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Falcons vs. Steelers recap: Atlanta’s flame sputters, fizzles, and goes out

What should have been a great season has become a disappointment, and the Steelers game was the biggest one yet.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

To lose when you have hope—when you have expectations that seem utterly reasonable in late August—is far worse than losing when there was nothing at stake to begin with. We know this because the Falcons falling short repeatedly in the playoffs under Mike Smith and Dan Quinn seems far worse than the Falcons just losing a whole bunch of games every years in, say, the mid 90s. That hope was here for this year because this team looked so good on paper, just a year after making the playoffs despite a host of issues that included Steve Sarkisian calling his way out of a dark cave.

The Falcons have cruelly, relentlessly wrested that hope away from us, with a trash fire pile of injuries paired with play that would be comically inept if we didn’t love this team enough for this to hurt.

The Falcons were embarrassed Sunday. They had the Steelers within firing range at halftime, down just 13-10 and getting the ball back, but the second half was arguably the most abysmal half of football they played all year. They were outscored 28-7 and both the offense and defense looked like the 2013 Atlanta Falcons version, which also was the last time the team dealt with significant injuries to key talents and fell miserably short.

Make no mistake: The injuries are the primary issue here, as unsatisfying as that is. This team with Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Andy Levitre, and so on is not 1-4 and might even have a winning record at this point. What has been eye-opening—or re-affirming, depending on your position—is watching how this team has navigated those injuries. They’ve done so poorly and ineptly, by and large, with brief flashes on offense. Some of that is to be expected when you’re breaking in players who aren’t ready for major roles, but not all of it.

There is no “where the Falcons go from here.” A miracle could be in the offing, but short of that, they’re not a playoff team. They’re going to sink or swim with their young players, who are getting invaluable, pressure-packed experience week after week at this point. It’s just that they’re likely going to sink in the process, and the Falcons have somewhere short of $4 million to go out and make upgrades. Minus one or two mid-tier sandbags, they’re stationary.

What was particularly disappointing about this effort is that the Falcons have a high-priced, talent-larded offense that fell apart in spectacular fashion against the Steelers. The Falcons scoring 17 points in a game where they more or less had to air it out, against a defense that has scuffled all year, is somehow the most disappointing note of the day. Devonta Freeman didn’t have a great return, Steve Sarkisian had a mixed effort, and Matt Ryan was back to throwing some weird and lousy balls versus a Pennsylvania team as the Steelers relentlessly pressured him. That effort on the road made it clear that the offense can’t carry this team all year, especially against those defenses that can bring pressure.

But it’s still going to be the defense that ultimately ruined this team, as it has over the last three weeks. That’s now 121 points allowed in just three weeks, all of them losses, and every week there’s a familiar set of miscues. This week saw the same missed tackles, coverage adventures, and general mishaps that earned this team losses against the Saints and Bengals. The reality is that this team has a truly toxic mix of a lack of talent at key spots (especially post-injury), a lack of discipline from veterans and rookies alike, and a lack of readiness from promising young players like Isaiah Oliver. This playing time may, as I’ve argued, benefit those young players in the long term. It does little for their chances of winning now, but that’s an increasingly moot point.

Expect little from the Falcons the rest of the way except hopefully entertaining games and improvement from the players who could play a role down the line like Oliver, Deadrin Senat, and maybe Duke Riley. There’s little point in talking yourself into anything more than that, as the Steelers game made crystal clear. We will hope, as are wont to do, for better days ahead, but they aren’t likely to come in time for this season to look like anything but the disappointment it is shaping up to be. As always, I’ll hope to be wildly, wildly wrong about that.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Mohamed Sanu’s force of will on his 43 yard touchdown was a thing of beauty, as he evaded and rumbled through the Steelers defense to give Atlanta its first points of the day. He made four tough catches for 73 yards on Sunday, and while he was four yards short of Austin Hooper’s team-high 77 yards, I think he had the best day out of any receiving option.
  • Hooper found himself open or at least looking like an attractive target today, because Ryan threw to him 12 times and he wound up with nine catches for 77 yards. It was probably his most productive day of the year on a day when the Falcons were curiously bad about throwing to receivers, and it’s nice to know he can at least be a reliable target when called upon.
  • The Falcons had to swallow their pride and take some of their hand-picked players off the field, giving Steven Means, Sharrod Neasman, Kemal Ishmael, and Bruce Carter on the field after Pittsburgh had success early. It’ll be worth re-watching to see just how effective that was, but after Carter got involved in particular, the Falcons stiffened up and managed to string together some stops, including a huge Damontae Kazee interception on a jump ball in the end zone.
  • Matt Bryant has a golden leg. Always has, always will.
  • That game did, eventually, end.

The Ugly

  • The return of Devonta Freeman was most welcome, but the Falcons kept giving him the ball even when the Steelers were shutting it down. The Falcons have a bad habit of trying outside runs and screens when it’s not working, and they continued to do it on the first drive of the second half and wound up sputtering out badly.

