The Atlanta Falcons could have made a statement by winning on the road against a depleted Vikings team starting a rookie quarterback. They could have taken over first place in the NFC South, shown that their road woes were overblown and put some of the chronic doubts about the defense to rest. By losing 41 to 28 to Minnesota, they managed only to disappoint.
This Falcons team has gone to pieces on the road both times this year, getting gashed by the ground games of the Bengals and Vikings along the way. I wondered aloud why so many Falcons fans were so nervous about this game, given that they were without Adrian Peterson, Kyle Rudolph, Brandon Fusco and Chad Greenway. It turns out I was the one who was mistaken, and now that the Falcons have blown a golden opportunity, I'm also profoundly pissed off.
Give credit to Teddy Bridgewater, who was poised and strong in his first NFL start. Give credit to Mike Zimmer and company for establishing the ground game, playing quality defense and putting Bridgewater in an excellent position to succeed. The Vikings played a good game and that gutsy fourth down call, followed by the gutsy two point conversion, both paid off because they executed well. The Falcons didn't, and that's where the sorrow comes in.
I'm beyond disappointed with the way the Falcons played in this one, and when you have an opportunity to take first place in a competitive NFC South and you blow it, you deserve to be blasted for your effort. This Falcons defense is going to be eviscerated by the Giants on the road next weekend if they can't make tangible improvements in the very near future, and suffice to say you shouldn't hold your breath that'll happen. They were consistently beaten off the edge, they couldn't contain the run and even keeping Teddy Bridgewater from scrambling for positive yards and a touchdown seemed beyond them. Given the quality of the offense the Falcons were working against, it was easily the worst effort I've seen this year, and one that has made me more than a little nervous about the rest of the slate.
The offense was much better than the defense, but still had its share of misfires, led by quite a few ugly drops.In the end, they couldn't come up with quite enough to overcome the defense's poor play. With the injuries to the line, things got ugly late in the game, with Ryan getting blown up on a key, long third down in the fourth quarter that more or less sealed the deal for Atlanta.
By far the worst part of this game, though, was the series of injuries the Falcons suffered. William Moore, Joe Hawley, Lamar Holmes and Justin Blalock all exited the game, leaving the Falcons short on offensive linemen at one point. The Falcons can ill afford to lose any of those guys for any length of time, let alone more than one of them. We'll have to hope all of those ailments were less serious than they appeared, or we're likely to see a whole lot more pain ahead.
Silver linings? The Falcons are tied for the NFC South lead at 2-2, and they really can't play much worse on defense than they did in this one. If this coaching staff and these players are capable of learning and improving—and for sanity's sake, we must assume they are—this was one hell of a lesson.
The individual breakdowns follow. It'll be a hair shorter than usual because this game was awfully depressing.
- Working with little protection as the game wore on and playing from behind, Matt Ryan had a pretty good game, let down as he was by several drops and poorly run routes. I'll tip my cap to him for keeping the Falcons into the game, but we'll see him again in the ugly section.
- For the second straight week, Steven Jackson made decisive cuts and ran with power. While his yards per carry average was once again less than optimal, he was able to pound the ball, wear down the defense and get results. The Falcons just had to get away from the run for the most part in the second half.
- Antone Smith needs a time machine and copy of this season's tape so he can go back in time and ask for more touches. He blew by the defense on a 48 yard touchdown run in the third quarter that gave the Falcons their first lead of the game. I would like to say I saw this coming, but I didn't anticipate such sustained excellence from the 29-year-old back.
- Lest you forget, Julio Jones remains the team's biggest playmaker and most reliable target. Time and time again, he bailed out the offense when they needed a crucial catch, the most notable of which was a 21 yarder on 3rd and 20 in the second quarter. There just wasn't much working in the second half for him.
- Devin Hester's touchdown catch in the third quarter was fantastic. His potential to take a short pass and turn that into a score is equaled only by Antone Smith. Having two of those guys on the same offense is borderline unfair, and Dirk Koetter needs to continue to improve at incorporating both.
- Again, the Falcons are still tied for the NFC South lead. This division has been rough.While there's plenty of reasons to be pessimistic, it's worth remembering that the Falcons are still in good position thanks to the collective ineptitude of the rest of their division.
