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Falcons - Broncos recap: Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag Denver to victory

The Falcons dominated in every phase of the game, minus a few hiccups.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons came into this game knowing full well that the Denver Broncos were their easiest opponent the rest of the way. They finally treated this game like it was a must win and a game they could handle, and the result was a win that was rarely in doubt...until late.

Raheem Morris is now 3-1, but the greatest argument against him remains this team’s continued inability to salt away games where they’re winning by a preposterous amount. The Falcon managed to go up by 21 points in this one, but in the end they won by 7 only because they blessedly recovered the onside kick. That was enough for Denver, but it goes without saying that it’s probably not going to be enough against some of the other powerhouses coming up on Atlanta’s schedule.

That’s a sour note because I don’t want anyone to think the Falcons have turned a corner they probably have not turned, lest you head into the tough stretch after the bye thinking Altanta’s guaranteed to start rolling. I say it also because the rest of the game was enjoyable, and the team’s habit of mucking things up late was the only thing that really interfered with a relaxing Sunday. It’s clear enough that holding on to a big lead is something that will remain a work in progress in Atlanta for a while yet.

The Falcons, after all, did get a 21 point lead. They were largely sharper on offense and defense than they had been in recent weeks, scoring over 30 points and holding Denver in check until very late. Matt Ryan was sharp, the offense looked good without Calvin Ridley, and Atlanta’s defense got enough pressure on Drew Lock to shut him down through three quarters of the game. That was enough to win, even if it wasn’t enough to make us feel comfortable.

That’s the rub with this team, especially the rest of the way. Expecting them to deliver the kind of victories that make you feel satisfied by 2:30 on a Sunday is completely unrealistic, especially with the slate becoming considerably more difficult in the very near future. Expecting them to be able to scrape their way to some wins, even against tough competition, feels much more reasonable given the talent on hand. I just hope they can be at least this competitive every week, because they’re a lot more fun to watch...at least, until late in the game. The day I don’t have to worry about a Falcons lead evaporating in the final minutes is the day I can be significantly less stressed watching the Falcons.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan came into this matchup against Denver knowing he wouldn’t be facing the top two corners on the Broncos, and he took full advantage. ALl game long, Ryan made pinpoint throws to guys like Julio and Hayden Hurst, but also Christian Blake, Olamide Zaccheaus, and Brandon Powell. This might have been the sharpest Ryan looked all year, and it bodes very well for this offense if he’s going to be playing at this level and finding his 4th, 5th, and 6th options at receiver. There’s little question that the next staff is going to want to work with him in 2021, at the very least, and that minus the occasional dumb throw or hesitation that gets him killed in the pocket, he’s playing at a very high level.
  • Olamide Zaccheaus was not a big part of the game plan the last few weeks, but he reminded us why he should be in this one. In the first quarter alone, Zaccheaus made a one-handed grab over the middle for the first down and caught a pretty deep ball from Ryan in the end zone for a touchdown. He followed that up with a 42 yard grab down the sideline where he simply burned the corner covering him.

His speed and improving route running should make him the fourth receiver going forward, in my humble opinion, and he has the ability to contribute at a high level in that role. Sunday suggested he might even be able to do more.

