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Falcons vs. Dolphins recap: Wins are never easy, but always welcome

Atlanta moves to .500 after a last-second win over Miami.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Falcons were coming off a bye week and facing one of the shakiest teams in the NFL, a squad that just dropped a game to the formerly winless Jaguars and had to fly back from London and prepare for the game. Naturally, they went down by a touchdown early, led by two scores and then squandered a lead, and had to win on a last second field goal.

We’re a year or more away from the Falcons beating teams simply because they are more talented—that’s assuming their improvement is somewhat linear—and every win this year is going to be hard-fought and tense. Against a Miami team that hadn’t done much this year, allowing four touchdowns to Tua Tagovailoa and losing a two score lead is the kind of thing that can sour your stomach.

I choose to look at the positives, though, because there are plenty after Atlanta hit .500 for the first time in a couple of years. Too often over the past few years, we’ve watched this Falcon team surrender, blowing a lead and finding themselves too listless and too lousy to claw their way back into it. Atlanta keeps making mistakes—sometimes egregious ones—and hanging around just long enough to deliver the deathblow. Sure, it’s against the weakest teams on their schedule and sure, they’re far from a great football team, but the resilience they’re building today will matter when Atlanta’s good again and find themselves unexpectedly falling behind a quality opponent. That day may come sooner than expected with this offense humming the way it is.

Of course, Matt Ryan showing himself to still be a terrific quarterback, Kyle Pitts delivering as a pass-catching emissary of the gods and young defenders like Jaylinn Hawkins continuing to make big plays matters both now and tomorrow. This Falcons team is a work in progress with a couple of really excellent pieces and some very promising young ones, but also significant roster holes and question marks. Whether they can continue to build on what they’ve shown to this point will be the question of the next 12 or so months, but in the here and now, it’s possible to raise your blood pressure significantly and still come away happy about a Falcons win. That’s progress I can welcome, at the very least.

Full recap below.

The Good

  • Kyle Pitts is incredible, and that word understates what he brings to the field by orders of magnitude. On his sideline grab in the second quarter, he was clearly interfered with but still made a one-handed grab downfield that got the Falcons moving and in position for a field goal for Younghoe Koo. For the second straight week, he was over 100 yards, and this time out he put up a preposterous 163 yards on 7 catches after his big breakout game against the Jets.

Suffice to say he seems almost impossible to defend now that he’s found his stride. Once Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage find theirs, this offense will go from very good to lethal in short order.

  • Deion Jones had a classic Deion Jones game in this one, looking as aggressive and speedy as we’ve seen him look in a long time. He repeatedly made tough tackles, blew in unblocked to take down Tua in the third quarter for a sack, and generally looked as active as you’d expect from one of the best pure athletes on the team.

Yes, he got juked out by Tua at one point and missed a couple of tackles, but the progress and the energy were undeniable. Hopefully he can build on this effort.

  • Fabian Moreau is finding his footing. He had two pass breakups on the game’s two opening drives, showing the physicality and willingness to get his hands on the ball that the Falcons were hoping for. If this is a sign of things to come, it’ll be a big difference maker for Atlanta’s defense. Hopefully the injury he suffered late in the game won’t keep him out long.
  • Mike Davis put up a borderline heroic effort on a crucial third down on Atlanta’s second drive, getting nailed in the backfield and somehow picking up three yards and the first down anyways. When the Falcons need tough yards, he’s their guy.
  • When the Falcons need tough yards, Keith Smith also delivers. In this one, Smith not only made a nice grab and picked up extra yardage, but also delivered a number of big blocks that made life easier for Cordarrelle Patterson in particular.
  • One of the most apparent bye week adjustments was one I thought wouldn’t happen. Cordarrelle Patterson was clearly the team’s top back in this one, piling up a tidy 60 yards and a touchdown on 14 yards, while Davis was relegated to tough short yardage work. That may be a one week blip, but it may also be a sign that fans clamoring for Patterson to be a starter are actually going to get their wish. He’s certainly been effective enough to justify that.
  • The Falcons are finally getting past their red zone woes. They got it going yesterday on a nice play design that got Calvin Ridley open and saw a rolling Matt Ryan hit him for an easy touchdown. It was a nice return for Ridley and another sign that this coaching staff knows what to do when the Falcons get close to the end zone. It was an otherwise quiet day for Ridley, who also had an injury scare, but the score was welcome and he’ll be a red zone factor again in the weeks ahead.
  • Russell Gage almost exclusively ran short-to-intermediate routes under Dirk Koetter, but there’s room for him to do much more with his wheels, and he showed it in this one. In his return after a multi-week absence due to injury, Gage was the team’s second-leading receiver, managing a beautiful deep touchdown where he was wide open and 67 yards on four receptions overall. Like Ridley, his best days this season are likely ahead of him, but this was a nice effort.
  • Matt Ryan remains incredibly sharp. Aside from a couple of mistakes we’ll touch on later, he was dealing throughout this one. He hit Kyle Pitts more than once downfield, found a wide open Russell Gage in the end zone on a bomb to extended the Falcons lead to two scores, and looked customarily crisp on short-to-intermediate throws. All those signs of progress were real, and Ryan hasn’t looked this comfortable in a long while. We’ll touch on the miscues, but it’s readily evident that Ryan can still get the job done at a very high level, and the fact that he’s not really slowing down as the years go by makes his future intriguing.
  • Jaylinn Hawkins has two interceptions in two weeks, and in this one, his pick helped save a touchdown and keep the Falcons alive and well. It’s only a matter of time before a player with his physicality and ball skills finds his way into the starting lineup full-time, but in the meantime, he’s welcome to keep intercepting passes.
  • Foye Oluokun may not have had the most even effort, but the highs were spectacular enough that I’m more than okay with that. His interception and rumbling return helped the Falcons go up 27-14, which was not enough for them to win but was enough to withstand the Dolphins’ final charge thanks to a Younghoe Koo field goal. It’s nice to see this team picking off passes.
  • Koo feels like a weekly line item here, mostly because he is. He was a perfect three for three on field goals and three for three on extra points, and he decided this one with his final kick. The Falcons should get working on those contract talks for next year.
  • Ade Ogundeji’s blocked field goal was the first one this team has managed since 2014, and it was just a hell of a play from a guy who figures to have a lot of tipped passes in his future. Given that the Falcons won this game by just two points, you could argue that it was one of the deciding plays of the game, and particularly impressive given that Ogundeji was playing a larger role on defense Sunday with Dante Fowler out.
  • You have to give the coaching staff credit for getting things humming and keeping them humming. Aside from a frankly sad opening drive, the Falcons were rolling and the play design was quite good, and this team has figured out how to utilize Kyle Pitts to great effect. There’s little question that no matter how the rest of the season goes, this Falcons offense will be fun to watch and unpleasant for opponents, and that’s exactly what we hoped for coming into this one.

