The Atlanta Falcons entered Thursday night needing a win against a division rival after absorbing a tough loss on the road against Cincinnati. In beating the Buccaneers 56-14, the Falcons got that win through complete and total destruction of a football team that typically plays them tough. It was, without question, one of the most thoroughly enjoyable football games I have ever watched.
We knew the Buccaneers were depleted coming in, but we also knew that divisional games are often tough, so I projected a fairly modest win. It took maybe five minutes for my prediction to look foolish. I'm tempted to just chalk the last week up to the Bengals right now, because the Falcons quite simply destroyed the Buccaneers. They annihilated them.
What happened? The Falcons' offensive weapons were simply too much for the Bucs, particularly the phenomenal Julio Jones, who seemed at times to be completely unstoppable. Mike Nolan adjusted his defensive fronts, getting more pass rushing snaps for the likes of Jonathan Massaquoi, Corey Peters and Stansly Maponga, who responded by coming up with big plays. And special teams played a critical role thanks to nice returns from Devin Hester. It was a complete team victory, the kind that will probably cause Mike Smith to silently pump his fist in his sleep for days to come.
Of course, this is not a good Buccaneers team, and it's an even worse team without Doug Martin and Gerald McCoy. You saw lapses in coverage, a complete inability to slow down Matt Ryan and terrible offensive line play that doomed Tampa Bay early, and certainly if you want to wonder aloud if the Falcons are really this good, you have every right to do so. It's impossible to watch this Bucs team in action, particularly with the Falcons turning the ball over multiple times, and conclude that Tampa's failings didn't lead to quite a few Atlanta points.
At the same time, the Falcons just blew the Buccaneers off the field in truly impressive fashion, destroying Tampa and limiting them to just 216 yards while they in turn racked up 488 yards and 56 points. You don't beat any team in the NFL that badly by accident, and it's a testament to the team's willingness to come out firing on offense and to finally focus on tweaking its packages and player roles to achieve an actual pass rush. It's impossible to say this early that Atlanta will be a great or a lousy team when all is said and done for 2014, but if you were looking for ferocity, genuine improvement and a damn fun game, you got it all last night. As a fan, that's more than enough for me.
On to the individual breakdowns we go!
- Matt Ryan came out firing, throwing sharp passes and tight spirals from the very beginning. After throwing two early touchdown passes, he was able to take a backseat to the ground game and repeatedly find Julio Jones for quality gains. This may have marked the easiest game of the year for him, but it was good to see him put up a franchise record for completion percentage (87-plus percent) and just generally carve up the Buccaneers' soft zones like there were no actual players on the field.
- This was arguably Steven Jackson's finest game in a Falcons uniform. He started the game off with 36 yards on just five carries, running with power and explosiveness we hadn't really seen to this point. He slowed down in the second half, but the Falcons still seem comfortable giving him the load, particularly after both Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith fumbled in this game.
- Smith atoned for that fumble by getting to the outside and just taking off, sprinting 38 yards for a touchdown run. Around five touches seems to be a sweet spot for Antone, who has scored twice already this season, both times on looooong plays.
- Patrick DiMarco managed three catches last night, but even better, he was throwing some pretty stellar blocks out there. If he can do this week in and week out, he's going to establish himself as one of the league's better fullbacks.
- Julio Jones was an absolute monster. Matt Ryan fed him all throughout the first two-and-a-half quarters, but Julio reeled in a couple of throws that were a bit off the mark along the way, including a borderline circus catch on his second touchdown. He finished the game with nine receptions for 161 yards and those two scores, and any concerns we had about his explosion on that surgically repaired foot have been quieted. Look for him to wreak havoc on the Minnesota secondary in about ten days.
- Devin Hester had the game of his life against the Buccaneers. He broke the NFL's return touchdown record with his 20th on a punt return in the second quarter, he scored on a reverse, he forced and recovered a fumble for the Falcons and he looked explosive all night long. The Falcons are getting their money's worth from one of the league's great return men thus far, and hopefully he'll remain a major part of the team's gameplan in the weeks ahead.
