The Falcons, heading into this game, hadn’t beaten in AFC team in too long. It was fair to wonder whether they would be able to triumph over a struggling but still talented Jaguars team, but it appears we needn’t have worried.
The Falcons had this one from kickoff-to-final whistle, even if the score could have ultimately been far more lopsided and there were a couple of nervous stretches. Atlanta’s brilliant first quarter was not equaled by their efforts in the remaining three quarters, allowing Jacksonville to creep slowly back into this game and make things far closer than they ought to have been. It took a goal line stop fairly late in the fourth quarter to seal this one up, but the Falcons were still obviously the better team. They won by 12 and held the Jaguars to 12, which is impressive but not as impressive as it would’ve been if the Jaguars hadn’t already managed games where they put up 3, 6, 10, 11, and 12 points in other games this season.
The adventure along the way made things interesting, and it’ll be interesting to see how it complicates the picture for Dan Quinn and company. Atlanta’s been a team of halves all year, with an awful first eight games giving way to a strong seven games thus far in the second half, and numerous games going from listless in one half to stellar in another. The trend continued with this one, as the Falcons were up 17-3 and the half and were outscored 9-7 in an ugly second half that still proved to be impressive for the defense. The streakiness and inconsistency of this team has to be factor, regardless of what Blank’s decision is.
It’s an important consideration because I bet Blank’s resolve is being sorely tested now. The Falcons are 5-2 in the second half, having beat two very good football teams and two cat-themed lousy ones along the way. The defense has been utterly transformed, and if Blank really wanted to keep Quinn he could point to the turnaround, DQ’s willingness to make big changes, and the obvious need to get Dirk Koetter out of here and prioritize different coaching on the offensive side of the ball to restore balance. To keep his coaching staff in place otherwise, Blank would have to overlook a miserable first half and the many decisions that led Atlanta to this point, including hiring Koetter in the first place, signing two guards who haven’t been on the field in recent weeks, and failing to adjust on defense until it was far too late.
These notes might be a bit too glum for a win, but the win itself is on balance like this Falcons season: Loaded with impressive moments but ultimately unsatisfying. Atlanta looked so much better than Jacksonville to start this one but the offense ultimately settled into a groove of mediocrity that only the defense could bail them out of, and I find myself more and more convinced that the D could be an asset next year but the offense won’t be unless Koetter is gone. My ability to enjoy the ride is being tested by my anxiety about what’s ahead, unfortunately.
On its merits, this was another solid win against a team the Falcons were supposed to beat, and we have one more game to go before we really get to see the draft ramifications and staff changes that come from this tumultuous year. For the rest of this article, at least, we’ll try to focus on what we just saw yesterday.
- By and large, it was a quality Matt Ryan game marred by a couple of very Matt Ryan mistakes. He threw for nearly 400 yards in this one, fighting through some pressure in the early and late going to deliver quality throws to his four top receiving options, which were an unlikely Keith Smith catch-and-rumble away from being his only four receiving options on Sunday. He did lead four scoring drives, with the teeth-grinding miss by Younghoe Koo preventing them from reaching five, and continues to look especially sharp on short and intermediate throws.
- Devonta Freeman has, as the offensive line has improved and Dirk Koetter has improved incrementally, begun to look more like the Free we remembered from 2015-2017. On the opening drive alone, he made two tough catches, threw a hell of a block to let Matt Ryan find Austin Hooper downfield, and then took a toss 17 yards to the house with nice burst. I don’t know if the Falcons can and will keep Free around, given their cap issues, but certainly he’s making a nice case for himself here. He followed that up with a touchdown grab on the second drive of the game, and while he would slow down on the ground from there, he snagged 9 balls for 74 yards on the day and served as perhaps Ryan’s most reliable target.
- Brian Hill ran hard and well, but Qadree Ollison is still a touchdown machine. Not since T.J. Duckett have the Falcons had a back who was so good at vulturing touchdowns because of his power and compact build, and it’ll be interesting to see if Ollison becomes the de facto short yardage guy in 2020.
- Julio Jones makes the difficult look routine...and occasionally the routine look difficult. He had some brilliant catches in traffic in this one, showing off his league-best route running, but he also dropped a gimme catch in the first quarter and another one later. You take the 99% greatness against the 1% miscues.
