When is a 31-24 win crippling? When all your players are actually crippled.
The Falcons did some truly impressive things in the Georgia Dome Sunday, but they also showed a worrying tendency toward the same bad habits that always seem to doom them. They did get the win in spite of suffering a half-dozen major injuries that clearly hurt them as the game wore on, especially considering five of them were starters. Five.
The Falcons have won and lost messy, close games thus far this season. Those kinds of slugfests take a toll on the way through the season, but walking away with a win certainly makes them more than tolerable. Don't get it twisted, either: The Rams are a good football team with a bright future. This was never going to be a pushover.
About those injuries: If the Falcons can roll into next week's game against the Dolphins returning 4-5 out of the six players who went down today, I'd consider it a major victory. None of the injuries seemed potentially season-ending, but suffering that many hurt players in a single game is a legitimate cause for concern. If the Falcons are down any of these players for a long time, they have to dip into their depth. That depth is a mixed bag at most positions on the roster, too.
It would be a mistake to suggest that those injuries didn't have an outsized impact on the game. Playing without Steven Jackson, Asante Samuel, Kroy Biermann, Bradie Ewing and Sean Weatherspoon is going to hurt your defense and your ground game, and both of those facets noticeably suffered.
Enough about the injuries, though, since we'll be talking about those for weeks to come. What impressed me most about this game was the way the Falcons managed to grit their teeth and get through those injuries, and the way they were able to fight their way to a win despite having no ground game and wearing down on defense late. These were tough circumstances against a tough team, and the Falcons overcame the by the narrowest of margins.
What was less impressive is that this game followed a familiar script. The Falcons got up 24-3 before grinding to a complete halt, going through a lousy third quarter and frittering away multiple chances to put this game away. They don't seem to have learned that they need to try to blow teams out because they blow their leads.The injuries have to be acknowledged, but we can't just completely ignore that this team isn't where it wants to be.
I recognize that this sounds pretty negative on balance, but it's just because it was a frustrating game to watch and I'm deeply concerned about some of the injuries. The Falcons walked away from a tough, tough game with a win, and will have a chance to take down a tough but flawed Dolphins team a week from now.
We'll have more on those injuries as we hear. Let's get into the breakdowns.
- Matt Ryan. While he had all his starters coming into the game, many wound up limited, banged up or out of the game entirely. Ryan still had a crisp, efficient game. If his line doesn't get him killed, he may have his best season yet.
- The blocking was improved against a better pass rush. They appear to have forgotten entirely how to block for the run, but the Falcons were so good passing the football that they could afford to be one-dimensional. Considering the strength of the Rams' pass rush, the fact that the Falcons were able to give Ryan a fairly clean pocket and limit the pressure was a major victory. Give them the credit they're due, but if they can't start carrying it over to the second half, uh oh.
- I hated losing Steven Jackson, but at least he got a touchdown against his old team. Very bittersweet.
- All Jason Snelling does when called upon is deliver, time and time again. The 2008 seventh round pick came up with 19 yards and a touchdown on two carries and 41 yards on four catches, making him the only Falcon worth a damn in the ground game. He remains an invaluable reserve, and that fourth quarter game-saving catch was absolutely phenomenal.
- Harry Douglas. It's time to step off the HD hate bandwagon, folks. With Roddy White banged up, HD stepped up and got open, delivering a few key catches.
- Oh, Julio Jones. It's hard to believe that 81 yard touchdown was the longest of his career, because he just makes a habit of burning cornerbacks. Yesterday, his onslaught ended with 11 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown, as he made on of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL look ridiculous.
- Osi Umenyiora grabbed his first career interception and his first career touchdown in the same game. Thank the Football Gods it was for the Falcons.
- Joplo Bartu is here to stay. He had three quality tackles and looked sharp in coverage throughout the day. I thought it was crazy to even consider starting a UDFA linebacker...but it's starting to look like Bartu might be the Falcons' best option at outside linebacker. Just be ready for the occasional rookie mistake.
