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3 up, 3 down: The connection that could carry the Falcons this season

Keeping track of which Falcons are rising and falling throughout the 2021 season.

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

The Atlanta Falcons evened things up and stand at 3-3 after a close 30-28 victory against the Miami Dolphins. While no win in the NFL is a bad win, the Dolphins are now 1-6, and that leaves me asking a question on all of our minds. Are the Falcons a good bad team or a bad good team? Most likely they are somewhere in between.

That could be looked at as improvement over last season, which is the goal. But NFL fans are impatient and hope is tantalizing. Now, we’re discussing if the Falcons really make something of this season, which may be putting the cart before the horse. If Atlanta’s football team is to follow the path of, say, its basketball team, the players will need to really start to find their stride. Let’s find out who did and didn’t do that on Sunday.

(Before we begin, let me say: Younghoe Koo is eternally No. 1 for the Up spot.)

Up

TE Kyle Pitts & QB Matt Ryan

Syndication: Palm Beach Post BILL INGRAM /THE PALM BEACH POST / USA TODAY NETWORK

I’m cheating and putting two players here this week because this duo is ultimately the duo who are most important to the Falcons’ success this season, and they are on fire right now. In the NFL postseason, teams really go strength-on-strength and try to let their top guys outmatch their opponents’. So far, that would be letting Kyle Pitts cook (bake? flambé?) against the competition, and he’s doing that.

Pitts again led the Falcons in a winning effort, catching seven passes for a staggering 163 yards. The numbers don’t do the actual performance justice, though, as it was full of difficult sideline grabs and sure-handed contact catches. Most importantly, Matt Ryan seems to really be trusting his rookie phenom. He’s looking his way whenever a one-on-one matchup is present, and Ryan is also putting the ball right where it needs to be. Where have we seen a connection like this before, hmm?

WR Russell Gage

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

Welcome back, No. 83 No. 14! Russell Gage snagged four catches for 67 yards and a touchdown in his return from injury and immediately gave the Falcons an explosive downfield threat. The games Gage missed might make his end-season numbers look slightly underwhelming, but there are still high hopes for his role in this offense as the No. 2 wide receiver (note: not receiving option).

Calvin Ridley’s adjustment to the top role at wide receiver has been scrutinized so far, but it should be noted he’s been without Gage for much of that. Now that Gage is back in this lineup and making plays like he did last season, the offense could make another small leap.

LB Deion Jones

NFL: OCT 24 Falcons at Dolphins Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There was some internal discussion about putting Jaylinn Hawkins here, and he’s certainly deserving after what may have literally been a game-altering interception, but I’ve been tough on my guy Deion Jones this season and want to make do here. I think Jones played his best game of the season, and after the revelations last week that the defense scaled back some of its installs early on this year, it makes sense that Jones could have a bit more to do moving forward.

He was knifing into the Dolphins’ backfield throughout Sunday afternoon, making multiple stops for minimal or negative gain as well as sacking Tua Tagovailoa. This is the Jones I love to see. He’s an excellent coverage player, but I think he’s at his most locked in when he can play downhill, nose-to-the-grindstone football. Jones and Foye Oluokun are both in the top 11 among NFL defenders in tackles despite having played on less game than most players this season. They are both an important and active part of this defense.

Down

RB Mike Davis

On a play-by-play basis, Mike Davis has not been bad this year. He had a lovely spin move in the backfield to avoid getting dropped for a loss on a crucial third-and-3 during Atlanta’s first drive to pick up a first down and help the Falcons get a field goal. The problem is that he is seemingly dropping down the ladder of weapons this offense wants to get involved.

Davis carried the ball four times for 10 times on Sunday, and wasn’t targeted on a pass for the first time this season. It should be noted there are many behind-the-scenes reasons for this: Atlanta liked Cordarrelle Patterson more in this matchup; Davis got dinged up early – this is pure speculation – or his role shrank with the return of Ridley and Gage. I still think Davis is a valuable part of this team owing to his hard-nosed running and blocking, and Arthur Smith has made it clear his feelings about depth for teams. If anything, let’s maybe look at it as a positive that Atlanta’s starting running back entering the season is relatively fresh at this point in the year.

Pass Rush

Syndication: Palm Beach Post BILL INGRAM /THE PALM BEACH POST / USA TODAY NETWORK

On a day without Dante Fowler – whom the team will be without for a little bit – Atlanta struggled to muster a consistent pass rush against Tagovailoa. The Dolphins quarterback, who was the subject of reported trade offers in the week leading up to the game, completed 32-of-40 passes for 291 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. He had plenty of time to throw the ball for the most part, as the Falcons only managed one sack against the Dolphins.

Miami entered the game giving up the ninth-most sacks this season to opposing teams, but the Falcons couldn’t really take advantage of that – especially when playing with the lead. That will need to get cleaned up for this defense to go from getting sort of better to really becoming an asset.

S Richie Grant

There’s really not a great person for this final spot, so please don’t take this as a too-harsh criticism of a rookie we are all excited to see get in on the action a bit more. There was a play, however, during the Dolphins’ third-quarter touchdown drive when Grant tried to split a double team as the contain defender on the outside and gave up the edge for a big run by Myles Gaskin.

Grant had some solid plays on Sunday, but I’m sure the coaching staff is looking to make sure they can trust the rookie safety to play fundamentally sound all the time as they grow his role.