The Falcons have been saving their starters for the regular season, with the hope that they’d be healthy and that they’d hit the ground running. They got to the regular season mostly healthy, so that part of their plan worked, but they also looked like a team that had never even heard of the concept of “ground” or “running” before. Atlanta got absolutely smoked at home by an Eagles team they were at least expected to hang with, and now our first impression of the 2021 Falcons is an abysmal one.
Atlanta stunk. They stunk on defense, sure, but they stunk a lot more on offense, the side of the ball where the coaching change was supposed to make the biggest difference. Jalen Mayfield and to a lesser extent Matt Hennessy were eaten alive, the Falcons offense was creaky and crummy outside of some early success, and the defense was merely mediocre. The result was a full-scale immolation. We know from past experience that Week 1 isn’t always indicative of a team’s fortunes—the 31-24 loss to the Bucs in the first week of 2016 was ugly but didn’t tell the tale of what was ahead—but losing this badly in a game you led, at home, after the opening drive is deeply discouraging.
I’m sure you can lay some of the sloppiness on the team not having its starters out there for game situations in preseason—I supported the team trying to keep starters in good shape for the year but the downside of doing so was a potential hit to readiness—but their troubles went beyond that. Kyle Pitts was not heavily involved and the team’s struggles to get the ball out ahead of pressure and get receivers open generally continued, Atlanta elected to run in suboptimal situations and punt when they really needed to be aggressive, and generally treated this one like it was yet another preseason game they just needed to get through and learn from. Penalties, execution errors and narrow misses can be laid at the feet of players, but a whole-team effort like this points at a failure of the coaching staff, and Smith viewed it as such after the game.
"I did a real poor job of getting us ready to go." Arthur Smith said he doesn't think this game will define the Falcons in 2021.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) September 12, 2021
Wondering aloud whether Terry Fontenot and company were simply trying to keep fans invested by insisting this team was not trying to rebuild was fair, but losing to an obviously better-than-expected but still re-tooling Eagles team 32-6 is another matter entirely. The final result of this one suggests that the Falcons, if they don’t manage to prove this was a fluke next weekend, are going to be vying to be one of the worst teams in football again. If that’s the case, the decisions geared around trying to thread the needle and both contend and re-tool by adding young talent and churning the bottom of the roster are going to come under justified scrutiny as the season goes on.
If I’m searching for positives, this was so bad that it can’t help but get better, even if an upcoming game against the defending Super Bowl champions is going to test that theory mightily. The Falcons are not entirely barren of talent and have more than enough firepower and seemingly coaching acumen on offense to do better than this, especially with Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson looking so capable on the ground early on.
The question is whether they can stun everyone and upset the Buccaneers next week, or whether they’ll be off to an 0-2 start that has us thinking about the upcoming offseason far too early for the fourth consecutive season. That deeply unpleasant possibility is all I’m going to be thinking about for the next week after Atlanta sank lower than even the most dour fans might’ve imagined they would against Philadelphia, but there’s at least a small sliver of hope that this is as bad as it will get for Atlanta this season.
On to the full recap.
- The Falcons made beautiful things happen in the open field early on, and it was largely thanks to their ground game and Matt Ryan’s connection with Calvin Ridley. The team ran beautifully in the early going, with quality blocking and decisive running from Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson, and Ridley snagged 39 of his 51 yards on the day on the opening drive. It’s too bad that was as good as it got, but it was a glimpse of what the Falcons can do and one we need to see a lot more of.
- Cordarrelle Patterson has apparently been waiting for an opportunity to play running back full-time, because he was stellar in this one. Routinely we saw him power through contact, show frightening burst and make decisive cuts to pick up additional yards, making it readily evident why the Falcons only activated Mike Davis and Patterson for Sunday’s game. Regardless of how good Gallman proves to be, Patterson will have a role in this offense.
- Jacob Tuioti-Mariner had his shaky moments, like many Falcons defenders, but he also made a couple of nice plays and came up with Atlanta’s lone sack. On a day where the pass rush either didn’t materialize or got close without actually taking Jalen Hurts down, it was
- Grady Jarrett was a little quiet in the first quarter, but in the second quarter he did a very Grady Jarrett thing, pursuing Jalen Hurts to the ends of the earth and forcing a limp incompletion on fourth down to kill an Eagles drive. The Falcons are in trouble if Jarrett consistently has to do it all himself, but at least we know he’s good for at least one awe-inspiring play per game.
- Younghoe Koo and Cam Nizialek did a good job. You don’t want to be hitting the specialists four or five bullet points into this but that’s where we are.
- Above everything else, I’m going to think about the passing game. Just one player (Ridley) averaged over 10 yards per reception, a sign of the kind of quick-developing plays Smith wants to run without any of the yards after the catch he hopes will materialize. Players didn’t get open, including long stretches of disappearance from Pitts and Ridley, and Matt Ryan did not thrive under pressure, picking up a pair of intentional ground calls and fumbling late in the game.
The result was a super anemic passing attack, and that’s a problem because it’s supposed to be one of the team’s 2021 strengths. Ryan’s 164 yards were the 14th-lowest total of his career, it was just the 25th time he was held without a touchdown through the air, and the ground game did enough to set up the Falcons passing game, as the old saw/myth goes. Atlanta’s offensive line woes were obviously a major factor here, but Atlanta’s considerable talent at quarterback and the skill positions should have allowed them to do something more than what they did. This has to be a fluke or this team is toast and Smith’s acumen is going to be called into question very quickly.
