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Falcons - Colts recap: Too little, too late for undisciplined birds

Atlanta’s love affair with penalties and mistakes when it matters costs them for the 1,000th time.

Atlanta Falcons v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

The Falcons headed into a matchup against a fundamentally solid, well-rounded Colts team with hopes of stealing a win on the road, a win they needed and figured to be capable of getting. They came out of this week with more questions than ever before, thanks to a penalty-marred loss that established them as the ultimate “what if” team in the NFL through the early part of the 2019 season.

What is going to doom the Falcons and Dan Quinn, if they keep this up,many is the number of promises they haven’t kept. The focus on discipline has definitely not materialized, the promise to get this defense focused on snagging turnovers has been rewarded inconsistently at best, and the idea that this team has the heart and drive to turn things around is undermined every time we have to watch a game like this. It’s easy—for me, at least—to be blinded by the sheer amount of talent on display and to gloss over the very real issues this team has displayed over and over again. It’s getting harder to do that, and if it’s more difficult for inherit optimists like me to do that, imagine what it’s like for owner Arthur Blank, who has loomed ever larger in this team’s offseason moves and is suddenly looking at a 1-2 football team with injuries both minor and major piling up. It’s hard for anyone to be patient, especially an owner who badly wants another champion in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Colts didn’t win on raw talent—though Marlon Mack was every bit as good as I feared he’d be, and that line sprung him early and often—but on a solid, patient gameplan executed well by solid, patient players. Jacoby Brissett had one of his best games of the year by avoiding pressure—there was only so much of it to begin with—and making good reads. The Colts ran the ball well and played fundamentally solid defense, even if that started to break down in a major way in the second half as the Falcons scored 21 points. You can, if you’re feeling bitter, point to a very one-sided penalty tally as proof that it wasn’t just the Colts here, but they put themselves in a position to capitalize on Atlanta’s mistakes, and Atlanta made a ton of them.

We saw what happens when the Falcons have to go into the house of a very well-coached, smart football team and try to win. That sheer talent almost got the job done—the Falcons rallied from a 20-3 deficit and only lost by three—but they committed 16 penalties, Matt Ryan threw another costly pick, and the defense let Indy get loose and make intelligent plays far too often. A version of this Falcons team that has all the answers and the discipline to avoid costly mistakes probably wins this game by 10 points. This version of this Falcons team loses it, and after the first half, it’s a big surprise they only did so by three points.

In the grand scheme of things, this loss may not prove all that costly for Atlanta, given that the NFC South stinks. It will be much harder to wash away the stink of this particular loss on the heels of the Vikings loss, and the sense that this team’s talent alone is never going to overcome the lack of discipline that has haunted them throughout the Dan Quinn era. The Titans game next week is, it goes without saying, one the Falcons have to win.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan made one indefensible throw in the first half and threw another pick, which was costly. His role in this game can’t be ignored on that end, and frankly he’s cost his team a lot with those interceptions and off-target throws thus far.

But credit where credit is due: He rallied big-time in the second half, bring the Falcons back from a 20-3 deficit to a 27-24 one late in the fourth quarter on the back of some very nice throws and good plays under pressure. He was as close to perfect as you could be in the second half and keyed a comeback that almost was enough, and has gotten a bit better every week around those turnovers.

To win more games, maybe Ryan could stop throwing those lousy picks! Sorry, a note of bitterness there.

  • Devonta Freeman got off to the start he’s deserved these last three weeks, picking up 28 yards with stellar blocking on his very first carry of the game. He would rumble for another 24 in the second quarter on a run where he put multiple Colts in the dirt, showing the kind of burst and physicality the Falcons really need from him on the way. It was still a choppy effort with blocking playing a major role, but on his best runs Freeman looked every bit as good as he did in 2016, and that genuinely matters. Especially with Ito Smith possibly missing a week or two.
  • Julio Jones, despite all the garbage happening around him, continues to work at a very high level. On a day where Calvin Ridley was brutal and the Falcons needed him to deliver, Julio got off to a quiet start but finished with over 100 yards and made multiple huge receptions over the middle of the field. He capped that day off with a heavily contacted, corner of the end zone touchdown grab to help bring the Falcons within three points late in the game. He’s still one of the best ever to do it.
  • Austin Hooper did every single thing the Falcons needed him to do. He made tough catches in traffic, got open repeatedly, and wound up with two scores on the day. The Falcons haven’t come close to looking like an elite offense thus far, but the fact that they have so many weapons has become relevant on a weekly basis, because there’s almost always someone to step up. Hooper has picked right up where he left off last year, and if the Falcons take virtually every Luke Stocker target going forward and give it to him, I think we’ll all be a lot happier.
  • On a day when Calvin Ridley was a non-factor (he repeated), Mohamed Sanu turned in a solid, chain-moving effort, picking up a couple of crucial third downs and running for a first down as the Wildcat quarterback. Again, the beauty of this offense is that someone always seem to step up during a down day for guys like Julio and Ridley, but it’d be nice if there were no down days and everyone got some love. I’d fully expect Ridley to bounce back in a big way next week, by the way.
  • Deion Jones quietly had a very good game on a day where almost everyone on defense had a lowlight to go with their highlights. He led the team in tackles, made a couple of very nice run stops, and was a factor in coverage. It just wasn’t enough all on his own.
  • He had a couple of missteps, but Ricardo Allen deserves less blame than just about anybody on defense. He made a handful of critical tackles that prevented, if not touchdowns, very long gains, and he continues to look like one of the most savvy and motivated defenders on the field despite coming off a major injury. If the Falcons defense is going to be anything at all, especially if Neal is now gone, Allen’s going to be the driver behind a lot of it.

