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Falcons - Buccaneers recap: An egregious call and a slow start end Atlanta’s latest big comeback attempt

Atlanta’s awful first half and the officiating crew’s late errors cost the Falcons the game.

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Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons came into Week 5 with something to prove. Beating the Buccaneers would’ve shown this team was a serious contender in the NFC this year, and it would have built on two strong wins in a row against depleted but solid enough football teams in Seattle and Cleveland. In a season most of us expect to fall well short of a Super Bowl, nevermind the playoffs, losing to the Bucs was not fatal, but would have been unwelcome given that we hate them and the loss would have significant divisional implications.

The Falcons did ultimately lose, but not before making things customarily interesting. Along the way, they picked up a roughing the passer call many observers called one of the worst they could remember. Never a dull moment for our guys.

It was ultimately a tale of two Falcons teams once again. Atlanta was somewhere between horrendous and just mediocre on offense for three full quarters, with Tampa Bay pitching a shutout against them while going up 21-0 by the third quarter. From there, Atlanta scored 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, finally reviving the offense and showing an admirable ability to clamp down hard on defense, setting themselves up to get a crack at a game-winning drive with less than two minutes to go. They appeared to have once again rounded into form late, and were threatening to knock off a team that had looked dominant against them just an hour before.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know if the Falcons would’ve completed the late comeback because of a truly egregious call. Grady Jarrett took down Tom Brady near the end of the game to chain together his third fourth quarter sack in as many games, but the officiating crew saw a roughing the passer call that was extremely questionable at best, and it wound up giving the Buccaneers the downs, yardage, and opportunity they needed to run out the clock and get the win. This is one of those games where you’ll always wonder what might have been had the call not interrupted destiny, and while I can’t be sure Atlanta ultimately would’ve won, it rankled that they weren’t afforded the opportunity.

If you take that away, we saw the Falcons team we all expected to see, whether your expectations were sky high or basement level. This team stumbled, failed to throw the ball effectively, had nightmare play on both lines for long stretches, and ultimately fell short. They also rallied late, adjusted to their shortcomings and found success on offense, clamped down hard defensively in the second half, and might have won if not for the intervention of the referees. Atlanta continues to straddle that line between being a team good enough to win against most teams but sloppy enough to lose to many, but we’ll hope they can rebound against San Francisco and show us that all that they’re getting better and leaving the listless halves (or three quarters in this case, I guess) of football in the past.

I hope that while you’re likely frustrated, you take away the encouraging thought that this team is far more capable and tenacious than they were a year ago. Atlanta’s likely to fall short of a winning season this year when all 17 games wrap up, but they are far from hopeless against contenders and look to be only a few pieces away from being a truly dangerous team. We’re only months away from seeing those offseason additions play out under a front office that has largely done a very good job of building the roster in Atlanta, and in the meantime, this team has shown they’re at least going to give us more interesting and competitive Sundays.

It doesn’t ease the sting of this one—I’m going to be thinking about this loss for a very long time, honestly, with some very grim thoughts about the state of NFL officiating—but it does remind us that the very real progress we’re seeing is still the most critical piece of the 2022 season. The Falcons are on their way to being the kind of team we haven’t seen in a long while, and we can take our spoonfuls of foul-tasting losses now if we get there soon.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Grady Jarrett bringing pressure on the first play of the game and keeping it rolling was such a fun thing to watch. The man who sacked Tom Brady three times in the Super Bowl once upon a time still seems animated by animus for the ancient quarterback, and as a Falcons fans, it just makes me love #97 more. His huge sack near the end of the game—which would have been his third game-changing play in three weeks—should have given Atlanta a shot at the game winner, if not for an awful call we’ll discuss later.

Jarrett is well on his way to a career season, and is the heart and soul of a defense that is pugnacious late, even if they haven’t put it all together yet.

