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What we learned: Penalty problems continue to get worse for slow-starting Falcons


Goober Pyle
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https://theathletic.com/1233704/2019/09/23/what-we-learned-penalty-problems-continue-to-get-worse-for-slow-starting-falcons/

 

INDIANAPOLIS — The Falcons have a penalty problem.

And if this problem persists, it’s going to be difficult to win games and ultimately end up where they want to be by the season’s end. Sunday’s 27-24 loss to Indianapolis was very much a winnable game. While Atlanta started slow again — it has been outscored 41-3 in the first half of its three games — it was able to cut a 17-point deficit to three twice. But hurting the Falcons in the process of coming all the way back were penalties.

The Falcons committed 16 of them for 128 yards.

“That’s like another running back in a game,” safety Ricardo Allen said. “If a running back gets out there and runs for 120, that’s a terrible job. You can’t do that. You can’t give up 120 of invisible yards.”

Each week, dating back to the first preseason game, penalties have been a talking point. The problem for Atlanta is that this is a trend that continues to get worse. The Falcons committed nine penalties against Minnesota, 10 against Philadelphia and now 16 against Indianapolis. Seven of the penalties against the Colts resulted in first downs.

Each week, it seems head coach Dan Quinn has said the same thing. The pre-snap penalties, especially, are the ones that bother him the most but that they are correctable. But, as everyone knows, it’s tough to win, especially on the road, when they aren’t fixed, which they haven’t.

Atlanta committed five pre-snap penalties on Sunday afternoon. Jack Crawford was called for a neutral zone infraction twice, Grady Jarrett committed one neutral zone infraction, Kaleb McGary false started once, and the defense had too many men on the field on one occasion. The second of Crawford’s penalties occurred on third down, which continued that Indianapolis drive in the second quarter, and it resulted in a field goal.

On Indianapolis’ second touchdown drive, the Falcons had what would have been a stop on third-and-1 with Keanu Neal sacking Jacoby Brissett. The Falcons, however, had too many men on the field, which continued the scoring drive.

“We’ve got to get that part under control, for sure,” Quinn said.

While pre-snap penalties are the worst for any team, Atlanta has to figure a way to limit the in-play penalties, too. On the same touchdown drive during which the Falcons had too many men on the field, Neal was called for pass interference on a third-and-9 that otherwise saw the ball fall incomplete. (It should be noted that after he significantly injured his Achilles, Neal threw his helmet and was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, which seems like a ridiculous penalty for a referee to make in that situation.)

In the fourth quarter, with the Falcons needing a stop, Brissett threw an incompletion on third-and-10 from the Indianapolis 47. Damontae Kazee was flagged for holding, which extended the drive. Marlon Mack scored a touchdown four plays later.

“We were inflicting more damage to ourselves than them beating us,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “They made some good plays, but I think we got to start with doing our job first, getting in position. If they make a play, they make a play. But we have to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”

The defense committed 10 penalties for 73 yards, while the offense accounted for six penalties for 55 yards. Atlanta was able to get away with 45 of those offensive penalty yards, with those particular flags occurring on both of the second-half touchdown drives (Calvin Ridley: offensive pass interference; Jamon Brown: holding, illegal block above the waist; Jake Matthews: holding; McGary: false start).

James Carpenter’s first-quarter holding penalty proved to be a big deal as it occurred on a third-and-5. The Falcons picked up 2 yards on the play, which would have made it fourth-and-3 from the Indianapolis 33. From there, it would have been a 50-yard field goal attempt for Matt Bryant. Atlanta also could have chosen to go for it on fourth down, with the entire playbook at the team’s disposal. Instead, the Falcons ended the series with a punt.

Penalties proved to be killer for Atlanta in Sunday’s loss. If this team is to start stacking wins in successive weeks, this area must be cleaned up as soon as possible.

“It’s just more attention to detail and fixing the little things in critical situations,” running back Devonta Freeman said. “Just trying to be great so when this situation happens, we know how to overcome it and stuff. Just got to go back to the drawing board and do a lot of work.”

Through three games, it hasn’t been about the ball

Every Thursday, the Falcons emphasize protecting the football on offense and creating turnovers on defense. It’s “about the ball,” as they say. Through three games, the practice mindset hasn’t transitioned to games.

