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Falcons vs. Bengals recap: Disappointment dresses in stylish jerseys

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The Falcons’ offense is great again, but the defense just isn’t there.

Cincinnati Bengals v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I said a lot of what I wanted to say yesterday, when the alcohol flowed freely through my veins and the disappointment was as fresh and raw as hot dog poop on the sidewalk. To lose like this takes a toll on you, both powerfully for the fans and unimaginably for the players.

Make no mistake: This has to be killing this proud Falcons team, who have always firmly believed in themselves despite the unimaginable odds and the fact that they play for one of the most ridiculously unfortunate franchises in NFL history. To play so well on offense, to display small flashes of brilliance on defense that they can’t sustain, has to be eating them alive. We can yell at this team all we want—and it’s a little cathartic—but we all know that they’re not miraculously going to get better next week, and we all know that Dan Quinn is going nowhere after 2018.

Yet disappointment is inevitable and fair here, and we’re all incredibly disappointed. This team has chosen to do what it always does: Believe in its talent and not making drastic, panicky changes in the face of adversity. It has mostly worked out for them and it may well work out for them this time, but they’ve dug themselves such a deep hole here early in the year that it’s impossible to believe that with any real confidence right now. The growing pains are a 10 on the growing pain scale for this defense, and the wondrous work of Steve Sarkisian and the offense is being squandered.

That’s a lot of preamble for something you already know: The Falcons lost a one point game to the Bengals. They did this with a tragic yet familiar combination of poor defense and poor situational awareness, all while the offense was still engulfed in flames and pouring on the points. It’s one thing to lose one game in the fashion they just did, but losing two in a row? C’mon. I was one of the guilty many who oversold this team’s depth—and perhaps the defense itself—because of the way they handled late 2017 and particularly the Eagles, and because the idea that they would lose enough starters to force us to watch many of them in action at the same time was unpalatable and unlikely. Yet here we are, and the reality we have to deal with is that the players being asked to step up either aren’t ready or aren’t good enough.

We’re now at a crossroads, because the Falcons urgently need to start winning yet have no easy path to doing so minus the defense improving quickly, which seems far-fetched. They’ve been so very close to victory two weeks in a row, where one more big play on defense or one fewer boneheaded decision with timeouts and clock management would have gotten them there. It’s maddening, even by Atlanta standards, and we’re going to have to buckle up for a lot more disappointment if they can’t get it together.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • After his miserable start to the season, Matt Ryan has caught fire. He missed a couple of throws again today, including a costly one to Austin Hooper on third down late in the fourth quarter, but he also threw some beautiful passes en route to close to 400 yards and three touchdowns. He hasn’t been the reason this team has been losing since Philadelphia, at the very least, and he should keep this team in it every week.
  • The ground game was more successful in the first drive than it was against the Saints. The Falcons picked up 26 yards on five carries, including an Ito Smith touchdown run, as they sought to achieve balance and got it. The team wound up with 86 yards on 21 carries for the game between Tevin Coleman and Smith, a fine if not elite output impacted by their decision to throw a lot more in the second half.
  • The receivers were just great today. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu each went over 100 yards, making tough catches in traffic and abusing their matchups.
  • You see what having so many weapons does? Logan Paulsen was open by a country or city mile in the end zone early in the second quarter, and Ryan had no problem finding him for the score. The team can take advantage of that, because you can’t cover everyone.
  • Calvin Ridley scored for the fifth time in three weeks in the second quarter, peppered in some mighty fine catches, and then reeled in a 30 yard score in the fourth quarter. At that point, he had six touchdowns for the year, more than any Falcons receiving option scored a year ago. Consider that he did nothing in his first week agains the Eagles and it becomes even more impressive.

With Julio Jones soaking up coverage, Ridley running some of the best routes I have ever seen from a rookie receiver, and he’s just been light years better than we had any right to expect. Double digit touchdowns and one of the best seasons by a rookie Falcon ever seem to be very much on the table.

  • Takkarist McKinley isn’t just the only good pass rusher the Falcons have at the moment off the edge. He’s also just a terrific player, and once he got going in the second half, he piled up two quick sacks of Andy Dalton that killed drives. Then in the fourth quarter, with the Bengals driving and at 3rd and 5 in the red zone, Takk got his third, driving Andy Dalton backwards and forcing Cincy to go for the field goal. That’s three drive-killing sacks by #98, if you’re counting at home, and he looks like every bit the elite talent Atlanta was hoping to get. Oh, and one of those sacks came when Takk was lined up at defensive tackle, too, which shows you how much power and bulk he has.

He’s going to lead this team in sacks easily if he stays healthy, and he’s going to impact a lot of plays along the way. The Falcons need more to have a quality pass rush on a regular basis, but Takk seems perfectly willing to do the heavy lifting himself.

