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Falcons - Lions recap: The Falcons can’t overcome bad decisions and bad fortune again

Atlanta cannot avoid losing, no matter what the odds say.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons didn’t make anything about Sunday easy. This was a return to form for a team that blew the Minnesota Vikings off the field, and that was dispiriting in its own way given how unspectacular Detroit has been this year. When Atlanta ultimately lost the game, it was a disappointing outcome for a game where ESPN suggested they had a 98%+ chance of winning, but not necessarily a shocking outcome.

Atlanta repeatedly declined to make the big play they needed to, even if they impressively held Detroit in check through much of the game. The officiating crew bungled every play the Lions could’ve asked them to, and still the Falcons aided them. The decision to go for it later on rather than kick the field goal was justifiable, given that the Falcons already 1-5 and dead in the water, yet ultimately ended up costing them the game when paired in hindsight.

I thought Raheem Morris did a stellar job of getting the Falcons ready for the Vikings, but the need for widespread change in the organization was so apparent against the Lions all over again. The one week of strong start-to-finish football that gave some of us hope either that the team would pull out of a death spiral or (in my case) hang in there and play good football games on their way to the end of the year will likely prove to be a blip, albeit one they’ll likely repeat when you least expect it. Once again, the Falcons managed their time poorly. made exactly the wrong decision at exactly the wrong time, and wound up losing the game. At this point, Detroit winning in the final seconds was less a surprise than something we all just had to steel ourselves against.

Short of the kind of full scale exorcism the Falcons deserve, or at least the potentially transformative offseason ahead, Atlanta appears doomed to pair poor decision-making (like Todd Gurley plunging into the end zone instead of taking the first down and falling down) with ruinously bad luck (a truly terrible series of officiating mistakes that lasted almost the entire game) and more staid, familiar errors (like allowing Detroit march downfield on the game’s final drive). Atlanta managed to not kick a field goal when they needed to and managed to score a touchdown when they didn’t need to, and however justifiable that seemed at the time for a 1-5 football team, it cost them in the end.

Blaming everything on Gurley’s plunge or an aggressive move by Morris doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, because they also had just three scoring drives all game and averaged something like 2 yards per carry against a suddenly stout Detroit run defense. Defensively, they held up well for long stretches of the game but nonetheless allowed big catches to tight ends in particular when they were needed, including very late in the game. It was a whole team loss that once again was close enough to swing on a couple of plays.

