As I walked into the Falcons’ locker room, I had no idea what to expect. It’d be easy to think that after losing four out of five and blowing another double-digit lead that this team might be ready to boil over with frustration.
Not even close.
As I made my way around the locker room, talking to as many players as I could, one thing became crystal clear: this is truly a mentally tough team. As easy as it would’ve been, not one player made a single excuse.
Third straight road game? Bring it on.
Rain and fog along the way? So what.
Across the board, this is a team that looks forward to the fight no matter where or when. Despite their struggles, these Falcons are still beaming with confidence.
But why is a team this talented struggling to finish games?
Safety Ricardo Allen believes it’s the little things causing the most problems for the Falcons.
“One mistake here and there. They (Carolina) just capitalized a little more than we did. It wasn't nothing over the top. Like you said, every game it’s just something so small. It’s just something so small. You take something here away. You take a third down away. You take an extended drive away and it’s a whole different game.”
Allen didn’t seem concerned about the Falcons’ slump and believes the ball will start rolling in their favor soon.
“It would be a big difference if we were getting blown out, if we weren’t fighting people to the end. Every game that we’ve typically lost, we fought all the way down to the end and you know, it’s going to roll our way sooner or later. … We’ve got to keep battling and dig a little deeper.”
With just eight games left and the Falcons currently out of the playoff picture, time is starting to run out on getting this season back on track.
“I feel good. I feel good about this team still. It hasn’t been swinging our way, but I’m confident about this team. It’s the same stuff we had last year. We’ve got to find a way to get past it. We’ve got to find a way to push through it—and we will.”
The Panthers fielded a different looking offense than what the Falcons faced last season, highlighted by the departure of Kelvin Benjamin, the addition of Christian McCaffrey, and the injury to Greg Olsen. Even with the major changes to personnel, cornerback Robert Alford didn’t feel surprised by anything the Panthers did on offense.
“The coaches got us well prepared this week. They hit everything on point. They hit every player specifically on what they would do. Today, they (Carolina) went out there and did exactly what the coaches preached. Right now, I can’t really say what happened … until I watch film tomorrow, but the coaches did get us well prepared.”
The defense has been criticized for not causing enough turnovers this season, something that improved against the Panthers with two forced fumbles caused by Keanu Neal, both recovered by the Falcons. Neal took it upon himself to force more turnovers and believes it starts with a mindset.
“It’s a mentality,” Neal told me.
“You’ve got to have the mindset to get it. That starts in practice and that’s what we harp on everyday. It’s one of the pillars of the program.”
Allen said the Falcons have a particular strategy when it comes to forcing fumbles, one that was working well until the Panthers made an in-game adjustment.
“First person in, hold them up, second player, you know, come get the ball. And that’s what we did early, and we try to do it as much as possible and then they just, instead of letting us hold them up, they started to go down. They’d just rather take the yards they were given and just go down from that point, so it was hard to get it again at that point.”
Alford said that the team set turnover goals for themselves on defense. After what they saw on film, the defense was confident that they’d be able to force Carolina to give the ball up.
“Today, we wanted to at least get two turnovers and score one on defense. I know I can speak for us on defense. We feel like we should’ve scored on defense today, which we didn’t, but we got the turnovers. Now, all we can do is just go back and watch film and see the things that we can improve on and make sure they don’t score.”
Overall, this is an inexperienced defense tearing at the seams with talent, but the long drives, busted coverages, and costly penalties are part of a series of ongoing growing pains. As gifted as the group is, Neal knows they aren’t where they want to be just yet.
“We’re still growing. I mean, we’re continuing to take steps toward getting there. Each day, each practice, each week, we’ve just got to continue to grow and that’s what we’re doing.”
As has been the case of late, the Falcons missed some opportunities and didn’t execute when they needed to the most. When Julio Jones drops a wide-open touchdown, it’s apparent that something is off. Jones was matter-of-fact when it came to his uncharacteristic drop.
"I just didn’t take advantage of that opportunity. I just missed it. There’s no excuses.”
Head coach Dan Quinn told Jones after the drop that he was planning to go right back to him, something that Jones says applies to every player on the team.
“We got each other’s back throughout the game, doesn’t matter who is in that situation,” Jones said.
“Of course I knew they’d have my back and not just not throw me the ball.”
On what Jones said to Matt Ryan after the drop, “Good ball.”
The Falcons’ offense hasn’t clicked yet under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. At this point, it’s fair to say that the play calling has been questionable, but the execution by the players also isn’t where it needs to be.
“We all have made mistakes,” running back Devonta Freeman told me.
“I’m confident that we’re going to get back to playing Atlanta Falcon football. Even though things look shaky, I’m 100% confident that we’ll be back. … I ain’t worried about nothing. I know what I’ve got to do to get better.”
Freeman gave credit to the Carolina defense for playing well, a defense he says is always tough to go against.
"Carolina is a great defense, can’t take nothing away from them. … At the end of the day (we have to) figure out how we can get the W. It’s about us at the end of the day.”
Freeman appeared shaken up in the fourth quarter after a big hit. After suffering a concussion during the preseason, it’s a genuine concern when a player takes another hit to the upper body. Freeman told me after the game that it was nothing to worry about.
“I’m good. I’m hard-bodied. It’s a gladiator sport so, I look forward to being physical. I never come into a game thinking like it ain’t going to be physical. If you’re going to be physical to me, I’m going to be physical to you. So you better be physical to me.”
Atlanta is now 4-4 on the season and 0-1 in division play, and some people are panicking—Grady Jarrett is not one of those people. The defensive tackle remains confident in his team and firmly believes that the best is still yet to come.
“We’re at .500; not where we want to be but it’s still early in division play. We’re just starting to play games in our division, which are really crucial. The season could go either way from here. Guys are going to have to make up their mind and put a stop to the losing. We’ve just got to get on the right track, so it’ll be interesting to see how we go forward, but I know guys are going to continue to fight. I know I definitely am going to continue to fight. … Everything we want is still ahead of us. We’re not in panic mode.”
With the Falcons back home next week to face the Cowboys, a game preceding a trip to Seattle, Atlanta’s time is now.
“You already know it’s going to be a dogfight,” said Freeman.
“You just do what you do: compete, work hard, and try to win. It’s a competitive league.”
The Falcons will need to stay competitive if they’d like to make a push for the playoffs.