- Alex Makrides
Since the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl rematch against the New England Patriots last month, the focus for coach Dan Quinn and quarterback Matt Ryan has been correcting the offense’s third-down issues.
Three weeks later Quinn’s and Ryan’s emphasis hasn’t changed ... but neither have the results.
The Falcons were only 7-for-23 on third-down conversions in its past two games before their Sunday game, in their first divisional matchup, against the Carolina Panthers.
For an offense still trying to find its footing under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Ryan and company didn’t do themselves any favors by converting just 4-of-12 third-down attempts against the Panthers. They also were 0-for-3 on their fourth-down tries.
“It’s completely about us, and it’s our 2017 team,” Quinn said following the loss to the Panthers. “We’ve got eight games under our belt under the same roof, and we’ve got much that we want to work on.”
In the past three games, the Falcons have converted only 31.4 percent (11-of-35) of their third-down opportunities, down from 45.5 percent through the first five games.
And for a team that had such an explosive offense last season and such high expectations this year, numbers like that won’t get them back to the playoffs if the struggles continue.
“We have to convert,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “I guess we didn’t click. We will go back to the drawing board, figure out what we need to do to win, and win.”
Winning is not something the Falcons have done lately. Having dropped four of their past five games, the Falcons sit at 4-4 halfway through the season (third in the NFC South) with an offense that has put up at least 30 points just twice in its first eight games. Through the first eight games last year the Falcons hit the 30-mark six times.
Failing to move the chains doesn’t help that. Yes, it takes time to get used to a new offensive coordinator, but the execution hasn’t been there for the Falcons, who are converting 3.6 percent fewer third downs from a season ago.
Against the Panthers, the third-down woes hit a new low when the offense was only 2-of-4 on third-and-1 opportunities. It also didn’t look good when on one of those the Falcons failed to convert an ensuing fourth-and-1.
With the Falcons leading by 10 late in the second quarter and the ball on the Panthers’ 35-yard line, both Freeman and fellow running back Tevin Coleman failed to gain one yard on successive third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 plays. The Panthers got the football back and scored to get back in the game.
“Anytime you don't convert, you get disappointed, especially when you think you have the right play call to execute it to go and attack,” Quinn said. “We love the opportunity to go for it on those situations, based on the runners and how we attack. We didn't get the job done at the line of scrimmage, for sure.”
In the third quarter and facing another third-and-1, the Falcons decided to put the ball in Ryan’s hands after being shut down on the two short-yardage running attempts earlier in the game. The Falcons called a play-action pass that resulted in Ryan being pressured immediately and throwing an incomplete pass to tight end Austin Hooper.
“We had a lot of third-and-short situations (and) in those situations, you've got to find a way to get it done,” Ryan said. “Our executions in those type of situations is really one of the differences in the game (against Carolina), and has been the case throughout the season.”
Short third downs haven’t been kind to the Falcons. When the Falcons faced a third-and-2 or less, it has picked up a first down just 55 percent of the time (10-of-21), including going 0-for-6 when Ryan has passed in such situations. Last season, the Falcons converted 64.5 percent in third-and-short scenarios.
The good news is, is that whatever the issues might be for the Falcons failure to move the sticks, there is hope.
Last season, the Falcons were in a similar situation midway through the season. Not record or standings wise -- the Falcons were 5-3 and first in the NFC South last year -- but in terms of their success on third-down plays. Through the first eight games of 2016, the Falcons converted only 39.6 percent of its third-down opportunities. In the final eight games, that number rose to 46.1 percent.
It was a similar climb on short-yardage third downs. In the front half of the season the Falcons’ short-yardage third-down conversion percentage was 61.1 percent. In the back half, it was 75 percent.
Now there is no way of knowing if the Falcons third-down success rate will rise that much, but for Ryan, Quinn and the offense, it’s most likely a little bit comforting to know they improved in the second half of the season keeping drives alive.
“Do I think we could be better? For sure,” Ryan said. “I fully expect us to work at practice to try and find ways to improve across the board, and I really feel like if we clean up a couple of situational things, we can play some pretty good football.”