Once you get past the what-ifs — that a potential game-winning drive ended on the other team’s 3-yard line, that the new running back looked great until dropping a touchdown pass with 49 seconds left — the Falcons’ 23-17 loss to New Orleans really comes down to one things: This isn’t a team built to score only 17 points.
Not in Game 1. Not in Game 16. Not against any team, let alone New Orleans, which allowed the second-most points in the NFL last season (454). Not against any defense, let alone one that shattered the league record for yards allowed in 2012 (7,042).
Coach Mike Smith defend the Saints, saying, “That’s not the 2012 defense.” OK. Let’s go with that. Let’s assume New Orleans defense will be improved in 2013. But this was still a unit that already had four starters standing in street clothes because of injuries and lost two other regulars early in the game. And no, this defense won’t send a truckload of players to the Pro Bowl at season’s end, with our without bounties.
Seventeen points. That’s what this high-wattage, bright Hollywood marquee of an offense produced in 11 possessions on Sunday. Seventeen points, including one scoring drive in the last eight possessions.
“If we score 17 points, I’m just saying: That’s terrible. You know? I’m just telling the truth,” said wide receiver Roddy White, who nonetheless admitted he was limited by a high ankle sprain. “All of the guys that we have, we should be able to score a lot more points than that. But we [shot] ourselves in the foot on a lot of drives. We had penalties, we had things called back, drives stalled. We got off to such a good start but then we kept doing things wrong.
“We on offense, with the players we have, have to win this game.”
The defense, a young unit missing veteran cornerback Asante Samuel, limited Drew Brees and the Saints to two touchdowns and 23 points. That should have been good enough to win this game.
It’s only one loss. But the question about the Falcons is whether by season’s end, we will look back on this team as a beautifully decorated house with a faulty foundation.
They can’t block. The reconstructed offensive line, a concern through the offseason, training camp and four exhibition losses — which we can now confirm were not completely meaningless — struggled in several areas but mostly pass protection. Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked three times. The Saints were credited with six other quarterback hits.
That total seems conservative. Ryan was belted often and was constantly under pressure. It’s a wonder he escaped with all of his organs intact.
“There was pressure on the right side, left side, up the middle,” Smith said.
Sometimes, even coaches don’t have to wait to look at the film to analyze a problem.
This offense has a great quarterback, a tight end waiting on the top step in Canton, (Tony Gonzalez), the best trio of wide receivers in the NFL (White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas) and a standout running back (Steven Jackson). None of it will matter if the beef up front keeps getting spun in circles or knocked on their rumps.
It is true that the Falcons almost pulled out a win in the end: Ryan drove the offense down the field in the final three minutes, faced a third-and-goal from the Saints’ 3-yard line. He then had a high but catchable pass dropped by Jackson at the goal line. (On fourth down, Ryan was under pressure and tried to hit a triple-covered Gonzalez in the middle of the end zone but the pass was intercepted by safety Roman Harper.) But even at 1-0, the Falcons’ biggest problem would’ve been evident.
“I would be less than honest if I said there were no issues,” guard Justin Blalock said. “That’s always going to be the case. Even if we go down and score on the last play, the issues are not going to disappear just because we win a game.”
Center Peter Konz echoed the sentiment. He said the line didn’t adjust well when the Saints changed their fronts in the second half, using “more radar” type plays, in which “they just kind of stand up and walk around” and pick pass-rushing lanes.
The most scrutinized of the linemen remains tackle Lamar Holmes. He needs more than just significant improvement. He needs a reality check.
Consider this sample of quotes from Holmes and Smith.
Holmes: “We kept Matt pretty clean for the most part.”
Smith: “We’ve got to protect the quarterback better than we did today.”
Holmes: “By the time he was getting hit, the ball was gone.”
Smith: “He was hit entirely too many times.”
Was Holmes watching the same game as everybody else?
A familiar refrain: This was Smith’s and general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s biggest gamble. They cut right tackle Tyson Clabo for salary cap purposes because they believed that Holmes would not be a significant step down. But in combination with two other position changes — Konz sliding over from right guard to replace the retiring center Todd McClure and Garrett Reynolds starting at right guard — the results have been disastrous.
They have 15 more games to try to get it right. But the opener didn’t live up to the billing.