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Falcons vs. Bills recap: The worst loss of the season (hopefully) comes early

It was bad! But it was not fatal.

Buffalo Bills v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Two hours ago, I wrote you a friendly little reminder that the Atlanta Falcons are good, fine, and not to be fretted over. Now, though, we gotta talk about that last game, and there just isn’t much I can do to sugarcoat how awful that loss was. It was, thanks to its close margin, ugliness, and general level of frustration, hopefully the worst loss of the year. It just may not prove to be a significant one, once we’ve put our in-game feelings aside.

The Falcons were horrendously unlucky to lose this one. Cruelly, they lost this one by like a yard, after a game where they lost key players like Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, saw the referees fatally flub a fumble call that was not accurate and gave the Bills their margin of victory, and deal with some of the most cringeworthy, avoidable turnovers and mistakes they’ve committed in a little while. That is to say that while the Falcons screwed up royally throughout and dealt with a terrible call, they were thiiiiiiis close to 4-0. When you consider that, it should be awfully tough to feel all that terrible about the outcome.

But of course, you can hardly help the anxiety. Matt Ryan now has five interceptions on the season, and while two of those were passes that bounced off his receivers’ hands, it’s worth noting that some analysts were predicting significant regression for Atlanta’s offense based off of factors like offensive line health (gulp) and Ryan turning the ball over more often (yikes). Any long-term injury to either Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu would only exacerbate the problem, and anyone can see that despite the surface numbers, this Falcons offense just isn’t faring quite as well as it did a year ago, at least to this point.

The defense, meanwhile, did exactly what it was supposed to do against a so-so Buffalo offense. The final point total is inflated by two Buffalo interceptions aiding field position and the fateful fumble return for a touchdown, but Atlanta’s D objectively only allowed 16 points to this Bills offense and assuredly would have allowed less had Ryan not thrown those picks. Duke Riley had a very bad game and Damontae Kazee predictably scuffled a little bit in his first NFL start, but Atlanta’s defense is not a joke, and they’ve shown that in spades over four weeks. They’re hardly the reason Atlanta lost.

On balance, then, the real concern here lies with the offense due to anemic performances and injuries, and with a two week layoff I’m bullish on their ability to get things together. This loss feels more like a frustrating blip on the radar than a hidden sign that things are about to go south—and I’m basing this as much on how narrow the loss was as the number of injuries—and so we’ll just take this L and keep going. Lord knows we have enough time to digest it.

Let’s get to the full breakdown.

The Good

  • Especially with Julio Jones out, the role of speedy Buffalo killer fell on Tevin Coleman, who had a 29 yard run and a 37 yard catch in the same half. He looked as fast and lethal as he ever has, and the Falcons clearly were trying to prioritize using him against a stout Buffalo defensive front. Aside from that one awful fumble, he was simply electric, putting up over 150 combined yards and leading the team in both receiving yardage and rushing yardage. It was his finest performance to date.
  • The Bills were smart to work hard to limit Devonta Freeman, and while they largely succeeded, Freeman still ran hard enough to soften up that defensive front, finishing with 58 yards on 18 carries. Steve Sarkisian is never going to be shy about leaning on him, and he never should be.
  • Levine Toilolo with two first half catches! He’s alive.
  • A nice touchdown grab for Justin Hardy, which partially balanced out yet another quiet game for the young receiver. He simply hasn’t been a big part of the offense this year, but he remains an effective red zone weapon if he’s utilized as such.
  • Derrick Shelby hasn’t had much of an impact for the Falcons to this point, but he did grab a drive-saving sack in the first quarter, putting the brakes on Buffalo’s offense by driving Tyrod Taylor nine yards backwards.
  • Deion Jones came up with his first 2017 sack on a pretty play where he forced Tyrod Taylor out of bounds basically at the line of scrimmage, with Takk McKinley flushing him out of the pocket. He’s had a quieter year than expected to this point, but he’s still a great linebacker.
  • Brooks Reed leads the team in sacks now. Let that sink in.
  • Andre Roberts did everything he could to put the Falcons in a position to win the game with his 61 yard kick return at the end there, so you can hardly blame him for this one. He’s had an inconsistent start to the year, but has shown an ability to break off long returns the Falcons haven’t seen in a little bit.
  • Honestly, Damontae Kazee’s first start could have been much worse. He was very shaky to start the game and ceded some yardage throughout, but I thought he held up fairly well and showed a better-than-expected ability to wrap up with his tackling. He’s just not close to Ricardo Allen yet.

The Ugly

  • We’re a quarter of the way through the season, so it’s fair to say that Matt Ryan’s continued inability to nail deep passes--and the decisions that lead to them—is a legitimate problem. That jump ball to Taylor Gabriel just didn’t feel like a great idea off the bat, and Ryan whiffed on a couple of longer throws, however narrowly. I thought he was quietly excellent against Chicago and Green Bay and solid against Detroit, but this was his weakest effort yet. I’m going to chalk a lot of that up to missing Ryan Schraeder and (this time) Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
  • Taylor Gabriel is a legitimately fast, talented receiver, but he feels like an afterthought in this offense thus far. He did not have a catch Sunday and his only worthwhile target was a jump ball bomb that the Bills defender beat him to fairly easily. If this continues, chances are good Gabriel will be elsewhere in 2018, simply because Steve Sarkisian has shown more interest in getting others involved.
  • The Falcons run defense wasn’t bad in this game, but they’ve shown a worrying inability to completely shut down opposing ground games. That’s fine when it’s LeSean McCoy, who had 78 yards, and less fine when it’s Mike Tolbert, who had 31 on eight carries and plowed through contact a couple of times. As many noted during the game, Duke Riley is one of the guys leading the way on that front, with four missed tackles against Buffalo, but he’s hardly alone for a defense that has been disappointingly off on the fundamentals thus far
  • That was an unbelievably bad call in the third quarter, when the refs ruled that Matt Ryan had fumbled and Buffalo returned said fumble for 52 yards and a touchdown. Then they got it wrong again on the subsequent replay, when even a Bills fan would have told you it was the wrong call.
  • I thought you could make the case that the Falcons should have run more in short yardage situations--as others have noted, that last play wasn’t a great example of this—and that might be the only major knock I have on Steve Sarkisian for this game. That 2nd and 1 bomb to Taylor Gabriel, which I keep returning to, was an obvious attempt to catch the Bills off guard that was perhaps too clever by half.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Nope, can’t do it. It’d be Tevin Coleman if we had to choose.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are mortal, and if they’re injured and not executing at an extremely high level, they’re beatable. This is not breaking news, but it’s important to remember.

Next Week

Our most terrible foe...the boring bye week. We’ll help get you through it, I promise.

Final Word