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Archer’s Take: Falcons miscues overshadow positives 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.

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Game's first play set tone for Vikings pressure

On the first play from scrimmage, Atlanta ran play-action and wanted to test the Vikings defense by throwing the ball down the field. Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr walked up outside of defensive end Everson Griffen as they both brought pressure. Griffen knifed into the gap and Falcons offensive lineman Jake Matthews turned to help James Carpenter, leaving Barr free coming off the edge for the sack on Matt Ryan. Matthews didn’t recognize that Minnesota was in a different front, ultimately leading to a blown assignment. It was the start of a strong play for the Vikings defensive front, who generated four sacks and a lot of pressure that affected Atlanta’s offense.

You have to give the Vikings defense credit; they challenged the Falcons offensive line. And the pressure they generated impacted a number of plays beyond just the four sacks

Blocked punt was first major miscue; ignited a bad trend

On the block punt, the Vikings ran a designed play, overloading the middle. With Minnesota bunching up the middle, the Falcons needs to call out protections there so the front can make the right adjustments, possibly tightening up their splits down the line to cover up the gaps to prevent them from overloading the front.

The blocked punt was the first major miscue of the game, and it set a bad trend. Minnesota’s four touchdowns came after a blocked punt, and interception, a fumble and then another interception. For a team that emphasizes protecting the football as much as the Falcons do, that is a disastrous set of events.

Freeman's fumble really changed the nature of the game

As bad as the first quarter went for the Falcons, Atlanta was driving down the field and were close to making it a one-score game. It was first-and-5 on the Vikings 21-yard line and Freeman tried to get physical in the run game and the Vikings were able to pop the ball out. That was a huge play. Atlanta’s offense had really struggled to that point, but even with everything that had happened, they had an opportunity cut it to one score. I thought that play really sapped the Falcons for a moment, because the Vikings then went on, really, their first long drive of the day after that play. They end up going nearly the length of the field and scoring to make it 21-0, after Atlanta was on the verge of making it 14-7. That really changed the game.

Pressure, and a forced throw were the daggers

Atlanta’s last turnover was really the dagger that ended the competitive phase of the game. And it started on the prior play. On first-and-goal, the Falcons gave the ball to Ito Smith up the middle, but the Vikings got too much penetration and Ito had nowhere to go. So, on second down, Atlanta goes play action and gets Matt outside the pocket. Danielle Hunter brought pressure off the edge with his pass rush. With Hunter causing pressure, Ryan was forced to throw the ball off of his back foot and tried to force the football to tight end Luke Stocker, who is a new target this year for Matt Ryan, and both haven’t had a chance to work a lot together yet. In this case, Ryan probably needed to simply throw the ball away and just reload on third down.

Vikings defense came more than prepared

Mike Zimmer is considered a ‘guru’ when it comes to defensive football and he’s had more than month to prepare for the Falcons offense. In the game, the Vikings brought a lot of five-man and six-man pressures, singling out Atlanta’s front line to one-on-one blocking opportunities. For the most part, I thought Atlanta’s running backs Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith did a good job of picking up on linebackers who were blitzing. But those aren’t the two biggest backs in the league, and the Vikings had the advantage when they had linebackers rushing against Atlanta’s backs. And give credit to the talent on Minnesota’s front seven. Everson Griffen is a big-time player, so it’s not like Jake Matthews was lining up against some average Joe. And Griffen caused problems, he beat Matthews on two spin moves. Zimmer and that group challenged the Falcons offensive line to be able to pick up some of the pressures one-on-one, and for a good number of those plays the Vikings won the matchup.

Defense generates pressure, but turnovers lacking

One thing that the Falcons didn’t do in the game is create turnovers on defense, which was needed since the offense was struggling. Failure to create turnovers has plagued Atlanta for the last few years. Turning the ball over on offense is one thing, but to not generate any turnovers on the defensive side can be disappointing to say the least. It takes extra effort to create turnovers on defense.

Atlanta’s defense did, however, pressure Kirk Cousin a good bit during the game and played physical up front. When the Falcons did knock the ball loose, it just didn’t bounce their way to have an actual turnover, which can happen. Vic Beasley, Keanu Neal and Grady Jarrett each had notable pass rushes in the game to make Cousins uncomfortable in the pocket. Overall, there were definitely some positives attached to the Falcons efforts defensively.

Falcons interior defensive line should be stout

There was inconsistency setting the edge in the run game. There were at least five plays, where the Vikings controlled the perimeter, and this led to explosive plays due to Atlanta not setting the edge. But if you watch the tape, I think you’ll see the interior rotation between Jarrett, Crawford and Davison was solid. The Falcons defensive line had good penetration on the Vikings backfield and made some plays. Tyeler Davison and Jarrett both played well in the interior, making some key plays for loss of yards. The frontline began to tighten their belt after halftime, halting the Vikings offense to only 52 rushing yards in the second half.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley #18 in action during the first half of the game at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Sunday September 8, 2019. (Photo by Kara Durrette/Atlanta Falcons)

Falcons offense able to find a tempo in second half

As we’ve seen before from the Vikings, they were intent on defense to stop Julio Jones. This opened up opportunities for receiver Calvin Ridley to make plays. The Falcons went up-tempo in the second half, which ended up limiting Minnesota some and created some plays for Atlanta. That was a Dirk Koetter adjustment that paid dividends.

One highlight that stood out was Ridley’s touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was an incredible throw by Matt and catch by Calvin. It looked like Ridley was running a stop-and-go. He runs up about 7 to 8 yards, and then he and Ryan were on the same page because Ryan hangs it up there for him on a perfect trajectory. When Ryan let it go, Ridley was on about the 10-yard line, and he just stepped on the accelerator there and blew by the corner Trae Waynes for the touchdown. That was just two individual guys that have unique skills; Ridley’s ability to step on the accelerator, and then Matt’s ability to see it before it ever really happens. It was the artistry of knowing the trajectory before the play developed so that Calvin would have the time to go get the ball. It’s a fine line, and it was a nice play by those two guys.

Atlanta’s play-action game was good, too, and it began to actually come alive in the second half after readjusting at halftime. Jones is also a big reason for the play action game to work because he drags defenders with him out of zones when he runs deep. This frees up Mohamed Sanu and Ridley to make catches when crossing middle of the field.

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