Much of the fourth quarter’s focus, at least on offense, centered around the offense’s decision to throw the ball on five of six plays on consecutive three-and-outs. The first possession started with 6:15 to go in the game, with Todd Gurley kicking the drive off with a 1-yard run. The next two plays were incomplete passes. After a Bears touchdown cut the Falcons' lead to 26-23, the Falcons took over with 4:21 to go in the game, with quarterback Matt Ryan throwing three incomplete passes before a punt.
In total, including the punt plays, the Falcons worked only 1:17 off the clock on those two drives. In the moment, there was some wonder as to why the Falcons weren’t trying to run off more time in that situation.
Meanwhile, the Bears offense reached the red zone twice and scored one touchdown and had another reversed on fourth down after replay showed receiver Anthony Miller dropped the ball. Chicago also added touchdown passes of 37 and 28 yards. With the Bears' offense catching fire late, it is now apparent Koetter didn’t feel the 16- and 10-point leads the Falcons held in the fourth quarter were safe.
Koetter’s revelation that the team wasn’t attempting to burn any clock explains the aggressive approach. The execution, however, resulted in a worst-case type of scenario. On second-and-9 of the drive that began with 6:15 left in the game, Ryan threw an inaccurate ball to receiver Calvin Ridley on second down. On the next play, his short throw to tight end Hayden Hurst was knocked away but wouldn’t have picked up the first down anyway.
On their next offensive series, with the Falcons leading by three, Ryan’s short pass to running back Brian Hill nosedived into the ground on first down. On second down, after running back Ito Smith split out wide, Ryan threw a screen pass that was off target and with more pace than Smith expected. After a false start on the next play, Ryan threw the ball deep to receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who was breaking open. But Ryan’s pass sailed past Zaccheaus, bringing up another fourth down.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn had no problem with how that sequence of the game was called and faulted the execution of those plays.
“On those ones you regret the result, not necessarily the call,” Quinn said. "You complete the screen to Ito, you move it up the field for a first down. Having those chances to make a catch and move the ball up the field -- we certainly trust Matt and the guys. Why wouldn’t you? Make sure you nail them (because) when you don’t, yeah, you don’t like the result.
“We always want to choose the best plays in those spaces. And you want to take the clock off. The catch is, you want to have a good play and a good design that when this play is going to come up, we’re going to nail it. When you don’t, the consequences are big.”
While Ryan was only sacked twice by the Bears, he did take eight quarterback hits. Koetter thinks this Chicago’s pressure led to some of Ryan’s errant throws late in the game.
“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.”
In the fourth quarter, Koetter said the Bears switched their defensive personnel grouping. For three quarters, they ran a defensive front with four linemen. Beginning with the first play of the fourth quarter, Chicago went with what Koetter called a “nickel 51” defense, which features five defensive linemen, one linebacker and five defensive backs. The objective of this defense, Koetter said, was to take away the Falcons' rushing attack.
That defense worked, with the Falcons totaling nine rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
Although Koetter wanted to remain aggressive in that situation, he was asked if he would have preferred to run the ball more in those situations, especially with the benefit of hindsight.
“When a play doesn’t work for any reason, whether it’s the fault of the call, the fault of the execution or a good play by the defense, of course it’s human nature that you’re going to (ask), ‘What if we did something else?’” he said. “But we didn’t.”