  • Olamide Zaccheaus is good for about two catches per week, but they’re always impactful grabs. Once again, OZ led the team in yardage with 39, and also cashed in one of Atlanta’s two touchdowns on the day, proving to be a key target for Marcus Mariota when few others were. There’s little question that he’ll have a significant role—and make big plays—the rest of the seasobn.
  • Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley made the best of a tough day. There were a several plays where the backs simply couldn’t go anywhere without meeting contact, which was a throwback to Atlanta’s 2021 rushing attack, but they also took advantage of the blocking they did have and managed 79 yards on 21 carries. It was hardly an impressive day, but it was a reminder that both young backs are capable of better when they have the chances to provide it.
  • Speaking of rushing, Mariota did a great job in this one when he was given the opportunity, turning multiple broken plays into long gains that went for first downs. Mariota had a handful of great throws on Sunday, but on yet another uneven day for the passing attack, he made sure his runs were impactful and helped keep a struggling offense afloat, especially late. Defenses struggle to keep him in check when he runs, and that’s something the Falcons may need to lean on more frequently when nothing else is clicking.

As a passer, he was inconsistent as ever, but he had a better day than his final line suggests. Had it not been for a crucial KhaDarel Hodge drop and a Franks drop on a should’ve-been grab, he might have had a pair of touchdowns and over 150 yards, which would have at least been solid.

  • Troy Andersen played well, and with injuries piling up, he received more playing time on Sunday. He was making plays throughout the day, getting into the backfield, almost blocking a punt, and showcasing his superior athleticism in a million different ways. On a more uneven day from Rashaan Evans and Mykal Walker—Walker was injured, which was really unfortunate, but he was struggling before that—seeing Andersen flash his potential was very welcome. The team is clearly easing him in with the hope that he’ll be a special starter sooner than later, and it’s beyond encouraging to see his progress.
  • Casey Hayward had one of the best plays of the game in this one, throwing himself in front of a would-be touchdown bomb to Scotty Miller to prevent an early Tampa Bay score. After a couple of rough plays defined the first few games for him, Hayward has played pretty well, but that was a beauty worth mentioning. A.J. Terrell did great work most of the day, as well.
  • Avery Williams gets more and more dynamite as a returner by the week. In this one, he had multiple impressive ones, including a punt return in the third quarter where he stopped on a dime and stood up and let a defender lunge by him.

Oh, and he’s a pretty good back, as well. He proved slippery on Atlanta’s first score of the game, finding holes and eluding defenders en route to a long touchdown run. It’s fair to think he may be one of Atlanta’s more dangerous weapons sooner than later.

  • I appreciate the balls on Arthur Smith for that two point conversion try. Fail and you’re down eight to a team that had been beating you up all day, but succeed and you’re within six and a touchdown away from winning the game, and to his credit Smith trusted his guys enough to make the attempt despite a deeply uneven day. Mariota rewarded him with a completion to Hodge in the back of the end zone to cut the lead to six, and the Falcons were cooking again. It would be the last points they’d score, but they set themselves up to win the game in the end very nicely there.
  • I appreciate the team’s resilience even more. As Scott Bair wrote, this team has to stop putting themselves in a position where they’re scrapping and scraping just to get back into games in the second half. Even so, in my 30-plus years as a Falcons fan, I’ve seen plenty of teams that would have gone down 21-0 and barely put up a fight the rest of the way. These Falcons are maddening and not even close to being as good as they could be with additions and with all their many mistakes ironed out, but almost coming back to win against Tampa Bay is a sign that this team is going to be a tough out going forward.

The Ugly

  • The offense just didn’t have it for much of the day, and as Kevin Knight wrote, that would have been the story of the day had the roughing the passer call not taken over the headlines. The line was facing their toughest matchup against a very potent Buccaneers defensive front and they mostly failed the test, allowing Mariota to be pressured frequently and failing to open lanes for the running backs. The backs weren’t able to make something out of nothing, Mariota was still sailing throws and putting them in the dirt, and Feleipe Franks in particular wasn’t able to make much of his opportunities. Big drops by Franks and KhaDarel Hodge hurt two efforts on Sunday—one of Hodge’s would have been a touchdown, in all likelihood—and overall the team just looked incapable of putting it all together without Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts.

Unfortunately, things don’t get any easier next week against a tough 49ers defense, so we may see more struggles. The second half adjustments were, at least, signs that Atlanta can overcome a slow start, but they need to stop having those slow starts in the first place before some enterprising team finally puts a game out of reach for good.