The Ugly

  • The Colts did EXACTLY what the Falcons knew they were going to do on the first drive of the game, and it worked brilliantly. Atlanta could not contain Marlon Mack in the early going and he picked up chunk yardage to help move the Colts from their own 25 across the field to field goal range, where they happily got the stop. It was a slow start, but not as slow as some weeks.

While the Falcons managed to hold the Colts in check later on, it still came back to haunt them, with Marlon Mack’s big outside run in the fourth quarter leading to an easy touchdown to put the Colts up by 10 with under 9 minutes to go. When the Falcons needed a key stop, they just couldn’t get it.

  • Matt Ryan is off to an absolutely brutal start when it comes to turnovers. By and large he’s looked like the guy the Falcons have had all these years, but on each of his six interceptions he’s managed to make the wrong call and, typically, an off throw. The latest was a high throw above Luke Stocker’s head—why Stocker again??—that a leaping Clayton Geathers picked off. He simply cannot continue to kill drives with backbreaking turnovers if the Falcons are going to go anywhere this year, even if he continues to rally effectively and throw touchdowns to dig them out of their holes.
  • Calvin Ridley is so good, but he just wasn’t on his game in this one, as he was a relative non-factor in the passing game and picked up one of the team’s many penalties. He’ll be better next week.
  • I want to be very clear that I do not dislike Luke Stocker, a guy I thought was a fine addition to the football team. I do want to be clear that Stocker has been, due to his own mistakes and Dirk Koetter and Matt Ryan’s bizarre insistence on featuring him in this offense, a problem.

About half of Ryan’s interceptions have come on Stocker targets, and Stocker has just four receptions for 16 yards and a fumble through three games. He has value as a blocker and is normally a perfectly legitimate last resort as a receiver, but the number of scenarios where the team is drawing up a passing play to him should be limited, given the weapons they have here. Hopefully this is just an odd, bad start for Koetter and Stocker.

  • Coverage was an adventure for a lot of guys. We saw a lot of Kemal Ishmael and while he was characteristically good against the run, he missed tackles and was steps behind tight ends all day long. The Falcons just couldn’t put the brakes on a solid but unspectacular Colts passing game, allowing Jacoby Brissett to go over 300 yards and put the Colts in the lead, and that was one of the many factors that led to the loss.
  • Grady Jarrett has been one of the team’s elite players thus far in 2019...but this was his worst effort thus far by a wide margin. His jog off the field cost the Falcons a crucial 12 man penalty, he got hit again for a neutral zone infraction in the second half, and he wasn’t as impactful this week against a strong Colts interior as he has been in weeks past. In his case, I feel pretty confident in saying this was a blip, given that he’s proven he’s a great player in this league.
  • There were a lot of missed tackles. Again, in such a tight game, the fact that the Falcons failed to stopped forward progress wound up being really costly, and there’s no way Dan Quinn was saying “just have fun out there” while guys failed to bring down yet another Colt.
  • Weekly refereeing complaint/Falcons lack of discipline complaint: Ricardo Allen lowered his head but I’m not so sure the flag was appropriate given the number of steps T.Y. Hilton took. Atlanta got absolutely nailed with penalties, and while their sloppiness made that more than defensible, the flag disparity was pretty bad. At some point it got so one-sided that it was simply impossible to believe that the Colts were clean as a whistle while the Falcons were committing all the penalties, though of course it took a long time given the Falcons’ habits.

The one that stood out even more was the penalty on Keanu Neal for throwing his helmet in anguish after he was hurt. On paper, of course, that’s a penalty, but in my mind it’s hard to penalize a guy who may have just suffered a season-ending injury for a moment of frustration, especially when you’re calling it while he’s sobbing on the field. It is, ultimately, what it is.

But back to discipline. You can hang so much of this one on the Falcons and their ongoing inability to avoid penalties that the refs deserve no more than a passing mention, though, lest someone accuse me of sour grapes. They cost themselves 100 yards in penalties alone, and a lack of discipline is simply something the Falcons can’t afford to hang on officiating, lest they cost themselves many games going forward. There’s little question that they’re at least 2-1 if they can just avoid these kinds of penalties.

  • At the end of the day, does it matter that Dan Quinn can’t really be nailed with the team’s lack of discipline on gameday, given that he’s not out there? No. This is his defense now and it has been his team, and every week that he has to defend a subpar effort and subpar results, his leather chair gets warmer. Given Arthur Blank’s obviously lofty expectations—and a fanbase that really has had enough of this nonsense—he’s going to be the guy to take the fall for a crummy Falcons team if they can’t right the ship in a hurry, regardless of what his share of the blame should be. He’s had enough of a hand in hand-picking this team that he can hardly escape blame now, not after he’s fired all of his coordinators.

If it seems rash to be talking about this three games into the season, recall that we spent all last season saying the obvious: Quinn was getting one more year. This is that year, and there are no surprises left to come if the Falcons aren’t any good. It’s simply too early to give them up for dead—hello, muddled NFC South!—but they also simply can’t afford too many early season losses.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Julio Jones, for a tremendous effort that included that highly impressive late touchdown. In a game full of blemishes, he was the only star without any that i saw.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are momentum-free, as that gutsy win over the Eagles ended up proving meaningless with the flat first half and ultimate loss this week. It’s week-to-week from now on, with no real reason to believe they’re building anything until they, well, build it.

Next Week

The Titans, who have had woeful quarterback play and look incredibly sloppy...but still might head into this game as a favorite. Check out Music City Miracles for more.

Final Word