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Falcons - Eagles recap: The heart breaker that wasn’t

The Falcons looked to be well on their way to another tough loss against the Eagles, but improbably if not impossibly, they pulled it off.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know what it is about the Falcons and Eagles in this current era of football that encourages slugfests that are low-scoring and brutal, but it’s a tradition unlike any other. Even the shaky defensive situations for both teams couldn’t change that, as this turned into exactly the kind of game you would have expected had you just watched highlights of the last two matchups.

It also turned out exactly like those matchups, with the smallest twist: The Falcons won it.

There was plenty to worry about—the Eagles were very banged up and the Falcons still made a ton of mistakes—but for a while there the Falcons actually played much better. If you’re looking at the team’s long-term outlook for hope, that’s at least a spot of it right there, as the Falcons took full advantage of Eagles injuries to turn in a strong defensive performance and gut out the kind of win they couldn’t get the last couple of times out.

The gutsiness stands out. The Falcons absolutely made the physical plays they have not made in years past, whether it was Jake Matthews absolutely destroying a defender to spring Julio Jones, Isaiah Oliver making the tackle of his young career to preserve the win, or Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley fighting tooth and nail by a very good Eagles defensive line to make impactful plays. Those plays made the difference on a night where the offense was not at its best and the Eagles, despite their injuries, fought like hell.

The problems were still myriad, though, and as always they doomed Atlanta until the very moment they didn’t. Matt Ryan threw multiple brutal picks, the Falcons were penalized frequently for the kinds of dumb things they are frequently penalized for, and they screwed up in exactly the wrong way at exactly the wrong time over and over again. A game that looked like it should have been a shootout on paper turned into a defensive struggle again, and as good as the Eagles are, Atlanta’s offense scuffling so badly here was a worrying sign once again.

Thankfully, the defense was stellar. It got lost in last week’s game because the Vikings got such an early lead, but the defense has looked improved in both games, and they were a genuine nuisance in this one. It’s tough to get a read on just how good they are and can be, given the Eagles’ injuries and the Vikings barely having to pass, but there are glimmers of something promising here, with Isaiah Oliver’s excellent second game looming as perhaps the most encouraging sign. For one game, at least, they were certainly good enough.

The end result was neither pretty nor totally satisfying for most fans, I’d suspect, but it got the Falcons into a tie for first place in the NFC South and showed that there is life and fire in this team yet. I’ll take that win with a smile on my face and a song in my heart, and hope that this is the start of something special, rather than a blip on the radar.

The Good

  • Watching Matt Bryant hit a 50 yarder with no drama is a reminder of what the Falcons almost lost. He can’t play forever, but I hope the Falcons are no longer thinking of replacing him until he‘s ready to hang ‘em up.

Of course, other things happened, but he nailed all his extra pointers, too.

  • In many ways, this was an ugly game for Matt Ryan, but Ryan never truly spirals for very long. He wound up making the throws he needed to despite the interceptions, including a beautiful read and a crisp pass on the game-winning ball to Julio Jones. He has much to iron out, but is still dealing when he needs to.
  • Mohamed Sanu does the little things exceptionally well. That’s normally something you say in the case of a player who doesn’t do the big things well—and Sanu did fail to come down with one of Ryan’s ultimately picked passes—but Sanu’s a good player who also ahppens to care deeply about kicking ass elsewhere. His stellar effort on the Austin Hooper fumble in the third quarter saved the Falcons from big trouble after they allowed the Eagles to get within five points, and it’s the kind of play he makes because gets things done.
  • Julio Jones has not been a god often here in the early going, but he was no mere mortal when the Falcons needed him most Sunday night. He caught the short pass in the fourth quarter and took it all the way to the house, thanks to one huge block and some of the hardest-charging legs in football. Jones has three touchdowns in just two games and hasn’t looked anywhere close to full strength to this point, which tells you good things ought to be ahead.
  • For much of the game, though, Julio wasn’t the standout receiver. For the second week in a row, Calvin Ridley paced the group, reeling in eight catches for 105 yards (one less yard than Julio) and a touchdown. He’s not perfect, sure, but he’s been stellar in the early going and has room to grow yet.
  • Jake Matthews threw an unbelievable pancake block on Julio Jones’ fourth quarter touchdown, the kind that will show up on highlight reels for weeks, months, and maybe even years to come. Without that block, it’s not clear Jones even gets the first down, but with it he was headed for paydirt. Another player who redeemed himself in a major way in this one.
  • Jamon Brown did a nice job, I thought, as a fill-in at right guard. He blocked well throughout much of the game in a tough matchup against a strong Philadelphia defensive line. It’s one game, but it’s a nice sign. With Kaleb McGary coming back in (unbelievably) after getting hurt and Ty Sambrailo doing better than any of us had any right to expect, plus Matt Gono on his way back, the right side of this line may just not be a disaster after all.
  • Grady Jarrett is an absolute monster. He got free of blocks over and over again to create pressure, make key run stops, and pick up a coverage sack in the second quarter. His deal is going to look like an absolute steal by the end of this season.
  • Vic Beasley won’t get the credit he deserves, but he and Takk McKinley did good work in this one. Takk ate early and often and pressured Wentz, but Vic almost dropped Wentz for a game-sealing sack late and then actually brought him down for a sack on a key third down on that final Eagles drive of the game.
  • Desmond Trufant looks all the way back. He was good last season and a little shaky in 2017, but through two games he’s been borderline stellar. He picked Carson Wentz twiceand was thriving in coverage, looking every bit like the elite player he was through the first few years of his career. Excited to see what this season looks like for him, and excited to see what happens when Takk starts closing out these pressures.
  • Isaiah Oliver got hit with penalties, sure, but he looked much more confident and capable than he did in Week 1, both in run support and in coverage. His length and skill are going to be critically important if this defense is going to do anything in 2019, and he gave us a tantalizing glimpse of what he’s about with the big tackles and strong coverage against the Eagles. When Oliver made the game-saving tackle on fourth down with seconds left in the fourth quarter, he made it clear that his lousy first week was behind him, and I couldn’t be more proud of him.