  • Damontae Kazee’s interception was an excellent play that made up for some of his adventures in coverage and form tackling in this one. I like Kazee a great deal—that’s surely no secret—and he remains one of the most physical players the secondary has to offer, even if he’s far from a great player at the moment. I’m hopeful he’ll grow into the safety the Falcons desperately need him to be.
  • Duke Riley did better again, mixing some coverage issues with some nice tackles and a couple of nice run stops. He’s still a long way from being Deion Jones, but improvement is needed for this defense, and I’ll celebrate it (quietly) when I see it.
  • The defense, generally, really came through in the third quarter and early fourth quarter. It just couldn’t last.
  • It’s not clear to me why the Falcons didn’t just give the kick returner gig to Marvin Hall to start the year. He got the Falcons off to a brilliant start, returning the ball 52 yards to the 49 yard line, which made the initial scoring drive as easy as pie.
  • Matt Bryant hit a pressure-packed 55 yard field goal with two seconds left in the half. He’s still magnificent, and maybe he will kick until he’s 50.
  • What an unbelievable effort by Keith Tandy early in the third quarter. He blocked Kevin Huber’s punt deep in Cincinnati territory to give Atlanta the ball on the eight yard line. The Falcons squandered that chance and wound up settling for three, but it was a hell of a play.
  • Steve Sarkisian was eaten alive last year. He was roundly criticized after the first game of the season. Since then, he’s helped this offense put it all together, with the team going over 30 points in three straight games and looking like a juggernaut through the air. That’s not all due to Sark—the talent here is evident, and they should have been able to do a lot more of this last year—but he’s certainly put this team in a better position to succeed.

The hardest part with any new hire or player is giving them the time they might need to adjust, but with Sark as with Kyle Shanahan, patience was a virtue for the Falcons. We are tremendously fortunate this gamble worked out and that this offense is so good at the moment, because otherwise the team would be dead in the water. They can’t afford to falter going forward.

The Ugly

  • The defense started the game off horribly, getting the Bengals to 3rd and 7 before surrendering close to 70 yards and a score on three plays. It’s unreal how much of a difference it makes when you remove a handful of playmakers from this team, and they were especially bad on third downs, a traditional trouble spots for Atlanta.

It got worse. The team is missing several key playmakers, which makes a lot of their struggles understandable, but they still played worse than I would have anticipated. Brian Poole was a mess in coverage, they were routinely beat on short passes and deep throws alike, and the pass rush was nonexistent throughout. The Bengals were at 21 points fairly early in the second quarter, having hit something like 2-3 third downs en route to that total.
And despite a wonderful third quarter that saw the Falcons shut Cincinnati down, they still ended the game on a weak note. The defense is maddeningly close to letting the Falcons win these games, but they’re struggling across the board through these games, and their improvement in the second half did not quite get them there. The defense lost this game, period.

  • The offensive line was not without its struggles, however. Third downs and that fateful fourth down miss were difficult for Atlanta, which couldn’t hold the line for Matt Ryan. It’s a good line that blocked at a high level throughout much of 2017, but the weaknesses here are evident whenever the team has to keep Ryan clean in an obvious passing situation.
  • Poor corner and safety play was a big part of the issue Sunday. Robert Alford was flagged multiple times and had coverage miscues, Desmond Trufant had an uncharacteristic flag of his own and another one late as the Bengals were driving, and Isaiah Oliver just isn’t 100% ready to contribute yet. Couple that with a bad missed tackle and coverage miscues from Brian Poole and it’s little wonder Andy Dalton had such little trouble slinging the ball around for much of the day.

I want to mention Trufant in particular because his game has always been lockdown coverage. You can forgive him for dropping the decisive interception opportunity, as he sometimes does, if he’s otherwise locking things down. In a game like this where he was routinely crisped by Tyler Boyd, there are no easy bygones.

  • It’s actually encouraging to see the Falcons trying things in the secondary, because they have to weather this somehow. It’s just a shame that moving Trufant, Alford, and Oliver around the formation and putting Poole and Jordan Richards at strong safety led to such mixed results, because it definitely did. I’m hoping the Falcons either found a combo that worked—I need to re-watch the game to see the personnel groupings in the third and early fourth quarter—or are ready to make additions to the roster.
  • Dan Quinn has a shrewd eye for talent and is a master motivator, but there are certain things we’re seeing from DQ-led Falcons teams again and again and it’s a legitimate concern when things are going sideways. Those include clock management—why on earth did the Falcons not use their timeouts opportunely at the end of the game when they had a chance to give the offense a better shot?—and the team’s ongoing inability to stop missing tackles and getting called for costly penalties. That reflects on the coaching staff, and while it’s easy to ignore when the team is pulling off wins, it’s very difficult to ignore when they’re losing.

Now, more than ever, Quinn needs to find a way to get his team to play with more discipline, and figure out if there are moves that would help this team improve rather than just banking on improvement that may or may not come. Another couple of losses and this thing slips away.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Matt Ryan, who did everything he could to will this team to victory yet again, only to fall short. He is such a Falcon.

One Takeaway

The defense improves or this team is toast. Simple as that.

Next Week

The dread Pittsburgh Steelers, who despite their issues have one of the better offenses in the NFL. Follow along with Behind the Steel Curtain for creeping dread.

Final Word

Help.