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Falcons - Buccaneers recap: The season ends with a slog punctuated by magic moments

Heck, that describes the entire year, doesn’t it?

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

This game truly got going with a touchdown pass to—of all people—Ty Sambrailo. It ended in overtime with Jameis Winston throwing a pick-six that Deion Jones had from the moment Winston took the snap. Both of those moments were triumphant, marvels of play design and execution that represented some of the best work these Falcons can do.

Everything between, especially on offense, was just another deeply frustrating game from an uneven team. The Falcons settled for five field goals and scored just one offensive touchdown on the day, Matt Ryan was once again a man under siege, and the team carried the ball 30 times for 87 yards on the day. The defense, meanwhile, was brilliant throughout the second half and into overtime, but was responsible for a 22 point explosion in the second quarter and would’ve been on the hook for a loss had Matt Gay hit even one of his field goal tries on the day.

The win had to feel great and the moments of excellence, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, are the kind of things the Falcons will hope to build on in 2020. But after the team just rolled out fireworks and cartwheels to justify bringing this group back, this kind of result didn’t set anyone’s mind at ease, and I bet Arthur Blank had a couple of moments of owner’s remorse with this one.

The defense is still the unit with the best results and the best plan heading into next year. That 15 point quarter stunk an awful lot, but if the offense was halfway competent the Falcons might’ve destroyed the Bucs yesterday, especially because seven of those points were off a scoop and score on a Matt Ryan fumble. With Raheem Morris at the helm and a lot of young players who are at least showing real promise, they’re only a handful of pieces away from having a competent defense, which seemed impossibly far away as recently as the bye week. Asking for more than competence seems dangerous given how many times we’ve been let down in recent memory, so I won’t.

The offense should be borderline great but was emphatically not in 2019. Dirk Koetter’s unit finished the year with an absolute dud of a performance, putting up just six points despite running more than 80 plays on the day. The vaunted plan for the offensive line did not translate into improvement for the group—they gave up a career-high 48 sacks for Ryan this year in 15 games—and Koetter simply couldn’t get great looks for his receivers much of the year, a problem magnified once he lost Calvin Ridley and magnified further when Julio Jones started to hobble in this one. My great fear is that Koetter’s going to return, the offensive line isn’t getting any significant upgrades, and we’re going to have to do this all over again in 2020.

Because that’s what’s at stake, isn’t it? We want to see a Falcons team that can beat the Buccaneers and other solid-but-not-great football teams soundly, not because they successfully tricked them with a pass to a tackle or because one of their stars made a heroic play in overtime. The consistency that has been missing for far too long is what Blank and company are banking on this team achieving in 2019, but the Buccaneers game offered up more of the same old up-and-down Falcons. The talent is here and hopefully will get better, the owner has thrown his support and dollars behind the current regime, and the result has to be genuine improvement. I don’t want to be writing this same thing in 2020 after Week 17, I can tell you that.

There is, of course, a new year around the corner where we can start really cracking into what’s next for this team. For now, let’s talk specifically about the good and the ugly from the final game of the season.

The Good

  • Dirk Koetter has heard us all talk about how he’s not creative and he doesn’t do enough with his weapons, so he decided to thump his nuts on the table for one shining moment. All year long, he’s been getting Ty Sambrailo in as an extra eligible blocker for a play or two a game, and so the Bucs were none the wiser when they brought him in on the first offensive drive of the day...and then threw a touchdown pass to him.

Sambrailo rumbled for 35 yards on the touchdown, showing impressive speed for an offensive lineman. It’s fair to wonder if Koetter has had this in his back pocket all season, and it was legitimately one of the most creative, impressive plays he’s drawn up all year. Kudos to Ryan for the nice ball, Sambrailo for the catch and run, and Koetter for the fine work.

  • Qadree Ollison is the guy who should get a longer look on those inevitable Koetter-sanctioned runs up the middle. On consecutive plays in the second quarter, he bulled his way for major gains up the middle, keeping his head down and his legs churning through a that fairly stout Bucs front seven. He couldn’t replicate that success on two more short yardage carries, unfortunately, but he and the genuinely productive Brian Hill (a tidy 5 carries for 21 yards) should both be back and getting more run in 2020, whether Devonta Freeman is here or not.
  • Julio Jones fought through injury to put up a solid 7 catches for 78 yards on the day, which is not an overly impressive total but is a good result for a receiver who was visibly limping at times. He was stellar again in 2019, and he’ll likely have an even better year in 2020 if the Falcons can fix the line and figure out how to take some pressure off him.
  • Russell Gage ate all day, with only an ill-advised hurdle marring a fine day catching the ball and picking up first downs for Atlanta. A hobbled Julio Jones wasn’t targeted much late in the game, but Gage filled in capably, scooping up a number of tough catches to keep things rolling. He finishes the year with 48 receptions for 446 yards and has established himself as a reliable possession receiver, one that will have a significant role on Sundays again next year. Hopefully he can be more of a threat down the field with more opportunity, as well.
  • Hiccups aside, the defense is still playing at a high level. Deion Jones was out there scooping up fumbles, Blidi Wreh-Wilson managed a crucial pass breakup in the end zone, and the coverage was tight despite some blistering balls from Jameis Winston. Again, the defensive improvement in the second half has been striking, and is the #1 reason to believe in this team heading into next season, assuming they don’t blow things up personnel-wise.

