Latest demoralizing loss exposes Falcons’ depth issues

ATLANTA (AP) — Talk about a painful reality check.

After reaching .500 eight games into the season, the Atlanta Falcons were held without a touchdown in consecutive lopsided losses to the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.

A 27-25 win at New Orleans on Nov. 7 left the Falcons at 4-4 and hoping they might contend for a playoff berth. Thursday night’s 25-0 loss to the Patriots left the Falcons (4-6) painfully aware of their shortcomings.

The Falcons’ first shutout loss in six years was all the more painful coming after Sunday’s ugly 43-3 setback at Dallas.

It is the first time Atlanta has been held without a touchdown in back-to-back games since 1987, when a team that finished 3-12 lost 38-0 to the Saints and 38-3 to the Cleveland Browns in Weeks 8 and 9.

“It’s about as rough as you can feel after the emotions of getting back to 4-4,” coach Arthur Smith said Friday, before adding: “and then really what I’d say is we deserve to be where we’re at.”

The latest loss highlighted the offense’s lack of depth.

With top wide receiver Calvin Ridley missing his fourth consecutive game, do-it-all running back Cordarrelle Patterson held out with an ankle injury and tight end Hayden Hurst going on injured reserve with an ankle injury, the Falcons were left with far too little firepower to keep pace with the Patriots.

Ridley is eligible to come off the reserve/non-football injury list, but it’s not known if he will return this season as he has the support of the team while addressing mental health issues. Smith said Friday he had no update on Ridley’s status.

Smith said Patterson, who worked out on the field before Thursday night’s game after being limited in practice this week, wanted to play. Barring a setback, Patterson could return next week.

The Falcons obviously missed Patterson’s production. He has 39 catches for 473 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns. He leads the team with 303 yards rushing.

Without Patterson, the Falcons were held to 11 first downs and 165 yards in the loss to the Patriots.

WHAT’S WORKING

Atlanta’s defense played better than the final score indicated. New England led only 13-0 entering the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Josh Rosen had a interception returned for a touchdown by linebacker Kyle Van Noy late in the game.

The defense, led by linebacker Foye Oluokun, gave up 308 yards. Oluokun had 10 tackles and one of the team’s three sacks. Cornerback A.J. Terrell added nine tackles and an interception. Dante Fowler Jr. shared a sack and had five stops.

By no means was it a dominant performance by the Atlanta defense. Patriots rookie Mac Jones completed 22 of 26 passes. New England running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson each averaged more than 5 yards per carry.

Still, Smith said the defense “gave us a chance and we didn’t take advantage of it.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offense had a glaring lack of punch with no play gaining at least 20 yards. Too often the Falcons were forced into predictable passing situations caused by an ineffective running game and penalties.

Russell Gage was Matt Ryan’s most effective target, leading the team with five catches for 49 yards. Gage’s 19-yard catch in the fourth quarter was the Falcons’ biggest play of the game.

Gage is best in a complementary role, perhaps as a No. 3 target. Once Patterson was ruled out, the Patriots’ defense focused on tight end Kyle Pitts, who has held to three catches for 29 yards. The Falcons couldn’t produce enough big plays from other players to avoid their first shutout loss since losing 38-0 at Carolina on Dec. 13, 2015.

STOCK UP

Perhaps the only somewhat upbeat review from Smith about an offensive player regarded running back Qadree Ollison, who was called up from the practice squad for the game.

Ollison had a long run of 12 yards while leading the team with nine carries for 34 yards. Those are modest figures, but starter Mike Davis netted only 1 yard on three carries, so Ollison could have a role even if Patterson returns.

Smith said Ollison “ran well and had his moments. That was good to see.”

STOCK DOWN

The offensive line struggled to create running lanes and to protect Ryan. Atlanta was held to 40 yards rushing on 16 carries. Ryan was sacked four times for a loss of 33 yards. Smith emphasized that the line didn’t deserve all the blame for the shutout.

Smith said “everything is on the table,” but it’s not clear what options, if any, are available on the roster.

INJURED

Ryan limped off the field with a toe injury in the first half but kept playing until the game was out of reach in the fourth. He downplayed the injury following the game. Smith on Friday also expressed optimism in Ryan’s status, but added: “We’ll have to see how the next four or five days progress.”

KEY NUMBER

87-6 — Since scoring their last touchdown early in the fourth quarter of their win at New Orleans on Nov. 7, the Falcons have managed only two field goals while giving up 87 points.

NEXT STEPS

The Falcons’ hopes for recovering from the deflating back-to-back losses rest with their visit to Jacksonville on Nov. 26. “That’s the journey of the season,” Smith said.

___

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