That said, did he get beat handily downfield, only for Agholor to drop the pass? Yes. Thank goodness that didn’t matter.

  • A simply unbelievable play by Kendall Sheffield to force the fumble on a nice Corey Clement kick return to start the second half, and a heads up play by Sharrod Neasman to pick it up. That’s the value of quality special teams, and it swung the momentum coming out of the half sharply as the Falcons scored just three plays later.

The Ugly

  • The Falcons put together a pretty opening drive...that they ruined with poor execution and a poor play call on third down. Luke Stocker’s badly missed block and the team’s decision to throw to Calvin Ridley short and hope for excellent blocking was not, I would venture, the way things should have gone. It was a sign of too many things to come.
  • Matt Ryan has not had the most inspiring start to the season, to say the least. He’s thrown pretty balls and escaped pressure well, but he’s also tossed a ton of picks, including one really ugly one in this one that he threw up in the vain hope that Julio Jones would get it. Ryan at his sharpest is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but Ryan at less than his best helps keep teams in the game.

He did more than that in this one. The pick off Sanu’s hands wasn’t all that bad, but both the duck to Julio and the red zone pick he attempted into double coverage with Hooper were ghastly and costly the Falcons dearly. One of Ryan’s great successes in recent years was cutting down on the number of head-scratching throws we’d come to expect, so this is a most unwelcome return to an old form. If it involves winning and more downfield strikes, though? We’ll think about it.

  • The offensive line was solid, especially considering the opponent, but the ground game still struggled to get going. Again, Devonta Freeman had a couple of nice runs and looked game but found few lanes, and was outplayed by Ito Smith. I don’t think there are going to be too many more weeks where Free scuffles behind the same line as Ito without the Falcons looking at a larger role for the latter, but I’m hopeful Free can break out a bit against Indy.
  • With a fourth down and 14 yards to go on the final, pivotal Eagles drive of the game, the Falcons managed to let Nelson Agholor run by everyone and catch a 43 yard reception. It was quintessentially the most Falcons play of the evening, in that it was brutally bad, completely indefensible, and as poorly timed as it possibly could have been. I died more than a little bit inside when the Falcons allowed that play to happen, considering the stakes and considering how completely predictable it seemed the moment it happened. It’s beyond fortunate that it didn’t cost them the game.
  • This team is still, despite the win, all too eager to give up leads. The Falcons should have salted this game against a banged-up Eagles squad away multiple times, but there was always a blown coverage or a Matt Ryan interception lurking to keep things close. I’ll never complain about the W, but we’re a long ways away from this team winning games comfortably and sparing us the medical bills.
  • The officiating was (not stunningly) bad. The crew missed an obvious pass interference on Julio Jones in the first quarter and did not, unsurprisingly, elect to turn that call over on review. You can and should question the wisdom of Dan Quinn throwing the challenge flag there, given how infrequently those calls are overturned, but there’s little question they screwed that up. The Falcons got hit with a couple of other ticky-tack penalties but that happens in every game to every team, leaving me just a tad steamed at that first call.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I’d have a tough time giving this to one person, so let’s hand let Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Isaiah Oliver all put a hand on it for their efforts. Heck, give Jake Matthews one for that block alone.

One Takeaway

Atlanta suffered no ill effects from their sound beating at the hands of the Vikings, and they might just have a good defense, though it’s way too early to say more than just might.

Next Week

The Colts. The same Colts who have been tough defensively and have all the offensive firepower to make it difficult, and the same Colts who are at home. It’s gonna be another wild one. Check out Stampede Blue for more.

Final Word