The second half added to that reputation, even if the first half ended up being a bit messy. They largely held Jameis Winston in check, and missed Matt Gay field goals helped keep things close. Any time you pitch a shutout in three quarters against the league’s top passing offense, it’s a win, even if that one exception quarter was ugly.

  • Grady Jarrett was the man getting pressure and run stops again on Sunday, and he added a nice sack of Winston to the day. Perhaps the only truly, consistently dominant player on the Falcons this year, Jarrett will roll into 2020 with justified, sky-high expectations.
  • Ricardo Allen got beat a little by Cameron Brate on his touchdown, but like an elephant, he forgives but does not forget. In the second quarter, Allen read Winston like a book to pick him off, which was pick #29 for Winston on the season. It was a reminder of just how good and how savvy Allen still is, in case you needed one.
  • Younghoe Koo won’t be guaranteed the kicking job in 2020—the Falcons tried that in 2019 and were met with Giorgio Tavecchio’s meltdown—but he’s earned frontrunner status. Koo hit all five of his opportunities today, a stark contrast to the opposing kicker, and finishes the year 23 for 26 on field goals, 15 of 16 for extra points, and is at the very least one of the league’s great onside kick specialists. The biggest concern has to be his range—he had just one try beyond 50 yards and was a fine but unspectacular 7 of 9 from 40-49 yards—but he’s been a success story for a team reeling after Italian Ice’s blowup and the unceremonious dumping of Matt Bryant.
  • The Falcons got their win. The W didn’t do much to ease the heat on the franchise for holding on to their current coaching staff and front office, true, but it capped off a 6-2 second half that gives players, coaches, and executives hope that they can build on it. They haven’t really built on those kinds of stretches in the past, of course, but there’s always next year.

The Ugly

  • The ground game has to be a priority for the team this offseason unless they’re willing to pass on 75% of their offensive plays. Dirk Koetter’s largely unimaginative, ineffective run calls are a big part of the problem, but the run blocking has been shaky, the team’s backs haven’t been able to overcome that, and Koetter hasn’t had answers when things go south. In this one, we saw way too many runs at the teeth of the defense, including an ill-fated 4th and 1 attempt for Keith Smith where he took two steps and got blasted.

A run game coordinator would be a brilliant hire, but I don’t know who the Falcons would look at given that Mike McDaniel is not leaving San Francisco for a lateral move. Something for us to discuss down the line.

  • The passing game was not considerably better. Ryan was under duress most of the day as he took multiple sacks, had passes tipped repeatedly at the line, and had his arm hit as he tried to throw. The deeply unfortunate fumble the Bucs scooped up and scored on was a result of Ryan getting blindsided by a guy Kaleb McGary couldn’t quite handle, and the blistering Bucs pass rush made it clear that this team is going to be limited until they can actually protect Ryan.

That’s not to let Ryan or his receivers entirely off the hook, though. He once again threw some bad balls in this one and routinely had no one open near the goal line, forcing out of bounds throws or (in one sad case) a toss past the line of scrimmage. Ryan’s still plenty of good enough to win games and this offense still has weapons, but if you asked me if everything’s ever going to come together under Koetter, I’m not sure I’d say yes.

  • The offensive line, in particular, is not a finished product yet, something the Bucs rudely reminded us of by getting a lot of pressure on Matt Ryan and coming away with some sacks in the process. Atlanta’s got to ensure they get Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom playing consistently well in 2019, and they need to both find a solution at the other guard spot and figure out what they’re doing at center to really hold this thing together.

That’s especially true because the Bucs played tight coverage, giving the Falcons a lot of pressure to deal with and not a lot of easy outs. The building blocks are here for a better line, but much will depend on what McGary can give them next year.

  • Isaiah Oliver had a shaky game again. He was close over and over again but was simply outworked by Breshad Perriman, and excellent coverage in the third quarter was ultimately erased by his decision to essentially punch Perriman in the face. Oliver is a fine player who figures to keep getting better—and he was close multiple times Sunday—but that was a disconcerting note to end the season on.
  • It was another questionable day of officiating. The Bucs got nailed with multiple questionable calls in this one, and the Falcons did not benefit from a very borderline call on Ryan’s fumble/incomplete pass in the second quarter. C’est la vie.
  • The Falcons likely made the move they made late last week because they knew that an ugly loss to the Buccaneers was a real possibility, but the way Atlanta played against Tampa Bay made that reality seem more stark. The Falcons are simply too talented—even if they’re not as talented as we might’ve hoped—to play this poorly against a division rival, and yet they did it again.

We said all along that the decision shouldn’t come down to the final game of the season, but the Tampa Bay game was sadly illustrative of why the Falcons probably shouldn’t have elected to keep the band together in the first place.

  • And let’s be brutally honest here as a final note: If Matt Gay wasn’t melting down and missing three field goals, this would’ve been a Tampa Bay win. Period.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It can’t be anyone but Younghoe Koo, who scored 16 of the Falcons’ 22 points in regulation and single-handedly kept them in the game. I know the Falcons had to set up those drives, but their offensive ineptitude was such that you’re going to give it to the kicker, especially on a day where Tampa Bay kicker Matt Gay missed three field goals.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are capable of scraping out all sorts of wins, but they’re a long way from beating good teams up on a regular basis.

Next Week

The offseason. We’re back here again, already.

Final Word