Following the Saints game, it was possible to feel good about this team. They were .500, they had just knocked off their biggest rival, and for all their flaws it was not hard to imagine them playing some fun football games over the back half of the season.
The last two games have destroyed those hopes in so many ways. The Falcons have completely fallen apart offensively, which fit nicely with their awful defensive effort last Sunday but was entirely out of step with their defensive effort against the Patriots. Atlanta’s going to spend the offseason adding talent on offense whether or not Ridley returns and they right the ship the rest of the way, but strides from the coaching staff are going to be hugely important as well after they were unable to come up with any answers for a depleted supporting cast in this one. The Falcons have been a bad team capable of stretches of admirable resilience and excellence, but those just aren’t enough to carry the day against the best the NFL has to offer.
On Thursday night, they only provided that toughness on one side of the ball. Hounded by pressure behind an offensive line that appears to have forgotten its purpose, Matt Ryan chucked two picks, Josh Rosen threw a pick six, and even Felipe Franks got in on the fun with an interception. The ground game could do nothing of consequence, receivers regularly just missed passes or couldn’t make a play, and Ryan was less and less sharp as he absorbed hits and the team fell behind. There is no one single reason the Falcons failed on offense these past two games, but the fact that they did in such spectacular fashion coupled with games against resurgent Panthers and 49ers teams, the Buccaneers and Bills, and a wild card of a matchup against the Saints suggests they’re probably not done struggling.
Let’s stress this: The Falcons aren’t just unable to beat some of the NFL’s finest teams, they’re completely unable to hang with them. The strides from the defense in this one are worth something and may well prove to be the story of the second half for Atlanta, and I’ll hope so because of what it might mean for 2022 if young defenders like Darren Hall, A.J. Terrell and Ta’Quon Graham who will be here next year prove to be difference makers. But it’s not going to be enough to make this a watchable football team if they’re going to mix inevitable lapses on that side of the ball with an inability to overcome challenges on offense, and these last two games have painted a sobering picture of their ability to do, well, basically anything right. It’s one thing to not have outsized expectations for a squad that isn’t as competitive as it wants to believe it is, and another thing to set your expectations so low that you aren’t moved by getting absolutely thumped two weeks in a row. They’ll look better against the Jaguars, the Lions, and possibly the rest of the NFC South, but keep these efforts in the back of your mind if they somehow gain steam in the playoff race again.
Where do the Falcons go from here? We’ll see. At 4-6 they’re hanging around the lower middle of the NFC at the moment, which says a lot more about the conference than it does the team. I said before this game that we’d see what kind of resilience this team had, but we were really looking for resilience and brilliance. While Dean Pees and the defense brought a turnover and an actual pass rush to the table, the offense brought zero improvement and made Arthur Smith’s we will fix this comments after the Dallas game look ill-timed. A slight bounceback to decent football and a handful of wins would not surprise me, but neither would an absolute freefall now that they’ve gotten shellacked twice by good teams. It was clear that the biggest cracks in this team’s foundation were going to be a project for next year and beyond, and what we needed to see this year was just how deep and wide those cracks were. I think we have a better feel for that after 10 games than we did even a few weeks ago, and the Falcons are now going to have to take a hard look up and down the roster (and hell, at their coaching staff) and see where improvement seems reasonable and where replacements seem inevitable.
On to the full recap, which is grim. Fair warning.
- Foye Oluokun’s second quarter sack was a nice highlight in a season lacking them. He can rush the passer effectively, and he should get the chance to do so more often if Dean Pees can figure that out.
- Darren Hall had a nice night. The Falcons haven’t given him and Richie Grant a ton of time, but while Grant had his adventures, Hall picked up a sack and was aggressive in coverage and when called upon to tackle throughout the night. I’ve largely liked what I’ve seen from him in his very limited opportunities, and if he turns out to be even a quality reserve at cornerback, the Falcons will be plenty happy.
- Avery Williams looked pretty good on kick returns, a role he won’t have full-time until next year at the earliest with Cordarrelle Patterson in the fold. With better blocking he might’ve taken a couple of his returns past midfield.
