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Falcons - Panthers Thursday Night Football recap: Aggressive Atlanta tops conservative Carolina

On a night where the Panthers rarely took the shots they needed to, the Falcons took advantage.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

To say the Falcons came into their Thursday Night Football matchup against the Panthers without a lot of hype would be to severely understate things. Fresh off yet another blown lead and up against a Panthers team that had already beaten them once, I think the hope from many Falcons fans was that we’d simply see a good game one way or the other.

What we got was rarely pretty and may or may not have qualified as good from your perspective, but it was certainly a win. A surprisingly listless Carolina team found themselves facing a surprisingly game Atlanta defense, one that held the Panthers to just 17 points and proved decisive to the outcome. Pair that with a fine day from the passing attack and Julio Jones regularly torching the Carolina secondary, plus Younghoe Koo breezing a few field goals in, and you had the team’s second victory of the year.

Projecting the future for this Falcons team is silly right after a game like this, where the potholes were as wide as the road in some spots before giving way to a freshly paved four lane highway, but the talent and ability to gut out wins is still there even if it has been frustratingly lacking for much of the past two seasons. The most encouraging thing from the past three weeks has been the defense going from abysmal to at least somewhat capable, and even if I’m not exactly ready to trust them with a late lead on a weekly basis, I’m not instantly panicked if they find themselves in that situation. At the very least, heading off a rare sweep from Carolina and maybe avoiding the basement of the NFC South will never make me feel bad.

And that’s the thing: As much of a roller coaster as this game was, it still is enjoyable to watch the Atlanta Falcons win a football game. They now have plenty of time to prepare for a weak Broncos squad and we have plenty of time to daydream about the future in Atlanta, so it’s a nice reprieve for everybody. It’s equally nice not to feel incredibly sour about this team with that 10 day break, and I know from Matt Ryan’s enthusiastic postgame comments that this team feels good about having something to build on.

On to the full recap!

The Good

  • Dirk Koetter can be an awfully strong offensive coordinator between the 20s, and this offense has more than enough firepower to accommodate that. On the first drive of this one, Matt Ryan got the team into the red zone on three swift passes to Julio Jones, Julio Jones, and Hayden Hurst, three pretty passes to wide open receivers that made you feel good about what was ahead. It went south in the red zone, as it always does, but I had fun for a few seconds there, and Koetter did manage to keep the passing game humming much of the night. More on that momentarily.
  • Matt Ryan scrambling fills me with joy, especially when this genuinely impressive athlete but not visibly impressive athlete makes defenses look foolish. That was the case on his second quarter touchdown scramble, when nobody came close to tackling him.

Ryan also had a crisp, effective night through the air in general, even if his numbers don’t pop off the stat sheet at you. He kept the offense moving

  • The passing game is rounding into form in such an impressive way that the team’s reliance on obvious runs is starting to once again feel like a massive liability. Matt Ryan threw one off-kilter interception that proved costly, but was otherwise extremely sharp throughout the night. The hero of the evening was inevitably Julio Jones, who reeled in 7 catches for 137 yards and torched the Carolina secondary regularly early and often enough late to help Atlanta secure the win. With Calvin Ridley unfortunately injured, that kind of performance was necessary, and as is often the case #11 delivered.
  • It was not the finest night for the ground game, but while Todd Gurley had one impressive run and a nice touchdown plunge, Brian Hill quietly delivered. With Ito Smith a healthy scratch for some reason and Gurley curiously resting a lot in the first half, Hill carried the load quite often and remains a useful complementary back at worst.
  • Hayden Hurst is making impressive catches a weekly thing now. In this one in the second quarter, he somehow turned around while running and scooped a pass out of the dirt that survived a challenge. I look forward to seeing how he can top it next time out.
  • Grady Jarrett’s work in the middle of the Falcons defense enables almost every great play they manage, as few and far between as those might be. He had a nice run stop late in the first quarter and his work occupying blockers allowed Isaiah Oliver and Foye Oluokun to blow into the backfield and sack Teddy Bridgewater on a crucial first down later that same drive. Jarrett’s work against opposing ground games and his ability to both deliver pressure and enable it makes him this team’s best defender, and it’s not particularly close.
  • Deion Jones has been having a lot of success as a pass rusher in recent weeks, which makes sense given his speed and slipperiness. His best one yet came late in the fourth quarter on 2nd and 10, when Jones slipped through two blockers to bring down Teddy Bridgewater for a 7 yard loss. He’s had an uneven year on balance, but his highs are as high as anyone.
  • Keanu Neal had a couple of miscues, but this was a vintage game from him in so many other ways. He delivered huge hits that caused fumbles (except they weren’t catches), blitzed and knocked down Bridgewater, and generally was active and restless all game long. I have no idea whether the Falcons plan to bring him back in 2021, but if he’s going to play like the Keanu Neal of yore the rest of the way, they probably should.
  • Blidi Wreh-Wilson got to be the hero in this one. Wreh-Wilson has had a bit of a mixed year in relief at cornerback, but on balance during his Atlanta career he’s been a rock solid reserve with a knack for coming up with a big play every now and then. Here, it was a heads-up interception where he read Teddy Bridgewater like a book and made a leaping interception to win the game. My hat’s off to a guy who hopefully will keep coming back to serve as a needed veteran presence in this secondary.
  • Overall, the defense was a hell of a lot stronger in this one than they were the last time out. Bridgewater wasn’t able to make uncontested throws all day long because the team got more pressure than the last time out, and the ground game remained a problem but became less of one later as the Falcons got rolling and Carolina needed to pass to catch up. The team allowed just 179 passing yards and managed three sacks on the night—one by Jones, one by Dante Fowler, and one by Isaiah Oliver—and on balance it was probably the most impressive performance of the season for them. Better later than never, and it does appear that the interim coaching staff is getting more out of this defense than we were seeing previously.
  • Younghoe Koo was essential to the effort while the Falcons were busy not finishing drives, and he wound up hitting four field goals on a night where the team needed every single one of them.

