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Falcons vs. Buccaneers recap: Atlanta’s fast start rots away into yet another ugly loss

A 17-0 lead turned into a familiar loss for the Falcons.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons led 17-0 at halftime. After the Buccaneers came out aggressive and scored a touchdown, the Falcons managed a score of their own to make it 24-7. It was all downhill from there. Once again, an early lead led to a crushing collapse. and Atlanta hit double digit losses for the first time since 2014 in this one.

The Falcons have been broken for a long time, but they could duct tape and glue and screw together enough pieces to actually manage a few wins. That was particularly true on the defensive side of the ball, where things have gone better in recent weeks than they have since...2017? Longer? All that appeared to be coming together against a hapless Bucs team in this one, but when Tampa Bay adjusted and came out playing ferocious in the second half, the defense wilted and the offense soon followed suit. Atlanta keeps carving out major leads and then losing them, and it remains hard to explain beyond throwing your hands up and saying “this is just what this team is.”

The shame is that it overshadowed a first half where Matt Ryan looked like the Matt Ryan, and a day where the quarterback’s worst sins were slightly off deep balls. It erased a first half where the Falcons embarrassed the Bucs by holding them to zero points and very few worthwhile plays, the kind of stellar effort Tom Brady and company surely hated to see. It’s a shame because as has so often been the case, the Falcons ruined something good they put together with a pulpy, foul-smelling effort in the second half of a game, something they have done over and over and over again in recent years.

There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said. This team put together a few impressive wins after Dan Quinn was fired and gave us a sense of who belongs here next year and into the future, but they are a team that fall shorts spectacularly when it matters most, and they do so with clockwork regularity even if the methods and final scores change. I didn’t expect them to win this one and was thus not surprised when they blew the lead, even if it’s obviously disappointing that the team could waste quality individual performances from Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and others. This is simply who they are, and while I still want to watch fun, compelling football games, I know the offseason of sweeping change to come (and perhaps the one after that, honestly) are necessary and good. This version of the Falcons has gone as far as it can, and sometimes letting go is tough but necessary.

The Falcons are likely to get spanked by the Chiefs and Bucs in the weeks ahead, so hold your nose and wait for the offseason, which if nothing else will be a foray into an exciting unknown. As Falcons fans who have seen too much of the same in recent years and have suffered to varying degrees under delusions that things would get better, change is a welcome wind.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan looked as sharp as he has in weeks in this one, with some early tipped passes not slowing him down significantly. He wound up throwing three touchdown passes and managing darts all over the field, nailing 11 different receivers and finding the end zone with Russell Gage, Calvin Ridley, and Hayden Hurst as the offense got rolling for the first time in weeks.

When Ryan came through the way we expect him to, playing a turnover-free game, the ground game still vanished on him and the defense finally had their big letdown effort. Things would have been different had Ryan hit a borderline deep throw to Russell Gage and an end zone strike to Calvin Ridley that Antoine Winfield broke up, indisputably, but there’s a certain rich irony in Ryan doing what he could to win the game instead of losing it and the Falcons...losing regardless.

This was, overall, a needed and effective reminder that Ryan is not suddenly washed up or falling apart, but an aging quarterback with plenty of talent who can play very well when he’s put in a position to succeed. The next regime will be tasked with ensuring he’s in that position, at least for the short term.

  • Calvin Ridley was magnificent. posting the highest yardage total of his career with a 10 grab, 163 yard, 1 touchdown line. He was inches away from having another touchdown grab that Antoine Winfield broke up in the end zone, and generally seemed to get loose at will throughout much of game the before the passing attack dried up entirely late. Ridley surely wants to prove he can be a top receiver in this league, and with 13 grabs and 232 yards over the past two weeks minus Julio Jones, he’s proved it to me.
  • Russell Gage has had a couple of pronounced dry spells this season, but on balance he’s delivered an extremely solid campaign as the team’s third receiver, and he’s been stepping into a larger role capably with Julio Jones shelved. On the first drive of the game, Gage capped things off with a pretty route that resulted in a 27 grab over the middle and then a touchdown grab on the next play. He’s going to finish with career-best numbers across the board and has made a case to remain a major piece of the offense in 2021 under a new regime.
  • Hayden Hurst had been silent for weeks, but that ended on Sunday. Hurst scooped up three catches on the day, including a beautiful Matt Ryan ball into tight coverage in the end zone that he managed to hold on to. I don’t think Hurst will get his 5th year option exercised by the next regime, but I do think he’ll be here next year as the team’s lead tight end, and hopefully he can build on this campaign with a more consistent campaign. The talent is there.
  • Luke Stocker with a nice catch? Sure, 2020 has it all.
  • Deion Jones had an impressive second quarter sack on a four man rush, corralling Tom Brady and taking him down on third down to stall Tampa Bay out for the third straight drive. Debo’s not had his finest season on balance, but as always, his highs are very high indeed.
  • Grady Jarrett never stops working. He tries to punch balls out, he’s relentlessly pursuing quarterbacks even if he doesn’t have help, and every now and then it actually results in him getting home, as he did late in the fourth quarter on a huge 2nd and 8 sack of Tom Brady that backed the Buccaneers up another 8 yards.

