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Falcons vs. Panthers recap: A listless dud drops Alanta back below .500

A few positive weeks for Atlanta evaporate in a slow, frustrating loss to the Panthers.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons had a reeling Carolina team at home. We all know there are limitations to how high this Atlanta team is going to go in 2021 owing to talent and a first-year coaching staff finding its way, but this certainly seemed like a manageable matchup, and it seemed that Atlanta’s savvy in recent weeks despite personnel losses would help them carry the day.

Instead, the Falcons lost Calvin Ridley again before kickoff, failed to take advantage of a recovered fumble on Carolina’s opening play, and spent the rest of the day stumbling. Atlanta lost 19-13 in a game they led at multiple points because they had uncharacteristic errors mixed with couple of bad interceptions and consistently lousy run defense, with the fluky Kyle Pitts drop and Younghoe Koo miss mixing with a lot of very familiar mistakes. The hope was that they had exorcised some of those sloppy demons in recent weeks, but it turns out they haven’t come close to doing so.

Instead, the Falcons were beaten by a team that was largely one-dimensional all day on offense. Sam Darnold ran eight times and picked up 66 yards, which helped overcome his inability to consistently connect on passes, and the Panthers ran all day and dared the Falcons to stop them, something the Falcons mostly could not do. Carolina dialed this thing down to the most basic level and Atlanta couldn’t push past that, especially with an offense that seemed entirely moribund. The Panthers defense, meanwhile, largely smothered Kyle Pitts, put pressure on Matt Ryan, and took away Atlanta’s non-Tajae Sharpe receiving options almost entirely. Carolina’s D is better and tougher than New York’s or Miami’s, but not to the point where Atlanta’s should have been this bad when they were pretty crisp in those efforts. They’re going to have to figure things out in a hurry, as there’s no timetable for Ridley’s return and a talented Saints defense is on deck.

For all that, for all the incredible errors and shakiness, Atlanta was in this until very close to the end. Their ability to hang around is worth remarking on after the first couple of weeks of the season, but obviously it’s going to come to naught if they can’t close things out.

Where the Falcons go is not quite certain, though certainly nobody’s feeling more optimistic about this team taking on some tougher challenges after that performance. We didn’t quite give them up for dead after the second week of the season, but certainly I think we felt pretty dour as a fanbase about their fortunes, and then they reeled off three wins in four tries. The sledding gets tougher from here—there are very few “easy” matchups left and the Panthers were one of them—but we can at least acknowledge the capacity for surprise in this Atlanta team. I would prepare for ugliness and hope for beauty, which is probably always the smart thing to do with the Atlanta Falcons, but this effort against this Panthers team suggests you may want to lean heavily on the preparation.

On to the recap, which is not very fun. Skip right to the comments to vent your spleen if you feel like it.

The Good

  • Cordarrelle Patterson remains a touchdown machine this year. In this one, he was quiet until early in the second quarter when Matt Ryan found him for a short pass that Patterson turned into a score via pure force of will, and that score gave Atlanta a 10-3 lead. He didn’t have eye-popping numbers in this one, but that touchdown was the sole reason the Falcons were even in this game, and Patterson will continue his career year.
  • Tajae Sharpe was tied for the team lead in receptions and was easily the team leader in receiving yards. He’s proven to be a very reliable option on shorter routes and over the middle thanks to his excellent hands, and given that the team’s other receivers combined for 1 reception for 12 yards (that was Olamide Zaccheaus), Sharpe made a strong case for getting more looks in the coming weeks.
  • Deion Jones wasted no time building on his NFC Defensive Player of the Week award against the Dolphins, as he caused a fumble on the very first Panthers play from scrimmage. That set the Falcons up with field position they would ultimately squander, but at least they took the early 3-0 lead. Jones had a very uneven effort, but he put the Falcons in an excellent position early on.
  • A.J. Terrell delivered a vicious tackle for loss and was once again one of the sharpest defenders on the field, though a quiet Panthers passing attack didn’t give him much of a chance to show off. It may be a similar week against the Saints, who figure to run a lot and dink and dunk their way downfield.
  • Ade Ogundeji continues to look sharp. In this one, he had a critical pass breakup on a third and long and picked up a fumble, and hopefully he’ll work his way into being a productive pass rusher as time goes on.
  • I saw Jon Bullard’s jersey in the backfield a lot yesterday. He was active and disruptive as a run defender at times, and he and Tyeler Davison were two of the very few defenders who could say that on a miserable day for the run defense.
  • A good day for Erik Harris, who stayed in the neighborhood with D.J. Moore in the end zone and picked up a pair of pass deflections, delivered a bone-rattling hit to Robby Anderson, rushed Sam Darnold on third and long to force an incomplete pass in the Falcons red zone and just generally looked active and disruptive. After a slow first few weeks, Harris has been a disruptive defender.
  • After a disappointing stalled drive following the turnover, at least Younghoe Koo proved automatic again, nailing one from 46 yards out to give the Falcons a 3-0 lead. He hit one late from deep as well, but unfortunately a miss marred his day on Sunday and helped seal the loss for the Falcons. In Koo’s case, at least you can feel pretty confident that was a one-time thing.

