The are several reasons for the Falcons’ descent from the ranks of title contenders to the lower rugs of the NFL this season.
The most obvious is the rash of injuries that have caused opening-day starters to miss 61 games. The injuries crippled the defense and slowly took away the firepower of the offense.
At the halfway point, the Falcons appeared to have stabilized at 4-4. They have since collapsed. They dropped four consecutive games and are on the verge of being eliminated from the playoff race.
The injuries explain a great deal of the collapse. Former Pro Bowlers in running back Devonta Freeman (nine), strong safety Keanu Neal (11) and middle linebacker Deion Jones (10) have missed significant time.
The offensive line has been hurt at guard and has been forced to start five different players at that position.
In addition to the injuries, the offensive line’s level of play has dipped. The “next man up” strategy back fired as other players didn’t step forward. The coaching has been shaky at times. It all points to possible volatile and busy offseason if the Falcons can’t finish out the season strong.
In September it was merely a question. Now, 12 games into the season, we have some answers.
Under John Clayton’s “Theory of 150,” the Falcons’ offensive line was on schedule to collapse this season at the earliest and next season for sure.
With the way the running game has been shut down and coupled with how poor the pass protection has been over the past four games, the evidence is pointing to full blown collapse this season.
Clayton, formerly of ESPN, presented his “Theory of 150” concept in 2007 when talking to then-Bears general manager Jerry Angelo.
Under this theory of adding the ages of the offensive linemen, history has shown several instances of a team with a plus-150 number become ineffective.
The Bears, coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, felt it didn’t make sense to break up their line in 2007 and kept them together for another year.
The total age of the line was 159 years old. They gave up 43 sacks and the run game averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. Time in the trenches caught up to that group.
Since, other teams have proved that the theory has some merit. The 2008 Redskins (158 years) and the 2009 Cowboys (157).
Also, the 2011 Pro Football Focus ratings of offensive lines, three of the six lowest were “Theory of 150” lines: Bears (32nd), Giants (31st) and Redskins (27th).
The Falcons were exactly at the magic number of 150 entering the season starting with a unit of Jake Matthews (26), Andy Levitre (32), Alex Mack (32), Brandon Fusco (30) and Ryan Schraeder (30).
They got younger by five years when Levitre was lost for the season and was replaced by Wes Schweitzer (25). When Fusco went down, Garland (30) was just three months younger than Fusco.
They got older by two years when Zane Beadles (32) took over for Garland last week. The current line is at 145 years old.
The smallish cut-blocking line is designed for the outside-zone system and has struggled in short-yardage situations.
Schweitzer, Mack and Beadles were all pushed back on a fourth-and-1 run against the Ravens on Sunday.
On quarterback Matt Ryan’s last 82 drop backs, he’s been sacked or hit on 29 of those plays. He’s been affected on 35.3 percent of his pass attempts in losses to the Saints and Ravens.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn reluctantly acknowledged that the amount of hits are starting to concern him.
“Well, No. 1, I'm concerned about it because if we're not protecting him in the way that we can, then that gets hard,” Quinn said.
The Falcons’ run game has been shut down as there hasn’t been any room to run. The third-down problem is not going away without some better blocking.
The Falcons will have a chance get younger next year. Levitre is in the last year of his contract. Mack and Schraeder are signed through 2021. Fusco is signed through 2020 and Matthews is signed through 2023.
The Falcons’ offensive line knows they are on the spot.
“There are two options though,” Matthews said. “We can either throw in the towel or go back to work and get better.”
It’s 12 games into the season. The Falcons probably are not going to get dramatically better.
“I know the mentality of this team,” Matthews said. “I already know what we are going to do. We are going to work at it and get better at it until it’s right. That’s our mindset.”
Quinn is in his toughest spot since his first season of 2015. After the Falcons jumped out to a 6-1 record, they dropped six consecutive games. They rallied to win two of the next three to take some momentum into 2016 season.
“Some of the guys who were on the 2015 team, definitely had lessons learned that they applied in 2016,” Quinn said. “Each year is different. Each team is different. But what I’m hopeful about is that we’ll gain in this one some really strong leadership in our locker room that can go from guys to who I consider really good leaders, to excellent.”
The Falcons plan to build off this tough period, too.
“If you can take guys from good to excellent, to me that is where special stuff can happen,” Quinn said. “We’ve got some very good and tough competitors that want to get it right and are hurting like crazy, but at the same token, the life of a competitor when you come back there’s work to do.”
When things don’t go according to plans, Quinn knows there could be changes forthcoming. The line must be retooled. The defense will need to add some stoutness and the coaching staff may been scrutinized.
“I think that would be a better question that we could follow up within a month because we’ve failed more tests then we’ve passed so far,” Quinn said. “So you’ll never see me up here and use anything other than playing at our best excuses, injuries, anything.
“We have a standard that we live up to and we haven’t met those as we’d like. So we have a lot of fighting to do and a lot of work to do. By no means are we just entering the last quarter of the season. So where other people are looking to put closure on, I’m looking to attack. That’s what I attend on doing.”
MISSED GAMES BY STARTERS
The Falcons have 61 games missed by opening-day starters.
Keanu Neal, SS, 11
Deion Jones, MLB, 10
Ricardo Allen, FS, 9
Devonta Freeman, RB, 10
Andy Levite, LG 10
Brandon Fusco, RG, 5
Matt Bryant, PK, 3
Grady Jarrett, DT, 2
Robert Alford, CB, 1
Takk McKinley, DE, 1