The short answer is that the team found they could pass their way to some considerable success, especially later in the game, and the pass rush was somewhere between good and stellar. The coaching, execution and secondary play, meanwhile, were between questionable and abysmal.
The passing game...mostly
The Falcons had little trouble passing the ball throughout the game. Early on, Matt Ryan had an inexplicable intentional grounding and was consistently ineffective when throwing the ball to his running backs, but he was sterling silver when targeting his receivers against a largely overmatched Seattle secondary.
Ryan completed 30 of his 37 passes and 439 of his 450 yards throwing the ball to Julio Jones (9 receptions, 157 yards), Calvin Ridley (9 receptions, 130 yards, 2 touchdowns), Russell Gage (9 receptions, 114 yards), and Hayden Hurst (3 receptions, 38 yards). The overblown fretting about Gage as the third receiver likely goes away after this one, and Hurst clearly has room to grow into a more significant role as time goes on.
The passing game didn’t really get rolling until the Falcons were down by quite a bit, which is the one note of caution we’d offer up here. Still, it’s evident that Koetter can scheme wide receivers open this year, and he has the talent at receiver to punish defenses. That’s still the team’s best chance of winning going forward, and if they aren’t so intent on achieving balance early on, they can probably throw their way past most defenses.
The pass rush
While the final numbers weren’t superlative, the pass rush (and defensive line more generally) did a strong job in this one. That only makes the failures in the linebacker corps and particularly the secondary more glaring, but nonetheless.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Falcons pressured Russell Wilson on nearly 31% of his dropbacks, piling up 4 sacks in total (1 for Takk McKinley, 1.5 for Grady Jarrett, and .5 for Dante Fowler Jr.). The defense blew multiple great opportunities to get a stop after a sack, but that’s hardly the fault of a group doing its best to make Wilson uncomfortable and bringing him down multiple times. The Seattle offensive line is not superlative, but it’s fair to wonder what this defense can do when they face off against a quarterback that isn’t so capable of throwing on the move.
What didn’t work
Atlanta spent money to bring in Darqueze Dennard, drafted A.J. Terrell in the first round, and got a healthy Keanu Neal back on the field. That was supposed to help turn this secondary into a strength, not a weakness, but after one week it seems like there’s quite a bit of work left to do.
Consider this: Despite the Falcons frequently pressuring Wilson, he completed 31 of 35 passes for 322 yards and 4 touchdowns, including an ugly wide open look to DK Metcalf down the sideline on 4th and 5 that went for a touchdown. That particular pass victimized Isaiah Oliver, but everyone got in on the fun, with a borderline call on Ricardo Allen ruining one potential stop, A.J. Terrell also getting crisped by Metcalf, and the Seahawks generally doing whatever they wanted to do through the air.
Wilson is phenomenal and this is a talented group of receivers overall, but that could not have been a worse start for a secondary looking to prove something. Unfortunately for them, they get Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and the rest of the gang in Dallas next Sunday.
Coaching and execution
The Falcons couldn’t seem to make the right decision Sunday, and even when they did they were undone by sloppiness.
In total, this team elected to go for it four times on fourth down, with the first time early in the game with the Falcons hanging around midfield. They would ultimately not convert a single one of those tries—Sharrod Neasman got the yards on a fake punt but fumbled—and as time went it on the early attempts seemed more and more ill-advised. The only time the Falcons had any luck slowing down a juggernaut Seattle defense was when Sterling Hofrichter pinned them pretty deep, something he was able to do twice in the first half, but Atlanta kept surrendering short fields and watching as Seattle romped to touchdowns. In all, their opponent would score three touchdowns and one field goal following those attempts,
Those were the most glaring examples—and for the record, the fake field goal attempt was a good call and late game 4th and 3 on the Seattle 35 was essentially a necessity—but the Falcons were once again undone by sloppiness and unimaginative decisions. Two straight short left targets to Ridley (neither complete) ruined one drive, a penalty on Matt Gono erased an extra point attempt, and the team essentially only completed passes over the middle of the field in the heart of the Seattle defense to Russell Gage, but tried several times regardless. The play calling really only loosened up on offense in the second half when it was too late, and the team either couldn’t get players in the right position or just had to watch them mess up on defense throughout.
The number of times we’ve been able to lean back and say “well, that was a well-coached game full of smart decisions” with the Falcons over the past few years has been a small number indeed. The number of games where that’s happened and the team hasn’t shot itself in the foot with penalties and poor plays is effectively zero.