But yes, he missed an extra point, his third of the season. I’m happy to blame the conditions for that one but it’s the one blemish on an otherwise strong resume this year.

The Ugly

  • The first drive was real pretty until the Falcons got into the red zone, and then bad habits reared their ugly heads. The Falcons elected to tighten up the formation on third down, which led to a Todd Gurley run up the middle that fell short of a first down. The Falcons looked like they would try to remedy that by going for it, but then Raheem Morris took a timeout and elected to stick with the field goal, likely still emotionally damaged from the loss to the Lions. Given that the team never should be tightening things up on 3rd and short with their weapons and that going for it on 4th and inches near the goal line is a smart decision, you can’t be happy about any of that.

This is the Dirk Koetter experience in general: He is capable of great moments but rarely great games, delivering brilliant play call sandwiched by a lot of lackluster drives and poor decisions. It’s not going to get better with time, because Koetter has had plenty of it.

  • It was difficult for me, at least, to blame Todd Gurley for the loss last week. Yes, he scored when he shouldn’t have, but momentum and instinct probably explains a lot of that. In this one, though, the Falcons were trying to burn some clock on 3rd and 14 and handed Gurley the ball, and he picked up about five yards and...went out of bounds to stop the clock. It’s fair to say that as good as Gurley is and can be, he’s not necessarily making the decisions this offense needs him to make the past couple of weeks.
  • Mike Davis probably qualifies as a Falcons killer at this point, but as many pointed out last night, there are a great many players who qualify for that title. Davis and the Panthers ground game effortlessly ripped through the Atlanta run defense outside of one nice stop from Keanu Neal on the game’s first drive, and that resulted in a very easy score. The Falcons defense sort of defied expectations in this one, getting most of their dumb and lackluster play out of the way in the first half before largely clamping down later. I’ll certainly take that going forward, but I’d prefer fewer dumb and ugly plays in the first place.
  • I don’t think Dante Fowler is a dirty player, but the trip on Teddy Bridgewater by Fowler in the third quarter was a dirty play, albeit one where it’s difficult to decide whether it was deliberate or not. It was also one that was made far worse by Charles Harris hitting Bridgewater as he went to the ground and apparently knocking him out of the game. Harris was ejected from the game and that was a genuinely ugly, dispiriting sequence for the defense, which got a quarterback hurt with not one but two ill-advised decisions on a single play.

My gut says Fowler made an unthinking move and Harris didn’t mean to hit Bridgewater that way, but the refs weren’t particularly moved by intent. Given that Fowler also got popped for an offsides in the fourth quarter, it was another lackluster game for a guy who has yet to live up to his contract.

  • The secondary was better on balance in this one, but there’s at least one big pass per game you wish they could get back, and this one belonged to a player who has otherwise been very solid this year in A.J. Terrell. He allowed a huge gain because he tried to play D.J. Moore a bit too tight, and a nice ball by Teddy Bridgewater combined with that mishap put the Panthers into the position to try and tie the game before Bridgewater’s fateful pick to Wreh-Wilson.
  • The fake punt attempt was a vintage mishap where Atlanta bit completely and allowed a 28 yard gain and easy conversion. That’s a special teams failure, one that pales in comparison to the failure to pick up the onside kick earlier in the year but one the Falcons need to learn from. It was also one of the most aggressive moves of the game for a curiously conservative Carolina offense.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

You could hand this to Julio Jones for his excellence through the air, Matt Ryan for his scrambling and strong day as a passer, or guys like Grady Jarrett or Foye Oluokun for their terrific work overall. I’m going to hand it to Wreh-Wilson for that fateful interception, though, because it kept us from having to talk about another fourth quarter collapse for Atlanta.

One Takeaway

This team remains maddening and incapable of simply putting opponents away most weeks, but they’re still good enough to win some games in spite of that. It’s just hard to know when they’re going to show up.

Next Week

After a very long layoff between now and November 8th, the Falcons will be back in action against the hapless Denver Broncos. Visit the excellent Mile High Report to learn more about that upcoming opponent.

Final Word

I’lltakeit.