The Falcons had five players hurt in one half Sunday, and four of those will be gone for a while. This does not, however, mean that the Falcons aren’t apt to win another game. If anything, this could be — bad pun alert — just what the doctor ordered.
Hear me out. The Falcons have fallen into a rut. They get ahead and have a hard time staying there. Dating to last season’s playoffs, they’ve led by double figures in each of their past four games. They’ve won two of the four, and in a third they trailed inside the final 10 seconds. Over those four second halves, they’ve been outscored 73-24.
So how, you’re asking, might losing four starters serve as some sort of pick-me-up? Like this, I submit.
The Falcons do one thing very well: They throw (and catch) the heck out of the ball. They used to be able to run, but not lately. They ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing yards last season; they’re 26th through one-eighth of this one. They tend to get way ahead by throwing (and catching). Only when they try to run do games tighten.
Much of this is a function of human nature. When a game’s under control, your first thought is, “Let’s not do anything to mess this up.” But sometimes trying not to mess up is the surest way to mess up. When the Falcons throw the ball, they’re great. When they try to run with it, or try to defend, they’re mediocre.
I know this is getting convoluted, but bear with me. Of the four players injured, two feature in the ground game: Bradie Ewing, who’s out for the season, is the fullback who blocks for Steven Jackson, who’s out for two or three games. A running attack that has been nothing special figures to be less special, which is reason enough for the Falcons to throw even more. Why play to a weakened weakness? Why not play to your one conspicuous strength?
I know, I know. When you pass all the time, you cede control of the clock. You either score fast or go three-and-out, thereby leaving your defense in the lurch. But the Falcons’ defense likewise hasn’t been very good — it ranked 24th among 32 NFL teams last season and ranks 27th now — and has just lost end Kroy Biermann for the duration and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon until at least Week 11. That’s another weakened weakness.
So why worry about putting the D under pressure? Given the way opponents have scored in second halves, it’s not as if these defenders have exactly been hunkering down. Why not try like heck to put up 42 points and see if the other side can beat that imposing number?
Speaking before practice Wednesday, Matt Ryan noted that the Falcons’ issue hasn’t been so much “finishing” games as “sustaining” during games. That’s not unusual. The NFL is built for comebacks, and no team scores on every possession. But the Falcons have a pretty good notion of who they are and what they do best, and that’s to let Ryan throw and his many-splendored receivers catch.
And now you’re saying: Yeah, but the offensive line hasn’t proved it can protect Ryan. My response: For this team to go anywhere at all, it has to figure out how to pass-block, and pass-blocking is, generally speaking, easier to master than run-blocking. (There’s less precision — and more holding — involved in pass-blocking.) We might as well find out now if this O-line can handle that part of its mission and save us any down-the-road suspense.
“It’s our job to try to score every time we have the ball,” Ryan said. “You can’t always do it, but we have to keep that mindset. Yes, you want to protect the ball, but we all know that we’re at our best when we’re aggressive.”
Exactly. The biggest knock on Mike Smith as the coach is that too many Falcons games have tracked the same path: a great start (his teams are nothing if not prepared); a shaky middle (because of creeping conservatism) and a rousing finish (because of Matty Ice). These injuries have delivered a jolt, yes, but not all jolts need be deleterious.
Writing for Football Outsiders in its 2013 Almanac, Robert Weintraub floated this notion: “The best bet for the Falcons to defy regression and actually win it all might be to undergo a personality transplant and concentrate on simply outgunning opponents.” That passage seems twice as sagacious today as it did in August.
The defense and the running game have taken personnel hits, but these Falcons were never going to win big by defending or running. This team is going only as far as Ryan and his receivers can take it. It’s time to see how far that is.