The fourth quarter of Sunday's game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Chicago Bears revealed two key elements of this team: It's mindset and the areas that need improvement.
Despite sitting at 0-3 with a tough Monday-night matchup looming against the Green Bay Packers (3-0), the Falcons have played like a better team than the record they currently have. Nevertheless, the record is all that matters and it's why the second half of their 30-26 loss is a perfect illustration of the ceiling and floor of the Falcons after three weeks.
Atlanta doesn't want to pull any punches
Let's start with the mindset of this team, because it's part of the reason why they grabbed a 16-point lead against a good Bears defense in the first place and why it only possessed the ball for 5:10 in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons have confidence in their offense, and the first series of the second half illustrates why. After deferring on the opening coin toss, Atlanta received the ball to start the third quarter looking to further assert itself in the game. Everything the Falcons wanted to accomplish, they did on that first drive.
Atlanta started things off with two runs for 8 yards. Averaging a healthy 5.8 yards per carry against the Bears, the Falcons had their best afternoon on the ground of the season. On third down, Matt Ryan picked up a first down with a tough throw while being hit. That pressure resulted in a 15-yard penalty on Chicago, which Atlanta accepted, moving the offense to the 50-yard line.
After one incompletion on first down, the Falcons' next three plays were as follows:
A 16-yard run by Todd Gurley.
A 24-yard deep pass from Matt Ryan to Calvin Ridley
A 10-yard touchdown run by Todd Gurley.
With both tough yards and explosive plays, Atlanta demonstrated it could move the ball regardless of what Chicago threw at it on that drive.
Trailing 26-10 in the fourth quarter, the Bears showed the Falcons offense a look that it had not yet previously, but it was one Atlanta had expected.
"They have their Nickel-51 group, where they cover all five of your O-linemen with big guys and then just play one linebacker and five DBs," Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "We had prepared for that. That's one of their many groups that they have. They hadn't shown it the whole game, and they really didn't break it out until the first play of the fourth quarter. They used that a couple of times in there, which is another way to load the box."
While the Bears didn't exclusively transition to a Nickel-51 look in the fourth quarter, it was a personnel grouping indicative of their approach in the final minutes of the game. Expecting Atlanta to run the ball and protect the lead, Chicago stacked the box to make it difficult for the Falcons to do exactly that.
Against a denser front, the Falcons saw opportunities to hit big plays downfield or, using high-percentage throws, quickly get the ball away from a defensive line that was beginning to take over.
The first shot opportunity presented itself on third down of the Falcons' first possession that began in the fourth quarter. Atlanta spread out with nobody in the backfield with Ryan and the receivers facing tight man coverage. Olamide Zaccheaus beat his defender on a corner route downfield, but Ryan just overthrew the speedy receiver. The play was there, the execution was not.
On second down the of Atlanta's next possession, the offense lined up in a formation that screamed run.
Just as they did on the very first offensive play of the game, though, the Falcons wanted to give the perception of a run while getting their best playmaker – Calvin Ridley – into space downfield. That idea worked, as Ridley broke open near the 45-yard line, but Ryan again misses the throw.
On Atlanta's next offensive possession, leading 26-23, Chicago's defensive line made its presence felt. Pressure on Ryan forced him to bounce his intended pass to Brian Hill on first down, a play that is often an easy completion. On second down, Atlanta again tries for an easy completion with a quick screen to Ito Smith, who was lined up out wide. As the offensive line slipped off their blocks to move out and protect Smith, a strong surge upfield from the pass rushers impacted Ryan's throw, causing it to come out fast and a little behind Smith, who could not hold on.
"We've done a pretty good job of protecting Matt so far this year, but he did take some hits," Koetter said. "I think that did affect him a little bit. He still made some really nice throws in the game. But there are some plays -- the screen is an example where the ball had a lot of heat on it, maybe a little more juice on it than Ito was expecting. But those are plays that we expect to get a completion and get ahead of the chains."
There's an argument to be made that, despite the moves the Bears made on defense to make running the ball difficult and opening themselves up to an explosive play through the air, the Falcons took too many chances for the clock to stop. The reasoning behind those decisions, as Koetter himself explained, was that the Falcons felt they would need one more score to put the game away.
In attempting to do just that, the execution failed, and the decisions backfired. By trying to throw the knockout punch, the Falcons opened themselves up to the counterpunch.
Defense still learning to make winning plays
That aggressiveness was also reflected in the defense's play. The Falcons sent five or more pass rushers on eight of the 27 plays the Bears ran while trailing, about 30 percent of those snaps.
Just as the offense was searching for the final big play to secure Atlanta's victory, the defense was looking to force a final turnover or get a fourth-down stop. Those winning moments presented themselves a number of times, but the Falcons couldn't capitalize.
"It's hard to simulate those, with the exception of making sure you have enough ball drills – the fundamentals have got to be on-point, whether it's catching an interception from a defensive standpoint – but, in some of those catch-up modes, those are the times you get to pin your ears back and go and affect the quarterback," Quinn said. "If you take one or two of those moments and you get an interception or you force a fumble on a sack, those are generally the ones in the fourth quarter that can change it."
The most notable among those winning moments came on a third-and-8 during the Bears' first offensive drive of the fourth quarter when a ball went right through Isaiah Oliver's hands for a 30-yard completion to tight end Jimmy Graham. Even after Graham's catch, the Falcons forced two fumbles on the play and were unable to recover either.
Three plays later, Oliver again was in position to secure an interception and could not come down with it.
On Chicago's second offensive drive, Atlanta was in great position to get off the field after forcing the Bears into a fourth-and-6. After dropping eight men into coverage, though, Ted Ginn Jr. found space in the zone defense for a 29-yard gain that moved Chicago into Atlanta territory.
The consistent pressure put on Atlanta's defense to make a stop only amplified any mistake made by the group. After mostly containing the Bears early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons began to give up some explosive plays. Missed tackles by Oliver and Blidi Wreh-Wilson allowed a quick 37-yard touchdown to Allen Robinson. That Bears drive lasted less than a minute and ended in seven points.
After the Cowboys had several explosive plays against the Falcons defense, the unit showed genuine improvement in that area against Chicago. That improvement allowed Atlanta to be in position to make just one or two more plays to earn its first victory of the season.
As the Falcons look to flip the narrative on their defense, making the winning plays when they are there to make is a primary focus.