Good morning! Welcome to The Cover 9@9 blog. It's our weekly blog of nine things at 9 a.m Wednesday that you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons (4-4). The defending NFC champion Falcons are set to face the Dallas Cowboys (5-3) at 4:25 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. With the team reaching the halfway post, we're handling the mid-term grades today.
FLOWERY BRANCH -- After perhaps the first- or second-best season in franchise history, the Falcons are looking rather average at the halfway point. The 1998 and the 2016 teams both reached the Super Bowl.
Maybe the Falcons will get hot and make a playoff run, but the play from the first of the season has not been of playoff quality. Certainly not of championship level play.
It's been rather uninspiring and downright difficult to watch at times.
So, let’s get to the grades:
Run offense: The Falcons rushing attack was rolling along just fine with six straight games of rushing for 100 yards or more. However, the Panthers held the Falcons to season-low 53 yards in their eighth game of the season. stymied. Devonta Freeman, who hasn’t been the same since the bye week, was held to 46 yards on 11 carries as the offensive line was dominated upfront by the Panthers. Freeman’s on pace for another 1,000-yard season as he’s rushed for 512 yards and five touchdowns on 114 carries. Coleman is averaging 5 yards per carry. Grade: C
Pass offense: The Falcons are third in NFL in dropped passes (16) – behind San Francisco (21) and Oakland (18). The always dependable Julio Jones had a key dropped touchdown pass against Carolina. Jones has 43 catches for 658 yards and one touchdown this season. He had his 37th career 100-yard game against Carolina. Mohamed Sanu has 31 catches for 325 yards and three touchdowns. Taylor Gabriel has 20 catches for 245 yards and one touchdown. Tight end Austin Hooper has 25 catches for 331 yards and two touchdowns. Matt Ryan has completed 177 of 270 passes for 2,155 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has a passer rating of 92.8. Ryan threw seven interceptions last season on his way to winning the league’s MVP award. Grade: C
Run defense: The Falcons were expected to be stout against the run after signing Dontari Poe as a free agent. The lost of Jack Crawford (biceps injury) and Courtney Upshaw certainly hurt the defensive line. In all four losses, the run defense has been shredded. Buffalo (117), Miami (138), New England (162) and Carolina (201) have all rushed for more than 100 yards against the Falcons defense. The Falcons held the Jets to 43 yards rushing. The Falcons looked like they’ve never seen the zone-read option before and played like it against Carolina. The Panthers averaged just 97.6 rushing yards per game over their first eight games. Newton (nine carries, 86 yards, one touchdown) and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey (15 carries, 66 yards, one touchdown) had season highs. The 201 output was nearly twice their 102.1-yard average. The Falcons have been out of position on several running plays all season. Grade: F
Pass defense: The Falcons are giving up 207.3 yards passing per game. The Falcons limited the Panthers to 137 yards passing and didn’t let any deep passes get over their heads. Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant are playing strong in coverage and nickel Brian Poole is also played well. The Falcons reportedly worked out Byron Maxwell and they also have a decision looming on cornerback Jalen Collins, who’s 10-game suspension is winding down. Vic Beasley and Brooks Reed lead the team with three sacks each. The rush was much better earlier in the season. Grade: C
Special teams: Matt Bryant has made 15 of 18 field goals as he’s been the benefactor of the offense’s repeated stalls inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. Matt Bosher is averaging 42.2 yards net on 26 points and has placed 11 punts down inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. Andre Roberts has been a steady returner and has a 61-yard kickoff return to his credit. The coverage units have made too many penalties. Grade: C-plus
Coaching: Let’s just start with the penalties. The Falcons have committed 61 for 471 yards. They have had 157 yards nullified, including a kickoff return for a touchdown, by penalty. They’ve had 18 first down nullified by penalty yards and had a minus-22 penalty yard differential. Right guard Wes Schweitzer leads the team with five penalties (two false starts and three offensive holding calls). Cornerback Robert Alford, left guard Andy Levitre and defensive end Adrian Clayborn are tied for second with four penalties. Clayborn has three “mental” penalties with neutral zone infraction, encroachment and defensive offside. Levitre has two false starts. Sharrod Neasman and Kemal Ishmael have illegal blocking above the waist penalties that nullified a 65-yard return (touchdown) and 52-yard return. All, the penalty mayhem falls at the feet of the coaching staff. “We’ve seen a play that’s a 70-yard penalty on a touchdown return,” Quinn said. “Those are ones that are really difficult to overcome. It’s the pre-snap ones that we’re in complete control over, a jump offsides, a neutral zone infraction extending a third down.” Also, the coaches have not done a good job of getting the team prepared to win games. Quite frankly, the Falcons are lucky to be 4-4. The Falcons were not ready to play Buffalo and poorly defended tight end Charles Clay. The only way they could lose to Jay Cutler and Miami was to allowed them to run the ball. The Dolphins ran for 138 yards. The no-show for the Super Bowl rematch against New England was a low point to the first half of the season. After a win against the Jets, the Falcons were clueless against zone-read concepts that Carolina ran. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who hadn’t been in the NFL since 2004, has been stymied in the third quarter all season. The Falcons have only 19 points in the third quarter. Grade: C.