The Ugly

  • The opening defensive drive was a thing of something less than beauty. Deion Jones looked active and disruptive in the early going, but missed two tackles on the drive and coverage was shaky outside of Fabian Moreau’s game effort on an end zone shot from Tua. The result was an easy drive for Miami and one that led to them swiftly scoring, underscoring just how much work this defense still has to do.

They reinforced that in this one. Admirable plays helped hold the Dolphins to 7 points until the third quarter, but lax coverage and too many missed tackles still helped keep Miami in the game. They would stay in until the end thanks to a couple of big mistakes from the Falcons offense and a lot of struggling from the defense, which continues to have ruinous problems covering tight ends. The progress on this side of the ball is slower and more uneven than it has been on offense, which is not a surprise, but at least they’re starting to get turnovers.

  • Things were already tough when Matt Ryan couldn’t find an open man and scrambled to try to make something happen in the fourth quarter, but then he fumbled the ball away on his run and gave Miami the chance to earn the lead. Ryan had avoided turnovers the past few weeks but the fumble and interception in this one could have been costly. Thankfully, they ultimately weren’t, but this team still has to play uncomfortably close to flawless football for things not to come down to the wire.
  • Olamide Zaccheaus has fared well as a returner as he fills in for Avery Williams, but he nearly had an incredibly costly play in this one when he let a rolling punt go through his legs. Miraculously, despite reaching down for the ball, OZ didn’t actually touch it at all and no harm was done.

The less optimistic story of this game, if you want to go there, is very much like the Giants game. The Falcons had about 2-3 big mistakes ultimately not cost them overmuch, and sometimes you need that luck.

  • Let me caveat this item: I haven’t seen the snap counts yet, so I may be tilting at the wrong windmills. It feels like this defense’s personnel decisions continue to be a bit baffling, like rolling out Chris Williamson at nickel to start the game when Richie Grant is readily available, or not starting Jaylinn Hawkins when he’s looked terrific in his opportunities. I’m sure there’s a reason for that, one that Dean Pees will address at some point, but when you have promising young defenders and they’re playing well, I’m not sure what the rationale for parking them is or could be.
  • Nothing gets easier after this. The Falcons have played their easiest portion of the schedule, and earned three wins in four weeks against the likes of WFT, the Giants, Jets and Dolphins. That’s about what they needed to do to stay afloat, but it goes without saying that less sloppy and more complete efforts are going to be needed in order for them to win the tougher games ahead.

Of course, the Panthers just got annihilated and benched Sam Darnold, so maybe the tough part of the schedule starts after next week.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

It’s going to Kyle Pitts, who was absurdly great, accounted for nearly half of this team’s receiving yards, and caught several demoralizing balls in tight coverage. He’s a human cheat code, and he’s going to continue to make life easier for Matt Ryan and this offense.

One Takeaway

This is not a great team, but this is an improving team with some resilience and some really ability on offense, which is adding up to wins. We’ll see if they can keep it going against better teams, but damn does it feel good to know this team can take three hours’ worth of punches to the face and still drop an opponent.

Next Week

Our second divisional game of the year! This one will pit the Panthers against the Falcons in what we certainly hope is an Atlanta victory waiting to happen. Check out Cat Scratch Reader for more!

Final Word