- A.J. Terrell remains one of the two best defenders on this team alongside Grady Jarrett, and he made a play that might have been game-changing in a less depressing effort. With his first interception and long return of the year, Terrell went from silently effective coverage artist to big play author, and it was deeply unfortunate Atlanta proved unable to take advantage of that huge play.
- Qadree Ollison had a couple of nice runs and might warrant a longer look for this coaching staff, given that nobody seems to be able to pick up consistent yardage right now.
- This team actually managed a little bit of a pass rush! They were agonizingly close to throwing off a couple of plays—Duron Harmon was probably a half-inch away from sacking or disrupting what turned out to sadly be a Mac Jones throw for a first down—but this team also snagged three sacks and did some nice things against a very good offensive line. I’m not going to wave that away given the opponent and the fact that Atlanta got more than a quarter of their 2021 sack total to that point in a single game, and I genuinely hope it’s something to build on.
- No Falcons football on Sunday! I hate when that feels like a blessing, but it does.
- The Falcons just can’t really run the football. Arthur Smith would like to and he tries to, but whether it’s the running back personnel, the scheme, the offensive line or all three, it just isn’t happening for them. Aside from a couple of startling, strong Qadree Ollison runs, the Falcons got nothing going all night.
The team may well part ways with Davis in the offseason, but it’s going to take more than new running backs to solve this particular problem. Until it gets solved, the Falcons will be one-dimensional, and they won’t have the weapons to be one-dimensional right now. This is one of the many problems the Falcons seem unlikely to solve in 2021.
- The offense came into this game with a number of disadvantages. Without Calvin Ridley, without Cordarrelle Patterson and even without Hayden Hurst, there were real limitations on the personnel side and it was clear Arthur Smith and company were going to have to cook up something special to overcome that. They didn’t.
Whether it was Tajae Sharpe and Russell Gage essentially running into one another, Qadree Ollison trying to gain a first down with zero blocking when the Patriots knew exactly what was coming, or early down runs to nowhere, this coaching staff just didn’t seem to have anything innovative to offer for a team that desperately needed creativity, boldness and freshness.
This isn’t an indictment of the coaching staff for the long haul—I’m a believer that they’ll get this figured out—but even after they upgrade the talent level and get their feet under them, they’re going to have weeks where it’s necessary to overcome injuries and unexpected poor play. This effort tells you everything about how far they have to go on that front, and it’s incumbent on Smith and his staff to take a hard look at the effort the past two weeks and figure out what the hell they can possibly do to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
- There isn’t a soul on offense who stands out as sin free in this one. Kaleb McGary, Jalen Mayfield, Jake Matthews and Matt Hennessy all struggled in pass protection at one point or another, and even Chris Lindstrom had a costly penalty. No receivers were consistent, with Kyle Pitts coming up short on one Matt Ryan interception, Olamide Zaccheaus failing to come down with a pass that was tipped into a defender’s hand for another interception, Russell Gage mixing some nice grabs with long stretches of silent play, the ground game scuffling, and Matt Ryan making a couple of ill-advised throws under duress. It takes a whole-team effort to get shut out like this, and man, did the Falcons provide it.
- It’s not worth singling out individual defenders but there were some incredibly head-scratching decisions made by several in this one, with missed tackles and weird blocking decisions on A.J. Terrell interception returns and awful angles to the ball throughout the night. The Patriots didn’t have a huge game offensively, but they were able to get open men consistently in the passing game—Mac Jones was efficient once again—and their ground game mixed the occasional admirable dead stop with chunk pickups. On a day where the defense put up a better effort than I ever dreamed they would, it still wasn’t difficult to find fault.
- Younghoe Koo was effectively iced after making a 45 yarder that was called back due to a penalty and missed the subsequent 50 yard try. Nobody is immune when the Falcons really fall apart.
We don’t have a game MVP, a takeaway that isn’t goodness that was awful, or a final word that isn’t a string of curses. Let’s just note the Falcons will get the Jaguars next, that you should visit Big Cat Country, and sift through the wreckage of this one after we all get some more sleep and more time to reflect.