One week does not a season make. So Atlanta’s 0-1 record means nothing more than one-game deficit in the race for the NFC South title. Still, that single game — and the five the will follow — suggest that the Falcons’ final season in the Georgia Dome will be one to forget.
Sunday’s 31-24 loss in Week 1 was not the promising start for the 2016 season that head coach Dan Quinn hoped for. But losing a home game inside the division to Tampa Bay — which twice defeated Atlanta in 2015 — only rendered the defeat more irritating.
Despite Quinn’s background as a protégé of Pete Carroll, and the presence of talented young players in Desmond Trufant and Vic Beasley, defense was not expected to carry the Falcons this year. Surrendering 4 touchdown passes to Jameis Winston and routinely failing to wrap up Buccaneers ball carriers (just look at Charles Sims’ catch-and-run for a 23-yard score) showed why.
A strong, balanced offense, however, was supposed to lead Atlanta back to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
Last season, Devonta Freeman appeared at times to be both a true workhorse and a versatile pass catcher, carrying the ball 20-plus times in seven games, breaking 100 total yards in eight games and scoring 14 touchdowns. Combined with another impressive dual-threat runner, recent third-round pick Tevin Coleman, the Falcons looked to have one of the better backfield tandems in the conference.
But Sunday against Tampa Bay — a team that yielded an average of 130 rushing yards during over the final three games of the 2015 season — the Falcons running game was abysmal. On 22 attempts, they gained just 52 yards, for a 2.4-yard average, the third-worst average in Week 1.
The Falcons offensive line looked overpowered at times on Sunday, especially by perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Kwon Alexander, who recorded 15 solo tackles and 2 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Both Coleman and Freeman were brought down at or behind the line of scrimmage on more than one occasion.
And although the Falcons running game failed to get any traction all day — one 10-yard rush was the longest gain of the day — the passing game did keep Atlanta competitive for 60 minutes. Free-agent acquisition Mohamed Sanu racked up 80 yards, highlighted by a spectacular catch in the end zone. And All-Pro Julio Jones picked up right where he left off following his record-setting 2015 campaign, nabbing a late third quarter touchdown that pulled the Falcons within 10 points.
But even Atlanta’s aerial attack—sixth in the NFL last season—is not without its problems, several of which surfaced Sunday afternoon. Sanu, who led all Falcons receivers with 5 catches, sustained an injury in the loss and was seen “limping heavily” on a sprained ankle after the game, according to ESPN.com.
Far more concerning for the Falcons was Jones’ ankle. Jones has a history of foot and lower leg injuries. He broke a bone in his right foot prior to being drafted in 2011, then broke another bone in that same foot in 2013, causing him to miss the final 11 games of the season. Last year, he played through knee and hamstring injuries. And during this preseason he sprained his ankle, then re-aggravated it in the second half of Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay. Although he continued to play and play well, at times he limped in between snaps.
Still, minor injuries to Jones and Sanu or the failings of the offensive line won’t be as shocking, and ultimately as costly, to the Falcons’ season as the play of their franchise quarterback.
Ever since his rookie season, Matt Ryan has been the centerpiece of the franchise. He guided the franchise to the postseason in four of his first five seasons, and has averaged more than 4,500 yards passing and 27 touchdown passes since 2011. But last year, as well as Sunday against Tampa Bay, “Matty Ice” has not been so hot when trailing in the fourth quarter.
Three times last season, while either leading or trailing by less than a touchdown in the fourth quarter of games that the Falcons eventually lost, Ryan threw interceptions. Versus the Buccaneers, he did not turn the ball over but was also unable to get it downfield, completing just one pass (for 8 yards) to a wide receiver during the entire fourth quarter.
The next month only gets tougher for Atlanta. Following a cross-country trip to play the resurgent Oakland Raiders and a visit to the always-deafening Superdome to face the rival Saints, Atlanta hosts the NFC champion Carolina Panthers, then travels to Denver to play the reigning world champions before heading to Seattle. Five weeks, three playoff teams from a year ago (including both Super Bowl participants), and well over 15,000 miles of travel. A 1-5 or even 0-6 start seems a very real possibility for a team that began last season 5-0 before losing seven of its next eight games.
One promising piece of news in the face of the 0-1 start and a nasty schedule over the next month? In recent years, a losing record has been good enough to win the division and earn a home playoff game. The 2014 Panthers won the NFC South at 7-9. Of course, that’s not too much comfort: Carolina snatched that division title away from the Falcons by drubbing Atlanta 34-3 in the Georgia Dome in Week 17.