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Falcons vs. Panthers recap: The train is back on the tracks

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The Falcons fell short on defense and squandered opportunities on offense, yet they still won.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons needed this win. They didn’t need it in the sense that the season was going to fall apart if they didn’t get it, of course, because it’s the second week of the season. But they had a lot to prove after the Eagles game, as we’re all aware, and the injuries they were facing only magnified the concerns about their ability to put away quality football teams.

This Panthers team had plenty of injuries of their own, but the Falcons did what they needed to do, and they punctuated their win with an impressive offensive performance against a tough defense. The most encouraging note from today is that the Falcons can indeed get it done, and it appears Dan Quinn and Steve Sarkisian’s laser-like focus on the team’s execution problems a week ago was warranted. Sark dialed up a quality game, the players largely nailed their end of the bargain, and the result was a great day on the ground and 31 points overall minus Free. It was an encouraging, tone-setting performance that I’m cautiously optimistic is going to carry over in the weeks ahead.

The defense was my larger concern heading into the game, and on that side of the ball, things were very much a mixed bag. The secondary did well outside of some really poor decision-making and tackling by the likes of Damontae Kazee and Jordan Richards, but the front seven applied inconsistent pressure and had some very visible tackling miscues of their own. It wasn’t enough to sink the ship, and growing pains were expected, but with a matchup against the Saints looming it didn’t exactly put me at ease to see the specific ways they struggled.

Not everything is fixed, we know that. The Falcons won’t look that good on offense every drive or every week, and they have some hard decisions to make if Damontae Kazee is suspended or Duke Riley struggles going forward. But this was much closer to the Falcons team we hoped to see this year, and the fact that they did it depleted against a divisional foe gives me plenty of hope going forward. If they manage to stick the landing against the Saints next week, I think we can safely unleash our inner optimists once more, assuming the Falcons don’t continue to lose multiple starters per week as they’ve done to this point.

So if the train is back on the tracks, what’s the destination? That’s a hard thing to answer, but with Carolina looking sluggish, New Orleans looking very shaky, and Tampa Bay looking impossibly hot with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, the division still looks to be there for the taking. We’ve heard this team talk endlessly about their resilience and ability, as they should, and now they have an opportunity to seize the division and erase any doubt about both of those items. There are many weeks to go, but I do believe they can do it.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan was light years better than in Week 1. After an ugly overthrow early in the game and a dismal first down throw shortly thereafter, Ryan rarely missed the rest of the afternoon, finishing his day 23/28 for a tidy 272 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. He also ran in two touchdowns, one on a designed keeper and the other on a scramble that was improvised by Matty Wheels.

It was good to see that the first week performance was exactly what it looked like based on past performance: A total fluke. The Saints’ secondary can be opportunistic, but he should be able to put together another strong week against New Orleans next week.

  • Tevin Coleman was ridiculous. He finished up his day with 16 carries for 107 yards and four catches for 18 yards, a total of 125 on the day on 20 touches. He was fast, decisive and occasionally quite powerful, and the Falcons did an excellent job of getting him away from the big bodies in the center of the defensive line and toward breathing room. He should be a monster as long as Devonta Freeman is out.
  • Speaking of monsters in the making, Ito Smith was pretty good! He had nine carries for 46 yards and a reception for a further eight yards, or a total of 54 yards on 10 touches. That doesn’t fully capture how quick he looked, and with the Falcons’ offensive line doing an excellent job blocking, he took advantage of the lanes they created. We’ve suspected all along that Ito will be in line for the #2 role a year from now, but if he keeps playing like this, it’ll be a virtual certainty that he pushes Coleman (or Devonta Freeman, if you’re willing to really go for it) out the door.
  • Calvin Ridley’s second game went far better than his first. He picked up his first NFL reception early in this one and scored on a nice 11 yard touchdown reception in the second quarter to tie things up. He has all the tools needed to be a quality red zone weapon, and if he proves to be one and Ryan stops locking in on Julio Jones inside the 20, the offense will benefit. His route running was as good as advertised.
  • The offensive line did a nice job today. They kept Matt Ryan clean, opened up tunnels for Coleman and Smith to work in, and weathered the loss of Andy Levitre quite well, with Wes Schweitzer stepping in effectively (minus a couple of miscues, naturally). That will be useful against the Saints, who have a quality defensive line.
  • Brian Poole has a reputation for being a good blitzer, but this good? That’s two sacks in two weeks for Poole, who took down Cam Newton on a third and short situation in the first quarter. With Isaiah Oliver inactive and Poole playing like this, he’s in no danger of losing his job anytime soon.
  • Speaking of sacks, Takkarist McKinley got his second on a critical second down in the second quarter. He’s going to have a monster season, and that will hopefully make up for a lot of other weaknesses on this team.
  • Ricardo Allen has a knack for making the right play at the right time, his interception of Cam Newton very much included. With Keanu Neal out and Damontae Kazee’s status uncertain going forward, Allen is going to be more essential than ever.

The Ugly

  • That interception from Ryan was an all around ugly play, with Austin Hooper blowing his block, Ryan throwing a duck as a result, and Julio Jones not making a heads-up play on the ball. Thankfully, it didn’t prove to be fatal.
  • Duke Riley could wind up being a good player, but he is clearly stretched at the moment as the starting middle linebacker for this defense. He was late to plays, he took bad angles to plays, and he missed tackles, most memorably on the fourth quarter drive that saw Cam Newton drive effortlessly down the field for a touchdown to bring Carolina within one score. It appeared the Falcons benched him on the final drive for Foye Oluokun, which could be a sign of things to come.

I hate feeling like we’re picking on Riley, who was hardly the only problem for this defense, but these issues are either going to go away in the coming weeks or the Falcons will find an alternative.

  • Speaking of problems, I’m not sure the Falcons are in great shape if Jordan Richards has to be in coverage consistently in the coming weeks. He took some very bad angles to the ball and looked overmatched when I did see him. Hopefully that also goes better in the weeks ahead, or this defense is going to have some genuinely exploitable holes.
  • The pass rush has had its moments the last two weeks, but hasn’t consistently gotten pressure. Everyone’s focus is going to be on Vic Beasley, who has beyond quiet thus far in this young season, but it’s not limited to him.
  • The Damontae Kazee hit was a mistake. You will never convince me that Kazee went in there willingly looking to hurt Cam Newton with a helmet-to-helmet hit, but a cascading series of poor decisions led to a hit so egregious that Kazee was ejected from the game. It looked like he launched himself at about the same time Newton was starting to slide, which is a mistake in its own right, but then was unable or unwilling in that split second to do anything to mitigate the possibility of helmet-to-helmet contact. If we’re lucky, the Falcons won’t lose him for a game (or more) because of it, but we’ll have to wait and see.
  • You had one job, Matt Schaub. One job.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I’d give it to Ryan, though there are some strong contenders this week, from Tevin Coleman to Calvin Ridley to the entire offensive line.

One Takeaway

The Falcons offense is not doomed to failure, Steve Sarkisian is not sabotaging this team from within, and the playmakers all still exist.

Next Week

The Saints! This one will be hair-raising, as it always is, but the New Orleans team we’ve seen these first two weeks certainly looks beatable if the Falcons can play like they did against Carolina today. Check out Canal Street Chronicles for more.

Final Word

Win.