That’s especially true when your receiving options have dwindled. I was hoping we’d get a better look at Olamide Zaccheaus or Christian Blake in this one, but Ryan completed passes to just five guys. Four of those guys combined for 228 yards on 22 receptions, or a bit over 10 yards per reception, and the other was Julio, who reeled in 10 for 166 yards. Especially with Ridley out, Julio’s importance to this offense—and his elite production—shouldn’t be overlooked.
- Vic Beasley is on fire in the second half of the season, and that level of play is going to convince more than one team to give him a solid contract to try to build on. He was a pain all day in this one, taking advantage of some plus matchups and using his speed to get a sack and nearly grab a couple more against Gardner Minshew.
- Grady Jarrett is also on fire, but thankfully he isn’t going anywhere. Jarrett has 6.5 sacks on the year after getting Minshew yesterday, but he also tore through the Jaguars offensive line to make life difficult for the rookie quarterback on multiple other occasions. He’s flat out dominant, and he’ll likely have a field day against Jameis Winston this coming Sunday.
- The effort and results are, frustratingly, here and stellar after it appeared to be missing in the early going, especially on the defensive side. The Falcons got a forced fumble on their first kickoff of the game and had one of the most impressive pass breakups of the season on a key third down on the Jaguars’ opening offensive drive, with Blidi Wreh-Wilson knocking the ball into the air and Deion Jones knocking it out of Dede Westbrook’s hands. Overall, the defense has been much, much better in the second half despite enduring some injuries, which only makes their first half bumbling with (primarily) Dan Quinn at the reins that much more infuriating. .
That said, is it fantastic to see the Falcons playing like a better-than-average defense at last? Yes. I loved seeing Isaiah Oliver come back from a couple of lapses and cover effectively, and I love watching Kendall Sheffield and Wreh-Wilson close the gap with astonishing quickness. I love watching Jarrett and Adrian Clayborn wreck running backs. And so on.
The personnel changes to come might take a bite out of that, but it appears the Falcons have enough here to get by if the coaching is there.
- The Falcons are still prone to the kinds of lapses that make you worry about the future. The Jaguars’ first drive of the second quarter was a great example, as they were ruined by a fake punt attempt and the Jags were able to keep trucking to get into field goal range.
That was a mild one, but it got worse in the third quarter. Atlanta’s defense committed a series of penalties and made poor plays in coverage to allow the Jaguars to get all the way down to 4th and 3 near the goal line, an opportunity some teams might’ve taken. Fortunately the Jags just kicked a field goal, but they had no business letting Jacksonville dictate the terms on that drive, not given their current offense.
It was worse on the other side of the ball, where productive drives were killed by turnovers and penalties. Wes Schweitzer got nailed with a false start and a holding penalty, the latter erasing a 9 yard Freeman run on the very same drive that Alex Mack got hit with a holding call that wiped out an 18 yard carry. Drops, classically unproductive runs up the middle, and Ryan’s big mistakes doomed them further, helping to hold the offense to just seven points in the second half despite the defense repeatedly getting stops. It goes without saying that’s not going to be good enough against a vastly superior Buccaneers offense, no matter how many picks Jameis Winston throws.
- Matt Ryan had a pretty good day on balance, but both of his picks were ugly, locked-in throws to Julio Jones. The first was a wildly underthrown deep ball to Jones down the sideline and the second was a ball over the middle that Jacksonville jumped on ahead of #11 to snag the pick. Ryan’s still a very good quarterback and has been much of the season, but he’s been pick-prone this year and it has proven costly at times. Thankfully, it wasn’t on Sunday.
- There’s nothing else that really belongs here for this game, but I just will never entirely be able to shake off how terrible the team was through the first eight games. It matters, for Dan Quinn’s job and for their future prospects, that they’er playing well in the here and now. It’s beyond infuriating that in a year with such outsized expectations, they had to be dead in the water before they could really start playing well.
Give it to the defense, and their powerful avatar Grady Jarrett. The offense did enough to win but the defense was the unit holding Jacksonville to just 12 points.
Atlanta may well push for the same 7-9 record they had a year ago, with arguably an even stronger finish on defense. The thing we don’t know is what it’ll mean for the staff just yet.
One final matchup, this time a road game against the Buccaneers team that kind of embarrassed Atlanta earlier this season. Let’s see if the Falcons can run their NFC South record to 4-2 with one final victory, or if they’ll finish the season on a flat note.