Sunday’s match-up against the Chicago Bears was a lot more competitive than many Falcons fans were hoping. The Bears were clearly an underrated team playing in their house, and they looked confident. Kudos to them: Chicago was not intimidated by the Falcons and played hard all game.
Still, the Falcons persevered and came away with the victory, 23-17, on a fantastic fourth-down sack. Here are some of my observations from watching the game a little more closely.
It’s too early to panic about the offense (or anything)
The offense took turns looking like 2016 and then like 2015. Atlanta was sluggish at times and the playcalling was a bit uninspired. There were some confusing decisions throughout, such as the emphasis on the run and the relative lack of targets for Julio Jones. Second-year player and newly-crowned RG Wes Schweitzer struggled in his debut against a quality opponent.
None of these things should have you panicking, however. It’s Week 1, folks, and if you look around the league you’ll see many sloppy performances. The Steelers, with their “legendary” offense and plethora of weapons, nearly got upset by the damn Browns. Week 1 is perhaps the biggest mirage of the whole season, so let’s not jump to too many conclusions after one game.
Austin Hooper’s breakout season is happening
There aren’t enough words in the world to describe how awesome Hooper was in this game. Obviously, his TD catch where he stiff-armed a poor safety into oblivion was the highlight of his day. But his second catch was perhaps even more impressive, and kept a Falcons drive alive that ultimately ended in a field goal to put the team up 23-17. That may have very well prevented the game from going to overtime.
What people aren’t talking about is his solid performance blocking throughout the entire game. Hooper was on the field a ton, and even though he only caught two passes, he was instrumental as a run and pass-blocker. If teams start fearing him as a receiver as well, that makes everyone’s jobs easier. Look for him to have better match-ups this week against a much less formidable Green Bay front-7.
The pass rush appears improved and the DL is deep
Last season, the biggest concern on defense was the pass rush. It took the Falcons four games to record four sacks. This year, they have that number after a single game against a team with an, overall, slightly above-average line. Atlanta’s pass rush came from all over, with several players generating pressure (Poe, Jarrett, Clayborn, Campbell) and three contributing sacks: Beasley with 1, nickel CB Brian Poole with 1 on a blitz, and rotational EDGE Brooks Reed with 2—including the game-winner on 4th down.
This is a much deeper and more talented unit than a season ago, and they’re already reaping the rewards. First-round pick Takkarist McKinley didn’t see a ton of action in this game, but he looked fast coming off the edge in limited work. There are so many players to work with that it’s baffling. Crawford and Upshaw, standouts in preseason, didn’t even get many snaps. The Falcons have a deep rotation chock-full of contributors, and that will be even more important as the season goes on.
De’Vondre Campbell looks like a beast at SAM
Having just re-watched the game, I can tell you without a doubt that the most impressive player in Sunday’s game was Campbell. He was making plays all over the field, no matter what they asked him to do. Campbell had multiple crushing hits in run defense. He nearly sacked Glennon on a pass rush snap by bull-rushing the tackle into the QB. Cohen sprinted down the field for a long pass that would’ve been a TD, but Campbell kept up with the speedster and broke up the pass with his fingertips.
There isn’t much more you can ask of a player. Campbell appears to have found his perfect position. He’s much more instinctual and natural playing close to the line of scrimmage, and his size and athleticism make him a natural as both a pass rusher and coverage LB. Campbell is a unique player, and it appears Quinn has found the ideal way to take advantage of his talents.
The offense needs to get back to attacking the opponent’s weaknesses
Just because I said you shouldn’t panic doesn’t mean I can’t critique the lackluster performance on offense. We all knew it going into the game, and had talked about it at great length: the Bears front-7 was their strength, and the secondary was their weakness. Naturally, that would lead you to conclude that throwing the ball would be your best chance to produce.
The Falcons did throw the ball, but it was a much more balanced game plan than I was expecting. Atlanta struggled to run the football—in part due to poor field conditions—but the surprising part was that they remained dedicated to the run even when it clearly wasn’t working. Sark is known as a guy who loves to run the ball, and in many ways I agree with that approach. But if it isn’t working, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot by constantly putting your offense in third-and-long situations.
Atlanta needs to push the ball downfield against bad secondaries. They need to attack their opponents weaknesses, not support them. This was the first week of the season, and the game plan was clearly quite conservative. I just don’t understand why—with this impressive array of weapons and a clear weakness to exploit—they...didn’t do it more often? It was a curious decision, but I hope it’s just a blip on the radar.
The defense finally won a game for the Falcons
We went through 2016 seeing the same thing almost every week: the Falcons would build a lead, and the defense would slowly let the opponent creep back in. If Atlanta could reach the 30-point threshold, they’d almost always win. If not, the defense tended to give up the game in the final minutes. It was fine against most teams, because few were capable of scoring 30 points. But it was, ultimately, the Falcons’ downfall.
Quinn clearly saw this and took steps this offseason to fix it. He brought in more talent and depth along the defensive line. Campbell was switched to a different (and apparently more effective) role. They added some intriguing rookies in Takk McKinley, Duke Riley, and Damontae Kazee. On Sunday, they got the ultimate test.
Up by 23-17, the defense was put on the field with about three minutes to go. The Bears dinked and dunked their way down the field, finding their way into the red zone. Chicago got into a goal-to-go situation. They’d get four attempts to punch it in. First down featured a dropped pass. Second down, a good play by Alford to break up another pass. Third down, another good coverage play by the Falcons. It all came down to one last play.
Instead of relenting, instead of eventually giving it up like we all feared and expected, the defense held. But they didn’t just hold the Bears out of the endzone, they took matters into their own hands. Brooks Reed sealed the game with an impressive sack on fourth down, and the rest is history. Finally, the defense has a signature win that they created.
Those were some of my observations from the game. Overall, it was a good first test for this Falcons team. The way the game ended gave me hope that this defense really could turn a corner this year and be a strength instead of a weakness. I certainly hope that is the case.
What are your thoughts on the game? Any observations you had?