- Matt Ryan targeted Roddy White 14 times, yet he only caught four passes. Some of those were drops, some of them were not great throws, but the important thing was that the connection didn't work and the Falcons kept going to it. This was particularly nasty on Ryan's two interceptions, which were perhaps less than stellar throws that were made worse by White cutting his route short, at least on the first one. I'm not going to nail either one to the wall for it, but they were having issues out there.
- Levine Toilolo has potential, he blocks well and he's got ideal size. For all that, he's been less of a factor than I had hoped thus far in the passing game, particularly in the red zone. If the Falcons are banged up on the offensive line and at wide receiver, they'll probably need a little more from him.
On the plus side, he was a surprisingly decent right tackle for a little bit there.
- The coverage on Jarius Wright was beyond putrid. The speedy receiver had just three catches for 37 yards coming into the night, and he tore up the Falcons to the tune of 8 catches, 132 yards and a touchdown. Bridgewater's easy rapport with Wright and the Falcons' inability to account for him was, perhaps, the biggest reason the Falcons found themselves in a hole early.
- The defense in general quickly set out to undo all the good work they did against the Buccaneers a week prior, allowing Teddy Brigewater to march the Vikings down the field and score on the first drive. Yes, I'm aware "good work" against Tampa Bay barely qualifies.
On the second drive, they let Greg Jennings get a one-on-one matchup against Greg Jennings, and then Matt Asiata scored again. The next drive, they allowed a massive run that featured multiple missed tackles and terrible angles. The defense was, in short, awful against a Vikings offense that hadn't done anything noteworthy in about 20 quarters, and Mike Nolan once again resorted to coverage packages that ended with defensive ends on wide receivers all too frequently. Once more, they were gashed on the ground, and the faith I placed in Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai—who to be clear had been quality run defenders in years past—has borne sour fruit indeed.
The Falcons have the talent on defense to be average on defense, or at least closer to mediocre than terrible. Thus far, when they hit the road, they've been an unmitigated disaster, and that has to change for this team to be competitive going forward. At this point, if you're a skeptic, that skepticism has been earned, and the Falcons will need to string together some quality performances before we believe they're capable of stopping teams.
- I don't really understand what Mike Nolan is doing at this point. You see a run defense that was supposed to be improved scuffling mightily, you see Kroy Biermann winding up in on-on-one coverage against Greg Jennings and you watch the team let Teddy Bridgewater escape and the pocket and run for a touchdown. The Falcons have genuine personnel limitations, sure, but Nolan's inability to squeeze something more out of the unit is a major disappointment. It's as if he's caught between wanting to put a quality run defense on the field at the expense of a pass rush, but can't put them in the right position to succeed. It's either that or he's working with nothing, frankly.
In fact, let's just light up the whole coaching staff. Mike Smith's first-half ending timeouts turned what could have been a non-scoring drive into one where the Vikings were able to come up with points, all in the mistaken belief that the Falcons could come up with a stop against Minnesota.
- What is up with those damnable injuries? If Hawley's gone for a long while, in particular, the pass protection takes a hit that might be difficult to overcome, unless Peter Konz is actually drastically improved.
- As a fan of this football team, I'm sick of watching this team make seemingly concrete improvements to the roster and coaching staff that either never materialize or do so at such a disappointingly low level that you wonder why the Falcons wasted their dollars. It's early yet, on the defensive side of the ball the team added multiple starters and we've yet to see the results. We're all going to point the finger in different directions, but this team has to get better at finding, developing and utilizing its talent on a consistent basis, or we'll continue to have angsty post-game posts like this.
Game MVP: I will not give an MVP award out for a game like this. I hope that doesn't become the norm, but I just can't.
Game Theme Song: Fair warning that I'm going to use this for every road loss.
One Takeaway: Any seeming improvements to the defense from a week ago were illusory, at best.
Next Week: The Falcons travel to the New York metropolitan area to face the Giants. For more, visit one of my personal favorite SB Nation sites, Big Blue View.
Final Word: Disappointlyterrible.
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