The Falcons are 7-2 in one-score games, as Arthur Smith explained to reporters after Sunday’s 20-13 win against the Detroit Lions. That’s cause for celebration – especially given how this team has performed in close games the last few years – but when the team’s overall record is 7-8, it’s a bit more concerning.
This team knows how to beat comparable or bad teams, which may be the same thing, but it has still not reached the point of putting these teams away handily. All of these games have been close, and while the wins are certainly better than the alternative, incremental improvement can only take a team so far.
Still, there are some young players who look like they will be part of the solution moving forward, and they played like that in the win. Let’s take a closer look.Let’s tak
LB Foye Oluokun
The game-winning play would be in and of itself enough to earn Oluokun a spot here, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the type of play that Deion Jones would have formerly made for this Atlanta defense, but it’s telling that Oluokun was the one to clinch the game.
On an afternoon that has largely embodied Jones’s less-than-stellar campaign, Oluokun looked like the inside linebacker of the future for Atlanta. He still has plenty of athleticism, as Tori McElhaney’s great feature for the team website explains, but he’s now moved into the spotlight for this defense. Like his draft mate Russell Gage, it’s time to stop talking about Oluokun as a plucky longshot and more like the centerpiece he’s become.
TE Kyle Pitts
It’s weird what expectations can do for a person’s reputation. As it currently stands, only one tight end in NFL history has recorded more receiving yards in his first season than Pitts. And it’s likely that Pitts passes Mike Ditka on that list during his final two games. Nevertheless, we are kind of taking Pitts for granted. He recorded his third 100-yard game of the season, and while his touchdown numbers aren’t there, Falcons fans should be plenty used to that by this point.
We got spoiled by Julio Jones’s prime seasons, but Pitts is athletically at that level. He’s just not there yet from a knowledge standpoint and a feel for the NFL game, but everything we’ve seen points to him making that type of jump soon. He just made his first Pro Bowl, and it’s looking more likely than ever that the Falcons nailed this pick.
RG Chris Lindstrom
This was another excellent game from Chris Lindstrom, who unfortunately lost his mother, Dawn, to a battle with cancer prior to Sunday’s action. Lindstrom has played at a Pro Bowl level all season, even if he was overlooked by the voters. Against the Lions, Lindstrom was once again rock-solid. He earned a 92.5 grade from Pro Football Focus, his best grade of the season and tops among all offensive linemen for Week 16.
Matt Ryan has spent more than enough time on his back this season, but Lindstrom can’t be faulted for much of that. As the Falcons look to find a stable offensive line for the future, Lindstrom should now be considered the top building block.
LB Deion Jones
This has not been the best season for the former Pro Bowler, and three clear missed tackles didn’t put Deion Jones in the best light on Sunday. I still don’t think he’s been as abhorrent as some believe this year, and I do think scheme changes have played a role in his lower production rate. Still, Jones finished with 10 tackles, but he’s not been the blanket in coverage or the reliable tackler we’ve come to expect.
It will be very interesting to see what the Falcons choose to do with Jones this offseason, given their financial restraints. He still has plenty to offer, but with Oluokun’s emergence, is Jones still a priority for the team?
OLB Steven Means
There were a lot of Falcons fans, me included, who were excited when Steven Means earned a starting role in training camp. He’s been an incredibly hard worker throughout his career; he’s a great locker room presence and an energetic player on the field, but the production has not really been there this season.
Means does not yet have a sack in 2021, and he has just two tackles for a loss and two quarterback hits on the year. That’s not to say he’s been a bad player, but he hasn’t exactly been the answer at a spot that remains the clearest weakness on the roster.
WR Russell Gage
I mean this as only the slightest of stock downs. This is just a bad week of press, and the hope is everything turns right around the next fiscal week. Not only did Gage have the late-game fumble that suddenly put the Lions in a great spot to win the game, but he wasn’t a major factor even when the offense seemed to have a pass-heavy script.
Now, nobody expected Gage to suddenly become the true No. 1 receiver the Falcons have been missing, but he’s better than the 39-yard showing he had on Sunday. Most importantly, though, he got bailed out of the fumble and lives on to fight another day. He’ll turn this around, but he’s got a very tough matchup in Week 17.