Where will these Atlanta Falcons end up? The smart money is on them falling short of the playoffs, given their very real and mountain injury concerns and penchant for playing close games that can (and often do) go either way.
For two more weeks, thanks to the bye, these Atlanta Falcons are alive and well. They’re still bringing up the rear in the NFC South, but they now have back-to-back wins and were a few boneheaded penalties and a cringe-worthy game by Robert Alford away from making this game relatively easy. That’s no great source of pride given how bad these Giants are, but squint a little and you’ll see a path forward for a team capable of playing decent defense for stretches and putting up big plays on the other side of the ball when the stars align.
Of course, the Falcons weren’t great on Monday night. They made stopping Saquon Barkley a priority and largely got the job done, but in turn they were destroyed by Sterling Shepard and Odell Beckham Jr., with nary an Eli Manning interception in sight. The offense was largely stymied on the ground, the pass protection was a problem all night (though weirdly less so once Brandon Fusco exited with an injury, by these eyes), and Giorgio Tavecchio of all people had to put this one away. But there were small signs of life on this defense, which sacked Manning four times, and some truly beautiful plays by Matt Ryan and the passing game, so we got to enjoy the scenery a little bit on the way to another W.
The Falcons have to be better to beat Cleveland and Washington, naturally, and they need this bye week to get more players healthy and figure out the best way to align their personnel on defense, even if they looked a little closer against New York. I’ll enjoy my stress free Sunday and hope that Atlanta’s got a gear we haven’t seen yet, one that’s not just good enough to beat the Giants but to beat better teams convincingly.
But as is the case even in better years, we can’t see where the Falcons will go from here. After an ugly start to the year, though, it’s nice to know they’re alive and capable of picking up wins, for however long that might last.
On to the full recap.
- The pass protection was again lackluster for long stretches, but Matt Ryan stepped up, evaded pressure when he needed to, and launched bolts of lightning over and over again to keep the Falcons moving. He had a couple of shaky moments under pressure, but by the second quarter he looked like a man confident in his arm, hitting Austin Hooper and Marvin Hall on back-to-back plays to erase the field and pick up a touchdown. He then led a field goal drive to end the half, though he unfortunately missed on a couple of potential touchdown strikes.
At one point, Ryan had completed 17 straight passes, continuing to make smart decisions with the football and keep the offense moving. Considering some of the losses on offense and his blocking up front, this has been one of his most impressive seasons, even if his final numbers won’t knock your socks off.
- It hasn’t been the best year for Tevin Coleman, who has found himself stymied quite a bit when running. But he’s still a weapon, and he proved it against the Giants, flashing skills as a receiver and making a beautiful cut on a fourth quarter touchdown run that saw him simply leave the Giants in the dust. I don’t claim to know what the Falcons will do at running back, but I do know I’ll miss the very best of Tevin Coleman if he’s gone next year.
- The flashy plays were few and far between, but Julio Jones continues to be the canniest man in the receiving corps for Atlanta, and he was critical when the Falcons needed to pick up a quick first down. He also drew a couple of huge penalties, a drive-saving defensive holding call in the third quarter and a long pass interference in the second quarter, and remains a stellar option.
But no, he didn’t score.
- Damn, is Marvin Hall fast. He just flew by the Giants defense in the second quarter for an easy touchdown, and remains an effective weapon when Atlanta can spring him. I don’t know what the team will do with Justin Hardy, an effective blocker and useful player, but I’d be comfortable giving Hall a shot as the fourth receiver in 2019 if the Falcons are.
- Grady Jarrett didn’t wait long to make an impact, blowing up rookie guard Will Hernandez on the Giants’ first drive for a first down sack that saw the Giants lose seven yards. He has a legitimate case as the Falcons’ best defensive lineman, and it sure was good to see him back on the field. Oh, and he got a second sack in the second quarter, too.
- Jack Crawford remains one of the team’s most impressive pass rushers this year, for what that’s worth. He picked up his second sack of the season against the Giants, whipping through a lackluster Giants offensive line to take down Manning. The Falcons need help along their defensive line, including at defensive tackle, but a Grady Jarrett, Crawford and Deadrin Senat trio seems like a damn good start for 2019.
- On a night where the pass rush actually got home, we have to give some love to the defensive ends. Vic Beasley’s speed was legitimately problematic off the edge, and Takkarist McKinley backed up his man multiple times, including on a third down sack in the second quarter.
- The first drive of the game has been lethal for the Falcons defense, who have allowed way too many scores early in games. Happily, they bucked up and got some real pressure on Eli Manning on the Giants’ first drive, stalling out a sequence that had featured two first down strikes to OBJ, and managed to hold the New York offense in check for a large part of the game. Just, you know, not all of it.
- Giorgio Tavecchio was far from a lock to come in and play well, but he hit two field goal tries with a degree of difficulty, including a 50-plus yarder to put the Falcons up by a touchdown to start the fourth quarter. Then he drilled a 56 yarder, the second straight week where Dan Quinn put a ton of trust in a Falcons kicker, to put Atlanta up by 11 points.
