There came a moment Sunday – and not the first such moment of these past three games – when it was possible to feel sorry for the Falcons. Desmond Trufant, one of their few remaining first-string defensive backs, had to exit due to an injury. (This one minor, apparently; he returned soon thereafter.) On third-and-5 from the Atlanta 9, the rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver was matched against Antonio Brown, All-Pro.
We note that, two plays earlier, Oliver had broken up a pass for Brown in the end zone, so it’s not as if the guy is a swinging gate. (We also note that Ben Roethlisberger’s pass wasn’t overly precise. Big Ben had an indifferent game.) But this time the quarterback threw a better ball, and Brown snagged it at the pylon for the touchdown that made it 20-10, soon to become 41-17. And that, you thought, was yet another example of the buzzard’s luck that has – apologies for mixing birds – befallen the Falcons. They’re too hurt to kill anything, and nothing will die.
Such a moment prompted the question – asked by yours truly, so blame me – to Dan Quinn afterward: Is the coach confident that he has enough talent left to make anything of this season?
His response: “I am. I recognize the question if we have enough firepower with some of the injuries there. I do, and in some cases, there’s some on-the-job training, and we expect that. But by no stretch is our entire team decimate, and by no stretch are the guys we have playing not capable for the job. I stand by who we are and (expect) the talent that we have to play well. We missed it this afternoon, in the second half especially.”
Slice of reality: At this moment, the Falcons – who not long ago envisioned having a top 10 defense – have yielded more points than any NFL team. They’ve been dented for 121 over the past three weeks. Yes, the Steelers’ final seven points Sunday came on a fumble return, which brings us to something else: That was the Falcons’ first turnover since Week 2 against Carolina. The offense hasn’t been careless with the ball, hasn’t left its defense in a field-position lurch. Their defense just hasn’t stopped anybody. It mightn’t be capable of stopping anybody.
The scariest part Sunday was that the Falcons managed but 17 points against a defense that, on the record, was ranked worse than theirs. The Steelers jammed the run and put heavy pressure on Matt Ryan – it’s Blitzburg, you know – and Julio Jones didn’t catch a pass until the fourth quarter. Maybe the reports – some circulated in this space – of Steve Sarkisian having Figured Things Out were premature. The Saints and Bengals, both of which bested the Falcons in shootouts, haven’t really been stopping people, either.
Apologies for belaboring the point, but the Falcons really are up against it. They’re 1-4. No NFL team has a worse record. Once past the next two weeks – Tampa Bay on Sunday, then the Giants on Monday night – they’ll have three home games remaining. It’s no longer realistic to think in terms of 10-6, and finishing 9-7 would entail going 8-3 from here on. And the Falcons’ performance here in what was essentially a must game for both was their worst of the season. This time both offense and defense – and special teams, too – were culpable. It was a total fizzle.
Back to Quinn’s response about having enough good players: I understand why he said it – he can’t quit on his players after five games – but I’m not sure it’s true. The Falcons are deploying defenders that even depth chart mavens would have a tough time recognizing. They got no pass rush Sunday. They couldn’t stop the run. They couldn’t run the ball themselves. They were awful.
Eleven games remain. That’s a lot, yes. But what we saw Sunday was a team that had been unlucky in consecutive shootouts give itself no chance to get lucky at the end of this one. The Falcons were outscored 28-7 in the second half. There might be a way back from this thumping loss and this stumbling start, but it couldn’t be glimpsed on a sunny Sunday at the confluence of the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela.