The Falcons (6-9) who face the Buccaneers (7-8) in a battle for second place in the NFC South at 1 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa are trying to close the 2019 season with a four-game winning streak and a 6-2 record over the second half of the season.
But what went so wrong that led to the 1-7 start that doomed the season?
Going back all the way to the exhibition season, in retrospect, there were some red flags that showed the Falcons would not achieve greatness this season. With several key starters in place, a revamped offensive line and the return of several starters on defense, the Falcons were projected by many to return to the playoffs and perhaps even avenge their flop in Super Bowl LI.
But things started to unravel quickly.
Here are five things that went wrong:
1. The penalties. The Falcons committed 12 penalties for 98 yards in the Hall of Fame game that started the exhibition season. Most of the reserves played in that game, but it foreshadowed a problem that continued once the 53-man roster was selected.
Nothing seemed to help as the Falcons brought in a full crew of officials to help in practice.
Overall, the Falcons have committed 130 penalties for 903 yards, had 242 yards nullified by penalty and given up 29 first downs by penalty.
The 130 penalties is tied for the ninth-highest in the NFL heading into the final game of the regular season. Jacksonville leads the league with 155.
The Falcons have had at least seven penalties in 10 of their games.
The Falcons committed a season-low three penalties in a 29-3 win over Carolina on Nov. 17 and a season-high 16 for 128 yards in their 27-24 loss to the Colts on Sept. 22.
2. The kicker situation. Over the offseason, the Falcons released kicker Matt Bryant, and thought they found his replacement in Giorgio Tavecchio, who proceeded to make only 2 of 8 of his field-goal attempts from 30 yards or beyond in the exhibition season.
In retrospect, someone should have been brought in to compete with Tavecchio.
The Falcons had little choice but to re-sign the 44-year-old Bryant on Aug. 31. The veteran who missed a total of three field-goal tries in the Super Bowl season of 2016 missed five in the first half of 2019, plus the PAT attempt that would have tied the Arizona game near its bitter end.
The 34-33 loss to Arizona on Oct. 13 was costly, and Bryant was released two weeks later.
Younghoe Koo was signed to replace Bryant after an open competition with two other kickers.
Also, the Falcons have used five punters this season as Matt Bosher has battled through a groin injury and eventually was placed on injured reserve.
3. Transfer of power on defense. After last season, Dan Quinn fired all three of the coordinators and took over calling the defensive plays, just as he took over calling the defense during the 2016 Super Bowl run.
With the Falcons set to face eight mobile quarterbacks, they revised their defensive scheme to play more five-man fronts with traditional 3-4 principles. That meant that defensive ends Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley would stand up on the outside, with a big defensive end in Allen Bailey playing next to defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison.
Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell were the linebackers.
In passing situations, Beasley and McKinley would rush the passer, and defensive back Damontae Kazee, who tied for the league lead with seven interceptions in 2018, would move from free safety to nickel back.
In college, McKinley lined up at left and right defensive end at UCLA’s front, and the Falcons thought this would help his pass-rushing ability.
The Falcons’ defensive tweaks did not work.
They gave up passing yards, missed tackles and couldn’t rush the passer as they gave up 31.2 points per game over the first eight games.
Also, during a six-game stretch, the Falcons didn’t record a sack over 357 defensive snaps.
The Falcons moved wide receivers coach Raheem Morris, a former head coach and defensive coordinator (Kansas State, 2006), over to the defense, and things drastically improved. The scoring per game dipped from 31.2 per game to 18.1 points over the final seven games.
4. Revamped offensive line. The Falcons spent lavishly in free agency and the draft with the hopes of improving the offensive line. In all, they sank $80.3 million into the offensive line rebuild.
The Falcons needed to replace three starters in left guard Andy Levitre, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Ryan Schraeder after the line gave up 108 quarterback hits and 42 sacks in 2018.
A total of $51.7 million of the $80.3 million was guaranteed.
James Carpenter ($21 million, $9.2 million guaranteed) won the left guard spot, but was in and out of the lineup because of injury.
Jamon Brown ($18.7 million, $12.7 million guaranteed) played, but eventually lost his spot to Wes Schweitzer.
Rookies Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary showed promise. Lindstrom ($14.7 million fully guaranteed) missed 11 games with a broken foot. McGary, who has allowed 11 sacks, has to get better against speed rushers.
The line has given up 44 sacks and 121 quarterback hits heading into the season finale. Ryan has been sacked 42 times and Matt Schaub twice.
Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times in 2013, the season of Lamar Holmes and Peter Konz.
5. Loss of Keanu Neal, again. In the third game of the season, strong safety Keanu Neal ruptured his Achilles against the Colts.
His physical play would be missed for a second consecutive season. He missed most of the 2018 season after suffering a knee injury in the season opener.
After splitting the job between Kemal Ishmael and Jamal Carter, the Falcons eventually moved Kazee back to free safety and slid Allen to strong safety.
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