for a decent NFL team to seal a deal. But Bills coach Sean McDermott managed a three-point lead with 3:27 remaining as if his team led by double figures. Buffalo ran the ball three times and banked another long Stephen Hauschka field goal, leaving the door ajar.

Stringing together a drive from wire and chewing gum, the Falcons converted on Ryan-to-Williams on fourth-and-4. Ryan scrambled for 8, then hit Hooper for 9, then Freeman for 7 and then 13. This was, it must be said, deft stuff by Sarkisian and Ryan. Until they reached the 10 and went all thumbs.

It was third-and-1 with 54 seconds left. Could have run it there and gotten the first down. (Quinn had spent all his timeouts, sagely so, on the previous Buffalo series.) Did not. Ryan wound up throwing the ball away. So now it’s fourth-and-1. Run it, get the yard, spike it, take three shots at the end zone – right?

Quinn: “That was the game plan going in. Get the first down, get back on the ball and start taking shots at end zone.”

So what happened? Ryan did the usual counting. “It was an opportunity for us to get them to come up and throw something behind it,” he said. “We had an opportunity there, with eight, nine guys in the box.”

But it’s fourth-and-1. At this moment, your best offensive players aren’t big receivers on the order of Jones and Sanu. Those two are standing on the sideline. Your best players, not counting Ryan, are your backs. Every coach at every level goes nuts over that count-the-men-in-the-box stuff, but sometimes defenses cheat up in the attempt to deceive. And if you’re a Super Bowl team, which the Falcons were and aspire to be again, you need to be able to run for a yard.

Once again, the Falcons tried to throw the ball. In Houston, the planned third-and-1 pass became Dont’a Hightower’s sack/strip. Here it become an incompletion to Gabriel, who’s 5-foot-8.

Given the way this season has begun, the Falcons might have needed a loss. They were fortunate to win in Chicago. They routed the Packers on Sunday night and had us all thinking Super thoughts. They were a replay review from losing in Detroit. They came in undefeated, leading some to anoint them NFL’s best team. Owing to the slender margins of their first and third victories, the data-based Football Outsiders had them ninth.

On Sunday against a game but limited band of Bills, the Falcons again tried to ride their luck, as opposed to their conspicuous skill. They fell behind in the first half, which marked their first deficit since James White scored in overtime to decide Super Bowl 51. They retook the lead and spit it back, this marking their first second-half deficit since Dec. 4 on the day of Eric Berry’s pick-2 – remember, they only trailed in OT in Houston – which was 10 games ago.

They had trouble stopping LeSean McCoy, which everyone does, and couldn’t cover tight end Charles Clay (seven receptions, 112 yards). They outgained the Bills by 110 yards but turned it over three times in four second-half possessions. That’s how you lose.

Ryan: “It’s disappointing. We’re better than that. I’m better than that.”

Usually, yes. But only in the first half against the Packers have they shown the separation gear of last season, and if they were unfortunate not to have Ryan’s fumble-turned-Buffalo-touchdown overturned by replay … well, the Falcons pretty much spent their saved-by-video capital in the Motor City.

They enter their bye week now, which could help the injured – Jones, Sanu, Ryan Schrader, Vic Beasley Jr. – heal. Quinn has other aims: “Let’s get our turnover margin in order.” Turnovers, however, can wax and wane by the season. We’re still trying to figure out what the 2017 Falcons are. But this we already know:

With a game on the line against an AFC East team, they will not run the ball. And they will lose by six points.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.