The Atlanta Falcons needed this win, knew they needed it, and spent a couple of weeks preparing to go get it. The effect that preparation—and what sure looked like genuine improvement from this Falcons team—were enough for a huge win against Washington on the road even for a team that made some very large mistakes. It was, in many ways, the most encouraging win of the entire season, and a capital W win in a season that had been lacking them.
Atlanta simply dominated, despite some anemic stretches along the way. It’s scary to think what they might have done had they not had that pick on a loosely run Calvin Ridley route, those drops from a handful of receivers, and those missed opportunities on defense, including a potentially huge sack of Alex Smith that turned into a Washington gain and subsequent touchdown. They were otherwise stellar, with the defense looking much more comfortable and settled in, and the offense looking just as dominant on the road as it has at home. It featured its Falconly lulls and frustrations but also featured wire-to-wire winning, which was beautiful.
We already knew this offense was special, with Matt Ryan playing at the top of his game and all these weapons being expertly coordinated by Steve Sarkisian, somehow. But the defense was the big concern, and they’ve now managed to put the brakes on potent running backs in back-to-back weeks and make the kind of key open field tackles they missed throughout the first several games. The change in personnel has helped—Sharrod Neasman has been stone solid at safety and getting Foye Oluokun more playing time has helped at linebacker—but the old canard about being patient applies here as well. The Falcons intended to get these guys more comfortable and playing better football, and at least for now, they have.
Time will tell with this Falcons team, since we don’t yet know if that game was outlier or harbinger. But it was a stirring sort of win either way, and it’s nice to see that this Falcons team is not down and out even with the string of injuries. If they can play at this sort of level, virtually every game will be winnable the rest of the way. Let’s hope they can.
On to the full recap.
- Matt Ryan won’t be the NFL MVP this year, I’d wager. That’ll be Patrick Mahomes if he keeps up his pace, or Drew Brees if he doesn’t. But Ryan’s been every bit as good as he was in 2016, when he actually won the award, and the way he’s going his numbers at the end of all this might be even better than they were that year.
In this one, Ryan showed excellent touch and accuracy on a number of throws, moved well in the pocket (with a couple of exceptions), and did the kind of stellar work he’s done all year keeping this offense moving.
- Tevin Coleman’s speed is impossible to deal with at times. The Falcons threw a screen pass to him on their first drive of the game, got some quality blocking, and then his legs took over and he just outran Washington’s defense. He did that most of the day, getting one good block and then exploding into the open field for huge gains over and over again.
If you can scheme to get him into the open field, he can be one of the league’s most dangerous players, and the Falcons are getting better at it. Add in some impressive blocking on his part in this effort and you’ve got yourself a tremendous game.
- Ito Smith also looked terrific, and he remains the most physical runner on this team with Devonta Freeman out. He can catch, he can block, and he definitely can run, with a beautiful, physical touchdown run in the second quarter to put Atlanta up by two scores. The future of the ground game may or may not include Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, but it will definitely include Ito Smith.
- Julio Jones is so absurdly effective. He got open at will in the first half, got a 47 yard pass interference call down the field late in the fourth quarter, and just took apart Josh Norman at times. He’s still not scoring, but goodness, he does everything else you could possibly ask a wide receiver to do.
Oh, never mind, he did score. Julio took a short pass from Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter and ran like hell to get his first, much-deserved score of the season, which put the Falcons up 38-14. It was another stellar effort by #11, and I’m so happy he got a score and we can all shut up about it.
- Calvin Ridley made up for some bad plays early on with a beautiful touchdown grab near the end of the second quarter, going 40 yards after making the short grab and just turning on the jets. It was a good reminder that while he’s a rookie prone to rookie mistakes, he’s already a really good player.
- Grady Jarrett is making his presence known these last two weeks, and he picked up a huge second down sack on Washington’s opening drive to create a 3rd and 25 situation. He just bullied the left guard into Alex Smith, and unfortunately knocked him out of the game.
- Yet for all Jarrett’s excellence, it was Jack Crawford who finished with the team lead for sacks against Washington, picking up two of Alex Smith in this one. This defensive line has simply been more effective with Crawford and Jarrett playing next to one another, and it’s great to see Crawford play so well after losing most of the 2017 season to injury.
- Duke Riley looked extremely sharp early in this game. One tackle was wiped out by a penalty, but he had three on Washington’s first series, flying to the ball and wrapping up twice in the open field. Genuine improvement from him would make a huge difference for this defense, even after Deion Jones comes back.
- Speaking of quality linebacker play, how about Foye Oluokun? He had some great tackles against Washington and showcased his speed getting pressure on Alex Smith more than once, and looks to have a ton of promise for a sixth round rookie. His speed and physicality is exactly as advertised, and he’s learning fast enough to make me think he might just find his way to a full-time starting job without injury down the line.
- The play of the game was probably Blidi Wreh-Wilson’s aggressive play on the ball on the sideline in the fourth quarter—his second such play of the game—which left the ball floating for Damontae Kazee to slide over and intercept on the sideline. That was Kazee’s fourth pick of the game, more than any single Falcon managed in 2016 or 2017, and he’s earning his reputation as a ballhawk. Just a beautiful play that set up Julio Jones’ first touchdown of 2018.
- This coaching staff deserves kudos for being stubborn about not making big moves and finding a way to maximize their talent. I’ll still criticize them for passing on Eric Reid and being too stubborn about full-time play for Duke Riley and Jordan Richards, but I will also give them credit for getting this team ready to play in spite of everything facing them.
- Calvin Ridley did not get off to a great start in this one, mishandling one pass that looked a little high, straight up dropping one that was extremely catchable, and then evidently running the wrong route on a play where Matt Ryan was intercepted for just the third time all year. Ridley has an enormous amount of talent and has been productive early, but it’s a good reminder that he’s still a rookie and he’s still going to make rookie mistakes.
- I’m one of the biggest Desmond Trufant fans in the world, I’d wager. I think he’s continually underrated as a cover cornerback, and he had another nice game against Washington. Even I’m frustrated by his inability to reel in interceptions, especially easy ones, and he missed at least two against Washington that were right through his hands. He’s a great player who could be a legend if he could just reel some of these in.
- You have to mention the play where three Falcons converged on Alex Smith and he escaped all for them for a huge run that set up Washington’s first touchdown, because it was just such a textbook case of this defense not taking advantage of its opportunities. That is always costly for Atlanta, and it was here. It was just the latest frustrating play for Vic Beasley, who had Smith dead (as did Grady Jarrett) and couldn’t get the job done when it counted.
- The Falcons did not handle the third quarter well at all, if we’re being honest. They stayed committed to the pass even after Washington started to pin its ears back and rush Matt Ryan, and defensively we started to see more Jordan Richards and less capable coverage in general.
So many worthy choices this week, but as is often the case, I’m gonna give it to Matt Ryan. He fought through pressure and some drops to put together another great game, with four touchdowns and a ton of sharp throws to receivers across the spectrum. If you wanted to offer Tevin Coleman, who was brilliant on the ground, or an offensive line that had its best game of the season, I certainly wouldn’t bug you about it.
This Falcons team, which just made it all the way to .500, is capable of surprising us in a good way. Given the likely return of Deion Jones, that bodes well.
They’ll stay on the road to play a banged-up Cleveland Browns team, which is fresh off a crushing loss at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. They also have an offense that sometimes struggles to put the pieces together and a ferocious defense, and we’ll hope the results are much the same when Atlanta plays them.