The offense is held back by Mariota’s inaccurate passing and leaky pass blocking. The defense gets bullied at the line of scrimmage against the run and can’t cover, close and tackle vs. the pass. The Falcons commit penalties at bad times because they are overmatched. They have too many flaws to make a run to the playoffs, even in the sorry NFC South.
The Falcons (5-8) have lost four of their past five games. Three of those defeats were by margins of six points or less, but don’t let the close games fool you. The Falcons lose because they aren’t good enough to make plays at winning time. Against the Steelers, that came when the Falcons cut their 19-6 deficit to three points with more than five minutes to play and gained a first-and-goal with seven minutes to play.
Then Cordarrelle Patterson’s 10-yard touchdown run was wiped out by a holding penalty on tight end Parker Hesse. A false-start penalty on Jake Matthews pushed the Falcons back 5 more yards. They ended up kicking a field goal with 5:29 to play. The Steelers ran out most of the clock before punting. They secured the victory by intercepting Mariota’s desperation pass.
The Falcons had faltered again when it mattered most. They lost 20-17 to the Chargers here a month ago after they failed to score on two drives in the second half and lost a fumble during a fumble return. The Falcons lost at Washington last week when Mariota’s pass was tipped and intercepted on second-and-goal.
Said Smith: “Sure, we’ve been close, but we’ve got to evaluate everything. We’ve got to get over the hump.”
Smith said he would take time to “decompress” and meet with his staff before deciding what changes are necessary. The Falcons have a bye next weekend before playing at the Saints on Dec. 18.
“It will be good to be able to take a step back,” Smith said. “There will be changes made.”
Mariota will be under the most scrutiny. For two months, Mariota’s play was usually adequate, sometimes very good, and the Falcons were winning. Since then, Mariota’s play has been uneven, sometimes plain bad, and the Falcons are losing.
Many of Atlanta’s missed chances against the Steelers were on Mariota. He took his share of the blame for the Falcons converting just 3 of 10 third downs.
“It always kind of starts there with the quarterback position,” Mariota said.
Would Mariota understand if Smith decides to bench him?
“At the end of the day, they’ve got to make a decision that is best for the team. Whatever happens, happens, but I’m not really thinking about that right now.”
The Falcons can win when Mariota makes things happen with his mobility and savvy. Winning is hard when Mariota makes wayward throws and poor decisions, like he did against the Steelers.
Atlanta’s first drive stalled after Mariota threw too high for KhaDarel Hodge beyond the first-down marker. The Falcons made it to Pittsburgh’s side of the field late in the first half. On second down, Mariota’s pass for Drake London sailed high. On third down, Mariota didn’t see London open near the left sideline before throwing long to Olamide Zaccheaus, who was surrounded by three defenders.
The Falcons trailed 16-6 at halftime and got the ball first after the break. They gained one first down before punting for the fourth time in six possessions. London broke open deep on third down, but Mariota’s pass was too long. He got rid of the ball just before Steelers blitzers hit him. That’s a difficult throw to make under pressure and, most times, Mariota just can’t do it.
The Steelers couldn’t put away the Falcons because they also were missing some big-play opportunities. Pittsburgh led 19-6 late in the third quarter. The Falcons were down just two scores despite mustering little on offense and allowing 6 yards per play. They put some pressure on the Steelers by finally producing a touchdown drive while leveraging their best option, Patterson running with power.
Patterson had just four carries for minus-2 yards at that point. He carried four times for 45 yards on the eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Three of Patterson’s runs gained first downs. MyCole Pruitt’s 7-yard TD catch made Atlanta’s deficit 19-13 with less than a minute left in the third quarter.
That score awakened Falcons fans, who were outnumbered by Steelers supporters. The Steelers faced third-and-long on the third play of their next drive. Kenny Pickett passed to Diontae Johnson. He fumbled the ball, and the Falcons recovered it. That’s how it was called on the field. It was reversed on replay review based on a rule that no one understands.
After Patterson’s 10-yard TD run was nullified by penalty, Mariota’s third-down pass for London in the end zone was incomplete. It looked like Pittsburgh’s Arthur Maulet committed pass interference, another rule that no one understands. The Falcons faced fourth-and-goal from the 10-yard line. Smith decided to let Younghoe Koo kick a field goal.
The Falcons trailed by three points, but the problem was that scoring drive lasted 9:21. Now only 5:27 was left. The Steelers used all but 52 seconds of the clock before punting from Atlanta’s 40-yard line and downing the ball at the 2. Pittsburgh clinched the victory on Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interception.
Another close game slipped away from the Falcons because they aren’t good enough to seize it. That’s why Smith will make changes. Quarterback should be at the top of the list.