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Falcons vs. Football Team recap: The offense gets going but Atlanta suffers a throwback loss

No team quite squanders opportunities like the Falcons do.

Washington Football Team v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Only the Falcons could lose like that, as they do over and over again, with a mountain of mistakes, missed opportunities, poor coaching decisions and officiating piling up until they reach the heavens. Only the Falcons could take an effort that looked better, at least offensively, than any they’ve put together this year and squander it in such spectacular fashion. Only the Falcons can make you ride a roller coaster that takes you over different and unexpected twists and turns but still ends up flying off the tracks and into a swamp.

Atlanta could’ve won this one so many different ways. They should have. They could’ve caught passes they dropped, gotten one more first down very late when Arthur Smith tried to burn the clock via the run and could not do so, or made a crucial stop one of the half-dozen times Taylor Heinicke was seemingly under pressure. The fact that they didn’t, that they couldn’t, makes this a strong addition to the canon of impossibly frustrating Falcons losses. The offense getting on track, the tragic mistakes and the defensive wilting were all far too familiar.

I want to—and will eventually—celebrate the offense improving by leaps and bounds in this one at some point. If not for the drops and the frustrating inability to get Mike Davis going behind this offensive line, this would’ve been a winning effort, and it was night and day compared to what Atlanta has done thus far in 2021. I’ll be feeling positive about that effort long after my annoyance with the result wears off, assuming the offense doesn’t turtle again.

The defense and special teams were what gave out for a change. Defensively, this team simply couldn’t get home to stop Taylor Heinicke in his tracks, and he kept responding with nice scrambles and accurate throws downfield to keep things moving. At one point when he was scuffling and the Falcons were winning I thought they had the game, but that DeAndre Carter return for a touchdown to start the second half and Heinicke settling in ultimately doomed the Falcons. Marquice Williams’ special teams unit struggling at the wors time and being down a punter and Pees and the defense costing the team the game were novel ways to lose, so if you prefer freshness, there it was.

Once again, the Falcons drowned while their heads were above water, turning what seemed to be a manageable situation into an inexplicably fatal one. They were leading in this one pretty consistently, and it came down to holding on to an 8 point lead at one point against Washington. Over and over again, the opportunity to make one more crucial stop or score a handful of points presented itself, and over and over again the Falcons could not take advantage. I thought the effort was, on balance, one of the stronger ones we’ve seen, but it’s a mark of how much work lies ahead of Atlanta and how much talent they still need to add that they can back into a loss where they have every opportunity to win. Someday, I hope, this will be the regime that proves capable of throwing off the impossibly heavy burden of Falconing, but they have not proven capable of doing so to this point. Instead, we have to settle in to watch this team continue to gasp for air in the bright light of day.

What that means for the long haul is not certain. Atlanta spent the last week bristling anew over the idea that this was not a contending football team that deserved the benefit of the doubt while growing and progressing, and I continue to be both annoyed beyond belief by this team’s current predicament and fairly optimistic about their long-term outlook, assuming they can nail the next couple of offseasons. In the here and now, though, this is another example of how the Falcons are neither talented nor well-coached enough to survive the kinds of mistakes they made yesterday, even if they’re also making important and noticeable strides. Progress should make the coming weeks more manageable, but we’re still going to wait a while to see a version of this Falcons team that will punish teams and run over teams who aren’t super talented themselves.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • We start things off with Cordarrelle Patterson, who has somehow put together one of the best kick returner careers in NFL history without teams recognizing his ability to do much, much more than that. Arthur Smith and Dave Ragone have consistently put Patterson in a position to succeed on offense in Atlanta, and to his eternal credit, Patterson has turned those modest opportunities into eye-popping production.

In this one, he scored two touchdowns in the first half and accounted for 82 yards in total, outpacing everyone else. He added a third touchdown in the second half just to make it clear how special he has been for Atlanta this year, and how lost they would be without him. His ability to fight through contact, his speed and savviness, and his versatility as a runner and receiver make him truly dangerous, and damn am I glad he’s a Falcon.

