I didn’t expect the Falcons to beat the 49ers on Sunday. I didn’t think their vague playoff hopes amounted to much of anything. Despite my bracing and battening, I was not ready to see them lose the way they did.
The Falcons weren’t prepared for this effort. They fell down on offense and defense, and they fell down early and they fell down late. Afforded a frankly unrealistic playoff dream, they refused to lean into the fantasy and lost handily thanks to poor pass protection, poor tackling, and a poor overall effort. They fell down because they weren’t good enough to beat the 49ers, and they didn’t have a superlative effort in the can to overcome that. It’s tidy but it’s disappointing, nonetheless.
That’s not inherently shameful—we knew this team had limitations—and it provides us with some late season clarity. The Falcons really don’t have any miracles in them, we’re talking about progress and draft position over the final three weeks, and the sense this team has a lot to learn and a lot to fix in the off season remains. San Francisco was simply far better and far less prone to fatal mistakes, and the Falcons have a long way to go until they can survive questionable decisions and even more questionable execution.
We talked a lot about the postseason this past week because it was very possible it was going to be the last chance we had to do so this year, given that a win against San Francisco was the team’s only truly plausible path to the postseason. Now that they’ve lost, the Falcons still have three games to go to try to make that all-important progress, pick up a couple more wins and head into the offseason with a sense that they have something to build on. We’ll be hoping for that and, of course, talking draft position the rest of the way.
Let’s look at individual and unit performances.
- The Falcons kicked off the game in huge fashion, with Qadree Ollison delivering a big hit that knocked the ball loose and Richie Grant recovering it to give Atlanta the ball on the 10 yard line. It was the kind of huge special teams play that can turn the tide of a game, though unfortunately the Falcons proved incapable of capitalizing. Ollison’s play was huge and despite a couple of miscues, Grant has been terrific on special teams all year.
- Russell Gage should not be the top receiver on this or any other offense, but owing to circumstance he is. Gage is, however, a player capable of being a major contributor for a good football team.
In an unenviable role, he has been rolling of late, and he made an absolutely beautiful leaping, contested grab in this one for the team’s first touchdown of the day. He would follow that up with one of the plays of the game on an absolutely beautiful leaping grab and finished with 91 yards and the team’s lone touchdown on the day. Given what he’s done over the past three seasons for Atlanta despite this team’s considerable turmoil, I do hope he’s back with the Falcons next year.
- Olamide Zaccheaus may only get a couple of huge plays per season, but man, are they always fun to watch. In this one he got enough separation to give Matt Ryan a chance at completing a 49 yarder, and he reeled it in gladly for his longest gain of the season. The Falcons would squander their chance to cash in a touchdown, but OZ’s grab at least got them points when Younghoe Koo hit his field goal try.
- Kyle Pitts had an up-and-down day, but a handful of beautiful grabs on a day where he and Gage did 90% of the offensive damage. I look forward to seeing what he can do in a better, more balanced offense.
- Avery Williams continues to round into form as a returner, putting together some solid efforts in this one in a vain but noble attempt to give the Falcons field position the offense could capitalize on.
- Special teams was one of the only strengths of the day for Atlanta, as Younghoe Koo also provided nearly half of their points on the day. Koo’s reliability should get him re-signed this offseason.
- The offense squandering a drive that started from the 49ers 12 yard line is absolutely unreal, yet entirely on brand for this team in 2021. They missed passes, came up short on running plays and generally blew it when confronted with a chance for glory. That is this team’s tortured 2021 journey in a nutshell.
It was part of a larger, frustrating trend for this offense, which is undone by errors of execution from Matt Ryan (who again had some questionable throws in this one), the line (we’ll get to them) and the team’s receiving options, and has routinely found itself unable to take advantage of favorable situations. I don’t want to say that priority one is fixing that—that would be silly, given that you don’t get too many chances to start from your opponent’s 12—but the confidence that this team can take advantage of their opportunities in 2022 and beyond is something I’d love to have sooner rather than later.
