Falcons running back Devonta Freeman reacts after being tackled short of the end zone on fourth down during the first half Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Once more, Falcons offense gets lost in the dead, er, red zone 

One game, against the defending Super Bowl champion, in their place, on an overheated night, in a setting where points tend to come in grudging, resentful dollops. 

“A small sample size,” said Matt Ryan, the Falcons quarterback.

“By no means does this game determine (the course of a new season),” insisted Dan Quinn, their coach.

» Dan Quinn: ‘Our ability to score (in red zone) has to change’

But we know this was a little more than that. Thursday night was the same kind of ugly, fractious, hard-to-love game as the one that ended the last Falcons season. Eight months ago, they lost 15-10 to these same Eagles on this same field in a divisional playoff game, unable to pierce the end zone when it mattered. And almost from that day, they made a sacred vow to improve their efficiency inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Red-zone scoring became the theme of every camp, both mini and real. It became a mantra, almost an obsession.

What profit is to Wall Street, red-zone scoring became to these Falcons. 

After all that concentrated effort, we get, this ...?

Another game-ending incompletion to Julio Jones, only in the opposite corner of the same end zone where Ryan desperately missed him at the close of January’s divisional playoff game.

Another loss by the kind of score only a caveman could love, 18-12. And a bouquet of blown opportunities inside the red zone, from the beginning of this storm-delayed game to the end. 

Or now, in the Falcons’ case, do we refer to it as the Dread Zone? Or the Dead Zone?

This wasn’t just one night, one game. This was a symptom, dating much farther than Thursday. And this was the product of eight months of work and dedication to improving one glaring weakness – only to see the glare get brighter. At this pace, fans soon will need to borrow their grandparents’ sunglasses to watch this team. 

With their first possession Thursday night, the Falcons drove relentlessly 74 yards to the Philadelphia 1-yard line. Then they relented, twice running the diminutive Devonta Freeman into the line and once missing him on a swing pass. Meanwhile, the lordly receiver Julio Jones watched it all from the sideline.

» Matt Ryan: ‘It’s disappointing to not leave here with a win’

Four more times through their own efforts and a couple of gifts from the Eagles, the Falcons worked inside the Eagles 20. Five trips down there, total. All for one field goal and touchdown. Nine points (there was a missed extra-point attempt thrown in for variety). At least six points too few.

The reflex will be to raise the same issue that dominated the close of 2017 – Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. An obvious issue to raise, as we review the game’s final four plays, four passes into the end zone out of the same formation. And four incomplete passes. Doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of the Falcons’ red-zone offense.

To date, Sarkisian is the obstetrician who doesn’t deliver, the carpenter who doesn’t finish, the slot machine that never pays off.

If he were your Uber driver, you’d get dropped off a good block from your destination.

An offense that contains some of the priciest talent on the market – Ryan, Jones, Freeman – has come to be an offense with no punctuation mark. It just sort of rambles on and then trails off before getting to the point.

This defense, as displayed Thursday night, is stout enough to do its share in getting the Falcons to where they want to go this season. It’s the offense, the supposed strength of the team, that has become, dare we say, frustrating to watch.

It’s not all on the OC. The $30 million quarterback is one game deep into a new season having thrown more interceptions (1), than touchdowns (that would have to be zero). That early fourth-quarter interception he threw Thursday at the goal line – the most grisly kind of Dead Zone death – was a cornhole toss that floated well short of the intended Jones. 

The Falcons quarterback discusses the team's red-zone woes.

Everybody’s talking about the problem. Everybody recognizes it, beyond the others from Thursday like too many penalties (the Falcons contributed 15 to the parade of 26 on Thursday), and a 4-for-15 third-down conversion rate.

“Our ability to score down there (the red zone) has to change,” Quinn said.

But can anyone do anything about it?

“We put a good bit of work in and we’ll continue to do that. We’ll get ... off the mat and get back to work,” Quinn said.

“It comes down to making a play here or there,” Ryan said. “When we get those chances again, we’re going to come up with those plays. We’re going to continue to work at it. I think we are closer. I’m disappointed we didn’t make those plays tonight, but confident we’re going to make them moving forward.”

Can’t help but wonder if this red-zone issue isn’t turning into some kind of parasite burrowing its way into the Falcons’ collective cortex.

Are these doubts becoming firmly implanted in their heads, like some 1960s bubblegum rock tune that gets in between your ears and you just can’t shake it loose. Yes, such doubts could be just as poisonous as “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies.  

Ryan, for one, seemed unconcerned. Even when asked if he hadn’t seen enough of one particular end of Lincoln Financial Field and the defenders who guard it for a good long while.

“I’m confident in my career we’ll play here again, and we’ll get down to that end of the field and hopefully be a little better the next time,” he said.

About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for the AJC, mainly for the Sunday section. He covers a range of sports and topics.» If you're not a subscriber, click...