The Falcons were not going to win this game in most universes, not without fluke or the favor of the gods on their side. The effort they put forward figured to tell you a lot about their progress, even so, and the hope was for a surprisingly great effort.
So here’s the skinny: Their progress is still very much a work in progress, and the effort was game but not close to being enough to win the game. They are clearly not good enough to beat the league’s elite teams, or even come all that close to doing so. They are clearly good enough to beat fellow bad teams, or at least hang in until the very end. What can they do against decent-but-not-spectacular teams like the 49ers and Panthers? That’s about the only question left with bad Lions and Saints and a good Bills team left.
What we do know is that when confronted with the Buccaneers and Patriots of the world, the Falcons aren’t up to the task, as a solid day on their end still finished up as a 13 point loss. You can and will likely argue that a handful of dumb mistakes and bad play calls cost the Falcons an opportunity at keeping this one close, but would they have won if they had played a perfectly clean game? At the very least, it’s a big question mark, and I personally believe their best would not have been good enough. This team rushed for over 100 yards and threw for nearly 300, but their mistakes and limitations outweighed their sometimes impressive production.
It took a miraculous, phenomenal play from Marlon Davidson to put this one within reach. It took unexpected terrific first half plays by Cordarrelle Patterson and Mike Davis to keep it close. If anything, the gap between these two teams was underscored by the caliber of play Atlanta had to make to keep it within reach. That makes this loss not a particular disappointment or lesson for those feeling hubris about this Falcons team, but an opportunity to talk more about what the Falcons have to do to come close to being able to beat a team like the Buccaneers. The answer, which might be discouraging, is a tremendous amount of work.
We may disagree on the exact reasons the Falcons have the limitations they have, but the Bucs revealed them again. All the motivation in the world and a handful of heroic efforts aren’t enough to lift this roster and this coaching staff to the point where they can triumph over one of the better teams in the NFL. If all goes well in the next offseason or two, that will change, but while anything can happen we can be fairly confident the Falcons won’t gin up some miracle run at 5-7 and ride it deep into January. They’ll be in the playoff picture—boy, the NFC doesn’t want to cleanly decide on seven playoff teams—but the Bucs loss is the latest convincing piece of evidence that this team can’t fly close enough to the sun to burn their wings.
On to the breakdown.
- Let’s start with the play of the game and maybe the year. With less than 30 seconds on the clock and Tampa Bay trying to get cute and make something happen with a 10 point lead before the half, Marlon Davidson somehow read Tom Brady like a book and brought in a one-handed interception that he returned for a short pick six. It was an incredible read and play by Davidson, a player I love and have been waiting to see put it all together, and it was a massive momentum swing that brought Atlanta within three points just before halftime.
The awareness and the athleticism required to make that kind of play are rare. Hopefully this is just one of many such jaw-dropping efforts for Marlon Davidson in the years to come, and it’ll be a play I’ll return to whenever I need to feel happy.
- The opening drive featured two of the prettiest runs of the entire 2021 season. Cordarrelle Patterson got it going by turning one nice block into a couple of broken tackles and a huge rumble to get the Falcons within striking distance, and then Mike Davis took full advantage of a beautiful Chris Lindstrom effort and took it to the house.
The fact that the Falcons had 100 yards at the half against a run defense as good as Tampa Bay’s tells you they’re finally figuring things out there, and it’s a shame they didn’t make more of an attempt and enjoy the same kind of success in the second half.
- Russell Gage is coming on at last. In this one, he routinely made extra efforts to pick up yardage and reeled in tough catches in traffic, something he excelled at in 2020 when given the opportunity. In this one, minus the ball that was stripped out of his hand for a costly fumble Tampa Bay recovered—and I don’t want to entirely gloss over that—he was the team’s most reliable and productive receivers.
If Gage can consistently show an ability to make those catches and gets yards after the catch, we might see him back next year. He just can’t produce like this and drag the Falcons to a victory on his own.