  • Julio Jones is simply so good that he occasionally gets open in a way that boggles the mind. In the third quarter of this one, Julio ran a nice route against an overmatched Denver defender and ended up with one of the most wide open catches of his entire career in the end zone. A failure to double up Julio within 30 yards of the end zone deserves exactly that outcome.
  • Hayden Hurst continues to be a valuable short-to-mid-range option for Ryan, as the team has largely shifted away from using him as a deep target and letting him make the catch and use his speed and physicality to push for more yardaeg. He didn’t have a huge game against the Broncos, but he was a target vacuum and a key option for Ryan.
  • The Falcons were depleted at defensive end, so they got the job done in other ways. Foye Oluokun’s secnod quarter blitz of Drew Lock was a thing of beauty, as he simply muscled his way by a blocker and took the quarterback down easily. He’s deserving of a Pro Bowl berth for his work so far this year, and I like his chances of continuing this level of play.
  • A.J. Terrell’s future is obviously bright, but the work he’s doing right now as a rookie is impressive. Early on in this one, tight coverage against Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick helped prevent multiple scores, and Terrell’s ability to sniff out the ball is going to serve him well in the future. The Falcons have barely put Marlon Davidson on the field and everyone aside from Mykal Walker is still finding their way in this draft class, but Terrell looks like an immediate hit and I’m thrilled they have him.
  • Ricardo Allen has largely flown under the radar this year, but tight coverage and an interception will get you noticed. He’s done good work after returning to the starting lineup fulltime, and remains a player who I think ended up being underrated by the fanbase because of a lack of eye-popping plays. With a contract decision looming, Allen is definitely helping himself.
  • Grady Jarrett once again quietly enabled so many great things. He chased Drew Lock, stopped run plays in their tracks, and created the presure necessary to make big plays like Allen’s interception happen. It’s telling that even on a day when the Falcons’ top two defensive ends were out, Atlanta got enough pressure to make an impact on Lock, and you can credit a lot of that to Jarrett.
  • Younghoe Koo’s range was a question mark all last year, as the Falcons basically never let him try kicks beyond 50 yards. It was going to be important that he put that particular question to rest this year if he was going to be the team’s kicker over the long haul, and happily he has this year by hitting multiple kicks beyond 50 yards. He’s turning into one of the league’s more reliable kickers, and I think a long-term deal is probably coming in the offseason.
  • Dirk Koetter has justifiably gotten blown up all year for his poor play calling and decision-making, but in this one he was without Calvin Ridley and made only a handful of the usual Koetter mistakes. The result was a dominant win where the Falcons looked great in the passing game and...well, not great in the ground game, but that’s inevitable. I’ll give him credit for giving Matt Ryan and company a lot of opportunities in this one, but he’s got to rip up his plan for the ground game and start over.
  • Raheem Morris will likely not become the next permanent head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. I think the Falcons will want a totally fresh start there, especially with a new general manager coming in, but what is clear is that Morris is making his case for a job somewhere by taking a Falcons squad with zero wins and showing he can squeeze some victories out of them. He deserves credit for getting this defense to at least show up throughout most of the day and generally putting a more competent team on the field, and I’ll wish him well whether he stays here or goes elsewhere.

The Ugly

  • I’m beginning to wonder what Todd Gurley is going to look like at the end of the year. Gurley has had his great weeks and remains a capable, physical back no matter what, but he’s not powering through contact or exploding outside for additional yards when he tries to do so, and once again the result was a lackluster day with two great carries (a nice bit of blocking and running through a hole for a big pickup, plus the touchdown) and 17 carries that barely went anywhere. Gurley got blown up regularly without much of a shot, Atlanta’s ground game continues to be a net negative for them, and I don’t know if that changes without Gurley faring better on a per-snap basis and the blocking consistently delivering.
  • Despite the great day from Zaccheaus, he still made a lackluster effort on the ball in the third quarter that turned into an interception, while Ryan should get dinged for the risky throw in the first place. It thankfully did not cost the team, but if they’re going to play games this close going forward it will at some point.
  • Despite re-adding Darqueze Dennard and A.J. Terrell largely having a nice day, the team’s secondary issues reared their head late. Lock had little trouble finding Jerry Jeudy all day, in particular, and Terrell got beat on one particular nice move by Jeudy for a touchdown.

The team continues to have a problem with that other outside corner spot. Kendall Sheffield is talented but is finding himself beaten—including deep, where his speed should be a difference maker—and Isaiah Oliver has played better when he’s not manning that role full time. The rest of the year will be an audition for both players, but there’s a non-zero chance the next regime is going to dip into the draft to try to get a complement to Terrell.

  • The Falcons can’t really afford to leave points on the field. With 34 seconds, three timeouts, and a passing game that was rolling, it probably wasn’t the best decision to elect to kneel out the clock at the end of the first half. The Falcons could’ve at least put up three points with that much time, and that would have made the final margin more comfortable.

Dirk Koetter continues to make poor decisions when the lead is in danger, with his 4th quarter handoff on 3rd and 16 to Todd Gurley up the middle qualifying as a particular egregious waste of a down. When he has a favorable matchup he’s still capable of doing good work, however.

  • Defensively, this team regularly runs out of gas at the least opportune moment. That was certainly the case against the Broncos, when the Falcons had a comfortable 21 point lead that they allowed to be whittled down late just to add to our stress level. You can blame the offense for not wasting more time—I do, at least partially—but the D still needs to be able to produce stops all game long, not just early on. When you give teams a chance to get close late, you give them the chance to win, and Atlanta of all teams needs to recognize what a bad idea that is.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

As is often the case, there are multiple worthy candidates here. I’m going to give it to the guy who had over 100 yards receiving and made two critically important catches that set up scores, which marks Olamide Zaccheaus’s first MVP from this website. I am sure he will print this out and put it on his fireplace.

One Takeaway

Atlanta remains incapable of consistently blowing out teams, but it’s no coincidence that they’ve gone from 0-5 to 3-6 with better coaching. The next big question is whether they can beat great teams, and we’ll have to wait a bit before we find out.

Next Week

A bye! The timing of this one means we’ll have one Falcons game in 17 days, which is either a blessing or a curse based on where you stand.

Final Word

Winsarewins.