The Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be this good all along. Their dominant win over a quality Raiders team was a reminder of exactly how talented this team is and could be, and while that’s bittersweet, it’s always nice to be reminded that we did not imagine that this team was capable of brief moments of greatness.
The Falcons killed Las Vegas. A 6-4 team coming into the year, the Raiders had played the Chiefs to a near standstill and were a virtual lock to at least play a solid game against Atlanta, but instead they failed mightily in every phase of the game. The Falcons looked at their dispiriting loss against the Saints and not only rallied, but utterly dominated once they got past some early offensive struggles. That’s something that was not a guarantee in seasons past, but the changeover in coaching and personnel appears to have made a difference.
Again, it was a fresh reminder of what this team is capable of even when they are not their best offensively, as they rarely have been in 2020. Raheem Morris has not been a perfect coach by any stretch of the imagination, but his ability to get a team down key players motivated and performing should not go overlooked with where this team has been in recent weeks. Remember, the Falcons just lost in more or less the same humiliating way to the Saints as they did a year ago, but they came out against Las Vegas looking absolutely killer without Julio Jones and (eventually) Olamide Zaccheaus and others.
The Falcons put up just 18 offensive points and were a solid but unspectacular team in that regard all day, managing a solid ground game with Brian Hill and Ito Smith but nothing great through the air. Instead, they won by forcing a ton of turnovers and capitalizing on them, putting together perhaps their strongest defensive performance of the year with Takk McKinley gone and Vic Beasley long gone. They did so by being better-coached and more willing to give opportunities to players like Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Steven Means, players who might have been buried a bit in years past, and that in and of itself was a welcome moment. Given that Las Vegas has been putting up big point and yardage totals in recent weeks, this was nothing short of a small miracle for Atlanta.
The Falcons don’t figure to get their happy ending in 2020, not with the difficulty of the schedule ahead and the team’s obvious desire to hit the reset button. Every win against a solid opponent is a reminder that the talent here isn’t beyond hope or beyond development, though, and that the Falcons could’ve been so much more in this deeply weird season if things had gone a little differently. Because we can’t change it, I’ll celebrate the odd blowout win, and hope they can manage 1-2 more against the Saints and Buccaneers so we can wrap this one up on a semi-high note.
On to the full recap.
- Brandon Powell hasn’t been my favorite returner, but as a receiver he’s proven very capable in limited opportunities, with two touchdowns on the season on very limited targets. On a day where very few players stood out on offense, that was nice to see.
- Brian Hill and Ito Smith combined for 110 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, a rock solid performance that was a reminder of what might’ve been. I’ve been happy to have Todd Gurley on the team for any number of reasons, but Hill and Smith are both capable backs who could’ve held up just fine under a full workload in 2020, and this is further proof of that. I was particularly happy to see Ito rolling despite his very limited workload thus far this year.
- The first defensive sequence for Atlanta was extremely impressive despite a defensive holding call that created a 1st and 5. They swarmed to the ball and refused to let Derek Carr get clean looks or let his receiving options pick up any extra yards, and after Jon Gruden showed extreme disrespect for the Falcons D, they stopped a 4th and 1 attempt cold. That’s the energy I want to see forever.
We got to see more of it. On the next two drives, the Falcons caused a fumble and caused a punt, putting pressure on Derek Carr and forcing a bunch of short throws they were able to clean up with good awareness and tackling. The Falcons would put that kind of pressure on Carr all game, and it led to a number of decisive turnovers that helped deliver a blowout win.
- Foye Oluokun is so good it makes me legitimately happy, no easy feat in the here and now. The breakout linebacker smashed Derek Carr in the first quarter for a sack and also forced a fumble that Jacob Tuioti-Mariner was able to collect to put the Falcons within striking distance of a score. He had a number of big plays throughout the game, as well, and continues to burnish his reputation as this team’s most consistent non-Grady Jarrett defender.
- Tuioti-Mariner needs to be re-signed in 2021. In this one, he recovered two fumbles and picked up a sack, and he’s a player who always puts in maximum effort and shows at least the kind of talent that makes you a useful part of a rotation. Considering he came up from the Falcons practice squad and is playing this well, he’s one of this team’s true developmental success stories and deserves to be recognized as such.
- Deion Jones isn’t always great on a play-by-play basis, but his highs are atmospheric. In this one, he had a solid game overall and also read Derek Carr like a Reader’s Digest, picking him and returning it over 60 yards for a touchdown. Few players in Falcons history have such a knack for the big, game-changing play, and that more than anything makes Jones worth keeping for his entire career.
- You have to give it up to a number of defenders who have been overlooked all year. Steven Means got his sack at last and re-affirmed that he is one of the team’s most relentless pursuers, even if it doesn’t always show up in the stats. John Cominsky had both a sack and a tackle for loss, an affirmation of his talent. And heck, Jaylinn Hawkisn and Tyeler Davison split a sack, a reminder that the rookie safety and the veteran defensive tackle are still very capable of quality play.
I’d still shout out the familiar faces, because besides a miscue or two A.J. Terrell was again very solid, Darqueze Dennard remains a tough and capable corner, and Jarrett enables so much through sheer talent and force of will. Just seeing this defense play well is a joy in and of itself.
- Younghoe Koo remains ice cold, nails, etc. He put the first points of the day on the board again on one right down the middle and hit his second attempt before finally missing owing to to a roughing the kicker call. He went a perfect 5 for 5 on field goal attempts for the day.
Even after his injury, Koo came into the game and nailed his chances. He’s the all-time leader in field goal percentage at the moment, and frankly he deserves to be. The Falcons have been insanely lucky to have Matt Bryant and Koo more or less consecutively, but that is a fresh reminder they cannot let Koo go.
- Olamide Zaccheaus has been one of the team’s better reserve receivers this year, but he had a nightmarish start to this one. He dropped one that was basically in his hands in the end zone in the first quarter and then fell down in the end zone one play later on another Ryan target, which led to Atlanta settling for a field goal. As good as he’s been at time, that’s the kind of ugly sequence that has a coaching staff scheming looks for other players.
- He wasn’t alone, though. There were unusual bobbles from Hayden Hurst, including a back-breaking one while being contacted late in the first quarter that led to a Matt Ryan interception.
- Matt Ryan was the victim of some truly ugly and inexplicable plays, but there are times he needs to throw the ball away to avoid losing yardage and just...doesn’t. One example was a 2nd and long in the second quarter where he tried to scramble with a defender homing in on him instead of simply throwing it away, a play where he lost yards for no reasons. The Falcons have enough problems on offense without Ryan making decisions he does not need to.
- I would feel bad beating the dead Dirk Koetter horse every week if it wasn’t so, so relevant. Over and over again, we see him burning first and second downs on unproductive runs and calling plays on third down that take too long to develop and doom drives, which is a problem when your defense is actually keeping a talented Raiders team in check and you could be running away with things. The fact that the Falcons did, in fact, run away with it does not let Koetter and company off the hook for a solid but unspectacular day against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL. They’ll have to be better next week against the Saints to stand a chance.
I’d gladly hand this one to the defense, given that they held the Raiders to just six points, or to Koo for accounting for enough points on his own to beat Las Vegas. You can’t go wrong either way.
As frustrating as it is, the Falcons have enough talent to break the brakes off a solid team, and they did it without the offense performing at close to full capacity.
The Saints again. Let Atlanta figure something out so they can clamp down on Taysom Hill and put together this kind of performance.