Falcons’ mid-term report card after bleak 2-6 start

The Falcons sit at the halfway point of the season with a disappointing 2-6 record.

In a season where Atlanta aimed to return to the playoffs, they started 0-5.

Dan Quinn, only the second coach to guide the franchise to the Super Bowl, was unceremoniously dismissed along with longtime general manager Thomas Dimitroff on Oct. 11.

Interim coach Raheem Morris is 2-1 and has the team playing much better.

The first-half of the season was marked by three fourth-quarter collapses that led to losses to Dallas, Chicago and Detroit, when they had a win-probability of 98% or higher.

The Falcons were finally able to close-out a win against Carolina on Thursday.

“So, to see the guys come out and make plays is something that I expect every single week,” Morris said. “We have so much talent and so many good players on this football team, I always wonder which one is going to make the play. (Against Carolina) it was Blidi Wreh-Wilson.”

The Falcons needed a stop after kicker Younghoe Koo missed an extra point that would have made it a two-score game. Wreh-Wilson, came off his man, to intercept a Teddy Bridgewater pass to preserve the 25-17 victory.

Here are the mid-term grades for bleak first-half of the season:

Run offense: The Falcons averaged 108.6 yards rushing per game, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. After much discussion about Todd Gurley’s chronic left knee issues, he’s carried a full load and has scored eight rushing touchdowns. He’s had 140 carries for 531 yards for 3.8 yards per carry. Brian Hill has been a good complement and should get an expanded role over the last half of the season. He’s rushed 48 times for 218 yards (4.6 per carry) and one touchdown. Ito Smith, who was inactive for the last game, has 12 rushes for 41 yards (3.4). Qadree Ollison was active for just two games and was used in a short-yardage situation and delivered in the second game against the Panthers. Assistant coach Will Harriger took over as running backs coach after Bernie Parmalee was promoted to special teams coordinator. “It’s a high-character group,” Harriger said. “They care about their performance. They are highly invested and they’re highly motivated to do well. We’ve had a great relationship. They guys want to play well and win football games. So, from that standpoint you couldn’t ask for a better room to be (in).” GRADE: C-plus

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Pass offense: The passing attack has been the shining light during a dark season thus far. The emergence of Calvin Ridley and tight Hayden Hurst has made teams pay for trying to double-team the great Julio Jones, who’s been slowed by hamstring and hip injuries. Ridley, who’s projected to miss one game with mid-foot sprain, leads the Falcons in receptions (43), yards (657) and touchdowns (six). The injury came at time when Jones was beginning to show signs of getting healthy. Jones had seven catches for 137 yards in the win over the Panthers. Jones has 38 catches for 584 yards and two touchdowns. Hurst has 30 catches for 349 yards and three touchdowns. He’s on pace to do better than Austin Hooper’s breakout season of 2017 when he had 65 catches for 526 yards and three touchdowns. Matt Ryan is just off the pace (4,924) of passing for 5,000 yards for the first time in his career. He survived the longest touchdown drought of his career between the Chicago game and losses to Green Bay and Carolina, when he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. He’s completing 66.8% of his passes and has thrown 12 touchdown passes to four interceptions. Running backs Gurley and Hill have been used as check down receivers. The Falcons could use Ito Smith more in the red zone and try to get him in one-on-one matchups with linebackers. Grade: A

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Run defense: The Falcons are in the top 10 in run defense, giving up just 99.25 yards per game. However, it may be that teams don’t have to run because they are having so much success against the meek pass defense. After Carolina’s Mike Davis ran for 89 yards in the first meeting, the Falcons held him to 66 in the second meeting. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett’s penetration has been key. Linebackers Foye Oluokun (54 tackles) and Deion Jones (51) have been stout. Strong safety Keanu Neal (51 tackles) is rounding back into form. GRADE: B

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Pass defense: The secondary was in tatters for most of the first half of the season before holding Carolina to a season-low 157 yards passing in the eighth game. The secondary, with no pass rush, gave up 323.8 yards passing per game. Against Carolina, the Falcons blitzed often to generate three of their 13 sacks and added six quarterback hits. Blitzing often may not be a good plan over the final half of the season when they play veteran quarterbacks and the league’s MVP in six games. Against Denver (Drew Lock) and Los Angeles Chargers (rookie Justin Herbert) the blitzes should work. Against Derek Carr, Drew Brees (twice), Tom Brady (twice) and Patrick Mahomes, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich must be more selective. Rookie A.J. Terrell has been a bright spot. Dante Fowler, who was signed to help bolster the pass rush, has two sacks while playing through high ankle sprain. Defensive end Takk McKinley (one sack, seven quarterback hits) has been a non-factor since suffering a groin injury in the second game of the season. Jarrett and Charles Harris have two sacks. Jarrett also has 12 quarterback hits. Defensive linemen have just seven of the 13 sacks. After a horrible start to the season, cornerback Isaiah Oliver has played much better over the final three games. GRADE: F

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Special teams: The units had the biggest blunder of the first half of the season when they stood around and watched an onside kick against Dallas that could have preserved a victory. Dallas’ C.J. Goodwin, a former Falcon, dove on the ball and the Cowboys went on to pull out the 40-39 victory. Special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica was later fired. Brandon Powell improved as a returner under Parmalee. Rookie punter Sterling Hofrichter has a net average of 40 yards and has placed seven punts inside the 20. He has a long of 55 yards. Koo has made 18 of 19 field goals, but has missed three extra points. GRADE: D-plus

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Coaching: The Falcons were streaky under the direction of Dan Quinn and developed a pattern of slow starts to the season. This last one was costly. Coaching mistakes led to the late-game collapses: The team didn’t fall on the ball against Dallas, they let Nick Foles cut up their zone defense in the Chicago loss and they didn’t kneel and run the clock down against Detroit. If they had those three wins, the Falcons would be 5-3, talking about competing for a playoff spot and have much better grades. Instead, they are looking at some wild scenario to get back into the playoff picture. Under Morris, the Falcons do look more organized and are hitting on defense. The offense must improve in the red zone. GRADE: F

Falcons' Next four games

Broncos at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8

Bye Week

Falcons at Saints at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22

Las Vegas Raiders at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29

Saints at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6

The Bow Tie Chronicles Podcasts:

For more content about the Atlanta Falcons

Follow me on Twitter @DorlandoAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now

Atlanta Falcons coverage on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Have a question? Email me at dledbetter@ajc.com