Jarrett has been great all year. He’s just doomed to play for a team where that greatness isn’t regularly rewarded.

  • Keanu Neal has had to overcome a lot to get back to this point, but after essentially suffering back-to-back season ending injuries, he’s healthy and a difference maker in this defense again. With massive run stops, a touchdown-saving hit on Mike Evans, and stretches of strong coverage have added up to a very impressive season from Neal. He’ll be a free agent in 2021, and now it’s just a question of how much money he’ll command and whether he’ll be a priority for the next regime. Any questions of whether he can still play after two serious injuries have, at the very least, been erased.
  • Sharrod Neasman needs to be in Atlanta in 2021. His special teams value has never been in question, but in a two game stint starting for Ricardo Allen, he’s once again played very well on defense, adding a sack of Tom Brady in the second quarter of this one.
  • Younghoe Koo was perfect again in this one, hitting three extra points and chipping in two field goals, including an upright splitter from 52 yards out. He broke Matt Bryant’s single season record for made field goals against the Buccaneers and is having one of the great seasons in franchise history from a kicker, which is unfortunately going to waste.

The Ugly

  • The utterly anemic ground game for the Falcons is a massive problem late in games when defenses get aggressive about going after Matt Ryan and dare this team to do something, anything on the ground. Matt Ryan scrambled once for 16 yards and Ito Smith carried the rock 6 times for 24 yards, but those two accounted for all of the team’s yards on the ground. Todd Gurley missed a block and had just one carry for -1 yard, while Brian Hill carried the ball 5 times and lost 2 yards, getting blown up in the backfield more than once. This is a multi-faceted problem, but the fact that Gurley was supposed to be a difference-making addition who can barely even get the football any more and Hill is barely a part of the gameplan anymore and is having no success is a huge part of that problem.

Atlanta has to do some work on their run blocking, scheming, and personnel in the offseason to actually attain any kind of balance on offense, because as Ryan continues to age and/or the Falcons install a young quarterback, having a compelling rushing attack will be a difference maker.

  • Atlanta’s defense wilted badly on Tampa Bay’s first drive of the second half, allowing a series of quick strikes to take the Bucs down the field and score easily. That reversal continued throughout the second half, with the Falcons defense failing to adjust to Tampa Bay’s adjustments as the Bucs managed to pull within three points at the end of the third quarter.

The defense proved to not be up to the task in this one. After weeks of effectively carrying a struggling offense, things went sideways in this one, with Tampa Bay scoring 31 second half points to blow right by Atlanta. Give a ton of credit for Tampa Bay for turning things around in the second half and having the talent and plan to get the job done, but the gulf between the first and second half was so bad that it has to be remarked upon. That’s especially true when the Chiefs and Bucs (again) get a shot at this Falcons defense again.

  • A.J. Terrell has had a strong rookie season and still had quality plays in this one, but he also had his hands full with Mike Evans on Sunday and it showed. Terrell’s tight coverage was unable to overcome Evans’ physicality and ability to pivot quickly, which resulted in some nice catches by Evans. The most costly mistake from Terrell, though, came late in the third quarter when he managed to get called for pass interference AND a facemask against Evans, which send the Buccaneers hurtling downfield.

He’s a quality player headed for a good career, but it’s not all going to be perfect and he’s not a finished product. Sunday’s effort was evidence of both.

  • Raheem Morris didn’t make the sole determination to challenge that Scotty Miller’s knee was down, but the replay appeared to show the receiver’s knee hitting the turf well before Grady Jarrett was able to punch the ball loose, causing Atlanta to waste a precious timeout. I don’t blame the team for being eager to try to get that one overturned, but it just wasn’t a great challenge.
  • The call on Tyler Hall that ended up impacting the fourth quarter punt return was, on review, pretty bad. A block in the back forced Hall into the returner, resulting in both a justified block in the back call and a helmet-to-helmet foul on Hall, who didn’t appear to have control of his body. The Falcons didn’t need any help blowing this game, so it’s aggravating that they received some.

Also, Hall on Antonio Brown? I know that was sparked by an Isaiah Oliver injury but oof. Hall’s an interesting player over the long haul but ending up one-on-one with one of the league’s best receivers of the past decade is not a matchup he’s likely to win.

  • The Falcons were losing on their own merits but that spot at the end of the game sure looked terrible to me. Alas.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Calvin Ridley, who took this offense on his back at times Sunday and had one of the better games of his entire career. Showing he can get the job done without Julio Jones on the field is a big deal for Atlanta.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are capable of great halves but unless the opponent is reeling or completely inferior, they are not capable of great games. The big changes to come in the offseason had better address that.

Next Week

The Falcons have to travel to play the Chiefs. Yes, that’s going to be just as unpleasant as it sounds. Check our Arrowhead Pride for more.

Final Word