In Atlanta’s two road games it has failed to create any takeaways while turning the ball over four times. In last week’s home win over Philadelphia, the defense turned the Eagles over three times, only for Matt Ryan to throw three interceptions. That puts the Falcons at minus-4 for the season in turnover margin, which ranks tied for 28th in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos. The only two teams worse than Atlanta in this category? The New York Giants (31st, minus-5) and the Miami Dolphins (32nd, minus-6).

Making matters worse is the fact that Ryan threw his sixth interception in only three games Sunday afternoon. And his interception, like the previous five, could have been prevented with better decision-making. This time, deep in Colts territory, Ryan was looking for Luke Stocker over the middle of the field, despite the fact he was bracketed in coverage. On top of that, the ball was overthrown, which made it an easy pick for Clayton Geathers.

Ryan obviously wished he made a better decision on that play, which took points off the board for Atlanta.

“Check the football down and understand that we’re in a spot where we’ve got three points on the board with (Bryant) as our kicker — get the football to an outlet, keep moving it,” Ryan said. “We did a nice job of that most of the day. But at this position and in this league, it’s every snap. You’ve got to make great decisions every snap, and that was a poor decision on my part.”

The same type of play kept killing the defense

Brissett ended his day with 310 passing yards and two touchdowns. A chunk of those — 118 yards to be exact — went to his three tight ends. Atlanta had a hard time slowing down Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Mo Alie-Cox, especially when it came to making plays in the flat, whether they be on the right or left side of the field.

In total, Atlanta did a good job of stuffing the run. While Mack got loose for a 26-yard gain late, the Colts were held to 79 rushing yards. But maybe the early establishment of the run on the first couple of drives caused the Falcons to overcommit and not stay home on their assignments.

This allowed Indianapolis to misdirect the Falcons’ defenders and hit them with a number of play-action passes, sometimes on bootlegs, that went for sizable gains.

“When you’re running the ball and you’re having some success, it’s natural to get people who fill gaps — little things start to cross their faces, and they start keying in on the back,” Allen said. “They stop keying in on their keys.”

The most notable play-action pass that hurt the Falcons came near the end of the game. On third-and-4, the two teams lined up against one another with Colts head coach Frank Reich seeing something that led him to call a timeout. Out of the break, he had Brissett fake the handoff, with Doyle pretending like he was going to block a defender. Doyle then broke into the flat for a wide-open catch that went 11 yards to seal the game. The Falcons’ defense appeared to get sucked in on the initial run action on the play.

At a certain point, when a team, especially in the second half, starts having success with a certain type of play, it’s on the coaching staff to relay that information to the players. Someone should have been made aware that the tight end might leak out into the flat on third-and-4.

Yet no one seemed to know. In the end, however, you still have to give the Colts credit for setting the Falcons up in those situations.

“I think they had a good scheme,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “They tried to establish the run, get you to bite on the run and then throw the play-action in there. It’s a good scheme. You get more men in the box, and then you throw a pass in there. They had a good game-plan and executed better than we did.”

Freeman finally runs free, to a degree

One positive the Falcons can take away from Sunday’s game is the fact that Freeman finally was able to break off some runs. His first carry of the game went for 28 yards, which gave him more than the 11-carry, 22-yard performance he had against the Eagles. He finished with 16 carries for 88 rushing yards.

During the offseason, Quinn said he wanted to offer a balanced attack, which begins with establishing the run. Freeman totaled 93 yards from scrimmage — a season-high. Still, the Falcons only totaled only 93 rushing yards, which isn’t ideal for a team that does want to be strong in this department.

Through three games, Atlanta ranks 27th with an average of 74.3 rushing yards per game. Being in the bottom tier of rushing was something the Falcons would like to avoid this year.

Even so, getting Freeman more involved is a good sign. It does seem he’s beginning to turn the corner as he gets up to speed after missing most of the 2018 season with knee and groin injuries.

Offensive line keeps Ryan clean

A second positive takeaway is that for the first time in three games, the Falcons’ offensive line kept Ryan from bringing sacked. The Colts were credited with only four quarterback hits, which is certainly an improvement. The Falcons invested a lot — in free agency and in the draft — in the offensive line, which had a good performance in pass protection.

Outside of Ryan’s costly interception, he had himself a good game, considering the clean pocket he was able to throw out of. Ryan finished 29-of-34 passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns but had the aforementioned pick. In the second half, Ryan was 22-of-23 for 216 yards, with all three scores coming after halftime.

Ryan is off to a good start for the most part. He just has to figure out how to eliminate the turnovers that have hurt his team.

