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Falcons vs. Buccaneers recap: A rekindling of hope with a cost

Injuries hurt, but Atlanta’s season is not yet over.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons needed this win, and they got this win. Everything else doesn’t really matter at the moment, so you’re welcome to keep scrolling.

For those of you who hung in, let’s note that this Falcons victory was one that fell just short of hollow. We knew the Falcons would have to hang in against a tough Buccaneers offense, and they just barely did so. We knew the offense would have to be great, and they were merely very good once injuries kicked in. The greatest concern is that the Falcons are going to be without Calvin Ridley for a week, I’d wager, and may have lost Mohamed Sanu and Matt Bryant for a length of time, as well. Bryant injured himself on a borderline heroic 58 yard field goal try that he made, enabling this win, but without him the Falcons are in huge trouble.

And that has been the story of this Atlanta season. They battle, harder than they perhaps should have to, and either come up just short or triumph despite injuries. The Steelers game was the one exception to the rule thus far, but no matter how you slice this year, the Falcons have been close. The question is simply whether they have enough healthy talent to keep fighting, because they are a loss away from effectively bouncing out of the playoffs.

For one week, at least, they were. Despite losing Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, and Bryant late, the Falcons hung in and got to 2-4, the bare minimum they needed to stay alive in an NFC South where the Panthers also lost. I have been critical of Dan Quinn and the coaching staff, to say nothing of the replacement players, so it’s not lost on me that they fought like hell in this one and even put Bryant out there for a borderline-insane 58 yard try just to beat the Bucs. The long-term question is whether any of this means anything, and that’s not an answer we’ll have for a little while if Atlanta continues to win.

I’m not ready to deal with the long-term implications simply because the injury concerns are too much and the Falcons finally won a game. Once we have more time to soberly reflect on this I am sure we will have a million reasons to worry, but we are still Falcons fans and thus prone to find happiness in the W. I think we deserve to, even if the season is far from back on track.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan started the game without throwing a single incompletion until the second quarter, and looked great doing it. Ryan had a couple of puzzling throws in this game—you sort of expect that from any NFL quarterback, and especially him—but he ran for a first down when he needed to, threw darts all day, and generally navigated a fraught pocket exceptionally well. He once again led the Falcons to more than 30 points on the day against a defense that this team should have scored 40 against, but thankfully it was enough.

With a matchup against a Giants team that can rush him but can’t cover well, I’m hoping we see more of the same.

  • Ito Smith is a good one. The Falcons have shown a tremendous aptitude for drafting running backs since 2014, snagging Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and now Ito Smith in either the third or fourth round. On Sunday, Smith ran well and picked up a 20ish yard touchdown with some pop and wiggle. He should be a prominent part of the offense going forward, even if his per carry average doesn’t tell any inspiring stories just yet.
  • Simlarly, Tevin Coleman threw some nice blocks, had more success on a per carry basis than Smith, and reeled in one of Matt Ryan’s three touchdown passes. He’s not great at any one thing—unless it’s getting open and running like hell—but Coleman continues to display his worth for an offense that may badly need his ability going forward.
  • Julio Jones against the Buccaneers defense is an embarrassing mismatch, and predictably, Julio enjoyed a good game. He finished without a touchdown yet again—cue the angry cries—but he did make several big catches on key downs and get open seemingly at will. Anoter great effort.
  • Mohamed Sanu’s injury, we hope, is a short-term one. The veteran receiver was excellent against Tampa Bay before he exited, putting up another long score and generally displaying his blocking ability and willingness to fight through contact for all to see. He has been terrific.
  • Austin Hooper wasn’t perfect—he had a bad, costly drop—but he’s becoming a terrific security blanket for the Atlanta Falcon. Ryan found him nine times for 71 yards and a touchdown, and Hooper looked plenty capable of making tough grabs in traffic. It was an encouraging effort for a player who might have big week against the Giants if Ridley is out.
  • Jack Crawford worked his ass off in this one, and he finally got results in the third quarter when he took down Jameis Winston for a sack after nearly getting one moments before. Crawford was in Winston’s face a lot on Sunday and remains perhaps the team’s most effective interior pass rusher when Grady Jarrett isn’t playing.