- I think, for the sake of our collective sanity, that this defense couldn’t be bad in the first game of the season...and they weren’t awful. Atlanta’s offense struggling mightily meant they were on the field a lot in this one.
That said, I think even Eagles fans did not necessarily believe Jalen Hurts was capable of pulling off the kind of hyper-efficient effort he managed against Atlanta, and we’ll know in a couple of weeks whether that was the product of playing this Falcons defense or a sign that the Eagles are heading for bigger and brighter things. Either way, the pass rush just didn’t get home, there were plenty of missed tackles and penalties, and just enough coverage miscues to wonder what will happen against an offense like, say, Tampa Bay’s.
My concerns about the pass rush in particular never really went away this summer, but Dean Pees has a reputation for getting the most out of what he has on hand and I was hoping for the best. This effort was not inspiring enough to make me feel like this team is going to be overcome its many issues and put a surprisingly good D on the field.
- I said going into this game that I’m probably one of Jalen Hurts’ bigger fans outside of Philadelphia, with a bedrock belief that he can be a solid starter. I don’t even think the most rabid Eagles homers would’ve seen him having this great of a game, though, and I certainly didn’t. The Falcons did have nice stretches against him, but in general Hurts was able to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket and find open receivers, and the team’s plans to deal with his mobility weren’t good enough on balance to win the day. It certainly looks like Hurts has made drastic strides over last year, but we’ve seen Atlanta struggle with quarterbacks who can move well and scramble when needed in the past, and this certainly feels like more of the same.
- The Falcons didn’t play Kyle Pitts in preseason to keep him healthy, but there was always the risk that he wouldn’t be ready to go in Week 1 as a result. Considering in the first half he was targeted four times and had just one catch—albeit a tough short yardage one that picked up a first down—that criticism seemed on point.
In fact, the team’s decision to not play starters kept them healthy should merit its own mention here. The decision did keep most of this team’s starters healthy and good to go for this one, but there was always the risk that not playing together would result in some sloppiness in the early going. They delivered the worst case scenario in that regard, as this team was victimized over and over again by penalties that killed offensive drives and extended defensive ones. Smith alluded to a lack of readiness, and it looked like from both a coaching and player perspective that everyone was just rusty and unprepared, which is a bad look when the games start counting. Week 1 is Week 1, but if the Falcons can’t squeeze a much cleaner effort out of this roster in Week 2 and can’t get a matchup nightmare like Pitts more work, the alarm bells will be clanging.
- Jalen Mayfield left the game for a while and came back full of jitters, poor blocking and penalties. The team drafted him for his upside and physicality, but we saw virtually zero of either in his first start of 2021. It’s worth noting that he was not alone—Matt Hennessy got run over on one play and didn’t have a great day overall against a tough matchup, Drew Dalman drew a penalty in relief and the blocking in general got worse as the game went on—but obviously this was not the effort Mayfield or Arthur Smith were hoping for. Things were memed with customary quickness.
All that said, I advocated for the Falcons to start Mayfield if they believe he can be their left guard for the long haul, and if they still believe that I’m still advocating it. The Falcons don’t have the budget to significantly upgrade at left guard, they don’t have other options who offer readily evident upside compared to Mayfield, and they have already put themselves in an unfavorable position to contend for 2021 by dropping this first game so badly. They will want to win—despite evidence to the contrary in this one—and if they think Mayfield’s not going to quickly improve somewhat they could well drop him and hope to get his confidence and skill boosted heading into 2022 or the next time they need him.
Mayfield taking his lumps now and becoming a quality starter later would be a major positive for this Falcons team, so unless their faith has been shaken by what they saw in Week 1, Atlanta’s just got to hold their noses and keep going. If what they saw was so beyond the pale they can’t do that—and that does feel like a possibility—expect them to look hard at Dalman and Colby Gossett, and to sniff around free agency with their very limited dollars.
- Good teams play well enough that they’re not reliant on a couple of calls to deliver them victory, but the Falcons didn’t play well enough to avoid being victimized by the zebras.
In total, Atlanta was penalized 12 times for 99 yards, or nearly the entire length of the field. You can’t expect a team that lost by 26 to win based on penalties alone, but they surely kept this one from being competitive, and aside from a couple of weird calls (particularly what sure looked like a non-catch in the end zone for the Eagles) they largely did it to themselves. That ought to prompt some reflection for a team that
- The rest of the division won, with the Saints absolutely beating the green and yellow out of the Packers en route to a 38-3 win. That just pours more salt on the wound for this Falcons team, and that wound was already plenty salty.
This used to be a rare award, but I’m giving to every Falcons fan who endure this. Beyond the first couple of drives, this was a death march in the direction of misery, and if you stuck around for the entire thing you absolutely deserve praise for doing so.
One Big Takeaway
The Falcons genuinely didn’t look ready to play in an NFL regular season game, especially as the game rolled on for the offense. It’s just one game, but that’s beyond ominous.
The Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, fresh off an impressive last minute win against a game Cowboys team. Atlanta either stuns us or gets steamrolled here. Check out Bucs Nation for more about the opponent.