Posted December 06, 2011

Coach Killers, Week 13: Atlanta’s offense

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons' Julio Jones dropped the ball -- literally -- with the game on the line against the Texans. (ZUMAPRESS.com)

Every week, we’ll take a look at a player or team whose bad performance did the most to raise the stress level of their coach.

With one second left on the clock and trailing Houston by seven, the Falcons needed 30 yards to get in the end zone and give themselves a chance to tie or win the game.

Atlanta QB Matt Ryan lobbed one to the left corner of the end zone for rookie wide receiver Julio Jones. Somehow, Jones cleared enough room amidst three Houston defenders to make a clear play on the ball. Ryan’s pass hit him in the hands. Jones dropped it.

Sure, it would have been a difficult, twisting catch, but the play capped off a perfectly disappointing day for Atlanta.

There’s no shame in losing to the Texans, who are 9-3 and have run off six straight wins. But the manner in which the Falcons lost had to leave them shaking their heads.

Ryan started the downward spiral in the first quarter, throwing interceptions on two of his first six passes. If not for the Texans starting rookie, third-string quarterback T.J. Yates — not to mention a controversial fumble call going Atlanta’s way — the resulting 3-0 deficit might have been much bigger.

Ryan didn’t get a ton of help from his receivers, either. Jones’ last-play drop was his second of the game, and Roddy White, who entered Sunday leading the NFL in drops on the season, added a couple more to his resume.

And the most inexcusable play of all might have come on Atlanta’s next-to-last drive, after Houston had claimed the 17-10 lead. Facing a 4th-and-1 at the Houston 20, the Falcons took a delay of game penalty — despite having two timeouts in their back pocket. Compounding the problem, they then used a timeout prior to the next play anyway, which wound up being an incomplete pass from Ryan to White on 4th-and-6.

Houston has stymied its fair share of offenses this season. After 13 weeks of the regular season, the Texans sit second in yards-per-game allowed and in points allowed.

But the Falcons’ inconsistent effort on offense this season has been one of the more maddening subplots to follow. The Falcons have scored 30 points or more three times this season and gone 3-0 in this games. They’ve also scored 14 or less four times and posted an 0-4 mark.

There’s really no excuse for this team to be so up and down. Ryan is in his fourth season as a starter, and he has a dynamic running back in Michael Turner plus a talented group of wide receivers and tight end Tony Gonzalez at his disposal. Even when Jones has struggled with injuries, the next man up (usually Harry Douglas) has stepped into the lineup and performed.

Yet, Atlanta hasn’t been able to maintain any real momentum, save for a three-game stretch when it beat Carolina, Detroit and Indianapolis in succession, while scoring 28.3 points per game.

As a result of the come-and-go offense, Atlanta finds itself fighting for its playoff lives.

That’s not quite what the Falcons envisioned after rolling to a 13-3 record last season and the NFC’s top seed. A surprising playoff setback against the Packers did nothing to quell the expectations headed into this year, especially with the addition of Jones to the offense.

For whatever reason, the light hasn’t stayed on enough.

Working in Atlanta’s favor, in terms of its postseason chase, is a cushy schedule from here on out — only a trip to New Orleans looks overly daunting, with matchups against Carolina, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay filling the gaps.

It’s hard to chalk up any games as a sure win, though (OK, maybe Jacksonville), when we’re not positive which Atlanta team is going to show up and play. One or two more slip-ups could lead to a scenario that seemed unthinkable at the start of the year: The Falcons missing the playoffs.

If that happens, if Atlanta finds itself on the outside looking in come January, then the Falcons will have no one to blame but themselves. They again proved why that’s true in Sunday’s loss to the Texans.

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