FLOWERY BRANCH -- The Falcons’ debut under new coach Arthur Smith was a debacle Sunday, a 32-6 loss to the Eagles.
He apologized to the fans for the worst season-opening loss since 1987 and promised to correct the situation.
His top assistant coaches, the three coordinators, shed some light on what went wrong and how they tried to correct it before the Falcons (0-1) face the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0) at 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Let’s start with defensive coordinator Dean Pees.
“We did some uncharacteristic things last week,” Pees said Thursday. “I watched that film a lot of times because that’s our job as coaches is to get things cleaned up and get them fixed. A little bit of it is, we have to do a better job as coaches of really fine-tuning and really being exact and explaining things on how things are going to work.”
The Falcons wanted to control quarterback Jalen Hurts, who was making only his fifth NFL start. They failed miserably. Hurts looked like a 10-year pro running the Eagles’ attack.
“One of our big goals last week, I know you don’t think so, was take care of the quarterback both in the run game and pass game,” Pees said. “Don’t let him out of the pocket. Make him be a pocket passer. And take him on in the run game.”
The Falcons had someone on Hurts, but he still managed seven runs for 62 yards. He tossed three touchdowns while doing his Randall Cunningham impersonation.
“So you go back and you look at that because it’s not like the guys don’t want to do exactly what you tell them,” Pees said. “What do we have to do better as a coaching staff to make sure that they know exactly what we want.”
There were some blown assignments and some issues from playing together for the first time.
Nickel cornerback Isaiah Oliver broke free and nearly had a sack. But Hurts saw the blitz and escaped out the other side of the defense, where another player should have been waiting for him.
“He’s not going to escape to where the pressure is coming from,” Pees said. “I know that we had one that came free and we didn’t make the play. ... We got him to escape, but the guy didn’t keep the edge on the other side as much as he needed to. We have to do a better job of explaining. That’s football.”
The Falcons didn’t play most of their starters in the exhibition season. With five new starters and a new scheme, they should have played more than in just the joint practices in Miami.
“This was the first time that these guys have run this stuff ever in their life,” Pees said. “This is a different system. Different scheme. We didn’t run a lot of this stuff in (exhibition games). So, this was the first game that these guys actually saw it. They’ll learn from their mistakes. They’ll know the next time we do that, they’ll play it different than they did.”
The Falcons could have triggered the growing process in the exhibition games.
“Sometimes, it’s growing pains when you’re learning a new system,” Pees said. “We have to do things better. We definitely have to coach it better and be very much more precise with the players and make sure that they know exactly, here’s the goods about this defense, here are the weak parts about this defense. We have to try to avoid the weak parts.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC
On to the offense and coordinator Dave Ragone, Smith’s right-hand man. He helps set the table for Smith, who’s also the play-caller.
The Falcons went into the game with an offensive line that wasn’t ready for prime time.
In the late 1990s under Mike Holmgren, the Packers had defensive ends Reggie White and Sean Jones get offensive linemen John Michels (27th overall draft pick, 1996) and Ross Verba (30th overall in 1997) ready for action. Michels started on a Super Bowl team and played 24 games and made 14 starts before a knee injury cut his career short.
Verba went on to play 117 games and make 113 NFL starts, while playing left tackle and left guard.
With Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, the Falcons should have been able to get one of the rookie offensive linemen, Jalen Mayfield or Drew Dalman, ready to play. After about 200 snaps against Jarrett, Philly’s Javon Hargrave should have been a walk in the park.
Instead, Hargrave, who’s been a solid pro, terrorized the rookies. Both had false-start penalties, and Mayfield gave up at least one sack.
“Everybody who comes into the NFL as a rookie, they all have different development arcs,” Ragone said. “Some guys come in, and it’s as easy if they were playing back in college or high school. Some guys come in and it takes a few games and some guys (never get it). So, again it’s all of the different trajectories in which a player comes into this league.”
When the Falcons had to pass, the line didn’t hold up and gave up three sacks.
Also, when tight end Kyle Pitts wasn’t in the game when the offense was in the red zone, the Falcons were criticized by NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. Pitts was targeted eight targets, but most were after the Falcons fell behind.
Wide receiver Russell Gage, who caught at least two passes in every game last season, had only two targets.
“You are taught, and we tell the quarterback, to go where the coverage tells them to go,” Ragone said. “Again, everybody wants to touch the ball early and get involved, but the reality is that sometimes your intentions are met by the reality of the defense’s intentions and the ball goes somewhere else. It’s our goal to get our playmakers the ball.”
Ragone knows Calvin Ridley, Gage and Pitts must get the ball.
“You might have good intentions to get someone the ball and the coverage might take it away,” Ragone said. “There is no doubt about it, and we feel like we’ve got a good assortment of those guys. Again, it’s our job as coaches to make sure that we do that.”
The offense didn’t score a touchdown and had six consecutive punts after two drives stalled in the red zone.
“Again, when you get a chance to play an actual NFL game in the regular season, you get to see where we are at as a staff, as well as the players,” Ragone said. “Obviously, there is room for improvement.”
Ragone cited the players relying on their fundamentals and better communications across the board.
“All of those things are correctable in terms of what we worked on from the past game,” Ragone said. “We have a great opportunity and a great challenge to go down to Tampa to see if we corrected those mistakes.”
The special teams had one major penalty right before the half and didn’t win the field position battle.
Defensive tackle Marlon Davidson’s illegal-formation penalty, when he lined up over the center on an extra-point try, was costly. Instead of going up 14-6, the Eagles went for two points and made the conversion to make it a two-score game, 15-6.
“We still have a lot of room for improvement,” special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams said. “We know that we had two penalties in the game that we have to clean up. One pre-snap and one down the field post-snap. Clean that up to help our offense with better field position.”
Dangerous returners Avery Williams and Cordarrelle Patterson didn’t provide a spark in the return game.
“As a return unit, we have to take advantage of those opportunities whether if it’s one per game or maybe one in two to three weeks,” Marquice Williams said. “We have to do a better job of not only the returner, but the other 10 guys out there making the most of those opportunities.”
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.