And perhaps this is the story of this Atlanta Falcons football team, when all is said and done. They are incapable of making the right decisions at the right time and so utterly doomed by excitement and poor luck that the wrong decisions become fatal. This Detroit game, where officiating and last second plays mattered so much, feels like a microcosm for a team that had a narrow margin of error and refused to navigate effectively within it. May the next regime bring us something new and ultimately more fruitful regardless of who is involved with it, because I am weary in my bones of this.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • The defense responded early. A big run stop by Takk McKinley and Grady Jarrett on second down on the Lions’ first drive led to a loss, and then Keanu Neal delivered a huge tackle of tight end Isaac Nauta on third down to stop Detroit cold in their tracks. The Falcons would, despite a lack of a quality pass rush throughout much of the game, come up with quite a few stops, and it’s easier to hang this one on an offense that scored 14 points until very late in the game than a defense that held Detroit to 13 until very late in the game. Of course, the final drive is the final drive, and we’ll get to that.
  • Hayden Hurst had the kind of game we were all hoping for when he was signed, making three catches in the first quarter alone, one of which was a huge, heads-up effort on a slightly underthrown ball Calvin Ridley couldn’t snag but bounced into the air. He also converted on a 4th and 1 on his fourth catch of the game and made tough catches all day, ending up with 68 yards on 6 catches and looking like a major part of the passing game.
  • I wouldn’t say Calvin Ridley had his best game, but that’s more because the bar is so high than anything else. He made tough catches when he needed to and snagged a touchdown late in the second quarter to put the Falcons up. Even if the results are uneven—his drop of a slightly underthrown Matt Ryan ball was the reason Hurst even had an opportunity to make a heads up play—his talent is so potent that it almost always shines through when he has a full game.
  • Julio, meanwhile, continues to shine even when he’s having a relatively quiet game by his lofty standards. The number of tough catches he made in this one was impressive, and he’s now 29th all-time in receptions, having passed Larry Centers with his 8th grab of the day.
  • As you might imagine, the passing game wasn’t pretty good by accident. Matt Ryan had another strong day marred only by a couple of bad throws and a fumble we have to talk about below. After a slow start, he engineered two long touchdown drives and was well on his way to another before Todd Gurley got annihilated thanks to awful blocking and lost 6 yards on 2nd down, setting the Falcons up for a 4th and 5 play call that somehow featured Ryan having to throw over a defender to Ito Smith. He extended multiple plays with his feet, once again fed his best receivers, and did so despite an inconsistent day from the offensive line overall. It wasn’t his finest effort of the season, but it was a good one.
  • The Falcons managed to escape the game without major injuries to Alex Mack or Russell Gage, despite both injuries seeming significant at the moment. With the season well and truly lost, the last thing I want to see is players angling for roles and contracts hurt and struggling to prove their worth heading into 2021. Gage made several tough catches down the stretch, too.
  • Give Dirk Koetter and this offense some credit. After three straight punts to start the game, the Falcons got moving on a pair of very long drives, ones where the passing game was unbelievably on point despite the struggles of the ground game. Those two long drives were works of art, even if this team ultimately left way too many points on the field over the life of the game, and the Falcons came close to scoring on another one. Consistency and a refusal to adjust to changing circumstances—like, say, the Lions run defense being far better than expected—continue to be the team’s offensive Achilles heel.
  • Keanu Neal is getting better by the week. In this one, he had multiple big hits and a sack on Matthew Stafford early in the third quarter, plus a hit on Kenny Golladay that would’ve popped the ball loose on other receivers. He may not be the best safety the team has in coverage, but in run support and as a pass rusher, he’s a lethal player.
  • Give Deion Jones credit for another strong game, including an incredible blitz where he was on Matthew Stafford within .07 seconds for a sack. He remains a building block for the next staff, and it’s nice to be reminded of that increasingly in recent weeks.
  • Dante Fowler Jr. continue to struggle to deliver as a pass rusher, something that is a genuine frustration. Despite that, he’s been increasingly useful as a run defender, with a couple of nice stops in this one. I’ll take good play where it comes.
  • A.J. Terrell was terrific in coverage, did quality work as a pass rusher (despite the truly abysmal call against him), and was helpful in run support. The Falcons still have to figure out who their #2 cornerback is over the long haul, but Terrell is settling in nicely as exactly the kind of top-flight cornerback Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn believed he could be.
  • The Falcons have the opportunity to truly reset things. With each loss like this, my desire to see a re-imagining of this Atlanta squad grows, because while there are many truly bad teams across the NFL, they do not excel at giving you some small measure of hope and grinding it to dust the way the Falcons manage to do each week. I just hope the Falcons make the smart hires the next time to put this on the path to consistent winning, because there’s no question they need to somehow figure out a way to hold on to leads and make smart decisions down the stretch, or at least go the Pete Carroll Seahawks route and cover up consistently poor time management with enough talent to win anyways. If I never see this team lose a game where a loss seems impossible in the final minute or two, it’ll be too soon.

The Ugly

  • On a day where the Falcons figured to feast on the ground, the Lions run defense built on their Week 6 domination of the Jaguars and absolutely stalled the Atlanta ground game. It was an effort that honestly surprised me, but it was consistent throughout the first half, with Brian Hill and Todd Gurley finding virtually no success against the front seven. The run blocking was largely unimpressive all day.
  • Matt Ryan does not fumble all that often, but the number of costly third down fumbles on sacks that he’s surrendered over the last decade is higher than either he or I would like. Ryan had a very solid game on balance, with only a couple of questionable throws and one truly impressive play where he evaded two defenders and threw a dart for a first down, but you can’t tell the story of this game without the fumble that set up Detroit’s go-ahead field goal. I remain unworried about him in general but he’s got to be able to hold on to the ball when that late game pass rush is coming in hot.
  • Based on Morris saying the plan was for Gurley to get down on the 1 yard line so the Falcons could chew what remained of the clock, the generally productive back gets some blame for scoring on a play when Atlanta clearly did not want to score. He said he was “mad as hell” about the mistake after the game, and if the plan was to fall down and run down the clock for a field goal and little time left for the Lions to attempt a game-winning drive, there’s little question the decision to keep those legs churning after he already had the yard he needed and then some was a mistake.

But we should also recognize that this team has a bad habit of putting one player in the position to be the guy the finger gets pointed at, and that the team had alternatives to putting it on a competitive back to remember to fall at exactly the wrong moment. It is not easy for players who fight to score at all costs to suddenly not try to do so, especially when instinct seemed to take over when a Lions defender (unwisely) attempted to actually bring Gurley down after the first down marker.

