Dirk Koetter’s Falcons offense flops again

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris didn’t want to isolate coordinator Dirk Koetter for scrutiny after the offense flopped against the Saints again on Sunday. It’s probably a moot point considering Morris’ status. It’s not clear if he could switch his play-caller now if he wanted to, or if he’ll be retained to make that call for next season.

But this 21-16 loss to the Saints required each side of the ball to be examined separately. The defense, which was coordinated by Morris before he replaced Dan Quinn, gave the Falcons a chance to win. The offense, which is loaded with big salaries and high draft picks, produced three field goals on nine possessions until finally scoring a touchdown with less than eight minutes left.

That wasn’t enough. The Saints (10-2) swept the Falcons with backup quarterback Taysom Hill and clinched a playoff berth. The Falcons (4-8) scored a single touchdown in two games against the Saints. That’s the only TD allowed over 15 quarters by the Saints, but it’s no coincidence that eight of those quarters were against the Falcons.

Morris was asked if he still has confidence in Koetter.

“I’m very confident in our team, just in general,” Morris said. “Never separate anybody when talking about team. ... You can always play ‘Monday morning quarterback.’ We refuse to do that here.”

Critiques of Koetter don’t need to come after-the-fact. Just look at his record. He last ran a top-10 scoring offense in 2012, the first year of his first stint with the Falcons. He also did it with Jacksonville in 2007. But Koetter’s units ranked 23rd or worse in scoring in seven other seasons as coordinator.

The Bucs were no better than 18th in points scored over Koetter’s three seasons as head coach. The Falcons ranked 19th in points scored with Koetter last season. They were 14th this season before Sunday. They’ll likely slide down the rankings after scoring fewer than 20 points for the fourth time in 12 games.

Differing circumstances and talent levels make one-to-one comparisons tricky. But the bottom line is it’s been a long time since Koetter was associated with a good offense. And he can’t say he doesn’t have good players with the Falcons.

The Falcons committed a fifth of their 2020 salary-cap space to Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. The Falcons have former first-round picks across the offensive line, at No. 1 tight end and No. 2 wide receiver. They’ve invested a lot in their offense, with diminishing returns.

“I don’t think we’ve played up to the standard that we are capable of,” Ryan said.

The Falcons have a disconnect in their passing game. Ryan is holding the ball too long. Sometimes the route combinations for his targets look askew. The Falcons rarely use their running backs in the passing game.

Said Ryan: “It’s a combination of (receivers) being a little better on the outside, a little better plan, a little better (blocking) up front, me being a little more accurate.”

The Falcons also keep trying to make running back Todd Gurley happen when he no longer has it. They handed him the ball when trying to come back in New Orleans. That didn’t work but they tried it again in the rematch. That’s despite Gurley not playing last weekend because of a knee injury and carrying just once in the first half Sunday.

The Falcons went to Gurley when they needed a touchdown to win with five minutes to play. His 13-yard run put the Falcons at the Saints’ 38-yard line. His next four carries went for one, eight, zero and minus-7 yards. That last attempt came on a third-and-2 at the 13.

“Todd is one of the best red-zone runners in the game,” Morris said.

Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage is leveled by Saints safety Malcom Jenkins while catching a pass during the first half Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Gurley certainly is one of the most-used red-zone runners in the game. His effectiveness is another matter. In any event, Gurley shouldn’t be a central part of the plan when the Falcons need points fast. That’s especially true when his knee isn’t feeling right.

After Gurley got stuffed, Ryan targeted Julio Jones, who was well-covered in the end zone. Jones managed to get a hand on the ball but couldn’t secure it. The Falcons made a rare third-down stop to give the offense another chance, but Ryan’s Hail Mary pass fell incomplete.

The Falcons struggled to score against the Saints’ unyielding defense. Sometimes that also happens against foes that surrender plenty of points to others. That’s the main reason the Falcons lost to the Panthers and Packers. They should hope coordinator is the main issue because player personnel fixes will be difficult with Jones and Ryan’s salaries set to eat one-third of their 2021 salary cap.

The Falcons started slowly against the Saints and didn’t’ get going until it was too late. They went three-and-out on three of first four possessions. The other one resulted in a 53-yard field goal. The Falcons weren’t going to beat the Saints three points at a time.

One good TD chance fizzled when they wasted a rush on Gurley and Ryan passed too wide to Calvin Ridley in the end zone. A TD opportunity just before halftime failed when two of Ryan’s targets ran to the same area near the goal line, which allowed cornerback PJ Williams to get in on the play and knock the ball away.

The Falcons scored their touchdown after they appeared finished. A replay review changed Ryan’s incomplete pass to a fumble that put the Saints 18 yards from the end zone. The Falcons got it back when Steven Means forced quarterback Taysom Hill to fumble and recovered it. Ryan and Co. finally showed some spirit.

The Falcons played with tempo. Ryan got rid of the ball quickly. He connected with Russell Gage for 24 and 14 yards. Ryan handed to Gurley for no gain on first-and-goal at the 10, then passed to Gage for a 10-yard touchdown.

The Falcons got their last good chance to score after their defense got a third-down stop. They struggled to do that in the first half, when Hill converted nine of 11 third downs with passes. Five of those third downs were 11 yards or longer, including a TD pass to Jared Cook for a 14-6 lead in the second quarter.

The Saints scored another TD on their next possession while easily converted a third-and-long, of course. The Falcons’ next drive ended at Saints’ 44-yard line. The Falcons finally stopped the Saints on third down, stuffing Hill on a run, but Ryan and Co. followed that with a deflating three-and-out.

Limiting the Saints to 21 points wasn’t good enough to win because the Falcons couldn’t find the end zone until they were desperate. Ryan, like Morris, said he’s confident in Koetter’s plan.

“We’ve got four games to go and hopefully we can be the most productive we’ve been all year in that last quarter,” Ryan said.

Good luck with that. Two of those games are against Tampa Bay. The Bucs are as good on defense as the Saints, and we saw what they did to the Falcons’ high-priced offense.