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Win over Panthers shows Falcons both are and aren’t the team you want them to be

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Sunday’s win shows a maddening conflation of what is and isn’t.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons you’ve always wanted and have been dreading showed up in equal measure.

The team’s 31-24 win over the Carolina Panthers rectified an abysmal Philly fracas to start the year, but also showed why that whole “losing the two best players on your defense” thing is going to haunt this iteration of the Dirty Birds until Deion Jones returns.

The trouble with Tribbles here is that Week 2 might’ve been a coronation for Dan Quinn’s post-Kyle Shanahan Falcons if Jones and Keanu Neal had been healthy.

Effectively Offensive

The offense, even without Devonta Freeman and largely without Andy Levitre, thrived. They poured on 31 points on a stout Carolina defense with Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short and got the team’s notorious “throw the ball to eight different people” mentality back that so many had feared was flushed down the toilet when Shanahan went west. The touchdowns came from Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper on clever play designs, not failed attempts to hit the red zone’s most obvious target in Julio Jones. The Levitre-less offensive line kept Matt Ryan clean and upright, and Wes Schweitzer perhaps turned in the best performance of his career.

And for any bozo who thought Week 1 was Ryan’s once and future visage, they got proven wrong when the guy John Elway helicoptered into the end zone on his second touchdown run of the day. And how about Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith giving Atlanta a ferocious ground game against an elite run defense?

Steve Sarkisian was nearly on the departure flight list out of Atlanta per the fan base, but Sunday, he flexed what happens when he has a good day at the office. Sarkisian was never a bad coordinator. His offense went 10-6 last year. He struggled mightily in the red zone in his first year on the gig (and in the second year’s first game), but if the team wants to preserve the Shanahan offense, this is the guy who’s going to help you do that. He showed sharp understanding of his personnel and was able to get production out of an offense without two of its starters. That’s something.

But then again, it’s only Eric Washington’s second game on the job in Carolina as defensive coordinator. That also might play a part in this. Sarkisian has a major test next week with Dennis Allen and New Orleans; his offenses could barely crack 20 on this Saints unit last year. Yes, the Saints don’t look quite as formidable this year, but it’s early. They might decide to turn on the jets for the hated rivals.

But the defense.

Get More Defensive

The reality of Jones and Neal being out finally set in, and we saw how hard it’ll be to field the defense of our dreams in 2018. Replacements Damontae Kazee and Duke Riley (and Jordan Richards, to an extent) all laid down big goose eggs Sunday. Though, Kazee’s moment didn’t necessarily come with a bust in coverage, but a, well, bust in coverage. His dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb hit on Cam Newton could’ve derailed the entire afternoon for the Falcons. His hard-hitting style can only carry him so far. He can’t make mistakes like that hit.

Riley had a bad afternoon, though you can understand why. He was just beginning to get comfortable over on the weak side, and in a flash, he now has to man the entire communication efforts for the front seven and fill the gap of one of the elite players in the league. That doesn’t excuse some of the mistakes, but it does shine a light on why they happened. Riley was always going to need time to get acclimated to this role. Is it ideal that Drew Brees comes to town next week? Not really. But Riley will at least have a rep under his belt before he takes another swing at it (unless the staff feels more comfortable with Foye Oluokun taking those snaps).

The pass rush was nonexistent, and with Takkarist McKinley and Derrick Shelby both now injured, the Falcons are going to have to arouse Vic Beasley from his sack slumber. He’s been the most disappointing member of this roster so far this season, as his increased reps on the edge are producing not much of anything as time gets going. Beasley has the ability, and we’ve seen him execute at at high level before. He doesn’t have to be elite, but he does have to be effective. Sunday, he was not effective at all. If the pass rush falls on his shoulders going forward, he’s going to have to answer the call. If he doesn’t, Atlanta is in trouble on the edge.

At least guys like Ricardo Allen, Robert Alford, Brian Poole, De’Vondre Campbell and Desmond Trufant stepped up. And, the team did manage to hold Newton scoreless from the end of that Kazee thing to the fourth quarter. That’s something to be proud of. But, at the same time, allowing 14 points — and nearly 21 on a Hail Mary comeback attempt — is bad. Does this happen with Jones and Neal (and McKinley) in the game? Probably not. That’s why the injury bug is so dangerous. Too bad it’s unavoidable.

All at Once What You Want and What You Regret

The sad case of Sunday is you got exactly what you wanted and exactly what you worried about. The offense came alive and went 4-4 in the red zone. That’s huge and shows the potential for what this team can do with Sark calling the plays. The defense also fell apart down the stretch because of injuries and general poor play. That’s what we all worried would happen when the injuries piled up.

How on earth can the Atlanta Falcons be exactly what we hoped for and precisely what we feared?

Don’t answer that.

From here, it’s hard to expect consistency from any of this. They will not play this consistently on offense, or at least I don’t think they will. If they do, then Sark will cement his positioning into this role from here on out. The defense won’t consistently look this paltry either down the stretch. Riley will get more comfortable, Beasley will take his upticks, and Kazee won’t get ejected each week.

What matters now is this team being its best version of itself long enough before the worst version catches up and pushes it off the bridge. Again, the game ended in some questionable play calling on a third-and-short that would’ve iced the game and prevented those last-second nerves. That’s still on Sark to fix.

This Falcons team, as it stands, can be a really good football team that can beat anybody. But they have obvious weaknesses now.

Here’s hoping what we want them to be and can be will be enough to hide the parts that we know we’re going to worry about for the future.

Hey, it worked in 2016.