- Robert McClain hasn't looked as good in coverage this year, it must be acknowledged. He's still the surest-tackling cornerback on this football team, and more than one of his nine stops wound up preventing a big gain.
- The coverage. Man, the coverage was sexy for the first half, at least. Desmond Trufant, Asante Samuel and to a lesser extent McClain. Having those three out there and Robert Alford available (thank goodness, after Samuel went down) is the kind of thing most teams would kill for. If Samuel can stay healthy and the young guys continue to improve on the job, the Falcons are going to be all set. Holding Bradford to his numbers on over 50 passes is still pretty good, honestly.
- Willy Mo always ready for WWE action.
- Matt Bosher always ready to punt. PUNTING!
- The Falcons may need to master the art of keeping a lead, but getting one doesn't seem to be a problem. Twice the Falcons have come out and dropped multiple scores on the other team before they can respond, and credit should go to the coaching staff for that. Just needs to be sustainable.
- The ground game couldn't get going. Part of that was blocking and part of that general ineffectiveness, but with Steven Jackson out the Falcons just weren't going anywhere. The Falcons could afford to be a one-dimensional team today on offense, but that's not going to fly all year long. They've gotta be able to run more effectively to wear down the clock and keep defenses guessing, and they just couldn't do it at all today.
- Yeah, so I'm not letting the line entirely off the hook. Multiple penalties (more on those in a few), still allowed pressure to Ryan even with the improvements and could barely run block at all. This remains the team's gigantic neon Achilles heel.
- The pass rush was in Bradford's face in the first half, but went nowhere in the second half. The Falcons finished with zero sacks and not nearly enough pressures to force Sam Bradford into enough bad throws. Add a strong pass rush to this game and the Falcons probably win by double digits, but it simply wasn't there. Going to need better going forward, particularly if Kroy Biermann has to miss some time.
- Losing Asante Samuel hurt, but the Falcons definitely wore down in coverage as the game went on. I'm thinking specifically of the third quarter stretch where Sam Bradford moved his team about 70 yards downfieldin no time flat. You have to live with the rookies making some mistakes, and we saw plenty of that.
Thomas DeCoud still taking plenty of bad angles and missing opportunities to tackle? That's a concern going forward.
- The penalties. The Falcons indulged in a few costly ones. The referees absolutely screwed Desmond Trufant late in the fourth quarter on a fourth and two that would have more or less given the game to the Falcons, but the offensive line screwed itself more than once. The Falcons have played some mighty sloppy football through two weeks, and the line play is a big part of the reason why.
- The injuries. The Falcons came in to this game with six questionable players. One of them (Asante Samuel) left for a while with a thigh injury. They also lost Kroy Biermann, Sean Weatherspoon, Cliff Matthews, Bradie Ewing and Steven Jackson. I understand the Falcons have had good luck with injuries in the past, but this is the universe overbalancing.
The good news is that none of these look like season-ending injuries, but that good news only goes so far. The Falcons have to play an intriguing young Dolphins team and the Patriots in the next two weeks, and if they're down several players things might get dicey.
- The play calling in the second half. The aggression evaporated for long stretches, which is frustrating. Then the Falcons were calling three man rushes. Then Jacquizz Rodgers was running the ball when the Falcons could have safely taken a knee to run out the clock and avoid a potentially catastrophic turnover.
None of these wound up being fatal, but they could have been. We can't stick our heads in the sand.
Game MVP: Julio Jones. After dominating the Rams, t couldn't be anyone else. Jones took this passing game, the only aspect of the offense that was working at all, and put it on his Norse God of Receiving shoulders. He was a beast. Matt Ryan and Jason Snelling deserve enormous credit, as well.
Game Theme Song: Technically, they didn't hurt themselves, but the title alone works.
One Takeaway: Injuries or no, the Falcons have some bad habits to correct going forward, and they can't continue to just pay lip service to it. A team that can't put teams away can't keep its winning ways going forever.
Final Word: Closewin!