O-line, defensive issues plague Falcons' loss to Cards

October 27, 2013

It's been a while since the NFC playoffs looked so far out of reach, so early in the season for the Atlanta Falcons.

Try their disastrous 2007 campaign.

It's a first for the trio leading the Falcons — quarterback Matt Ryan, head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff — since they arrived in 2008, the year after then-head coach Bobby Petrino quit with three games left and former quarterback Michael Vick went off to jail.

Approaching the season's midpoint, the 2013 Falcons will likely require a miracle to earn a playoff berth, slipping three games under .500 (again) with a 27-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The game wasn't as close as the final score might indicate.

The 2009 Falcons — the only team from the Ryan-Smith-Dimitroff era to miss the playoffs — started off 4-1 before injuries led to a 9-7 finish. And the 2012 club, which was famously poised 10 yards from a trip to the Super Bowl, could not seem farther away at this point.

NFC South rival New Orleans sits atop the conference with a 6-1 mark, putting Atlanta four games behind with nine games to play — a virtually insurmountable lead.

Even the New York Giants, one loss worse than the Falcons at 2-6, have won two straight and look to be in better shape. In the wild-card race, Atlanta trails Detroit (5-3), currently owner of the second wild card spot, by 2 1/2 games.

The Falcons also sit behind division rival Carolina (4-3) by two games.

Incidentally, the Falcons visit the Panthers next Sunday. But the two are teams going in two different directions. It's possible Atlanta could win and narrow that gap, but the Falcons have so many teams to climb past, in addition to the Lions and Panthers, with Chicago (4-3) representing another.

Flaws that have become apparent with the Falcons all season — flaws that Smith and his staff have sought to fix during the bye week — appear fatal in terms of the team's postseason hopes. The problems are basic: the offensive line and the defense.

At times, Ryan is able to mask the O-line's flaws, entering Sunday with the NFL's No. 3 quarterback rating. But against a top defense, like the Cardinals, those flaws were exposed.

Not only was Ryan pressured but the Falcons, as has often been the case this season, demonstrated an abysmal running game — even with the return of running back Steven Jackson, after a six-week injury absence.

The fact that the Falcons, who entered the week ranked 30th in rushing offense, cannot run the ball with either Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling indicates it's a not problem of the backs. It begins with O-line deficiencies.

On Sunday, with left tackle Sam Baker (knee) missing his fourth game of the seaosn, the Falcons again went with Lamar Holmes in that spot ... and Holmes was whistled for a couple penalties.

But it's not all the fault of Holmes, a favorite scapegoat. It's a group effort, and the group is not getting the job done. Last week, the Falcons ran the ball for 30 net yards, before three victory-formation kneel-downs resulted in minus-2 yards.

This week, the Falcons ran 14 times for 27 yards — and that included a late 13-yard scamper by Ryan to convert a fourth down. Jackson rushed 11 times for six yards.

When it came to the pass, Ryan took a beating against the Cardinals. He was sacked four times and officially hit 11 times — four times alone by Marcus Benard — tossing a career-high 61 passes.

The byproduct was that Ryan threw a season-high four interceptions. The Cardinals are the same defense that forced Ryan into five interceptions last year. The Falcons won that game, in large part, because Arizona's own quarterbacking play was improbably worse.

The Falcons also had wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones in last year's game. White missed his second straight outing on Sunday with a hamstring issue, and Jones is out for the season, as injuries continue to take their toll on the 2013 club.

Red-zone issues, which have continually dogged the Falcons, arose again. Atlanta settled for short field goals on its first two possessions — unable to cash in an Asante Samuel interception — and trailed early on, 7-6.

And then there's the defense, which entered the game ranked 20th in the NFL.

The Falcons allowed the Cardinals to rush for 201 yards, 80 coming on Andre Ellington's long burst in the first half. Atlanta defenders either got beat on their blocks or took poor angles, allowing the former Clemson back an unimpeded path to the end zone.

The Falcons also had breakdowns against the pass. Teddy Williams' 51-yard reception led to Arizona's first touchdown and came when Samuel seemingly thought he had safety help deep, in the form of William Moore.

He did not.

Fellow safety Thomas DeCoud got beat by Michael Floyd on a 15-yard touchdown reception that put Arizona up 21-6 at halftime.

In short, the issues with this team seem too numerous and too recurring to fix in the final nine games.

If Smith can do it, it would be a coaching performance for the ages. Alas, the players might not be up to the task.