The Ugly

  • Wouldn’t be a Halloween game without some blood, right? Matt Ryan stayed in the game and kept throwing after his left hand got cleated, but he was bleeding pretty heavily on the field as a result. I’m not sure if that played a role in his ugly interception to Shaq Thompson in the second quarter on a ball Thompson read the whole way—that was more of a decision-making issue than anything else—but it’s not a fun way to spend a drive either way, and a reminder that Ryan has to be literally incapable of taking the field to get him off of it.
  • Ryan’s toughness is not in question, but his decision-making was at times in his one. After playing remarkably clean football the past few weeks and starting this one off with some insanely sharp throws into tight windows, Ryan threw two interceptions that seemed fated to be picked off the instant they left his hand, and those turnovers would prove to be exactly as consequential as we hoped Sam Darnold’s phantom turnovers would be. Ryan’s been quite good this year on balance, but with some quality defenses on the way, he’ll need to avoid those kinds of throws in the weeks to come.
  • The receiving corps was a bit of a concern heading into the year beyond Calvin Ridley, but Kyle Pitts and Ridley figured to open things up for the passing attack. With Ridley out and Pitts receiving as much attention as the Panthers could possible give him, it was incumbent on Russell Gage, Olamide Zaccheaus, Tajae Sharpe and tight end Hayden Hurst to deliver. With the exception of Sharpe, none of them did, with Gage not even getting a target and Hurst and Zaccheaus combining for three catches and 16 yards.
  • The offensive line had a tough matchup, and they did not rise to the occasion as a unit. Ryan was harried and sacked multiple times and the Panthers run defense had clear lanes to the ball carrier over and over again, limiting Atlanta to short gains and a lot of frustration. Josh Andrews was an inactive and the team isn’t exactly going to shake up personnel at this point in the season, but they’ll need to bounce back against the Saints.
  • The run defense was an adventure throughout. Working with backups like Chuba Hubbard, Ameer Abdullah and Royce Freeman, the Panthers piled up 73 yards and a healthy average on the ground in the first half, helping to keep drives alive.

It was even worse with Sam Darnold, who repeatedly was given not just open lanes to run but extra room from a defense that couldn’t adjust mid-play to him keeping it. They would finish with over 200 yards on the ground, including an utterly unacceptable 66 yards for Darnold on easy scrambles, and that more than anything else was probably the difference between a win and a loss on Sunday given the Carolina passing attack’s utter mediocrity. If teams know they can run effectively against the Falcons and grind them to dust, they’ll do so, and this was not a good sign with the Saints, Cowboys and others approaching.

  • Atlanta was weirdly lackadaisical about their approach to the end of the first half, not taking strikes and using timeouts. Ultimately, they instead chose to sort of listlessly working through downs to eventually punt to Carolina. The Panthers scored a field goal to bring it within one point, and the Falcons would not hold on to that lead for very long.

It was hard to argue that this was a well-coached game, overall, which makes that a nice lead-in. The Falcons struggled to get players open and struggled to make crucial stops when they needed to, and while there’s little question this roster is due for major improvement, Atlanta’s ability to work around their personnel shortcomings and losses over the past two weeks proved decisive. On Sunday, they couldn’t manage either, and especially on offense the inability to work a bit of magic proved to be their downfall.

We’re not going to see this team’s best on a consistent basis this year, necessarily—we’re hoping we see it as soon as next year—but the Falcons appeared to be figuring a few things out even if the competition was lackluster in recent weeks. The Panthers loss is a sobering reminder that more aggression on late downs and more creativity to overcome an offense that’s suddenly limited on playmakers and doesn’t exactly have an elite line.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

This is one of those games where I just don’t think you can readily identify a good candidate, and we’re not going to force it. The MVP was nobody, may we not see a game this slow and depressing again.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are not just going to made linear progress, and all the limitations that faded to the background when they were winning are still there and can still be crippling.

Next Week

It’s a road game against the Saints, which means it’ll be a lively week, and one I’m dreading after the Saints beat the Buccaneers this Sunday. If you want to check out what our annoying competition is up to, be sure to visit Canal Street Chronicles.

Final Word

WhyFalconswhy?