  • Mariota’s accuracy and fumbles are still the anchors on his game, even if his final stat line looks far worse than his actual performance on the day. The line got him beat up today, but he was lucky to recover his one (and frankly inevitable) fumble, and he either sailed or skipped into the dirt multiple throws again on Sunday. Those fumbles will bounce into a defender’s hand one day and those throws will continue to either kill important drives or end up in a defender’s grasp, so these are issues Mariota has to clean up in order to unlock his potential, get this offense performing consistently, and fend off Desmond Ridder over the long haul.
  • His receivers were part of the struggle, too. KhaDarel Hodge and Feleipe Franks each had bad drops in this one, and when Mariota was on-target he didn’t get enough help from his non-Olamide Zaccheaus options. We expected the passing game to look a little shakier without Pitts and Patterson, and it did, but obviously teams are going to continue to try to stop the run and force Atlanta to throw their way through it. Missing gimme grabs, especially ones that have a good chance of turning into scores, simply can’t happen in that environment.
  • The offensive line struggled much of the day, as I mentioned above, and that likely doomed the offense more than anything Mariota and the wide receiver corps did Sunday. They allowed five sacks on Sunday, got Allgeier and Huntley stuffed in the backfield multiple times, and backed up the offense via holding calls on Drew Dalman and a facemask on Elijah Wilkinson. Jake Matthews was destroyed at least once by Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, and overall the line finally came up against a front that was too good left-to-right for them to contain. It’s a reminder that while this line has legitimately improved, particularly in terms of run blocking, they are not good enough to survive off days against really good defenses.
  • The defense had that admirable second half, but the lack of pressure on Tom Brady and the inability to stop Leonard Fournette were day-long frustrations. Jarrett should have had multiple sacks, but nobody else got all that close, and Fournette had room to work all day both on the ground and through the air after a deeply uneven start to the season. Tampa Bay’s talent is better than their early season results, so this was not shocking, but Atlanta’s having the same problems with coverage and missed tackles and streaky success applying pressure that they’ve had all season long (and really, back to last year). With a capable 49ers offense and potentially very good Bengals one coming up, some of that has to get cleaned up to avoid long days.
  • The officiating crew had a deeply uneven day. It benefited Atlanta early when they messed up some spots for Tampa Bay and arguably late when the crew missed a borderline pass interference call on A.J. Terrell. It was much more sour at other points in the game, as Atlanta was on the wrong end of questionable offensive and defensive holding calls and were on the wrong end of the worst roughing the passer penalty on Grady Jarrett I’ve seen this year after a perfectly clean sack.

That last call cost the Falcons a chance to try to complete the comeback, and there’s a reason it was universally slammed by observers both in Falcons fandom and well outside of it. The fact that the Falcons were screwed so badly and Tampa Bay fans and observers still found multiple bad calls to point to in order to try to offset our complaints tells you how sorry the state of that particular crew and NFL officiating more generally continues to be. The Falcons were right to be pissed off, and Jarrett in particular should be wroth that such a good, clean play was sullied by incompetence.

  • Younghoe Koo missed a field goal try, which is usually a sign that things are not going your way. I always urge you not to worry about him because he’s usually so reliable and that’s true here, but obviously if Atlanta makes that the game likely unfolds a little differently.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I don’t care that he ultimately wasn’t credited with the plays he deserved to be credited with, Grady Jarrett made most of the major plays on defense and would’ve been the MVP if not for that questionable call. We’re giving it to him in honor of his contributions, whether they showed up in the box score or not, and for the fact that he’s arguably been this team’s overall MVP period through five weeks.

One Takeaway

Atlanta has fight and heart that will carry them far, but they’re still going to struggle to hang with teams that can offer a balanced, quality offensive and defensive performance.

Next Week

A scary 49ers team that has enough weapons to overcome their middling quarterback play, plus one of the league’s tougher defenses. It will be, in many ways, a repeat of the matchup Atlanta just saw, which makes it imperative that Atlanta finds their way to a better outcome.

Final Word