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Falcons vs. Buccaneers recap: An unexpectedly game effort ends in an expected way

Atlanta hung in the game for a while, but they’re not quite there yet.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

The Falcons were within three points of the Buccaneers. Down 21-10 at the half and having kicked off the second half festivities with an interception that set up a touchdown drive for the Bucs, Atlanta scored two touchdowns in quick succession and forced the Bucs to punt twice in a row.

In a movie, the Falcons would’ve completed the upset. The plucky underdog would’ve been victorious after showing you their mettle, with a clearly hurt Russell Gage likely being the one to put them over the top. Given that the Buccaneers just won the Super Bowl last year and the Falcons have been woeful for years, it would’ve been a feel-good win for just about anybody who isn’t a Bucs or possibly Saints fan. But as we know, real life doesn’t emulate the movies, and the Falcons aren’t a team you can trust to pull off a miracle.

Instead, the Falcons turned a three point deficit into a 23 point loss. Matt Ryan threw not one but two pick sixes, and Tampa Bay turned an unexpectedly tense effort into a blowout win as Atlanta collapsed inward like a neutron star from something like the 14th time in their last 16 efforts. Even the very best this team can offer is “you can imagine how it might’ve turned into a win,” and we’re all tired of that. Even when it’s against a team as good as the Buccaneers, which should make this loss easier to swallow, the specific ways the team finds to fall apart remain aggravating.

Because this isn’t a film with a clean narrative arc, there’s no telling where this goes from here. If you’re cynical it’s very easy (and probably justified) to say that this team is stuck in a familiar rut of failure and abandon ship. If you’re hopeful, it’s easy to point out that this team was unnervingly sloppy and still could’ve kept this one close until the end if not for a couple of tipped passes and unlucky breaks. Either way, the reality is that the Falcons lost, are now 0-2, and the talk of being competitive this year was fun talk but already seems destined to look awful in hindsight. We had questions regarding whether better coaching and a handful of key additions could make a huge difference for this Falcons team, and outside of Cordarrelle Patterson being truly electric, the answer so far is clearly no. The talent level across the roster is a work in progress, and so is the coaching.

We’re going to slog through every single week of this season, but the larger question that matters is obviously what this Falcons team transforms into and whether this offseason’s hires will prove to be the ones to turn the ship around. We’re just two weeks into the year and Atlanta came close enough to pushing the Bucs that it’s unwise to shovel a ton of dirt on their season, but it’s clear that they’re going to have to struggle for every win and every bit of improvement and that Arthur Smith and this roster are works in progress. It stinks to be talking about progress instead of postseason dreams just two weeks into the season—and again, it’s not close to over yet—but

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • What a nice tipped pass by A.J. Terrell on the opening drive, saving what surely would’ve been a touchdown pass. The fact that the Bucs scored two plays later should not diminish the fine work Terrell did on that play, and he chipped in another heads-up play to tip a pass later on. The fact that the Falcons might be without him next week after he left the game with a concussion is a big problem.
  • It was a good week for Kyle Pitts, who led the team in receiving and generally took a step forward over last week. He took a Matt Ryan dart that was slightly behind him and turned it into a major gain with absolutely unreal acceleration, a signature play on an otherwise solid day, and he, Calvin Ridley and Cordarrelle Patterson are the engines that are going to make this passing game go in 2021. As his current pace of more than doubling his receiving yards every week, he’ll be putting up outlandish numbers by the end of the season.
  • Matt Ryan put together some nice drives in this one after another rough start, evading pressure effectively and connecting on enough nice passes to bring the Falcons back into this one. A series of tipped passes and missed connections wound up turning into three interceptions and fueled the Bucs’ big comeback, but on balance Ryan was both much better and much more comfortable this week than he was against the Eagles, which is great to see.
  • Dante Fowler has absorbed a lot of abuse from this fanbase after a lackluster 2020, but he made an absolutely tremendous play in this one. Fighting his way through a block, Fowler not only sacked Brady but also forced a fumble the Falcons recovered in the first quarter, and it’s not his fault that they didn’t do enough with it. Hopefully this was just the start of a rejuvenated, quality campaign for him.
  • Jalen Mayfield had a false start and was not exactly lights out in this one, but considering he played abysmally in Week 1, this effort still felt like a step in the right direction. The Falcons will likely continue to roll with him in Week 3, and then we’ll see what happens when Josh Andrews is eligible to return.
  • The defense fared better overall against a slow-moving Tom Brady than they did against Jalen Hurts, with Marlon Davidson and Deion Jones chipping in excellent sacks and the team coming up with some crucial stops along the way. Of course, Brady still threw for five touchdown passes and the Falcons surrendered plenty of points, so we’re again talking about progress rather than anything resembling perfection.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson has been under-utilized most of his career, apparently. In this one, he took a carry in what looked like a run play doomed for a short yardage and showed the proper pop and wiggle to turn it into a touchdown. He didn’t do much else on the ground, Dave Ragone and Charles London seem to have stumped for Patterson, and that was absolutely one of the best decisions of the offseason.

