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3 Up, 3 Down: Nowhere to go but up for the Falcons

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

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NFL: New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t seem like it could get much worse for Atlanta after its 40-point drubbing on the road at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys. Turns out, it could.

While the 25-point margin of victory wasn’t nearly as large as the Falcons’ road loss, their Thursday-night showing was, in a lot of ways, more troubling. For starters, it came in Mercedes-Benz Stadium during a primetime national game. To continue, the offense managed less than 200 yards total and zero points against a Patriots defense that was middle of the pack entering the game.

Sure, the Falcons were without a lot of their top offensive weapons, but that performance was inexcusable. That leaves me the easy task of pointing out some poor showings and the unenviable one of calling out some positives as we put this one behind us and move on to the Jaguars game. Let’s start with the hard part.

Up

CB A.J. Terrell

NFL: New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Spoiler alert: This part of the article is going to be entirely focused on the defense, because that’s the only part of the team that seemed to put up a fight (slight nod to Qadree Ollison). A.J. Terrell, however, looked like he absolutely belonged in this game and was ready to make an impact.

His first interception of the season was a pure thing of beauty, and I propose we all gather around to watch 3:30 hours of this highlight on repeat each remaining Sunday for the rest of the year instead of watching Falcons games:

According to Pro Football Focus, Terrell has yet to allow 30 yards in his coverage so far this season, and he’s leading the league with just 6.2 yards per reception allowed on passes thrown his way. The Falcons have desperately needed a shutdown corner since Desmond Trufant’s peak seasons, and possibly longer. Fingers crossed: they’ve found one.

DT Anthony Rush

The Falcons are clearly tinkering around with their defensive front, and Anthony Rush was the beneficiary of that on Thursday. The former Tennessee Titan earned his first start of the season for Atlanta after joining the team prior to the Week 9 matchup against the Saints. He was the third-highest-graded defender for the game, according to PFF, and appeared to control the line of scrimmage fairly well.

Rush finished with three stops upfront, but interior line play is less about pure stats than the impact on the game. By the eye test, Rush, who is 6-foot-5 and 350 pounds, helped clog up the middle and stymy some of the Patriots’ interior runs. It will be interesting to see if he’s again in the starting lineup next game and how long he remains there.

CB Darren Hall

New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Though he has been a little bit of an overlooked member of Atlanta’s 2021 draft class, it was hard to ignore Hall on Thursday night. He was flying around the field making plays, although mostly as a tackler and not as a coverage defender. Still, Terrell flashed his run defense early on before really picking up his pass defense.

That’s not to say Hall will follow a similar trajectory, but he’s now earned playing time in back-to-back games and earned the first sack of his career to go along with four tackles. If this season continues to go south for the Falcons, young players like Hall should get a bit more playing time. What he does with that is up to him.

Down

LG Jaylen Mayfield

This was easily the worst game for Jalen Mayfield since the first start of his career against the Eagles. He appeared constantly outmatched and allowed a game-high seven pressures and one sack. Atlanta’s not been able to muster much of a ground game this year, which can be partially attributed to its run blocking, but the Falcons seemed to be making headway with its pass protection.

The last two games have put an end to those good feelings of improvement, and Thursday may have put the offensive line back among the top draft priorities. It’s far too early to jump ship on Mayfield and his development, and the experience he’s gained as a full-time starter this year should pay dividends. This was a bad showing, though, for the rookie.

C Matt Hennessy

New England Patriots Vs. Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s incredibly difficult to get the image of Matt Hennessy being pushed a full 2 yards back into the backfield on a fourth-and-1 late in the game, which ultimately allowed New England to stop Atlanta’s attempt short, out of my head. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how Hennessy has played so far in his first year as a starter, but Thursday was really tough for the second-year player.

He allowed four pressures exactly where Matt Ryan doesn’t want it: right up the middle. This was a game defined by trench play, and the Falcons lost that battle.

RB Mike Davis

Yet again, Mike Davis was jumped in the pecking order, but this was much more troubling. Unlike the Cowboys game, this one wasn’t a full-on blowout early on. The Falcons were down just two possessions for most of the action, but Davis again was splitting snaps with a player further down the depth chart. Both he and Ollison had 26 snaps, but the latter had nine carries for 34 yards to the former’s 3 carries for 1 yard.

Atlanta tried to get Davis involved a bit more in the passing game, but that approach wasn’t effective either. One of the team’s top free-agent additions this season, Davis’s time with the Falcons has been very disappointing so far.