- D. Orlando Ledbetter The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Falcons’ offense operated with the precision of a computer last season.
Someone, or something, apparently has knocked over the router and unplugged the ethernet cord. The Falcons’ offense has been offline for most of the 2017 season.
The Falcons (9-6) need their once-potent attack to reconnect in time to beat the Carolina Panthers (11-4) at 4:25 p.m. Sunday, or they will be in danger of missing the playoffs after playing in the Super Bowl last season.
On Sunday, the Saints held the Falcons to 331 yards, their third-lowest output of the season. Earlier, Seattle held them to 279 yards and Minnesota to 275.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is in danger of not passing for 4,000 yards for the first time in seven seasons.
He has 3,778 yards, 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. While earning the NFL’s MVP award last season, Ryan passed for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“Definitely, yeah, I told the guys, even after the other night that I was caught between the spin cycle of frustration, being (ticked off) and being motivated,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “ So, the frustration generally comes from us not owning the ball.”
The Falcons had two bad turnovers against the Saints. There was a dropped pass by wide receiver Marvin Allen that turned into an interception and a touchdown for the Saints. There was also Devonta Freeman’s fumble on the 1-yard line.
“Some of our interceptions (seven of them) have come from dropped passes or a fumble from not doing our technique correct,” Quinn said. “Those are the ones that I know we can control. So, of course there’s some of that from a frustration standpoint.”
But there’s enough going right for the Falcons to have a glimmer of hope heading to the regular-season finale.
“From a team and our ability to go execute those, that lights me up pretty good,” Quinn said. “I like what we do on third down. I like the different ways that we feature the guys. I think that’s a big factor.”
The Falcons are tied with San Francisco for the most dropped passes in the league, with 28. All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones heads the list with seven drops.
Against the Saints, penalties also set the unit back.
“I think the biggest thing that everybody has to remember is that they are getting everybody’s best shot,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “They are the defending NFC champs. They are a tremendous football team with tremendous weapons.
“Anytime you play the team that was last year’s champs, you are going to give them your best. I think that’s what is happening.”
The Panthers, after going to Super Bowl 50, similarly struggled in their follow-up campaign.
“We went through it last year,” Rivera said. “They are getting everybody’s best, as they should. Again, they were the NFC champs last year.”
Ryan believes that Rivera’s theory has some merit.
“We’ve certainly played some good football teams this year, throughout the year,” Ryan said. “We’ve had a lot of games against playoff teams. I think that’s made us tougher. We certainly haven’t played our best at all times, but at certain times we have.
“It comes down to us going out there and making plays.”
Quinn is proud of some portions of the offensive attack, which is being directed by first-time NFL coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
“The things that I’ve really seen over the last two weeks from the offense is the way we come off the ball in the run game,” Quinn said. “I like that kind of toughness where they can get the ball going on the ground.”
After averaging 33.8 points per game to lead the league last season, the offense is averaging 22.1 points, which ranks 15th of 32 teams. The Falcons scored 30 points or more in only four games.
“When we get all of the stuff together, it’s the run game and the play action, that’s really the identify of it all,” Quinn said. “I would say it’s one based on toughness. I love the speed of our team. Those are probably the two things that jump out the most to me, that toughness and that kind of speed for the matchups.”
The Falcons may have to consider leaning on running back Tevin Coleman more against the Panthers.
Running back Devonta Freeman was the lowest graded player on the Falcons (35.2) after the Saints game, and his past three game grades have been his lowest three of the season, according to Pro Football Focus.
In those three games, he has fumbled four times and is averaging just 1.8 yards after contact per carry. Before Week 14, Freeman, who’s had two concussions this season, didn’t have any fumbles and was averaging 3.0 yards after contact per carry.
Quinn believes the fumbling issues can be resolved.
“What we talk about is the term high-and-tight as a ball carrier here,” Quinn said. “It’s not just for the running backs, its for everybody.
“What high-and-tight means is that we are locking the ball down and we want to keep the tip of the ball up high and then tight to your body. That elbow has to be locked. That’s why we know the issues with Freeman are correctable.”
Coleman has been utilized more in the passing offense over the pass two weeks. He’s caught seven passes for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Coleman also has been targeted nine times in the past two games, more than in the six previous games combined (eight targets).
“Every week, the matchups are different,” Quinn said. “That’s one of the parts of coaching that I enjoy the most.
“Carolina’s defense is different from New Orleans. Carolina’s offense is different than New Orleans, and special (teams) are different.”
It’s come down to 60 minutes of football, and if the Falcons can’t splice together a decent offensive game, they’ll be in danger of missing the playoffs.
They can start their reboot in the offseason.