As Mike Evans grabbed the ball in a wild scramble and lateraled the ball to the left while doing a 360 spin, it seemed like the Falcons were on the verge of finding a new miraculous way to lose. A bold play call by highly rated offensive coordinator Todd Monken gave the Buccaneers a legitimate opportunity to pull off a remarkable comeback.
With Jameis Winston scrambling up the middle and managing to find Adam Humphries on a lateral, Tampa Bay was in striking distance. A couple of more laterals and DeSean Jackson had space to accelerate into the end zone. What would have went down as one of the most extraordinary endings to a game in recent memory fell short as Evans’ lateral went between Jackson’s legs. That’s what ultimately kept the Falcons from going 1-5.
It was another dramatic game that should have been finished earlier. As much as Dan Quinn preaches about the art of finishing, the Falcons have either merely survived or faltered in close games. Their inability to finish games on the ground puts added pressure on an overmatched defense without any semblance of a pass rush or consistency in the secondary. It’s a never-ending struggle; yet winning is all that matters at this point. The Falcons found a way to overcome more injuries to key players and injected some life into a rapidly fading season.
The joy of having having a reliable quarterback and kicker
On the one day a year Mike Smith returns to Atlanta, it seems fitting that the Falcons won a close game largely because of their franchise quarterback and immortal kicker. Ryan was flawless for the fourth consecutive home game. Following a frustrating performance against Pittsburgh, the savvy quarterback didn’t waste time picking apart his former head coach’s dysfunctional defense. Completing his first 12 passes without much resistance showed that Ryan was dialed in from the beginning.
Steve Sarkisian mixed in a good variety of play action designs to give Ryan easy access throws downfield. Although the former USC head coach tends to call far too many sweeps and stretch plays on the ground, he continues to be more aggressive and forward thinking in the air. Using Julio Jones all across different formations helped the superstar wide receiver have his standard monster game against Tampa Bay. With Sarkisian showing a better understanding of the pro game, the Falcons’ offense is capable of firing on all cylinders against any opponent at full strength.
Injuries to Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu prevented them from carrying their dominance in the first half into the second half. Ryan faced increased pressure with Smith dialing up more blitzes in an attempt to limit big plays. Despite taking more punishment in the second half, Ryan remained as composed as ever. Hitting Jones and Austin Hooper in stride on key third downs was huge in scoring ten points on the final two drives. When both were covered, Ryan took the initiative to scramble for a first down on a crucial third and nine. Everything about his performance is what a struggling team needs from their quarterback in a must-win situation.
As Ryan did all he can to put the Falcons in a winning position, the former MVP needed some assistance from his long-time teammate. Whenever called upon during a high-pressure situation, Matt Bryant does what few kickers are capable of doing. He delivers every single time without any doubt. To hit a 57-yard field goal at 43 years old is simply remarkable. It’s the latest chapter in Bryant’s storied career. After connecting on all five field goal attempts in a playoff-clinching victory over Carolina last season, he rises to the occasion once again against a divisional opponent. The team can only hope this isn’t his last glorious moment, as Bryant injured his hamstring after converting the kick. It would be so cruel for one of the most beloved players in franchise history to be the latest player on their never-ending injury list.
Two steady players turn into difference makers
While the spotlight will be on two franchise mainstays, there were two players who elevated their game yesterday. It wasn’t too long ago when Hooper was largely unpopular in Atlanta. His constant drops and poor blocking raised some concern about his outlook as a long-term starter. A brutal drop against New Orleans in the Thursday night game led to him becoming an afterthought in the offense. Despite a disappointing end to his second season, the coaching staff showed their confidence in him by not adding another pass-catching tight end. That decision was rewarded when they needed him most.
With Ridley and Sanu sidelined, Hooper became Ryan’s number two option by default. The third-year tight end took that additional pressure and made numerous big plays. If he wasn’t finding openings in the middle of Smith’s heavy zone-based defense, Hooper turned short passes on the outside into productive gains. His knack for making a defender miss after the catch is starting to become a weekly habit. Everyone knew Hooper had an impressive athletic background coming out of Stanford. For him to become one of the most elusive tight ends in the league has made a dynamic offense even more lethal.
On the other side of the ball, Jack Crawford is starting to emerge as a key player. The versatile defensive lineman found his niche as an interior pass rusher. His quick hands and impressive length is starting to give opposing guards fits. After showing flashes in recent weeks, Crawford finally put it all together. He produced one sack, one tackle for a loss, and two quarterback hits. His sack featured a blistering spin move that left Caleb Benenoch out of sorts. Despite initially missing Winston, Crawford showed off his relentless motor in chasing down the enigmatic quarterback. He was the lone bright spot in what was an otherwise dreadful showing from the defensive line.
Weekly defensive issues start up front
Poor tackling, frequent coverage breakdowns, lack of communication, and not being able to make up for premium talent. That’s one way of summarizing how the Falcons’ defense has become one of the worst units in the league. Quinn’s ambition of turning a league-worst defense back in 2014 into a top-ten caliber unit was coming to fruition in 2017. Although it’s impossible to properly replace three defensive leaders, there is one lingering problem that would have prevented the Falcons’ defense from progressing this season, even if they were fully healthy. The defensive line is sorely lacking in overall talent.
Losing Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn was inevitable given the free agency landscape. Based on Quinn’s track record, many presumed their departures wouldn’t drastically affect the defense. Those assumptions couldn’t have been more wrong. On 43 drop backs, Winston was only sacked twice and hit four times. None of those sacks or hits was because of Takkarist McKinley or Vic Beasley. Committing more penalties (flagged twice for offsides) than producing sacks (one on the season) adds more frustration to Beasley’s lack of progression as a pass rusher. Following a spectacular three-sack performance against Cincinnati, McKinley has been anonymous over the past two games, except for a key pressure on a two point conversion attempt.
Both players were expected to generate pressure in a favorable matchup. They failed to show up, along with the majority of the defensive line. Grady Jarrett’s return can’t come sooner, as the Falcons can’t expect to keep winning without making quarterbacks uncomfortable.
The first step in the Falcons’ quest to go into the bye at 3-4 has been completed. If they can stay within striking distance (near .500) by the time Jarrett and Deion Jones return, there is no reason why this team can’t be relevant in December. They have a long stretch of winnable games in November. Regardless of how atrocious the defense is currently playing, there is no denying the value of inserting two stars back into the front seven. It’s all about surviving until both players return. A favorable matchup against the Giants gives them another excellent opportunity to creep back into the NFC fray.