  • Despite a heart-stopping near-fumble, Hayden Hurst was much more involved in this game than he has been at any point this season, and he made several good catches over the middle. That feels like a good sign for the future with him, even if he was once again largely a non-factor in the second half.
  • The offense looked competent! It looked, with the exception of the late game shakiness and drops, like an Arthur Smith offense is supposed to look. It got the job done on third down, was at least solid in the red zone and put up nearly 400 yards and 30 points. It’s still very much a work in progress, but it showed progress, and a considerable leap forward at that. Smith and company won’t get a ton of goodwill because they lost this one, but the offense not sputtering was a big deal for the future.
  • Erik Harris absorbed plenty of abuse for his coverage against Terry McLaurin in the end zone, and it was not his best play. On balance, though, he had his strongest game of the season thus far, covering Ricky Seals-Jones well and showing welcome physicality near the line of scrimmage. The Falcons have been giving Jaylinn Hawkins snaps at the expense of Duron Harmon—who almost picked a pass in the end zone in this one—but Harris has kept playing despite Richie Grant being a second round pick, and this week he largely rewarded the coaching staff’s faith in him.

On a related note, is there anything more Falcons than Harris having two shots at an interception and not quite getting it? That feels like a rite of passage for a Falcons defensive back.

  • Despite it ending in 3 points, that was the prettiest opening drive we’ve seen thus far in 2021. The Falcons were crisp through the air and on the ground, and it would prove to be an omen for the offense, as despite some ugly drops and lousiness they were much sharper in the early going than they’ve been at any other point this season. The Falcons could continue to build on that throughout the day, looking like an NFL offense for the first time all year. That, more than anything, makes me feel like there are better weeks ahead.
  • We finally got our Matt Ryan deep ball, as he hit Cordarrelle Patterson for a 42 yard touchdown in the second quarter. The coverage on the play was unbelievably bad and Patterson was open as a receiver can ever be in the NFL, but Ryan took the shot and it was worth it, and it gave the Falcons a 10-0 lead. I’d like to see Atlanta try deep shots more often even if Ryan’s arm isn’t at its peak, because sometimes you get a good thing like that, and Ryan definitely looked willing to air it out this week.

This was a welcome effort all the way around, as Ryan came out dealing in this one and certainly put this tam in a position to win. If he had a couple of miscues you can forgive that on a day where he threw the ball very well, was victimized by drops, and tossed four touchdown passes. The fact that he looked like himself—the savvy, crisp passer he hadn’t been for long stretches in the first three games—is a sign that things are potentially coming together for Ryan and the offense in time to at least make the rest of the season more enjoyable.

  • We’ll get to the drops, but this week Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts were much more productive. The duo combined for 130 yards on 11 catches, including some tough, critical grabs on key downs, and can build on this performance going forward.
  • The offensive line had a really tough matchup. No matter how much this Washington front may be scuffling, their talent is evident, and only allowing one Matt Ryan sack (which he arguably should have tried to throw away regardless) and generally blocking well is an admirable feat. Jalen Mayfield’s penalties may get Josh Andrews a longer look, but it feels like the line is gelling and it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the offense looks better when they do.
  • Grady Jarrett is so good. On a 4th down run situation, Jarrett snuffed out the play and stopped the drive cold in its tracks.
  • The roughing the passer call on Matt Ryan late in the third quarter was understandably polarizing. Chase Young may have hit Ryan in the neck and there seemed to be an understanding from the officiating crew and FOX’s officiating expert Dean Blandino that that’s exactly what happened, and the call let the Falcons keep the drive alive and ultimately score, so I’m not complaining. The play itself was so weird, with Ryan getting a pass off after a delayed collapse to the turf, that if you’re a Washington fan you could understandably be pissed about how things went down.

Is it fair for me to be thrilled about the Falcons getting a borderline call? Nah. Do I love it? Yeah.

The Ugly

  • For the second straight week, Calvin Ridley was the target on a play that will probably be talked about for weeks to come. There is an emerging narrative in the fanbase that he’s afraid of contact, sparked by his unwillingness to turn upfield on a crucial third down against the Giants and not helped by a rough drop on a catchable ball over the middle where he took contact and let go of it. The drive died on the vine from there, and unfortunately the drops kept coming, with Ridley also missing a couple of tough but catchable-looking balls later on.

