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Are The Falcons Backsliding?


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Are the Falcons backsliding?

Atlanta's offense has been shut down in recent games, which should raise concerns


By Vince Verhei

Football Outsiders

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chi_u_peppers01jr_576.jpgDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireMatt Ryan (right) had a tough time overcoming Julius Peppers and the Bears' D.{C}

The Atlanta Falcons won 13 games in 2010, but their season ended in a 48-21 drubbing at the hands of the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, an embarrassing home loss in which the offense scored just 14 points.

Atlanta's offense was efficient last year, but not explosive, with only 44 20-yard plays (about 2.8 per game). Looking for more scoring power, the Falcons traded up in the draft for Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones.

"We feel like Julio is a fine addition to our offense and will continue to help provide Matt [Ryan] with the tools that we need going forward as an offense and as a team," said Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

And how'd that work out? Atlanta's season-opening 30-12 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Bears was eerily similar to the Packers game, and perhaps at least some cause for worry when you consider the competition.

It was an embarrassing road loss in which the offense scored just six points. While the Falcons were more explosive -- they had five 20-yard plays -- those plays didn't help them put points on the scoreboard.

The trade to get in position to select Jones cost Atlanta three draft picks this year and two more in 2012. Looking for immediate results, it made a high-stakes gamble and bet on a long shot. Since the merger with the AFL in 1970, only 10 wide receivers have recorded more than 1,000 yards in their rookie seasons.

On the surface, Jones' five catches for 71 yards in his debut look great. At that pace, he'd finish with 1,136 yards, more than any rookie in history except Anquan Boldin, Randy Moss and Michael Clayton. And he did it on limited opportunities, as Ryan threw his way only six times.

A play-by-play look at Jones' game, though, shows he didn't do much to help Atlanta win. In the first half, he caught three passes but gained only 11 yards. His first catch was a for 3 yards on third-and-6, and a later pass on first down resulted in a 6-yard loss.

He made bigger plays in the second half, catching two balls for 60 yards. By that point, though, Atlanta was already down by three scores. Jones' last catch was a 28-yarder in the last five minutes of a lost cause.

This would all be fine if Jones' big-play speed was drawing the attention of the defense and creating opportunities for his teammates, but there's little evidence that was going on. Roddy White led the NFL in receptions in 2010, finished second in yards and had 15 20-yard plays. Against the Bears on Sunday, though, he was neutered. Yes, he led the team with eight catches, but he averaged less than 8 yards a catch and was also the target on five incompletions.

What about the running game? The Falcons had 18 pass plays in the first half and only nine runs, a sign they weren't expecting much on the ground anyway. Michael Turner did bust out for a 53-yard run in the third quarter, but like everything else the Falcons did, it was too little, too late.

The silver lining for Atlanta is that the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all lost, too, but even that silver lining comes with a heavy dose of gray. The NFC South is almost certainly the best 0-4 division in league history. New Orleans, Carolina and Tampa Bay each had the ball and a chance to tie the score in the final minutes of the game. Atlanta lost by 18 points. In one of the league's toughest divisions, a return to the playoffs is not guaranteed.

The Bears, meanwhile, reminded everyone that they were a division champion in 2010, too. Their game plan on Sunday was in several ways a classic Mike Martz attack designed to spread the field with multiple receivers, sacks and interceptions be damned. Six different Chicago players had at least four targets, but none had more than six.

Running back Matt Forte, in a passable Marshall Faulk imitation, led the team in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. Free-agent acquisition Roy Williams caught all four passes thrown his way for 55 yards. Starter-in-name-only Earl Bennett caught just two passes for 11 yards, but backups Johnny Knox and Devin Hester each caught three balls for 60 yards. And if the cost of spreading the ball around so much was five sacks and a pick-six, well, Martz will make that sacrifice.

The Bears also revealed a secret weapon against Atlanta: 2009 fourth-round draft pick Henry Melton. In his first career start, Melton was virtually unblockable on Sunday, collecting five total tackles (two for a loss), two sacks and seven quarterback hits. If he can produce even half that much pressure every week, the Falcons won't be the last offense to come out of Chicago with only six points.

Vince Verhei is a contributor to the college football and NFL sections of Rumor Central. He also writes the Any Given Sunday column covering the biggest upset each week of the NFL season, also available on ESPN Insider. He has been a writer and editor for Football Outsiders since 2007. Follow him on Twitter here.

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I wonder how long it will be before TD and Smitty are called to Arthur's house for dinner.

I don't even want to know what the outcome and aftermath of that dinner would be!

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I wouldn't go that far, but we need to play well. I don't mind if we lose by 3-10 points, as long as we look good doing it.

If we get blown out, though... :unsure:

No such thing as moral victory... 0 and 2 is 0 and 2.

If we lose by 1 point I could care less.

This team desperately needs a win...

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I am sure Smitty made them aware of this. That Bears D is not to be taken lightly. Period. They made a statement against us. We will make a statement against the Eagles that they are for real and that the Bears just played a heck of a game. Just look at Melton's stats. He was a one man wrecking crew. That's not happening again for him.

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