The 2019 season was one which left more to forget than to remember. Coming off of a 7-9 season in 2018, the Falcons fell well short of expectations and repeated their 7-9 mark a year later.
However, there were some positive moments to pick out from the disappointing campaign. Those moments may have been few and far between for a team that started the year 1-7 and elected to make no major changes to its coaching staff or front office, but they were still present.
Over the course of the past few weeks, we have counted down the five best moments of the 2019 season from five to one. Keep in mind that this is a very subjective exercise and that not everyone’s five best moments will match this countdown. However, that’s what makes it fun. Discussion will be sparked, and that can help distract us as we pass through the offseason.
This will not be a list of whole games (for example, you will not see “Falcons beat the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans as Michael Thomas and Drew Brees fail to stat pad a touchdown in the closing moments of the game” in this countdown), nor full player performances (you will not see “Matt Ryan’s ninth consecutive 4000-yard season” listed). It will be a list consisting of singular plays, or pairs of plays if they coincide with one another.
Number 1: 4th down heroics in the form of a Julio Jones touchdown and an Isaiah Oliver stop (Week 2 vs. Eagles)
Despite the team’s embarrassing display showcased in the the Week 1 defeat in Minnesota, the season still had so much promise going into the Week 2 home opener against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday Night Football.
The Falcons had routinely been defeated in recent matchups against the Eagles — losing the previous three in a row including one in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and the 2018 NFL season opener. All of those games were in Philly, however; this time they finally had to come to Atlanta.
The Falcons got off to a much better start than in Week 1, and the defense flexed its muscles throughout the evening, giving up less than 300 yards of total offense in this game. They were led by Desmond Trufant, who secured two interceptions.
Despite the stout defensive effort and forced turnover on Special Teams, the Falcons found themselves trailing late in the fourth quarter because of their own offensive miscues.
Down 20-17 with 2:20 remaining and facing a 4th-and-3 from their own 46-yard-line, it felt like a due-or-moment for the Falcons despite having all three of their timeouts. The Eagles had full momentum and had begun moving the ball a lot more effectively on offense; you just had this sense that the Falcons would not see the ball again if they were to fail to convert.
Then, Julio Jones gave us the best moment of the season:
There’s so much to appreciate about this play, starting with the call for a screen pass itself. Jim Schwartz, Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator, is famous for calling an aggressive defense which dials up a large number of blitzes. After blitzing Matt Ryan throughout the course of the game, Schwartz didn’t even try to disguise the fact that they were coming after him with the game on the line.
Philadelphia brought six defenders up to the line of scrimmage, with a cover zero man-to-man look against Atlanta’s empty set shotgun formation — math dictated that they were going to have an unblocked rusher free to come after Ryan. Well, that is unless they faked blitz and dropped their linebackers into coverage but Schwartz’s reputation preceded him — everyone in the stadium knew that that blitz was coming.
The first person who saw that blitz coming was Matt Ryan himself. He immediately audibled the play to a tunnel screen pass which would go to the most dangerous man on the football field — Julio Jones.
Mohamed Sanu, who was lined up in the slot on the short side of the field next to Julio, had the assignment of blocking Rasul Douglas, who was lined up across from Jones in one on one coverage. He did so just enough to let number 11 slip away.
The Falcons released Jake Matthews on a leak out to serve as Jones’ lead blocker and to pave an opening for him. Matthews had the assignment of pancaking Sanu’s defender, Avonte Maddox, to clear the way. All the rest of the offensive line had to do was hold off the Eagles’ blitzing brigade for a split second — long enough for Ryan to quickly release the pass to into the arms of a waiting Julio. It was flawless execution all around.
Rodney McLeod and Andrew Sendejo were the only Eagles defenders left who could give chase, but neither stood a chance against Julio’s 4.3 speed which was already at the point of full acceleration by the time either one of them was within shouting distance. This was a play which was won at the line of scrimmage.
Sanu knew Jones was destined for the end zone the second that Matthews made his block, delivering a viral fist pump in that moment.
Atlanta took a 24-20 lead just outside of the 2-minute warning but there was still work to be done on defense to close out the game.
In truth, the defense got caught with its pants down on the first play after the 2-minute warning — on 2nd-and-2 Carson Wentz dialed up a perfect pass to a streaking Nelson Agholor on what should have been the go-ahead 60-yard touchdown thanks to a complete breakdown in coverage in the form of a late reaction by Keanu Neal. Agholor had one of the worst drops you will ever see in an NFL game, however, saving the Falcons.
Agholor somewhat redeemed himself by converting a crucial 4th-and-14 later in the series. The Eagles then faced a second 4th down on the drive — a 4th-and-8 from Atlanta’s 21-yard-line with 38 seconds left. Wentz connected with Zach Ertz, who was stopped one yard short of the sticks thanks to a powerful tackle from Isaiah Oliver. The Falcons took over possession and subsequently won the game.
This moment tops the list for me because there was everything still left to play for in the season. Every other somewhat decent moment in this nightmare of a season came after the team’s brutal 1-7 start and after all hope was already eviscerated. I felt euphoric after this particular victory, thinking that many more moments like this one were to come (oops).
Here’s to a 2020 season with a lot more moments like this one.