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Falcons vs. Cowboys recap: Uncomfortably numb

We recognize these mistakes will keep happening and pray they will not.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

My great fears heading into this game were that the Falcons would struggle to score points against a game Dallas defense, that Ezekiel Elliott would run all over Atlanta, and that in a close game things would go awry. I felt reasonably confident Atlanta would not struggle for motivation heading into this game, but in retrospect, that was the wrong thing to worry about in the first place.

What has doomed the Falcons in every game except perhaps the road loss to Cleveland has been poor luck and downright incompetence. The Falcons aren’t the worst team in the NFL by a long shot, but they are injured and shaky enough to ensure that close games become nerve-stripping battles, and Atlanta has rarely come out on the right end of that. That has a lot to do with execution, quite a bit to do with coaching, and of course the vagaries of the ball itself, with Jack Crawford forcing an Ezekiel Elliott fumble that could have been pivotal but was recovered by Dallas.

I don’t need to tell you that short of a 6-0 run or a total collapse by other NFC contenders—which does look kinda likely!—the Falcons are cooked. They turned a triumphant three game win streak into a severely disappointing two game losing streak that has brought them to a short week matchup against the absolutely rolling New Orleans Saints, and there’s nothing about that we can celebrate. This will be remembered as a deeply unfortunate and unlucky year for Atlanta, which lost too many key players, but also as a squandered opportunity for a talented by flawed squad in a talented but flawed NFC. This close, agonizing Cowboys loss was emblematic of the way they’ve kept games unnecessarily close and then managed to lose them.

It’s tempting to think of this season as a referendum on everyone on the building, and for certain assistant coaches and players it likely will be. But the core of this brain trust and this roster will be here in 2019, and if they’re going to continue to lose football games in 2018, I hope it leads to an improvement in the year ahead. This team is incredibly fond of sticking to their favorite line about just focusing on next week, but there may need to be some bigger picture thinking in the building about what each week of failure really means.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Julio Jones is hilariously good at football. There are plays where you just laugh giddily because of how great he is, and while he wasn’t perfect Sunday, he was easily the best thing Atlanta had going on offense. He finished with over 100 yards and his third touchdown in three weeks, plus a bone-jarring, heads-up hit earlier in the game to prevent an interception. There’s no one else like him, and I hope he plays until he’s 40 years old.
  • Vic Beasley has gotten close all year, but it hadn’t amounted to much before yesterday. Beasley got the better of his matchup multiple times and wound up with two sacks, bringing his season total up to three, and was a rare bright light in a pass rush that is too often listless and unable to come up with sacks. Let’s hope this is the start of a special run for Beasley, who the Falcons would like to keep around if the production justifies the pay.
  • Tevin Coleman’s outrageous lack of usage wasn’t really on him. He wound up with 11 touches on the day for a combined 85 yards, one of the better days in a forgettable offensive performance for Atlanta. I was critical of Coleman’s production earlier in the season, but he’s come on and should not be getting fewer than 20 touches in a close football game, and this one was close throughout.
  • Mohamed Sanu made a critical mistake against the Browns, but that was an aberration. In this one, he made tough catches in traffic and pushed forward as he always does, turning in a solid day as the team’s #2. If the offense is firing, he looks great, but he’s doing solid work regardless.
  • Foye Oluokun continues to look like an absolute steal for a sixth round rookie linebacker, finishing the day with 10 tackles and doing his vain best to slow down the Dallas offense. There won’t be a lot of room for him once Deion Jones is back, but he’ll be a big part of this team’s future at the position.

The Ugly

  • Matt Ryan airmailed an interception and Julio Jones bailed him out with that vicious hit, and he threw a perfect ball and Calvin Ridley couldn’t hold onto it for an actual interception. That kind of thing makes absolutely no sense, and thus is extremely Falcons. It was the second straight week where Ryan’s surface numbers were largely fine, but he didn’t look quite as sharp as he has throughout the rest of this season.
  • What was the gameplan for Tevin Coleman, exactly? He finished the game with eight carries for 58 yards on the ground and three catches for 27 yards, and that was in a close game. Besides Coleman, the Falcons also gave the ball to Ito Smith (6 carries, 10 yards), Calvin Ridley (1 shaky toss play, 5 yards), Mohamed Sanu (1 carry, 3 yards) and Marvin Hall (1 carry, 3 yards). Coleman was easily the best back on the field against the Cowboys, and despite the game never getting fully out of hand, the Falcons didn’t give him all that many touches on Sunday. I don’t really get it.
  • Calvin Ridley had another solid day in a really good rookie season, but his hands are an ongoing issue that doesn’t seem to be getting better. He had trouble corraling his sole carry of the game and had a drop on a cleanly-thrown ball that turned into a pivotal Dallas interception. Ideally, the Falcons would be good enough that a single major miscue by a rookie receiver would not doom them, but we don’t live in that world.

Ridley’s going to be fine in the long haul—great, even—but he should spend the offseason working on that particular flaw as much as possible.

  • The offensive line had held up well at least a couple of weeks in a row, but the wheels came off a bit this week, with Ryan Schraeder suffering a lot of abuse at the hands of Demarcus Lawrence, as you might expect. The line has still been solid overall, but Schraeder’s slippage makes you wonder if the Falcons will take a hard look at replacing him next year.
  • The pass rush turned in a more solid week, but only Vic Beasley closed things out, and the team still couldn’t summon the juice on a consistent enough basis to really screw up Dak Prescott and the Dallas passing game. That wasn’t the most major factor in this loss, but it didn’t help Atlanta close this one out.
  • The Falcons had to know Dak Prescott’s entire game plan was going to be to throw to Elliott and hand the ball off to Elliott. Despite that, he ran wild almost all game, with every layer of the defense failing to get stops. That plus some coverage miscues from Robert Alford will put you in a bad spot.

Again, though, I recognize that’s easier to stop in theory than in practice, and it was probably expecting too much of this defense to really hold tough.

  • Missed tackles are the only thing I’m really mad about. This defense is still missing key players and was going to struggle to really hold Ezekiel Elliott in check, but if you just straight up whiff on him and the other, limited assortment of Cowboy “weapons,” you’re gonna have a rough time. The Falcons defense did reasonably well in this one, but on a day where the offense was not sharp, those mistakes hurt.
  • Set aside the question of leadership and so forth and focus on what this coaching staff does poorly. They are excellent motivators—though they clearly need to ensure the team doesn’t look past anyone—and evaluators of talent more generally. They’ve built a football team that is a contender in the NFC when healthy and clicking, but they also continue to mismanage games. In this one, timeouts were called and field goals mulled at inappropriate times, and there are moments like the fateful third down three man rush late in the game where you wonder what could possibly be going through the minds of these coaches.

The Falcons aren’t going to make major changes to this staff, I’d wager, and they really shouldn’t in a year like this. They do need to look to improve significantly, though, so that a better version of this Falcons team isn’t doomed by needless mistakes.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Julio. It couldn’t be anyone else.

One Takeaway

Motivation isn’t the issue with this team. Coaching, execution and talent are.

Next Week

The New Orleans Saints on Thanksgiving night. Please, no.

Final Word