Let’s face it: the Falcons’ 28-12 opening week loss to the Minnesota Vikings was a giant letdown for Atlanta’s fans. All the hype of an offseason populated by strong personnel moves in both free agency and the draft combined with the return of several prominent defensive starters from injury led most of us to believe that the Falcons would be strong contenders in 2019. That could still be the case—it’s only Week 1, after all—but the first data point was deflating to say the least.
However, despite the game being wholly unenjoyable and the scoreboard showing a sound defeat, the Falcons didn’t play quite as badly as you might think. The killer in this game was not the overall play of the offense or defense—although aspects of each certainly deserve our criticism—it was the four turnovers committed by Atlanta. In particular, the blocked punt, interception, and fumble that occurred during the first twenty minutes of the game.
The game started out badly for the Falcons, with a sack from Anthony Barr on the first play from scrimmage. Even after facing 2nd and 18, a Matt Ryan scramble actually got Atlanta pretty close to the first down, but they were forced to punt on 4th and 2. Queue the first major error: a mix-up in the protection scheme let a unblocked man get a free run to Bosher, which resulted in a blocked punt and a recovery for Minnesota at the Atlanta 21. The Vikings got the ball 1 yard from the red zone, and scored a few plays later. 7-0.
On the Falcons next drive, they avoided a 3-and-out after Vikings’ EDGE Everson Griffen jumped offsides. Ryan’s 1st-and-10 pass was thrown to Julio Jones, who was blanketed by double coverage, and was picked off by safety Anthony Harris. It was a stupid throw under pressure which was pretty uncharacteristic of Ryan. Minnesota received the ball at the Atlanta 41. On the ensuing drive, Keanu Neal got a strip sack but the ball fell harmlessly out of bounds and the referees ended up reversing the call to an incomplete pass. The very next play was a 19-yard Dalvin Cook run for a TD. The score was now 14-0 after only 6:32 of game time.
The Falcons and Vikings traded punts on the next two drives as things appeared to settle down for Atlanta. The next drive seemed to be where the Falcons began to find their footing. Back-to-back first down passes to Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley put the Falcons at 1st-and-10 from the Minnesota 26. The next play was a defensive offsides by the Vikings, giving the Falcons 1st-and-5 from the 21. On the edge of the red zone, Atlanta looked like they had a legitimate chance to get their first points of the game.
But we all know what happened next. Devonta Freeman took a handoff but was stonewalled, and during the tackle the knee of Trae Waynes hit the ball in the perfect spot to knock it loose. Upon re-watching the play, Freeman was protecting the ball correctly—it was just a lucky break for the Vikings. Safety Anthony Harris recovered the fumble, and a promising Falcons drive ended scoreless at the 21. The Vikings put together an excellent drive after the fumble recovery and added to their lead. It was now 21-0, with 4:40 remaining in the first half.
Instead of 14-7 or even 14-3, the Falcons were hit with a terribly unlucky play and were now facing a 3-score deficit. The teams would then trade punts before halftime, and Atlanta would go into the half with a huge deficit and no momentum.
There was no coming back from that 21-0 hole, especially not on the road against one of the NFL’s premier defenses. Those three early mistakes eliminated any chance for Atlanta in this game. But that wouldn’t stop the Falcons from trying.
After the half, the Vikings started with the ball and had a chance to bury Atlanta. The defense held firm and forced a punt, giving the Falcons one last chance to get back into the game. Ryan and the offense mounted an impressive drive. Austin Hooper was key, catching three passes on the drive. A pass interference call on a deep throw to Calvin Ridley set the Falcons up with 1st-and-goal from the Vikings 2.
Two plays later, with Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Calvin Ridley on the sideline, Matt Ryan threw an interception on a pass intended for TE Luke Stocker. Stocker appeared to quit on the route, but Ryan really should’ve put more air on the ball to get it out of bounds. In Koetter’s defense, he explained in a press conference that the Falcons were in their “heavy” or “goal line” package (i.e. short-yardage run) and thought they spotted a mismatch within the Vikings “heavy” package. At any rate, it was a dumb play, and the Falcons missed out on their chance to get back into the game.
On the ensuing drive, the Vikings succeeded in burying the Falcons, putting together an 80-yard effort that ended with a TD. 28-0, and the game was entirely over at this point.
Despite losing 28-12, the Falcons overall game performance wasn’t that bad. Matt Ryan’s overall stat line was solid: 33/46 (71%) for 304 yards, 2 TD, and 2 INT. The running game as a whole went 73 yards on 17 carries, good for a reasonable 4.29 YPC average. On defense, the team allowed zero points that didn’t come off turnovers. Zero. The defense allowed only 98 yards passing, but the Vikings didn’t need to pass after halftime. On the ground, the defense got gashed repeatedly—they gave up 172 yards on 38 carries for a 4.52 average—but would’ve never faced that many rushing attempts if they weren’t down by 3 or more scores through the majority of the game.
The Falcons instead were sunk by the four turnovers, and in particular the three within the first twenty minutes of the game that led to them being down 21-0. Take away the fumble and the Falcons are might have had 14-7 going into halftime. Take away the endzone INT and the Falcons are maybe 14-14 after the half. The game could have been much closer if not for some truly devastating strokes of luck and dumb mistakes.
That’s not to say that the team doesn’t deserve criticism. Ben Kotwica needs to have his punt protection team ready to block. Matt Ryan needs to do better at avoiding dumb interceptions. But acting like the Falcons were a total trainwreck on the level of the Dolphins on Sunday is simply untrue.
Turnovers are one of the most volatile and hard to predict statistics in all of football—they decide games with regularity, but on the whole are quite random. They’re part of the reason why football is so entertaining, but they can be devastating when your team is on the receiving end. Take for instance the fact that the Falcons’ defense forced three fumbles in the game, but came up with none of them. Any one of those balls bouncing in a slightly different direction could’ve changed things.
At the end of the day, the Falcons have to play better and cut down on the mistakes. But a Week 1 loss to a playoff contender on the road that featured four turnovers shouldn’t cause us to abandon all hope for the team in 2019 just yet.