237 days after their season ended by failing to score a touchdown inside the five yard line at the north end zone of Lincoln Financial Field, the Atlanta Falcons did it again.
They got the ball with just over two minutes left on the road against the Philadelphia, needing a touchdown to win the game. Both times they drove the ball inside the 10. They had goal to go situations. Between the two situations, January and September, they netted zero points. In five total trips inside the 20 in Thursday’s 18-12 season opening loss to the Eagles, the Falcons scored nine total points.
It’s not happen stance. There wasn’t bad weather to blame, or a bad refereeing mistake to hide behind. This is continued incompetence from an offensive coordinator who hasn’t learned from his mistakes. He had 237 days to come up with a plan on how to score in the red zone, and he ended up with the exact same results as last time.
This is a game where the defense held the Eagles to 232 yards of total offense and just 18 points despite losing Takkarist McKinley for a little bit, seeing Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal suffer an injury that would ultimately claim his season with an ACL tear, and even standout linebacker Deion Jones miss a few snaps.
Matt Ryan had one of the worst statistical games of his career, and no Falcons player other than Julio Jones even had more than 40 yards from scrimmage. The offensive line was getting bullied on almost every play down the stretch as the Eagles started to win the war in the trenches. And despite all of this, the Falcons were in position to win this game.
Perhaps they should have already been winning it.
On the opening possession of the game, the Falcons found themselves in a very familiar position. First and goal against the Eagles. This one started at the six, and things were looking even better when Devonta Freeman took a run for five yards down to the one.
The Eagles came out in an 11 man box for 2nd and goal. They were selling out to stop the run, and didn’t hide it. Sarkisian didn’t try to spread them out or split anybody out wide to create a little space. He jammed everyone up on the line to fight the 11 man box. As you might expect, the 11 men won the battle up front and stuffed Freeman on a run up the middle. Running the play directly at Fletcher Cox didn’t help. Following a third down incompletion, Philadelphia trotted back out in a similar look on fourth down.
Sark called another run with everyone clumped at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles strung it out quickly, and the Falcons had no points from their first possession. The entire world saw Philadelphia set up to stop the run, and Steve Sarkisian pounded two runs right at them anyway.
Three red zone snaps on the next drive, and zero targets for Julio Jones. It took until the 9th red zone play of the night for Atlanta’s best player to even be targeted. This comes after he was almost invisible in the red zone last season, totaling 1,444 yards but only three touchdowns.
This is the year Sarkisian has to get it right.
2018 is the Falcons spent a first round pick to give Sark even more help in the form of the best wide receiver in the draft – Calvin Ridley. It will certainly be the last season before Tevin Coleman becomes a salary cap casualty, and it’s the final one before Matt Ryan’s expensive new deal kicks in.
Sarkisian didn’t learn from his mistakes that crippled Atlanta a year ago. And that’s exactly how a week one loss is more than a week one loss. Having an 0-1 record is common, 16 teams will at the end of the weekend. The Falcons lost their game in the exact same way as how they lost their season in January.
Nothing changed. The ball wasn’t very well thrown by Matt Ryan, who had a very poor game overall, but there’s inescapable truth. The 50-50 jump ball throw to Julio Jones on 4th and goal was the exact same one as the 4th and goal in the playoff game, the only difference being that one went to the right corner of the end zone, Thursday’s to the left.
Sarkisian was given a rare opportunity to correct the biggest mistake of his career as an NFL offensive coordinator with a carbon copy of the situation.
He decided to change nothing and hope for a different outcome.
Week one losses don’t define teams. The Falcons lost at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2016, and won 11 of their final 15 regular season games en route to a conference championship. The Patriots were embarrassed last season in their season opener and got back to the Super Bowl.
The situation will look infinitely better if the Falcons can bring their record back to 1-1 by winning their home opener against the rival Carolina Panthers next Sunday. As always in the NFL, it’s a week to week business. But the big picture remains.
This is the most talented roster in Atlanta Falcons history. And if he can’t adjust quickly, Steve Sarkisian might waste all of it.