Sunday’s meltdown against the Dallas Cowboys wasn’t the worst collapse in Falcons history, but only because of Super Bowl LI.
The 40-39 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was monumental, and it put Atlanta in a an extremely difficult 0-2 hole early in the NFL season. The way it happened brought to mind head coach Dan Quinn and his team’s blown 28-3 lead to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl after the 2016 season.
Three Cowboys turnovers spotted Atlanta a 20-0 lead after a quarter, and a 29-10 edge at halftime before Dallas outscored the visitors 30-10 in the second half. Failure to cover a slow rolling onside kick before it went 10 yards in the closing moments was a key mental mistake that led to a game-winning field goal from Greg Zuerlein as time expired.
Prior to Sunday, NFL teams were 440-0 when scoring 39 points with no turnovers since turnovers were first tracked in 1933, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Thanks to the Falcons, that’s 440-1.
ESPN Stats & Information came up with another one. Teams were 1,875-6 when leading by 15 or more points in the final five minutes of regulation over the past 20 seasons. Atlanta hit that mark, too.
The task for Quinn and his players is how to process the stunning loss and save a season that is backloaded with some of the league’s top teams.
“Well, there’s nothing to keep your spirits high, but I’m honest with them,” Quinn said of his message to the players. “I say, ‘Hey, there’s not a good place to put a loss like that, but there is going to be a lesson that you have to take out from the pain.’ I thought it may come down to a finishing moment. There may be a teaching one, whether it’s the special teams one, there’s an offensive one, a defensive one, all of them are in there. That’s what we’ll hit on (Monday) and then turn the page as we’re heading into Chicago.
“It’s a very resilient group. We have core veterans at a number of spots. They’re pissed, but they’re 100 percent committed to getting our season on track like we expect us to. That’s what I expect from our guys.”
The onside kick mistake was the final mistake, as well as the one that drew the most attention. Quinn said the Falcons have practiced for both slow-rolling onside kicks, as well as high-bouncers, but they failed on execution.
“I think (players) definitely know (they can recover the ball up before it travels 10 yards),” Quinn said. “The front three are usually blocking as they’re going and the high bouncers go to the second side. So, the front line, generally on an onside kick, they’re looking to get a block first and the high hop goes to the next player. When that instance happens and it’s not one that’s a high hopper, then you just transfer in and you go to your ball. But you’re looking at your assignment first of who you have to go block, certainly the ball and then your assignment. They definitely know the rule.”
A bigger concern than the onside kick is a defense that has been shredded in back-to-back weeks to open the season.
Seattle’s Russell Wilson completed 31 of 35 passes (an 88.6 completion percentage) for 322 yards and four touchdowns in Game 1, dicing up an Atlanta defense that failed to force a turnover. Turnovers weren’t the issue against Dallas. Linebacker Foye Oluokon caused three of the Cowboys’ four fumbles, and the three takeaways provided a three-score early lead.
However, Dak Prescott completed 34 of 47 passes for 450 yards and was sacked just once despite playing in front of an offensive line missing both starting tackles. Dallas totaled 570 yards and 33 first downs.
“I would say it’s concerning enough that we really wanted to challenge for some takeaways,” Quinn said of the defense through two games. “I was pleased to see that part. I suspect that this is the same type of group that when we see some things that we want to get corrected and move on, that that will happen as well. They’re connected. They’re ready to go. We came out in the right space, but we didn’t finish in the right space.
“Hopefully, like I said, we’ll apply the lessons that we learned — defensively, offensively, teams-wise — the whole thing, to not have this moment and these feelings come back again.”
Atlanta’s offense seemed to make progress, too. Ryan threw for 273 yards and four touchdowns, and Calvin Ridley had seven receptions for 109 yards and two TDs. The Falcons rushed for 113 yards and were dedicated to more offensive balance.
The offense played with a gimpy Julio Jones, who had just two catches for 24 yards while battling his hamstring injury, and was without starting right tackle Kaleb McGary, who left with a knee injury.
Todd Gurley rushed 21 times for 61 yards.
“I think that’s when we’re at our best, for sure, keeping defenses off balance, trying to make sure that we’re affecting them in the run game, being very efficient with that, and then also being explosive in the pass game,” Ryan said. “I thought playing from in front, you have the opportunity to do that. I did think balance was a positive.”
Playing from front didn’t mean a win for the Falcons, who couldn’t put the game away. Now they have to move past a disastrous collapse with the Chicago Bears traveling to fan-free Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
“I think you have to get the message across that it’s a marathon,” Ryan said. “There’s no question this one stings and it hurts, but a lot can happen. We have 14 games to go in the regular season, so there’s plenty of time to get done what we need to get done. But we’ve got to close out games when we get chances like this."