Archer’s Take: Falcons defense may have found a new path forward in loss

Editor's note: Archer's Take is a weekly series in which Falcons analyst Dave Archer provides insight and analysis of each Falcons game.

Andy Dalton was getting the ball out quickly, taking what was there

Cincinnati knew that the Falcons were going to play zone coverage. So they used their quick game, meaning three-step drops, and when they were in the shotgun it was quick catch and throw for Andy Dalton. He was just taking what the defense was giving him. I thought Atlanta tackled extremely well, but when Cincinnati did take shots down the field, the Falcons were playing loose and the pass rush couldn’t get there because Cincinnati’s receivers were coming off the ball uncontested with nothing to disrupt their routes, so they were at full speed in two or three steps. When the Falcons were in a single high safety, Cincinnati’s receivers could get into those seams in the coverage quickly. I thought the looseness of the coverage affected the ability to disrupt Andy Dalton and the pass rush in the first half.  

Atlanta had some guys playing a little bit differently than they normally would, so I think that played into it. Desmond Trufant was playing inside, Robert Alford played inside some and they had Brian Poole playing safety.

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*The Falcons defense made a big change at halftime, nearly won the game *

In the second half, the Falcons adjusted. They came up and played tight man coverage, and scrapped the zone. That was a huge change for the Falcons defense because they are a zone team. Atlanta came up and played bump-and-run coverage, and because Dalton had to hold the football longer, now Takk McKinley, Vic Beasley and those guys had a chance to start getting home with the pass rush. 

I think that Defensive Coordinator Marquand Manuel and Head Coach Dan Quinn must have talked to them and said, “listen, we’re going to have to come out of character here a little bit. We know like to play zone and mix in man coverage in, but we’re going to scrap that and play man coverage across the board, and I mean bump-and-run, tight man coverage, and we have got to find ways to disrupt routes and make Andy Dalton hold the football”. And they did that really well. The Bengals still made some plays, but the scoring came down dramatically, the big plays came down dramatically, and the Falcons defense gave their offense a chance take control of the game a little bit.

It’ll be interesting to see if that carries forward. Sometimes in a bad situation you find something that you’re better at than you thought. 

Andy Dalton made a perfect throw to win the game, and Isaiah Oliver will learn from it

Ironically enough, the Falcons went back to zone coverage on the Bengals final offensive play of the game. And the thinking was that the Bengals could not afford to complete the ball inbounds because they had no time outs left. So the Falcons decided to play zone and drop their defenders down near the goal line, and anything completed in front of the end zone would allow them to rally up and make the tackle and end the game. 

The Bengals put their best receiver, AJ Green, on the side of the Falcons defense that had a rookie cornerback in Isaiah Oliver, and Brian Poole playing safety in the back instead of his usual nickel corner. That wasn’t a coincidence. Essentially, Poole was in the proper position. The only thing that could have been different on the play was if Isaiah Oliver had lost more ground. He needed to back pedal and sink more. Even though he would typically be responsible for the flat in that coverage, in that situation anything completed in front of him would have been fine, but nothing can be completed behind him. So even if they run a guy in front of him in the flat, he needs to leave that alone and take away the throw in the end zone. And it was a perfect throw from Andy Dalton. He sees it quickly and puts it exactly where it needed to be. It was a learning opportunity for Oliver, and he will grow from that. 

*The need to switch things up on defense may have revealed a new path forward *

Any time you don’t win, the natural tendency for those outside the building is to concentrate on all the things you didn’t do and all the plays you missed. But Atlanta needs to concentrate on all the things they did right, because they did a ton of stuff right, especially in the second half on defense. 

For much of that second half, you saw the Falcons put both the pass rush and the coverage together. And that’s what I would concentrate on. If I’m defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, I might be saying ‘wait a minute, I might be able to do a little more of this’. I think he knew that his group has talent back there, and maybe the injuries are making you a little reluctant, but now he may be thinking ‘we’re good enough back there to come up and play man coverage, and if we’re not getting a pass rush we can send and extra rusher to get after them’. 