- I think Olamide Zaccheaus has been an asset for this team this year, and that’s especially true on special teams. He had a beautiful tackle that stopped a return dead early in this one, and I have to imagine his value as an occasionally useful receiver and core special teamer will have him back in Atlanta in 2022. He also snagged three catches for 44 yards, good for third on the team on Sunday.
- The constant push and pull with Deion Jones this year has been between those highlight reel moments we know him for and the kinds of errors that this defense just can’t afford. His missed coverage near the end zone on the opening Buccaneers drive allowed for a beautiful uncontested catch and a touchdown, and given that coverage has been Jones’ calling cards, those moments are troubling.
The thing is, he also did a lot of great work, showcasing consistently terrific run defense and improving pass defense that includes a couple of nice tipped passes against the Buccaneers. Jones is talented enough to be a centerpiece of this defense when it’s rebuilt, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Falcons try to build around him in 2022.
- Thomas Morstead gave the Bucs a long field more than once, and it’s not his fault that the Falcons didn’t exactly keep them inside their own 20 from there.
- Ryan is getting sacked too often for reasons that range from “his line is giving him no shot” to “he’s getting through his progressions a little too slowly.” On Sunday, it was the interior of the line getting destroyed over and over again, particularly Jalen Mayfield, and it probably was the difference between the Falcons bringing this one down to the wire and not coming close to doing so. Ryan needs to get rid of the ball more quickly at times—it was a factor in at least two of those sacks—but he also stood no chance on the majority of them. The offensive line continues to frustrate, and the passing attack continues to be limited as a result.
- Tajae Sharpe has been one of Matt Ryan’s most sure-handed targets this year, so a second down drop in the first quarter that helped kill Atlanta’s second drive was probably due but still very frustrating. Atlanta’s just not getting enough out of its wide receivers aside from Gage right now.
- Two botched snaps in this one with Dalman at center. He’s fared well as a blocker, but that’s not something this offense can afford, as one of those botched snaps is going to wind up in another team’s hands. Hopefully that’s just a blip.
- The team’s second quarter drive that ended in three was incredibly frustrating. After pushing through several obstacles to get to the half yard line, Atlanta had a botched snap, missed pass interference call and missed opportunities and had to settle for a field goal, which should never happen when you’re that close to the goal line.
- Defensively, this team was unable to build on a couple of stronger efforts against the Patriots and Jaguars. In a way that’s not surprising, given that the Bucs are a much stiffer challenge, but it was dispiriting to see the pass rush fail to get home and coverage breakdowns throughout the day. Hell, it was frustrating to see how close Atlanta came to making a handful of plays only to fall an inch or a microsecond short.
- This team, as I’ve said repeatedly this year, is not good enough to overcome a host of mistakes. Unfortunately, they made a lot in this one, between drops, ill-timed sacks, coverage mishaps and penalties, including two on the usually steady Jake Matthews. When you want to beat one of the best teams in the NFL, you can probably afford a mistake or two if you’re incredibly crisp the rest of the day. The Falcons were more often crisped than crisp.
- The coaching staff’s decision-making is still a work in progress, and the hope here is that we’ll be putting a lot of that behind us by next . Atlanta choosing to empty the backfield on a third and short with Matt Ryan getting harried was a weird move that worked out precisely as well as you thought it might, and this team had zero answers for a short passing attack by Tom Brady and the Buccaneers that basically rolled on unchallenged and unchanging throughout the game, with no pressure or coverage adjustments making a dent. Coaching alone can’t solve all this team’s problems, but it’d be nice to see it solve a few more.
Marlon Davidson. That play was so good it deserves this level of recognition.
I think I said it above: The Falcons can’t beat really good teams this year. Getting to the point where they can and do next year and beyond is the urgent focus
The imploding Panthers, who just parted ways with offensive coordinator Joe Brady and seem to have no real plan. They beat the Falcons earlier this year so we can’t assume anything about how this one is going to go. Visit Cat Scratch Reader for more about the Panthers.