All of the stars and planets lined up for the Atlanta Falcons in their 13-3 season a year ago.
Their competition in the NFC South fell to pieces, they faced the sixth-easiest schedule in the NFL and they had one of the healthiest rosters in the league.
There has been no convergence of positive circumstances for the Falcons this year.
Atlanta has been decimated by injuries and brutalized by tougher opponents. The Falcons (2-9) are on a five-game losing streak entering Sunday’s meeting with the Buffalo Bills in Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
“You can make excuses all you want for all of the different things that have gone wrong,” said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. “But at the end of the day, from a player’s perspective, we need to play better. So that’s kind of the way I see it. We’ve been in some tight games. We’ve had opportunities to win a lot of ballgames. And we just haven’t made the plays.”
Atlanta’s offense has gone from seventh in scoring last year to tied for 24th this year. The defense has fallen from fifth best to tied for 28th in points allowed.
Injuries have killed the offense.
Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones was lost for the year in the fifth game with a broken foot. Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White, who had 92 catches last year, has been limited to just 20 this year due to ankle and hamstring injuries.
Meanwhile, left tackle Sam Baker was lost for the year to a knee injury. Two other starting offensive linemen from last year left in the offseason. Top running back Steven Jackson missed the better part of six games with a sore hamstring.
White and Jackson are back to relative full health to face Buffalo.
The Jones injury was the biggest loss, because he’s the game-breaking deep threat who stretched out defenses. Opponents have shown Atlanta fewer conservative, two-deep coverages than in the past.
“It changes your offense for sure, just because of the talent that he has,” Ryan said of the outstanding wide receiver.
“He’s as good as anybody in this league, and so it changes it a little bit. We’ve seen some different things than we’ve been accustomed to here the last two or three years. But we have to adjust to it, and we’ve got to find ways to still be explosive with the guys that we have.”
The defense is a different story.
Atlanta has relied on a smallish, fast defense for years. While the Falcons were fifth in scoring defense last year, they only were 24th in yards allowed, 27th in sacks and 25th in third-down defense.
Playing without a lead so often and facing better competition, the defense has been exposed.
Atlanta bid goodbye to team sack leader John Abraham, who turned 35, and replaced him in free agency with former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora.
Abraham had 10 sacks last year. Umenyiora hasn’t been a bust (with 6.5 sacks), but he hasn’t been nearly as effective in hurrying the quarterback. The edge rusher from the other side, Kroy Biermann, was lost for the year to injury in September. He had only four sacks last year but he got consistent pressure.
Atlanta’s lack of elite front-seven players and lack of depth in pass-rush talent has been exposed.
Atlanta’s secondary is pretty good. But in giving QBs too much time to throw, the Falcons have allowed 12 pass plays of 40 or more yards, tied for fourth most in the league.
Against the run, none of the defensive tackles, Corey Peters, Jonathan Massaquoi and Peria Jerry, are special.
Over the past five games, Atlanta has allowed an average of 166 rushing yards a game.
“We’ve not hit our markers in a lot of areas, and run defense is one of them, especially over the last four weeks,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us with the run game because there’s two really good running backs,” Smith said, referring to C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
“The Bills are the only team that have two rushers that have 500 yards rushing. So we’ve got to do a better job in fitting the run. We’ve had way too many explosive plays. That’s another marker that’s way out of line.”