Sometimes, when you struggle there is a blessing in disguise. And I think maybe we discovered that the Falcons may be a little better in man coverage than even Marquand Manuel thought. And that may help them in play calling coming up.

Falcons run game took the pressure off Matt Ryan

Ryan was aided by offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian because Steve really did a good job of sticking with the ground game. They made Cincinnati defend the ground game even as Matt had a hot hand. That was one of the keys we talked about during the week. What do you do against this front to potentially neutralize their pass rush? Can you get them a little bit worn down? I thought the run game did that. The Falcons ran successfully enough that Cincinnati’s adjustment at halftime was to focus on the run because they were getting gashed in the run game. They thought coming into the game that they were going to be able to control the run and get after the passer, and they weren’t able to do that. That gave Matt Ryan more time to throw the ball down the field. 

It’s just fun to watch Matt Ryan play right now. His ability to diagnose what’s going on defensively is outstanding. And I think Matt’s trust in his weapons on offense is off the charts right now, which I love to see as a former quarterback. It doesn’t matter who’s on the field right now, he trusts throwing the ball their way.

Mohamed Sanu led an inspired performance by Atlanta’s receivers

I thought that Mohamed Sanu was the inspirational driver on offense in this game. No one wanted to play better today than Sanu did against his former team. I think there was a little more in the tank for Sanu today, even though he always plays hard. He was very demonstrative after he made catches and I thought the other receivers fed off of that. And his ability to run after the catch is really underrated. He ran through people today. 

Calvin Ridley defies how old he is. The routes he runs are old guy routes. I mean, when he runs the out and up, and starts to the flat to pull Dre Kirkpatrick out of coverage, and then blows right by him, that’s a veteran play. It’s fun to watch him operate. 

It’s fun that Ryan has been able to spread the ball around. He doesn’t have to try to force it to Julio all the time. And that’s a credit to those other guys. And I think it’s making Julio a more viable target. 

Credit Austin Hooper for making a tough play when his number was called

And how about Austin Hooper? Hooper was kind of left out of the mix the entire game, and then he makes a huge play on the Falcons next-to-last drive. A third and long, he catches the ball well short of the first down and he runs through four Cincinnati Bengals to get the first down. You talk about a guy that stayed in the game, I mean he wasn’t involved, but he stayed with it and made a huge play for the Falcons. 

*Ito Smith can run the ball, but did you see that block? *

Ito does a lot of cool stuff with the ball, and I thought he did again as well today. But the best play I saw him make was when stepped up on a blitz pickup. Cincinnati blitzed a backer right up the middle and Ito made him eat his chinstrap. It was a big time hit, he stepped right into the hole and gave Ryan the opportunity to shoot ball down the field. I thought he made a lot of nice runs, but that was the play that jumped out to me. As a former quarterback, so whenever you see a guy step up like that in protection, that’s pretty cool. 

I think that he brings a lot of the same things that Devonta Freeman brings to the table. He’s not quite as thick as Devonta is, but when you start talking about his start-and-stop, and his ability to cut back, he can do that. Ito Smith is one of those guys that can make you miss in a phone booth. 

Falcons had opportunities to finish the Bengals off

The Falcons had their chances to finish this one off, and a couple of plays stand out. Trufant missed on the interception, that was the only chance he had defensively. But there was also Beasley’s near strip-sack, and Ryan has a chance to end the game. It was going to be a tight throw and I think he could have led Austin Hooper to the inside, but I think he was so caught up with trying to take care of the ball down there close that he erred on the safe side and threw it out of the end zone.

But those are three opportunities to win the game. And because of the injuries, this could be the type of season where it comes down to taking advantage of those opportunities more so than usual. Any one of those plays could have won the game for the Falcons. But if you get three of them and don’t get any of them, then you need to go back and evaluate and find a way to make those plays.

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