- The ground game! After a few successful weeks in a row, this team managed just 62 yards on 23 carries, with little to note in the way of blocking and far too many unsuccessful 1st and 2nd down carries that went nowhere and set this team up for tough situations. I hold the line primarily accountable for that—more on that shortly—and it’s telling that Ryan scrambling and Mike Davis’s heroic effort on a play where he was hit multiple times were the best plays of the day.
- We can’t let the defense off the hook, either, given the number of awful angles and missed tackles we saw in this one. Jimmy Garoppolo was forced into a number of shorter throws, but this team’s inability to bring down receivers and backs led to huge gains on simple five yard passes. Atlanta’s defense needs a talent upgrade, obviously, but there’s a big focus from Dean Pees and company on the fundamentals and they can’t be happy after that effort.
- The pass protection was one of my big fears coming into this game, and it proved to be a fair fear. Atlanta’s offensive efforts were undone multiple times by poor blocking and slow-developing plays, including a fatal third down sack on Matt Ryan that killed the team’s third offensive drive when they were looking to grab the lead after San Francisco tied it up at 3. Ryan was sacked three times, but he was also harried throughout the day,
It’s not all on Jalen Mayfield—Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary both had bad lapses in this one—but the rookie left guard does not appear to be making significant week-over-week progress, to put it mildly. Barring that over the final three games, they’re probably going to need to bring in competition for him, and look hard at the rest of the offensive line to determine whether it can protect Ryan or whoever the team acquires to replace him. This line’s letdown efforts this year have been borderline catastrophic, and the offense is only going to make so much progress if that continues. Of all the big offensive issues the team has to answer this offseason—Matt Ryan’s future and contract, upgrading the receiving corps, getting the most out of Kyle Pitts—the line feels most urgent.
- The defense just didn’t have it. The pass rush almost got home a couple of times, but didn’t. The secondary almost made a couple of big plays, but didn’t. The run defense...well, didn’t come close to bottling up Jeff Wilson. The end result was a team that allowed over 30 points and nearly 400 yards despite San Francisco having more than a couple of long drives to work with, and overall it was probably the most discouraging end-to-end defensive effort we’ve seen since the Cowboys game. Again, given the stakes here and the modest strides and big moments we had seen from this D the past couple of weeks against inferior opponents, it was not fun to see it all fly out the window.
- Was Cordarrelle Patterson really short of the end zone when his knee went down? I will go to my grave saying “maybe not.” That borderline call wound up turning an early touchdown drive into zero points thanks to iffy play calling and execution to follow, and that helped pave the way for the rest of the game.
- The red zone and short yardage failures came down to execution, sure, but role player targets and doomed-seeming toss plays are not a recipe for success. We can argue over Arthur Smith’s trust in his personnel, but this team’s best chances dying on the vine because of toss plays in short yardage situations and role player targets in the back of the end zone is deeply frustrating. The Falcons had their chances to score and at least keep this one competitive and couldn’t make it happen, which falls on the coaching staff and the players alike.
- This was the biggest game of the year for the Falcons, who surely knew what it meant for their playoff hopes if some random long-running Falcons blog did. The fact that they not only came out flat but were a mistake-ridden mess is incredibly discouraging. Whether that’s an indictment of the coaching staff, talent on the team, or both is a judgement call for Falcons fans, but it is the long-awaited final affirmation that this 2021 team just doesn’t have what it needs to be a true contender. May that change in 2022, because we’re all tired of seeing it.
Russell Gage? A couple of heroic catches, including the lone touchdown, might be enough for the honors. If you’re more inclined to give Matt Ryan an award for absorbing punishment, he’d also be a fitting choice.
The Falcons are who we thought they were, to borrow and twist something from Dennis Green. They’re an occasionally fun team lacking the talent and acumen to beat good teams, at least for now.
The suddenly dangerous Detroit Lions, who knocked off the Arizona Cardinals yesterday en route to their biggest victory of the year. Check out Pride of Detroit to learn more about next week’s opponent.