This week was an emotional rollercoaster for Atlanta, which saw two players hit the reserve/COVID-list, Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff fired with all the resulting coaching staff changes that followed, and a trip to Minnesota down both their defensive line coaches. That’s a lot of change in one week for any organizations, and for the Falcons it figured to either be galvanizing or deflating.
It proved to be the former. Atlanta still had familiar miscues and foibles along the way, but they looked like a very different football team in this one. Matt Ryan was sharper, the defense was startlingly good, and players like Julio Jones and Russell Gage who were injured or struggling in recent weeks got going. The result was a dominant effort from a team with very few of those in recent years, and Raheem Morris’s first win in his first try as the new head coach of this Falcons team.
Minnesota has been ugly this year, which is something that does need to be noted. We’ll need to see the Falcons string together more than one good effort to think things have changed dramatically, but at the very least this was a reminder of the kind of effort the Falcons are capable of, a reminder that was sorely needed after the first five weeks of the season. Showing their talent is a big deal for the next regime, at minimum, and it’s a big deal for players who want to stick around of course Raheem Morris, who is going to be hoping for a head coaching gig here or somewhere else in the offseason. Absolutely trucking a team like the Vikings, especially given how excellent Minnesota had been against them in recent years, makes the win all the more sweet.
Let’s be fair and honest: This was not an accidental win, either. Atlanta didn’t just build a lead, they also kept it. They didn’t let off the gas when they were up by a ton of points, they kept going. They didn’t let a handful of communication issues and coverage failures and awful play calls stop them, either, with bad plays and bad drives being followed by excellent ones. For the first time since the win over the 49ers last season, this team felt like exactly what it was supposed to be coming in to the 2019 season. We’ve waited a long time for that team to show up, given that it’s happened something like 3-4 times in the past two seasons. I enjoyed a Sunday for a change.
In the weeks ahead, if the Falcons keep this up it’s going to present a variety of interesting questions for the next group that comes in here, given that Raheem Morris was able to get this out of the team almost immediately, and they looked good on both offense and defense. Dan Quinn was someone who was easy to root for because everyone would tell you he’s a terrific person, but the difference between a Morris-coached team and Quinn-coached team was so striking it deserves to be called out, even if it was just a single game. All that’s left is to see whether this was a one game blip or a sign that the Falcons are truly turning some kind of corner, even if it’s far too late for them to actually contend. There will be draft position implications and Morris’s future in Atlanta to grapple with soon enough, but with the easiest stretch of the schedule approaching and the Falcons suddenly looking game, let’s try to just sit back and watch some good football, if indeed we get it.
On to the full recap.
- The very first play of the game was a Kirk Cousins interception right at Deion Jones, one of the more befuddling throws we’ve seen from Cousins this year, despite him throwing a lot of picks along the way. Debo makes crazy interceptions routinely, but that was an easy opportunity and he did not miss it, getting Atlanta in scoring position. It set the tone for the rest of the day.
- Matt Ryan looked a lot sharper in this one, consistently zipping throws in to well-covered receivers and avoiding the kinds of mistakes that had doomed him in recent weeks. He also made several plays on the run, including a couple of traditionally fun Ryan scrambles and a play where he was able to extend things using his legs until Julio Jones fought open down the sideline and was able to take it all the way to the house. The biggest reason to believe that Ryan gets at least one year as a bridge quarterback under the new regime is that he’s still plenty capable of days like this, which are more than good enough to pilot a team to victory, and in the case of today, history-making.
Expect him to be pretty strong the rest of the way. The questions about his status as the franchise guy are going to be there regardless, but every effort like this that shows he’s still a very good quarterback in a capable offense makes that question seem a bit less urgent.
- As good as Ryan has been throughout his career, there’s little point in denying that Julio Jones has been a key factor in his success. Seeing him return to the field and seeing that coincide with a 40 point effort by the offense feels like it’s more than just a coincidence, especially when Julio put up 137 yards and 2 touchdowns all by himself. He’s quite simply a rare talent, capable of bringing coverage in like a black hole and making everything easier for everyone else on the field and still getting loose for big gains.