Davis has been an asset thus far in 2021—his ability and willingness to power through contact is evident—but Patterson’s usage may increase as long as the offensive line is having problems, given his dynamic ability. It’s a two-man backfield, either way.

The Ugly

  • The offense just can’t keep things going for very long right now. When things are firing on all cylinders, as they mostly were on Atlanta’s pretty mostly pretty touchdown drive in the early part of the third quarter, this team is connecting crisply on short passes, receivers are picking up some extra yardage, and the Falcons look difficult to stop. When they’re not, as was the case late in the game, the likes of Kaleb McGary and Matt Hennessy are getting blown up, defenders are tipping passes and jumping routes, and Smith’s play calling starts to look like that of a man counting on four consecutive three yard plays to move the chains.
  • The offensive line did hold up a bit better, on balance, but that’s like saying a foot of water in your basement is better than an inch of water in your living room. McGary and Hennessy looked worryingly lost for long stretches of this game, and in the late going the Buccaneers planned to run over Hennessy and were successful in doing so. There’s no question Smith needs to figure out a way to balance getting the ball out quickly with actually picking up yardage and that Ryan can be sharper in the face of pressure, but the line’s inability to consistently give plays time to develop is a major limiting factor for the entire team.
  • This team simply starts too slowly right now. They were down 7-0 in the first quarter and 21-10 at halftime owing to some anemic coverage and the offense taking a long time to get unspooled, and they’re going to lose plenty of games to quality opponents if they can’t strike early. That will presumably come with time, but given how close they got to making this a game, that early effort has to be viewed as costly.
  • Given the final score, the defense once again did better work than you’d suspect if you were just catching up on the game. The number of times the Falcons failed to get home and wound up allowing an easy completion to a wide open defender was still disheartening, and is something I really hope we don’t see against the Giants or I’m going to tear out what remains of my hair. We certainly know the Falcons need to add talent to this group to take a major step forward, but seeing fewer familiar mistakes would be a nice start.
  • Cam Nizialek was solid enough last week, but he has also posted two shanks this week and may not still be with Atlanta in a week’s time, as Jeff Schultz at The Athletic is reporting the Falcons will work out punters. The Falcons did not need to add “searching for a punter” to their list of current woes, but given how costly that second mistake was in particular, I’m not surprised they’re doing it.
  • The Falcons have made a number of worrying decisions through two weeks, the kind that make you think this team is not ready for primetime. The weird Russell Gage fourth down wildcat play that led to nothing is one example, the fourth down sneak into the teeth of the Bucs defense, and Smith’s willingness to challenge a play he had no business challenging are all good examples of this team looking like it has a lot to figure out before it can start winning games.

I think you can hang a lot of that on coaching, if that wasn’t clear. Arthur Smith has put together a quality staff on paper and has enough of a track record on offense in Tennessee to believe this thing will get turned around to at least some extent, but we are just two weeks into his rookie season and we’re obviously not looking at a lot to hang our hats on. If we’re at the end of year one and these kinds of decisions and struggles are persisting, you have my permission to freak out. Until then, we’re waiting to see this team follow through on its promise to adapt, improve and challenge one another and get this thing back on track with a couple of easier matchups looming.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Cordarrelle Patterson? In the end, he put up 69 yards on 12 touches, but also scored two touchdowns and looks like one of the fastest and most aggressive players on the entire team. As the most consistently interesting and dynamic playmaker on a team that was expected to have more than a few, he deserves some recognition even if the team has yet to fully maximize what he can do on offense.

One Takeaway

Atlanta’s week-over-week improvement is worth noting, especially given the competition, but their inability to make plays when they need to and avoid costly mistakes is going to cap their upside significantly in 2021 barring some drastic improvement.

Next Week

Atlanta gets the also struggling Giants, who nearly beat the Washington Football Team in a wild Thursday Night Football game but have significant issues the Falcons ought to be able to take advantage of. Check out Big Blue View for more.

Final Word