Ridley is great, full stop, and I’m not worried about him suddenly not being able to hack it based on some uneven early returns. Still, however productive as Ridley was on the day, those drops are a problem for a player who wins on route running and impressive catches. He can’t miss so many opportunities in future weeks and have the Falcons succeed in spite of it, because Ridley is one of the truly core threats on offense, and we saw how many yards and potentially scores Atlanta left on the field with Ridley not coming down with those catches. I expect—indeed, I know—we’ll see better in the coming weeks.

  • The Falcons are not making it work with Mike Davis. Every week, I watch him seemingly push through contact to make something out of nothing, but he’s regularly operating with absolutely zero room. On a re-watch I’m not suggesting that Davis will not have made mistakes in this game, potentially hesitating or not hitting the hole available to him hard enough, but he’s getting a dozen-plus carries each week to essentially get swarmed and either fall down or push through four defenders for a minimal gain.

Atlanta’s getting better per-snap production out of Wayne Gallman and Patterson, and it wasn’t close this week. The Falcons need to take a hard look at the plays they’re calling for Davis and decide if they think he’s the issue or they’re not setting him up to succeed, and I suspect the latter.

  • You do not want to start off any half of football with a team getting a 100-plus yard kickoff return against you, and it was particularly unwelcome in this one when Atlanta had the lead heading into halftime. Richie Grant fought through a block and got a hand on Carter, but after that nobody got close to taking him down and Washington took a 19-17 lead. That was deflating.
  • The drops were deflating in this one, too. In addition to Ridley, Olamide Zaccheaus and Kyle Pitts also dropped what sure looked like straightforward catches for players of their skill level. The Falcons might’ve walked away with this one if even a couple of the big strikes Ryan took had been reeled in, and in a week where Ryan was sharper than he has been all year, it was frustrating to see his receivers scuffling on a day where he wasn’t.
  • The defense had a deeply frustrating game. The loss of Isaiah Oliver early and eventually, Erik Harris late proved to be a problem, but the Falcon were plagued by some ugly missed tackles, awful coverage lapses in the red zone and a consistent inability to take down Taylor Heinicke, with only Foye Oluokun actually getting home on the day. Dean Pees told us, in essence, that there was no timeline for this defense to really figure things out and become a force for good. He didn’t tell us that steps backward were going to be part of the deal, but even if the Falcons stop whiffing on tackles,
  • The end of the game was frustrating, too. Arthur Smith did fine work with the offense almost all day and had a better game overall in this one, and that progress is a good sign for the future. It’s just that up two points, two feeble run plays and a screen when you have Younghoe Koo punting and plenty of time left on the clock for Washington feels like unnecessarily conservative and timid in a way Arthur Smith is not supposed to be timid.

The Falcons never should have ended up in that position—and they should’ve still been able to get a stop, considering everything—but one hopes that Smith looks at a similar opportunity in the future and decides to crack somebody’s teeth in half. Trying to play to preserve a less-than-a-field-goal lead is something that rarely works, and will never work for a team swirling with evil spirits like the Falcons are.

  • If you’re a longtime reader of The Falcoholic, you know where I stand on officiating. I think it is more often incompetent than malicious, so while I’m willing to slam bad calls and bad officials, I rarely view it as some conspiracy to make Atlanta lose.

That includes this week, by the way, even though the refs badly missed a delay of game on Washington at the end that may or may not have made a difference. It was a flawed, frustrating game from this crew, too, and while I’m not sure the Falcons came out worse for it, I do think that call and the inexplicably picked-up pass interference call hurt.

  • Give Younghoe Koo all the credit in the world for stepping in for an injured Cameron Nizialek and punting twice, but obviously Koo isn’t set up for a bright career as a punter. It’s fortunate he’s one of the league’s most reliable kickers, then.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Patterson, again, with Matt Ryan earning an honorable mention. With drops plaguing receivers and Mike Davis enduring whatever deeply unfortunate curse he’s under, Patterson led the team in rushing and receiving and scored three touchdowns. He’s playing tremendous football right now.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are still perfectly capable of throwing away a winnable game with the same kinds of defensive mistakes we’ve grown used to over the course of the past decade-plus. It’s familiar, but it’s not great.

Next Week

Atlanta’s off to London to host the Jets, and will hope New York’s one week resurgence was just that. Coming off a long week of travel and winning one would feel pretty good after Sunday, I’d think. Check out Gang Green Nation for more about the Jets.

Final Word