If he has to kick multiple weeks, that was awfully encouraging.
- Atlanta wanted to stop Saquon Barkley, and they clearly built their defensive gameplan around doing just that. Impressively (not to mention unexpectedly), they largely did so, keeping Barkley from breaking big plays on the ground and through the air. Until the Giants figured out they’d be better off involving their receivers more prominently, the defense looked terrific.
- Give Atlanta credit: They haven’t handled everything well with the defense, and you can argue they’ve mishandled several things. As we’ve seen with the Jaguars and Blake Bortles, the Bills and...well, everything, and so forth, though, some coaching staffs don’t make adjustments.
Atlanta did. They got Sharrod Neasman on the field ahead of Jordan Richards, brought in Bruce Carter more regularly, and generally switched up their personnel in an effort to keep Saquon Barkley in check. In the first half, at least, that worked extremely well, with the defense largely holding the stud rookie back in check. For the first half, the defense held the Giants to three points, and as bad as New York has been that was still a legitimately impressive performance.
Of course, this defense still isn’t good, and so the wheels started to come off late. They were closer this week, though, and I’m hoping they’ll edge a little closer in Week 9.
- Dan Quinn’s faith in his players is sometimes frustrating, but he never shies away from it. Witness Giorgio Tavecchio getting two shots at 50-plus yard field goals in this game, one with the Falcons up eight and either needing to pin the Giants deep or score.
Of course, it might imply he has no faith in the defense, but that’d be warranted too.
- Let’s be brutally honest for a moment: The Falcons were bailed out a bit by the Giants making some awful decisions, and that’s great. Pat Shurmur going for two was weird, and the team’s decision to sneak Eli Manning twice and run most of the remaining time off the clock was downright bizarre. If coaches want to shoot themselves in the foot against Atlanta, I’m all for it.
- The offensive line is, without exaggeration, my biggest concern with this team over the long haul. The Falcons’ defense needs help but should at least go back to solid next year with Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen returning, but the offensive line is struggling almost across the board, and it’s leading to so-so pass rushes teeing off on Matt Ryan. If Brandon Fusco is going to miss more time, the line could be even worse, but it’s also quite probable that the step down to Ben Garland is not going to be a major one. It didn’t look like it Monday night.
Either way, this team needs to get things sorted, and they may need to overhaul two spots on the line in 2019 to avoid struggling again. Right now, left guard and right tackle look like the likeliest candidates.
- Atlanta’s lack of a run game isn’t fatal—they just keep grinding it out on offense regardless—but a little balance would be nice. Tevin Coleman’s runs are too often stopped before they get started, Ito Smith went nowhere against the Giants, and the blocking and play calling aren’t helping anyone.
- Oh, and the penalties. The Falcons got hit with multiple false start penalties, including two costly ones in three plays in the fourth quarter on Austin Hooper and Ryan Schraeder to stop a promising, game-sealing drive short.
- Odell Beckham Jr. is a tough matchup even for an elite cornerback, and Robert Alford hasn’t looked like one in 2018. That acknowledged, Alford struggled throughout the night, winding up a step behind, getting called for holding penalties, and generally looking like Beckham was too much for him. Again, there’s not a lot of shame in that, but Alford is one of those Falcons who hasn’t looked as good as we’d hoped this year, especially minus two starting safeties.
This is somewhat of a critical year for Alford, too, given that he’s much easier to move on from than Desmond Trufant. The Falcons continue to value Brian Poole as a tone-setter and physical presence at corner and Isaiah Oliver is going to be relied upon sooner than later, so it would behoove Alford not to have a game like this again any time soon.
- It’s telling that no matter how many times the Falcons make changes on defense—and I applaud those changes, as I mentioned above—they’re still not getting close to holding teams in check. The pass rush was strong in the first half but tailed off badly in the second half, the coverage breakdowns were numerous as the game wore on, and the Falcons defense continues to lose their footing late no matter who is on the field. You wonder if that’s fixable this season, especially with Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen out for the year.
- At some point, these injuries become too much to overcome. The Falcons were probably on the cusp of that already—they were 2-4 heading into the game—but they also lost Deadrin Senat and Brandon Fusco in this one, albeit Senat only briefly. If Fusco misses real time and Garland can’t hold up, it’s another blow to a team that has suffered an awful lot of them.
It gets awfully boring to give this to Matt Ryan week after week, but who else could it be? Ryan largely shredded the Giants defense en route to 379 yards, and while he could have sealed the deal with another first half touchdown pass, he kept Atlanta alive in this one and avoided mistakes yet again. He’s having a great season.
The Falcons can win close games out, albeit against bad football teams, and are still alive in 2018. However tenuously.
The bye week. That’s right, no Falcons football this week, allowing you to emerge into the sunlight for a few days.