With Julio returning to the field, the degree of difficulty got easier for the other receiving options on the field, and they responded with great days. Russell Gage went 4/65, Hayden Hurst went 4/57/1, and Calvin Ridley went 6/61/1. If Julio’s healthy, it helps everyone else.
- A.J. Terrell’s tackling was maybe the biggest knock on his game coming out of college, as he was a capable but inconsistent player in that regard at Clemson. It’s nice to see him putting some of those concerns, which carried over to the early regular season, to rest against the Vikings. On the second Vikings drive of the game, he made a pair of excellent open field tackles to help shut down the drive. If this Falcons defense is going to be great any time soon, Terrell being great will help, and the early returns are promising.
Oh, and he had a stellar second quarter interception. Ho hum.
- Back to Debo. The Deion Jones doubt grew to something just short of a fever pitch in recent weeks as he looked sluggish in the first five weeks of the season, but this game was a reminder of just how special Debo can be. He recovered an onside kick, made huge run stops, thrived in coverage, picked a pass, and just was generally one of the best players on the field. I don’t know where this was in earlier weeks, but Jones can swing a game by himself and showed it again in this one.
- Defensively, the Falcons looked like a different team early on in this one, flying to the ball and making tackles and exhibiting a level of aggression we just haven’t seen from them in a long time. They kept that energy up in the second quarter, coming up with an impressive and tough as nails stop on the goal line that forced a turnover on downs. They managed three interceptions in this one and flashed so much more than they have in recent weeks, and if this keeps up after that first week post-firing bounce, it’s going to be awfully encouraging for the team heading into 2021.
- Don’t underestimate this effort. The Falcons were 0-5 heading into this week and had lost their beloved head coach, the guy they were supposedly trying so hard to save every week. To go out there after that coach was fired and with little else to play for and beat a Vikings team that had crushed them in the Dan Quinn era by such a significant margin is hardly a small deal, and it speaks well to the team’s ability to rally and Raheem Morris that they were able to do this on Sunday. For one week at least, they showed us what they were capable of.
- Dirk Koetter will do a good job for at least half of a game and still call some of the most boneheaded plays you’ve ever seen. Exhibit A in this one was the first quarter 3rd and 7 run up the middle with Brian Hill, which stood zero chance of succeeding and did not succeed, leading to a Younghoe Koo field goal. When the Vikings defense started to really get pressure, the adjustments simply weren’t there. This was a very good week for Koetter on balance but I will remain wary of his acumen until this team starts stringing weeks like this together.
- The Falcons ran the ball 27 times in an effort to wear down Minnesota’s defense and keep them off balance, and while I think that worked to a certain extent it was probably a few too many tries. They only managed 99 yards on those carries, making for a ho hum day, and Todd Gurley in particular seemed to almost never get the blocking he needed.
- Covering tight ends is not this team’s strong suit, and once the Vikings figured that out, they started moving right along. The Falcons were able to stop the bleeding, but it’s a long-term priority for this team to try to take away that obvious weakness for literally every team they face.
- Um, things weren’t perfect? Look, when you score 40 against a team you lost the previous four games against and beat them handily, I’m not exactly going to be full of complaints.
Going to give this to Julio, who came back and seemingly immediately transformed the offense. The addition of Julio got more out of Matt Ryan, but Julio also had a massive day himself, reeling in two touchdowns and several tough receptions to push the team toward victory.
The Falcons may really have had a coaching problem, one that endured despite the praise everyone had for Dan Quinn. Winning 40-23 with a garbage time touchdown against Minnesota, a struggling team that nonetheless had Atlanta’s number, is a statement in and of itself, and any kind of continuation of that will give us a lot more hope for the next coaching staff.