 

 

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This is where DQ's brilliance should come into play. He must feel that if we play soft enough on defense that we're never near enough to actually tackle or even touch a guy, there will be no penalties. Problem solved. Of course, this week we played soft, didn't tackle and still had penalties. DQ must be quite perplexed.

 

 

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3 hours ago, Goober Pyle said:

While Atlanta started slow again — it has been outscored 41-3 in the first half of its three games —

I know this isn't the primary point of the article (though the two points are intertwined) but holy **** is that sobering to read.

EDITED TO ADD:

Upon slightly further reflection, I've realized that stat is wrong. They mean in our two LOSSES of the season, we were outscored 41-3 in the first half. In our sole win, we had a small lead at the half.

Nevertheless, the actual stat for all 3 games (even when you factor in an excellent defensive first half against Philly) is 47-13. 

It's still an eye-poppingly abysmal stat.

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1 minute ago, WhenFalconsWin said:

Getting ready in preseason doesn't matter under Quinn. 

I don't think this has anything to do with preseason, or minimal impact at the very least.  This is your opponent out-scouting and out-scheming you in several facets of the game and not having your team prepared for their opponent.  Several teams rested their players during the preseason and came out gangbusters, this is 100% on coaching.  Granted, at least they are adjusting and succeeding in 2nd halfs, but you obviously cannot win football games burying yourselves the way this team has against Minny and now Indy.

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4 minutes ago, athell said:

I don't think this has anything to do with preseason, or minimal impact at the very least.  This is your opponent out-scouting and out-scheming you in several facets of the game and not having your team prepared for their opponent.  Several teams rested their players during the preseason and came out gangbusters, this is 100% on coaching.  Granted, at least they are adjusting and succeeding in 2nd halfs, but you obviously cannot win football games burying yourselves the way this team has against Minny and now Indy.

It does on the preparation. I remember MS making sure coaches players prepare same as game week from preseason week 3 and the week 4. Though he rested all the starters in final week. Get in to game planning and scouting in preseason to work out the kinks. BB does the same.

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Just now, WhenFalconsWin said:

They are so worried about injuries (look what happened to Neal) in the preseason the first team units are no cohesive until nearly half the season is gone. I'm not talking about winning, I'm talking about letting the first team units play together for a couple of quarters.  You cannot be so afraid of injuries, they happen unexpectedly like yesterday, it is part of the game. You cannot play scared. 

Week 1, maybe.  They just did the same thing in week 3.  Can't use preseason as an excuse any longer.

And they aren't playing scared.  They are being smart.  It's pointless to risk injury to core players, especially veteran core players, on games that don't matter.  You are seeing the entire league go to this method, it's not just the Falcons so no...this isn't on the preaseason.  This is on coaching, preparation, scheming.

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Just now, falcons007 said:

It does on the preparation. I remember MS making sure coaches players prepare same as game week from preseason week 3 and the week 4. Though he rested all the starters in final week. Get in to game planning and scouting in preseason to work out the kinks. BB does the same.

Yup, and that is coaching.  Not players playing. Our problem right now is our coaches are getting outcoached.

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4 minutes ago, athell said:

Yup, and that is coaching.  Not players playing. Our problem right now is our coaches are getting outcoached.

Mostly on coaches but the way the players esp defense came out was really bad. I just think these players get complacent after the win. May be something DQ says after a win and make them feel invincible. Who knows.

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12 minutes ago, athell said:

I don't think this has anything to do with preseason, or minimal impact at the very least.  This is your opponent out-scouting and out-scheming you in several facets of the game and not having your team prepared for their opponent.  Several teams rested their players during the preseason and came out gangbusters, this is 100% on coaching.  Granted, at least they are adjusting and succeeding in 2nd halfs, but you obviously cannot win football games burying yourselves the way this team has against Minny and now Indy.

To me it comes down to execution.

A coach can preach and practice things until they are blue in the face but at the end of the day the players still need to make those plays.

I mean coaching and preperation put the defense in position to make several stops....only to have penalties wipe those stops out.

I am pretty sure DK does not teach throwing into double coverage.

I think people are too quick to just jump on coaching as the reason for struggles.

The other thing that I point out is that penalties...by in large are subjective and selectively enforced.....there are certianly things to improve on but when you have refs with trigger fingers.....just have to try and over come it.

These refs were trigger happy.....Just look at the penalty on Rico...they actually called two fouls on us....the defensless receiver (where he(the receiver) made the catch...took several steps and lowered his helmet.

And PI on Oliver.......which would have been the tickiest, takiest call in the history of calls.

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