FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has drawn criticism after his unit went 1-for-5 inside of the red zone in their Week 1 loss to the Eagles. On Thursday he had the opportunity to respond to that criticism, and he pulled back the curtain to explain how an NFL coach views the game.
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On their opening drive the Falcons marched down the field and looked poised to take an early lead after setting up first down at the Eagles 6-yard line. Sarkisian provided an explanation of what occurred over the next four plays after that first down, detailing what the plan was and how things went wrong.
First-and-goal from the 6-yard line
“Yeah, I think so,” Sarkisian said when asked if they had an opportunity to punch it in. “They made a heck of a play. The first-down call, [Devonta Freeman] gets down to about the 1.”
Second-and-goal from the 1-yard line
“The second-down play, Fletcher Cox makes a good football play,” Sarkisian said. “He got the stop.”
Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder attempts to cut block Cox on the play, but the Eagles defensive end keeps his balance and has his eyes up for the play.
As the play unfolds and Freeman approaches the line, he has two options available to him: He can stay play-side and attack the hole off of Austin Hooper’s back, or he can cut and follow Logan Paulsen through the hole.
If Cox is blocked on the play, Freeman likely walks in for a touchdown. As he moves to follow Paulsen to the end zone, however, Cox comes free and stops him short.
As Sarkisian said, Cox made a good football play.
Third-and-goal from the 1-yard line
“Third-down call, we got the matchup we wanted with Free on the backer,” Sarkisian said. “It didn’t play out the way we would have liked … By the personnel we had put on the field it forced them to go to a goal line defense. And when they did that, they only had two defensive backs on the field. So, ultimately, we could get a matchup with Freeman on a linebacker in that situation.”
The Falcons have three tight ends on the field to keep the Eagles’ defense in a heavier defensive package, but they are looking to split out Hooper and Eric Saubert, two athletic tight ends, and Freeman to create a mismatch.
The Falcons get that matchup with Eagles linebacker Nathan Gerry walks out to cover Freeman, who runs a quick out route and gets good separation to create an open window for Matt Ryan.
Ryan sees the window and quickly gets rid of the football, but it’s an inaccurate pass and Freeman is unable to haul it in.
The Falcons got the look they wanted but were again unable to execute.
Fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line
“The fourth-down play, you know, at some point you’ve got to send a little bit of a message to your own team as well,” Sarkisian said. “That you have faith in them in those situations. They won at the point of attack and made the stop.”
The Eagles defend the first gap between Hooper and Paulsen with two players, so fullback Ricky Ortiz loops outside of Hooper in an attempt to set the edge for Freeman.
Hooper’s defender rotates off his block and engages with Ortiz, who gets a good initial strike on him but doesn’t stay engaged and lets him get free. Still, the Falcons are set up well at this point with two blockers against two defenders and Freeman able to get a little separation on the defender pursuing him.
As Freeman nears the edge, he sees a potential lane reveal itself as both Hooper and Ortiz are in position to seal off the outside defender and allow him space behind them to just edge past the rest of the defense pursuing from the inside.
Hooper and Ortiz aren’t fast enough to get to that final defender, however, and allow him to tackle Freeman.
Like Sarkisian explained, the Falcons’ failure on that fourth down play occurred when they were beaten at the point of attack.
Not every play call is perfect, and Sarkisian, himself, explained there are usually a few moments in a game where he may have done something slightly different while going back to evaluate. But his explanation helps provide a glimpse into why plays succeed or fail.
Sometimes it’s the play call, sometimes it’s a breakdown in execution and sometimes a defender simply makes a good play.