Falcons need to start looking ahead to next season

NEW ORLEANS — Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn said leading into Sunday’s game against the Saints that his team couldn’t afford to look ahead at the big picture in terms of the playoffs.

After Thursday’s 31-17 loss, the Falcons need to start looking ahead toward 2019.

The sense of urgency was missing once again in a must-win scenario, kind of like the lackadaisical performance at the Cleveland Browns a few weeks back. The end result was a third consecutive loss and a dip to 4-7 in the standings.

“I think the mindset after tonight with the long weekend is for each of us individually to take a look in the mirror and see what we’ve got to do better to help our team play better than we have up until this point,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only four teams in the Super Bowl Era have started the season 4-7 or worse and qualified for the playoffs. The last was the 2014 Carolina Panthers, who actually started 3-7-1 yet won the NFC South at 7-8-1.

The Falcons don’t have such a luxury, with the Saints (10-1) currently running away with the division. Atlanta entered Sunday’s game with a 7 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Falcons had high hopes of pulling out a miracle and winning their final six games.

That was just a figment of their imagination.

When Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley fumble the ball away in the red zone, you know it’s going to be a long night.

Ryan also had a ball deflected and picked off in the fourth quarter that led to the Saints’ game-clinching touchdown. Couple those elements with a nonexistent running game, questionable playcalling, an offensive line that couldn’t keep Ryan off his back and coverage breakdowns on defense, and it all added up to another miserable showing for a team initially touted as a Super Bowl contender.

“I told the team [it’s] the most challenged we’ve been over the last three year,” Quinn said. “It can be frustrating and confusing for sure. The storyline was pretty complete though at the end in terms of the ball. I thought the team played hard and the energy was right, the fight as right, but we didn’t play well in terms of our execution and certainly our ability to create takeaways and take care of the ball.”

The final five games of 2018, beginning with next week’s home contest with the Baltimore Ravens, should be used as an evaluation for coaches and players alike. Despite the 4-7 record, Quinn doesn’t appear to be on the hot seat with a three-year extension in hand through 2022. But like Ryan said about the players, Quinn will have to look at himself in the mirror, too, to see where he can coach better.

When asked if he had total faith in Quinn, Falcons owner Arthur Blank told ESPN, “Absolutely. We love our coach. Our coach is not the problem.”

The reality is the Falcons had six starters placed on injured reserve, including Pro Bowlers Devonta Freeman, Deion Jones, and Keanu Neal. Playing without Jones, Neal, and Ricardo Allen made the defense much like a sieve, while Freeman’s absence on offense has been magnified by the run game struggles, with the Falcons missing his ability to make opponents miss. Not to mention the leadership the Falcons miss from injured free safety Ricardo Allen.

“It’s a reason, but it’s not an excuse,” Blank said of he injuries. “That’s what the coach would tell you. That’s what the players would tell you. There have been some crippling injuries, but other guys have stepped up and played the best they can. Some cases, that’s good enough. In some cases, not quite.”

A lot of folks will call for offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s job, but the Falcons probably don’t want to make Ryan work with yet another offensive coordinator after Mike Mularkey, Dirk Koetter and Kyle Shanahan. Players such as Vic Beasley Jr., Desmond Trufant and Jake Matthews need to use the final five games to show they are more than worthy of their first-round-pick status.

And the Falcons probably want to keep their cautious approach with arguably their best defensive player, Deion Jones, who was activated from injured reserve a couple of weeks ago but was inactive for the past two games. Jones shouldn’t return this season.

Quinn needs to evaluate both his offensive line — with Ryan being sacked six times against the Saints and the run game not getting a push — and the D-line, with its pass-rushers not consistently getting pressure on the opposition.

“We’ll go back through the [film] hard and look at it,” Quinn said of the offensive line issues both protecting and blocking in the run game. “[We will] see if there is a chance that needs to be made and will. Nothing will stop us from what we need to do to get the job done. Nothing saying we will [make a change], but it’ll give us something to take a look at.”

In other words, there are a lot of problems the Falcons need to fix. Not being in the playoff field will give them a jump on resolving those issues.

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