  • The refs absolutely screwed the Falcons in the first quarter when A.J. Terrell sacked Matthew Stafford. Terrell somehow earned a roughing the passer call despite pretty cleanly bringing Stafford down, which led to an easy De’Andre Swift touchdown on the very next play. I have seen many, many bad roughing the passer calls over the years given how unevenly it’s called, but watching a corner much smaller than Stafford take him down on what appeared to be an entirely appropriate hit was one of the absolute worst applications of it I have ever seen, full stop. I’m never one to pin a loss solely on a poor call, but you can’t tell the story of this defeat without noting that Detroit may have never been in a position to win in the first place without that early touchdown.

Then it continued, with the Falcons getting called for another borderline roughing the passer and then getting called for a celebration penalty when Steven Means accidentally knocked Dante Fowler Jr.’s helmet off after his big fourth down stop in the second quarter. Or you can take the borderline 12th man on the field call against Deion Jones, where I thought he had stepped off the field, which proved to be awfully costly as well.

This was not the case of a biased crew—they also inexplicably screwed up a spot on the Lions final drive, cheerfully moving a ball down on the Atlanta 8 yard line back to the 11 for no apparent reason—but it was the case of a poor one.

  • The Falcons wasted so many drives in this game. The first three were the most obvious example, but this team is capable of stretches of brilliance and can’t achieve even most consistency many weeks. Up 14-13, the Falcons blew chances to give Detroit another shot at taking the lead, which they fortunately did not manage to allow on defense. Koetter continues to be capable of brilliance on individual drives but rarely capable of brilliant full games. Against a very mediocre Lions defense, a team as talented as the Falcons should never score 14 points until late in the fourth quarter, and going for the field goal may have been the difference between a huge lead and a 6 point lead.
  • Raheem Morris seems to have motivated this defense, but it hardly makes a difference when the end outcome is a loss. The Falcons knew they had just a short time left to stop the Lions at the very end of the game and wound up not being able to do so, a failure at every level of the defense that will haunt Morris for a long, long time. When the pressure hits you that heavily and you fall apart regardless, no one can entirely escape blame for it.

But the defense never should’ve been in that position in the first place. I completely understood the Falcons being aggressive through the game, given that they were 1-5 coming into it, but extremely late with a 1 point lead all they needed to do was run down the clock and get a field goal to give Detroit an absolutely impossible situation. Instead, Todd Gurley got a little hot to score, the Falcons put up a touchdown when they absolutely did not need to, and the Falcons wound up giving the Lions plenty of time to pull off a comeback that would have been nigh impossible for most teams.

That failure was set up by other decisions Morris and company made earlier in the game. The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz called them a “cartoon” in his latest column and that was justified based on the decision to go for it on 4th and 5 with the kind of play call only Dirk Koetter can pull off, There was the aggressive but difficult-to-defend in hindsight challenge of Kenny Golladay’s sideline grab, and the decision to not just kneel and bleed clock rather than call the crucial Gurley run.

Those decisions were choices that set players up to fail, and unfortunately that’s exactly what they did, whether it was Gurley or Ryan or whoever was supposed to be covering a wide open T.J. Hockenson at the very end of the game. You can sometimes survive a coaching error with perfect execution and you can sometimes overcome shaky play by making exactly the right call as a coach, but when one begets or complements another, forget it.

I like Raheem Morris a lot, if that wasn’t already clear, but the Falcons need to transform the front office, coaching staff, and roster to the greatest degree possible in the offseason, because they regularly allow seemingly impossible outcomes to opposing teams. If nothing else, I would like very much not to be on the wrong end of that. Maybe Morris and company can pull of the kind of inspiring wins that make us forget all about this week, but for Falcons fans, a long memory is a survival instinct.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I can’t give this to anyone because I am so disgusted with the way this Falcons team loses. I just genuinely do not want to see them loss in agonizing, last second fashion like this any longer, and it’s awfully tough to pick a most valuable player in a game that the team loses like this.

One Takeaway

The Falcons put to rest any notion that last season losses were the sole province of Dan Quinn, something that’s probably a small comfort to the entire organization or Dan Quinn.

Next Week

It’s a short week and then the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, with the Falcons looking for revenge after an anemic offensive effort. Follow Cat Scratch Reader for more.

Final Word