Crawford’s health is a concern, but he needs to out-snap Terrell McClain the rest of the way for a defense thirsty for pass rushing skill.

  • The pass rush wasn’t great, but Takk’s two point conversion save and a handful of rushed throws at least made a difference for Tampa Bay, which would have won had they been down by a field goal.
  • Damontae Kazee has as many interceptions through six weeks of the season as Deion Jones had in 2017. That’s noteworthy because Jones led the team in picks each of the last two seasons.

Kazee has some flaws to his game, but he’s every bit the ballhawk he was advertised to be, and a fine player overall. This game experience is allowing him to really blossom for the Falcons, and at worst, he’ll be a quality third safety for a while now.

  • We’ll unfortunately have to mention Brian Poole on the other side of the coin here, but he did a stellar job coming down with the third quarter interception against Jameis Winston, especially given that the ball was in the air and he was fighting off Damontae Kazee’s attempt to get his fourth of the year.
  • Matt Bryant coming out to kick a 58 yard field goal at 43 years old with the game very much on the line was bold, the kind of call Dan Quinn would have been relentlessly criticized for if it had not worked. This being Bryant, however, it was a safe bet, with the steady veteran absolutely nailing the kick and keeping Tampa Bay from being able to win with a field goal, which they almost certainly would have gotten.

Unfortunately, those heroics might proven costly, with Bryant holding his hamstring and the specter of a major injury looming after the game. If that was it for Bryant in 2018, that kick will resonate as a bit of true valor and skill in a largely lost season.

The Ugly

  • I’m running out of ways to type “the pass rush struggled.” There were flashes this week, especially compared to the Steelers game, but Winston had plenty of time to do what he needed to do and largely torched this secondary, with two interceptions marring what otherwise would have been a huge day. The secondary had its fair share of struggles Sunday, but until the Falcons can get after quarterbacks consistently, they’re going to continue to scuffle.
  • There are many things De’Vondre Campbell does well. He’s a vocal leader for the defense, he’s a fine run defender, and he’s an underrated pass rusher who needs more opportunities to do just that. Where he isn’t necessarily a huge asset is in coverage, and unfortunate that became an issue against the Buccaneers, when Campbell allowed both of Jameis Winston’s two first half touchdown passes to tight ends. For a team with a ton of problems on defense, this doesn’t rank near the top, but it may keep Campbell from being one of this team’s long-term options at linebacker.
  • Brian Poole won’t be at nickel cornerback beyond this year, I’d wager. He remains a quality tackler (despite some blips), an occasional thrilling playmaker and a great blitzer from the cornerback position, but his coverage is not getting better and it’s becoming a problem. The Falcons need Isaiah Oliver to get up to speed, and they need either Alford or Trufant to to excel in the slot. They should be able to find a role for Poole—safety is still a possibility—but eventually they’re going to have to upgrade in coverage.
  • Jordan Richards should not be starting at safety. He’s an active liability in coverage, he failed to tackle Peyton Barber at least once in a critical situation, and there just isn’t a lot to his game that tells you he’s capable of bearing the load at strong safety. Keith Tandy still seems like a better option to me, as does Brian Poole with some time and seasoning. The team’s insistence on running out Richards week after week despite him not showing even the up and down roller coaster of performance we’ve seen from Duke Riley tells me they either really hate their alternatives or have a weird soft spot for Richards. Either way, it’s just about time to wrap up that particular experiment.
  • At some point, can you overcome all these injuries? That question came up when the Falcons went down both Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu in the third quarter, leaving them without two of their three best receivers on a day where Austin Hooper had a case of the drops. With the offense operating at less than 100%, the defense operating at something like 60%, and Tampa Bay making second half adjustments in a desperate attempt to win, the Falcons looked like they just didn’t have an answer. The scary thing is, they might not, though we’re hopefully alive for another week.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It’s Matt Ryan again. As good as several playmakers were, Ryan is on one hell of a hot streak for Atlanta, and his 350+ yards, three touchdowns and typically hilarious yet effective scrambling got Atlanta to a victory again.

One Takeaway

Atlanta’s capable of beating bad football teams, still, which is encouraging given that they’re lining up a few of them in the coming ways.

Next Week

A primetime game against the putrid Giants, who will bring this one right to the wire somehow. Check out Big Blue View for more.

Final Word