Four Downs: Falcons suffer 25-point smackdown in Houston
AUG 17, 2014 12:52a ET
The Atlanta Falcons landed in Houston on Tuesday, to join the Texans in combined practices. After five days of being on the road, and a 32-7 shellacking on Saturday night, the Falcons are likely itching to get back to Flowery Branch, Ga.
The Falcons are now 1-1 during preseason action, but even though a win came before this loss, the feeling must be gloomy as nothing seemed to go right against the Texans.
"That was not the type of performance that we need to have," said head coach Mike Smith to Dave Archer on CW 69 after the game. "I'm sure there was something that was a positive out there, but watching it from the sideline, I didn't see it."
That's about as negative as Smith can get in a public forum about his team. Atlanta's offense was bad, it's defense was abused and two blocked kicks (one punt, one field goal) only goes a little way toward showing how awful the game went on special teams.
Here are four observations from a game where the head coach didn't see anything good from the sideline.
1. THE OFFENSIVE LINE IS STILL SUSCEPTIBLE TO GOOD PASS-RUSHERS
On the seventh play of the game for Atlanta's offense (the fourth play of the second drive), running back Antone Smith got lit up by rookie defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Smith grabbed the football behind the line of scrimmage, and Clowney, who was too quick for a pulling Justin Blalock to pick up, blasted the ball carrier.
Clowney didn't quite make Smith look like a Michigan running back, but the hit will be replayed on TV for days to come, maybe weeks.
During a sideline interview on CW 69 with Ryan after he'd left the game, Atlanta's quarterback praised his offensive line. He said the unit performed well in the game, and had a positive week working against the Texans in joint practice sessions.
Ryan might have liked what he saw from his offensive line, but after watching Clowney explode into the Falcons backfield twice, rather easily both times, there are still some issues to fix.
While Clowney was the first pick in the draft, he's still a rookie. And he won't be the best pass-rusher the Falcons face this season.
Atlanta will face three of the top 10 sack leaders from last season--Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers, and Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette of the New Orleans Saints--twice in 2014. And those are just the cream-of-the-crop pass-rushers. Others to fear: Carlos Dunlap of the Cincinnati Bengals (Week 2), Brian Robison of the Minnesota Vikings (Week 4), new Chicago Bears defensive end Willie Young (Week 6) and the other Carolina end, Charles Johnson (Weeks 11 and 17).
Clowney's success on Saturday should be a warning. There is work to do to slow down the pass rush, and Atlanta still might not be equipped to succeed.
2. A REPLACEABLE QUARTERBACK, AND TWO BACKUP RUNNING BACKS, CARVED UP ATLANTA'S FIRST-TEAM DEFENSE
After a slow start where the Houston offense went three-and-out on its first series, the Texans found a rhythm, and then ran roughshod over the Falcons' defense.
Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick led a 6:04-minute drive the next time he touched the ball, and pushed the Texans to a touchdown on 12 plays. Fitzpatrick was 3 for 5 on the drive, and Jonathan Grimes and Alfred Blue churned a combined 25 yards.
Even though Fitzpatrick is the starting quarterback, his hold on the spot isn't firm with Case Keenum breathing down his neck. Grimes and Blue are backups to Arian Foster. That means the orchestrators of Houston's first scoring drive are right at replacement level, or in the case of the running backs, below that mark.
It wasn't just that one drive that was successful for Houston. Fitzpatrick later threw a touchdown pass and finished with a passer rating of 126. The Texans rushed for 138 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry, and the offense put 32 points on the board. To be fair, 16 of those points came in the fourth quarter, after the first-team defense had vacated the game. But there weren't many great things to point toward on defense for the Falcons on Saturday.
3. SAM BAKER GOING DOWN COULD BE THE WORST THING TO HAPPEN TO THE FALCONS
The sight of Baker being carted off the field, unable to put any pressure on his right knee, could spell doom for Atlanta's offensive line, and therefore the offense.
Sure, over at right tackle there is a starting rookie. And next to him is a new piece to the puzzle in Jon Asamoah. But even with those unknowns, the X-factor for Atlanta's offensive line in 2014 is Baker.
Baker, who is a former first-round pick in 2008, hasn't exactly lived up to his draft status. Injuries have plagued the veteran. In his six seasons in the league, he's missed at least half a season twice (2008 and 2013), and only played a full 16-game schedule twice. Interestingly enough, the two seasons he played in all 16 games (2010 and 2012), the Falcons went 13-3.
Not only is Baker important to the Falcons because when healthy he's a better-than-average left tackle, Atlanta's depth behind him is lacking.
Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder will be the first two players to take reps for Baker, if his injury is somthing that keeps him off the field (the Falcons haven't released any information on the extent of Baker's injury at this time). Schraeder was ranked the 84th of 124 tackles in pass-blocking effieciency by Pro Football Focus last season.
Holmes was 109th.
Holmes and Schraeder combined to allow 14 sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 65 hurries in a combined 887 snaps last season.
When ready to compete, Gabe Carimi could also enter the mix as a replacement for Baker, if needed.
There's also a possibility that Atlanta could consider the rookie Matthews as the best option for Ryan's blind side, and move him to left tackle. The team had hoped to keep Matthews on the right side all year as he got used to the speed of the NFL. But that might not be possible if Baker misses a significant amount of time.
4. AN OFFENSE THAT'S GOING TO HAVE TO SCORE SERIOUS POINTS, HASN'T SHOWED THAT IT CAN
Atlanta finished with the 21st-ranked passing defense and 31st-ranked run defense in 2014. Only five teams allowed more points than the Falcons last season, and only four gave up more total yards.
The defense is still a work in progress.
It's been a problem thus far.
In a win last week, the Falcons scored just 16 points. They had trouble in the red zone, settling for too many field goals and not enough touchdowns. In Saturday's loss, Atlanta scored just seven points.
The good news is that Atlanta didn't sputter in the red zone. The one time the Falcons got inside Houston's 20-yard line, they scored a touchdown. The problem: Atlanta only got into the red zone that one time.
Four quarterbacks for the Falcons combined for less than 50 percent passing (15 for 31, 48.4 percent) on Saturday. The running back corps averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.
Where the Falcons really struggled against the Texans was on third down. Atlanta was 3 for 11 (27.3 percent) on third down, and on its 12 drives, only logged 19 first downs, six by penalty. The offense didn't work well on Saturday. And in the regular season, it's going to have to.
Atlanta's defense was hideous at times on Saturday. And even as it gels as the season progresses, and learns how to function with new talent and coaching, this isn't going to be a defense that finishes in the top half of the league. For Atlanta to win games in 2014, this team will have to easily score points.
Through two preseason games, scoring has been anything but easy.