Before we dive into the takeaways from Sundays game, let's get this obvious observation out of the way: That was an ugly, ugly win. As they say, a win is a win, but the Falcons were determined to not get there easily.
In many ways, the game against the Panthers was as much about both teams' failures as it was the Falcons successes. With that said, here are my key takeaways from the game.
1. The offense is sputtering, despite better offensive line play
First, let me clarify that "better" offensive line play is a relative term. But when you're on your third string center and right tackle, if you're not giving up a sack on every other drive, you may have overshot reasonable expectations. Yet, on the day the Falcons offensive line gave up 2 sacks, 3 hits and 9 hurries. While that's not great, it is manageable.
And yet, the offense barely managed. Against a struggling Panthers defense, the offense put up just 19 points and only one touchdown. Were it not for the utter reliability of Matt Bryant, this game would likely have gone down as a loss.
So why is the offense struggling? To me, it lacks an identity. To any fan that watches this team play every week, the following statement is going to sound like a broken record: this offense works best when Matt Ryan is allowed to run it at the line. Yet again, this statement held true on Sunday. When the offense was run out of the huddle, the offense seemed to struggle and seemed disjointed. When Ryan ran the hurry-up/no-huddle, it looked efficient and confident - and it had success.
In fact, on one of the late "field-goal drives," the majority of the drive was orchestrated in the hurry-up and moved down the field quickly. However, once the team got into the red zone, they inexplicably reverted back to plays called out of the huddle - only to watch the drive stall.
This disjointed back-and-forth is understandably causing an identity crisis with the offense. The fact that the team can't find ways to lean on the up-tempo offense more speaks volumes about the coaches and their current mentality. If they can't get this corrected - and soon - the lead at the top of the division will be a short-lived one.
2. The defensive secondary is playing very well
Whether or not Cam was having an off-day (or season, which may be more accurate), the Falcons secondary deserves some recognition for it's improved play over the last couple of games.
While it seems like Trufant is consistently being praised for his excellent coverage - which held true again on Sunday - he finally held onto a ball for a key drive-killing interception. Fans have been pretty hard on Trufant for his terrible hands this year, so it was nice to see the young corner pull one in.
While only a 2nd year player taken out of the 7th round, Kemal Ishmael has stepped in nicely for the injured William Moore. While he has already shown good tackling skills, Ishmael netted yet another INT (3 for the year) and demonstrated instincts that would indicate he's worth trying to develop.
While he didn't have a great game, Dwight Lowery has been solid all year and has been an upgrade over the antics of Thomas DeCoud. And while he still has some growing to do, Dezmen Southward continues to get more and more snaps and flashes the top-end speed and size that gives him intriguing potential.
3. Something is going on with Massaqoui, and it isn't good
For the second straight week, Johnny Mass was listed on the injury report - though he was upgraded to Probable this week. Normally, that would indicate that a player is at a point where he can contribute again.
So why did Mass only get 8 total snaps on the day? I won't bring up Kroy's snap count - because that horse has been beaten to death and back - but if Mass is good enough to be listed as "Probable," why is he riding the bench again? For a team that struggles to pressure the passer, leaving one of your most productive edge rushers on the bench seems illogical.
As I see it, there is only two reasonable explanations: 1) Massaqoui's injury is worse than originally reported and the coaches are downplaying it for some strange reason or 2) Massaqoui is good enough to play, but the coaches have just not played him. Whichever way you slice it, something is not right with this situation.
If he's not healthy, why not make him inactive and play someone like Maponga more? Why not activate Cliff Matthews? What possible purpose does having him injured and active serve the team?
If he is healthy enough to play, why has he been effectively benched when he showed more promise than any other player when it comes to generating pressure against the QB? Is he being forced to ride the pine in favor of guys like Kroy, or Babs? Is he being punished for not being good on special teams (a favorite practice of Smitty)? Is he in the dog house with the coaches for speaking out about his playing time?
Whatever the reason, the handling of Mass and his playing time just looks bad.
So, what say you about the game?