- Eric Weems, of all people, managed 69 yards on four catches, looking as fast as ever. It warms my heart to see that guy making plays again for the Falcons.
- The line did a good job of blocking for Matt Ryan and the ground game in this one. The Falcons rotated Gabe Carimi in at right tackle on a handful of plays, but I thought Lamar Holmes held up very well against the Buccaneers, as did Jake Matthews in his return from injury. You can see what Ryan's capable of when the line gives him time, and this was a nice tune-up for a more aggressive and talented Vikings defense on the 28th.
- Mike Nolan got Jonathan Massaquoi some pass rushing snaps at last, and he responded with real pressure and about 1.5 sacks. Stansly Maponga also was in on a last game sack and recovered a fumble. Let's hope that's enough for Nolan to show increased faith in those guys going forward, because they're young, dynamic pass rushers and clearly among the best options the Falcons can bring to bear.
- I think Malliciah Goodman made Keith Armstrong happy at last, because that tackle on the Bucs' returner in the first quarter was an absolute killer. He also forced a fumble on the night.
- Corey Peters was back and looking as good as new. He had four tackles—every single one of them for a loss, might I add—and a sack in this one and was cutting his way into the backfield on a regular basis. The Falcons will use him with confidence from here on out, and he should be an asset for the pass rush, which needs all the help it can get.
Though he wasn't showing up on the stat sheet in the same fashion, Jonathan Babineaux also looked active and strong once more.
- Paul Worrilow had a terrific game. He was fast and active, stripped the ball from Bobby Rainey to force a fumble early on and was into the backfield more than once when blitzing. The tackle numbers have been there all year, but this is definitely his best game yet.
- The secondary was generally excellent, even if Mike Glennon was reasonably efficient once he got into the game in relief of the injured McCown. Vincent Jackson being limited to a pair of catches—one a touchdown grab where he clearly pushed off Robert Alford—helps tell the story there.
- Kemal Ishmael's pick was a simple case of reading where Josh McCown was looking and capitalizing, but it was a terrific play, and the subsequent touchdown return was a great show of athleticism. Ishmael remains a useful reserve, and he may well grow into something more than that.
- We saw why Devonta Freeman isn't out there as often as he should be, given his ability. It has everything to do with the missed block late in the first quarter and the stripped ball in the third quarter, which the Buccaneers managed to recover. There's no question Freeman is headed for a nice career, at least in my mind, but he'll have to get past those issues to get more snaps.
- The Falcons came out of the locker room after the half and turned the ball over and looked a bit sloppy. They had a 35-0 lead at the time, so I'm not complaining that much, but the Falcons talk a lot about wanting to play four quarters of great football, and I imagine they'll single out those drives in the film room this week.
- Let's talk about those turnovers a bit more. Against a better team, the Falcons' four turnovers last night would have put them in a real hole. Ball security needs to be a major focus for this team going forward, because they've had multiple turnovers in every single game of the season thus far. That's not going to fly against the Green Bays and Arizonas of the world, and if the Falcons want to contend for a playoff berth, those are the kinds of teams they have to get by.
That said, one of the turnovers was a terrible interception thrown by T.J. Yates, which I hope we won't be seeing again.
- We're all going to be eagerly awaiting injury updates for Harry Douglas, who exited the game with what was reportedly a foot injury in the first half. The Falcons' offense hummed along just fine without him in this one, but I doubt the likes of Eric Weems and Courtney Roby are going to replace his production if he's out for any length of time.
- The NFL is making some games flag parties, and this was one of them. The two teams combined for over a dozen penalties, and nearly half of those were questionable. Maybe I'm a purist or maybe the NFL needs to tight it up so they're not tacking on an extra 15 minutes to every game.
Game MVP: Devin Hester. Scored twice, set an NFL record, forced a turnover...the man did it all. He deserves the honor for the evening, even if Julio Jones was electric.
Game Theme Song: I like to break this one out at least once a year.
One Takeaway: When the Falcons are facing a subpar defense, this is what they are capable of. We just don't know if the defense was actually improved all that much, but I'll take this one as an encouraging sign.
Final Word: Utterdomination.