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Falcons vs. Vikings recap: Atlanta’s offense meets a brick wall it can’t scale

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The Falcons play a quietly good game on defense, but it’s for naught.

Minnesota Vikings v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If I had told you that the Atlanta Falcons would hold the Minnesota Vikings to 14 points, you would have suspected that they won Sunday’s football game. I think that speaks volumes about what went wrong in this clash between two NFC playoff contenders, and it says a lot about the limitations of this particular Falcons team.

I had long worried that Atlanta would lose this game, well before the season began and the Vikings lost Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook, and even longer before Atlanta lost Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole for the matchup. Minnesota is simply a deadly football team, and all the things they do exceptionally well are things that Atlanta typically thrives at defeating. When you have a very good run defense, a true and excellent #1 cornerback, and the ability to run well and evade pressure with your quarterback, you can probably beat Atlanta.

On the Falcons’ best day on offense, though, they probably pull this one off. The fact that they didn’t has everything to do with a collective failure of that side of the ball, aided by a typically excellent Vikings defensive effort. Matt Ryan just missed on some of his throws, Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu dropped passes, Tevin Coleman nearly fumbled away two balls, and the Falcons repeatedly had quality plays called back and quality drives interrupted by stupid, costly penalties. It evoked some of the most frustrating games of the year, like the Panthers, Dolphins, and Bills losses, when Atlanta left points on the field because they could not get the execution down.

I’ll hang some of this on Steve Sarkisian--the gameplan never really got any more inspiring after the Falcons did some nice things in the first half—but a lot of it was just a team not playing particularly well on offense and getting steamrolled by a quality defense. It was worse than I feared, sure, but not unexpected.

Defensively, the crazy thing is that Atlanta could have allowed even fewer points than they did. They got gouged a couple of times and surrendered a lot of yards in a hurry on the game’s last drive, and the run defense continues to be an active liability despite the addition of Ahtyba Rubin and plenty of emphasis on that area. Even so, they were awfully close to pulling down Case Keenum 4-5 additional times, and Robert Alford nearly had a pick early on that would have made a massive difference. Especially considering the fact that they were down both Trufant and Poole, the pass defense was incredibly impressive, and if the pass rush had been a bit better this one might’ve been an upset.

At the end of the day, though, Atlanta simply wasn’t good enough, and that’s neither something to celebrate nor something to feel ashamed of. They’ll play elite teams again if they decide to make the playoffs, and the Saints are good enough that I’m pre-emptively concerned about playing them on short rest Thursday night. WIth their talent the Falcons can absolutely win any game you put in front of them on their best day, but when they’re not playing at the height of their powers, teams like the Vikings are going to beat them. They’re a good team that’s shy of a great team, which is more or less where their level of play has suggested they belong. I had hoped we’d see an ascendence of sorts against Minnesota, is all.

So this was a good game for calibrating expectations, finding encouraging notes about the defense, and acknowledging where this team still ultimately falls short. Go 3-1 or even 4-0 the rest of the way and the playoffs are almost a mortal lock, but whether they get there depends almost entirely on this team’s ability to show up and play the football they’re capable of. The jury is very much out on whether they can and will.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Devonta Freeman did not seem to be any worse for the wear after a two week layoff and his second concussion, running with his trademark power and confidence en route to some very nice gains. Unfortunately, some of those gains were wiped out by penalty, but you can’t have it all.
  • Mohamed Sanu had an uncharacteristic drop on a slightly high ball, but otherwise did his typical masterful work, making tough catches and even a leaping grab.
  • Steve Sarkisian’s work on the first drive of the game was nothing short of masterful. There were too many penalties on the offensive line and one dumb bubble screen to Taylor Gabriel, but otherwise he made unexpected, aggressive play calls that kept Atlanta moving down the field against one of the league’s toughest defenses and got the team a field goal. It unfortunately was the offensive highlight of the game, more or less.
  • Levine Toilolo’s one reception per game is impressive every time out. This time, he got a key third down catch and tromped through contact for 16 yards. A true delight, and he picked up a nine yard game later.
  • Takk McKinley has played well all year, but he’s really coming on as a pass rusher over the last few weeks. He destroyed Case Keenum on a third down in the second quarter, ending the drive more or less by himself.
  • Did you see Grady Jarrett force a throw into the ground by annihilating Case Keenum? I sure did. Did you see Keanu Neal repeatedly stand running backs up at a dead sprint? I sure did.
  • Kudos to Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who was surprisingly game in coverage, and Ricardo Allen, who was borderline stellar through much of this game. Small kudos to C.J. Goodwin, who had a pretty good game until he slipped on one play in the second half and got destroyed by Adam Thielen on another late in the game. Robert Alford and Damontae Kazee played well, as well, and the Falcons got far more than you’d expect out of this secondary group.
  • Matt Bryant is so absurdly good that it was not a surprise he hit his first three field goals. It was a giant surprise he did not hit his last one, a 47 yarder that most teams would never take for granted. That miss doesn’t change much for Bryant, and it didn’t cost Atlanta this game, so I’m not going to dwell on it.
  • The defense, generally, played surprisingly well. They couldn’t get off the field or stop the run when it was critical to do so, which keeps this from falling well short of their best effort of the year, but a team down two of its best cornerbacks should not be able to hold a quality passing attack in check as well as the Falcons did. The great debate over this unit’s efficacy will rage on, but they’re certainly keeping the Falcons in games they would’ve lost by a ton of points in years past.

The Ugly

  • It was just a bit of an off day for Matt Ryan, who sailed one on Tevin Coleman in the end zone, slightly overthrew receivers a handful of times, and threw one into the dirt that otherwise would have been an easy third quarter first down for Mohamed Sanu. He’s been so good of late that it was very noticeable, and it impacted an already scuffling offense.
  • The offense, generally, struggled mightily against Minnesota. A year ago the Falcons were still able to hang points on great defenses, even if they had small struggles, but this was a sign that things just aren’t quite in a finished state for Atlanta. Sarkisian’s maddening bubble screen to Taylor Gabriel was emblematic of the play calling piece, but there were just too many missed opportunities in this one.
  • You just can’t afford to pick up a ton of costly penalties and drop passes against a team as good as Minnesota, and yet that’s exactly what the Falcons did, killing both of their initial drives with a combination of mistakes and flags.
  • Speaking of flags, the Vikings absolutely got away with holding all day long. It happens for every team over the course of the season, but it makes it no less frustrating when it’s your opponent doing it. Am I going to make a federal case out of this, given how Atlanta played? No.
  • The run defense was characteristically weak. The Vikings did a nice job of getting their backs involved in this one, and while the Falcons stood tall a few times, they also allowed themselves to be blocked out of plays while Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon picked up big gains. Considering Case Keenum and company really didn’t warm up until the second half, the Falcons’ inability to stop the run wound up hurting them quite a bit.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Can’t do it, here. Give the secondary a lot of credit for hanging in and playing well in a tough situation.

One Takeaway

When this Falcons offense meets a great defense, the results are still not very good.

Next Week

The New Orleans Saints come to town to play the Falcons on Thursday Night Football. It’s basically a must-win game, and you should learn more about New Orleans by visiting Canal Street Chronicles.

Final Word

Maybenextweek.