In fact, the offense looked demonstrably worse against Pittsburgh. Maybe part of that is being on the road, maybe part of that is a ferocious Pittsburgh pass rush, but the Falcons seemed unwilling or unable to take the kind of shots that they did the previous two weeks.

  • Matt Ryan didn’t have his finest game. The surface numbers are alright and he definitely was under pressure more than was remotely reasonable, but Ryan also badly missed some throws in a manner reminiscent of Week 1 against Eagles. Those throws may not have been enough to make up the difference for Atlanta, which lost by 24 points, but it didn’t help. Ryan has been closer to the reason the Falcons have been in games than the reason they’ve lost them, but we all saw Sunday what happens when he cools off a little bit, and it isn’t pretty.

It’ll be worth monitoring him this week, as he had a patch on his left elbow per our intrepid correspondent Allen Strk.

  • The Falcons just didn’t have a ton of success on the ground. Devonta Freeman had a couple of nice runs, but also lost yards or met with fierce resistance often, and Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith combined for just 20 yards on 10 carries (albeit with one nice touchdown run for Ito). The Falcons once again couldn’t achieve the balance they wanted to, with just 18 carries total for their running backs.
  • It was a vintage week for Ryan’s connection with Julio Jones, as the elite veteran had a game to forget in his 100th contest. He finished the day with five receptions for 62 yards, a pretty pedestrian total, and just didn’t get the kind of open you’d expect against this defense. That wasn’t helped by the fact that Calvin Ridley also didn’t quite spring free as often as he’d like, either (4 catches for 38 yards) and the pass rush limited the time Ryan ahd to look for him.
  • The pass protection was horrendous in the first half, as Ryan constantly found pressure in his face and was sacked multiple times by a Steelers pass rush that had been pretty hit or miss up to that point. Ryan could have gotten rid of the ball a little faster, but he did not have the time he’s accustomed to, and the offense didn’t really adjust to that.

Worrying for the Falcons is that their most elite options on the offensive line have been struggling, including a less-than-stellar effort from Alex Mack. The line needs to better for this offense to function at a high level.

  • The defense got no better from week-to-week. The coaching staff’s faith in its players is an admirable thing, but so is choosing to go down with a sinking ship because there aren’t enough life rafts. The Falcons chose to try to coach up and roll with what they had to try to maintain flexibility going forward, but it’s telling that some of their recent signings were able to come in and improve things, even for a short time.
  • The pass rush was virtually non-existent for much of the day. There were a handful of stretches where there was some pressure closing in on Ben Roethlisberger, including on that Damontae Kazee interception, but the team wound up with zero sacks and not nearly enough pressure on the day. They continue to look like one of the more anemic pass rushes in the NFL, and after five games it feels like the Falcons definitely took the strength of their defensive line for granted.
  • Duke Riley had flown under the radar the two previous weeks, making some solid tackles and not standing out as a negative. That changed, unfortunately, in Week 5.

Riley missed a lot of tackles on Sunday, with the Steelers scoring and/or picking up huge gains as a result. He was also not exactly an asset in coverage on first viewing, either, and just continues to bring far less to the defense than you’d hope. Expecting him to make huge strides each week is too much, of course, but you don’t want to see him backsliding, either.
Riley’s a player the Falcons will be watching closely the rest of the way—if he continues to start—to see if he can improve enough to offer anything a year from now. If not, Riley might be one of those rare Dan Quinn era draft picks who doesn’t stick on the roster very long.

  • Foye Oluokun might be in line for a larger role if he could play more disciplined football, but he’s not doing so, as his personal foul against the Steelers attests. The coaching staff likes his talent, but he hasn’t made the kind of case I’d hoped for playing time.
  • The secondary struggled again, and Jordan Richards should be sitting while Keith Tandy plays strong safety next week. At this point, it can’t possibly get much worse at the position, where Poole and Richards have struggled in back-to-back weeks.
  • The Falcons actually got a stop in the first quarter, but then Duke Riley was called for perhaps the most borderline pass interference call I’ve seen this year, bailing the Steelers out and allowing them to score a touchdown shortly thereafter. The Falcons don’t need poor calls to go against them, because they’ve proven that they’re very good at beating themselves.
  • They’re just not good enough. The Falcons will have to decide this coming offseason whether it’s worth the time and energy it’s going to take to further develop some of their defenders who are struggling so mightily now, because injuries put them in the position of relying on depth that had virtually no hope of stepping up to the extent they needed, and they’ve still been worse than we had hoped. The Falcons aren’t done winning games this year, but minus starters like Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, those wins are going to come far less frequently than we had hoped.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Us. We watched this.

One Takeaway

Maybe you’re not ready to stick a fork in the Falcons, but you may want to check them for doneness even so.

Next Week

The Falcons play the Buccaneers, who are cooling off a lot after a hot start. These two teams are probably going to be fighting to get out of the basement in the division for the rest of the year, so go check out Bucs Nation for more.

Final Word