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Next man up isn’t just a slogan for the 2022 Falcons

Again and again, Atlanta has found contributions from players pushed into roles by injuries or necessity.

Atlanta Falcons vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At one point yesterday, the Falcons were rolling out a backup rookie inside linebacker, a rookie running back who was third on the depth chart to start the season, another second-year running back who was on the practice squad to begin the year, an undrafted free agent defensive tackle, a promoted practice squad tight end, a recently promoted practice squad defensive lineman, and their fourth, fifth, and sixth cornerbacks. Six games into the season, for reasons ranging from injury to changes of plan, the team is having to dig into their depth early and often.

In years past, that would’ve been a recipe for disaster. Last year’s Falcons squad was thinner than svelte paper, and the lack of depth at key positions has long been a theme for Atlanta, one that tends to rear its ugly head at the worst moments. That’s finally starting to change, though. Not only did the Falcons survive rolling out so many reserves in this one for significant roles against the 49ers, but several of those players wound up proving to be critical to the outcome.

To wit:

  • Caleb Huntley and Tyler Allgeier combined for over 100 yards on the ground, consistently picking up an extra yard or two through sheer force of will;
  • Troy Andersen led the team in tackles, made a potentially touchdown-saving stop on a long return, and generally looked something like the player the Falcons fell in love with before the draft in relief of an injured Mykal Walker;
  • MyCole Pruitt, a stellar blocker who probably deserves a longer look on the active roster, was flexed from the practice squad and made an excellent leaping touchdown grab;
  • Timothy Horne played well, especially against the run, and he and Abdullah Anderson are at least making the “this line has no depth” grumbling look a little dramatic;
  • Darren Hall entered the game for A.J. Terrell and had fantastic coverage and a pass deflection, saving what otherwise would’ve been a long completion to get the 49ers within striking distance, and also made an aggressive play on the ball that led to a tipped pass Jaylinn Hawkins ultimately intercepted;
  • Dee Alford, who found himself parked in favor of Isaiah Oliver for much of Sunday, came in late in relief alongside Mike Ford. Alford continued to play well and Ford was in on a huge run stop on the 49ers’ final, desperate drive of the game.

It was next man up all over the roster, and while every NFL team will tell you that’s a fact of life and something they’re comfortable with, relatively few squads actually have good enough depth to weather injuries, especially when they pile up at a single position. That was until very recently true of the Falcons as well, and while I still wonder what they’ll look like if injuries pile up at positions like safety or wide receiver, Terry Fontenot’s offseason moves have proven largely very savvy and the coaching staff very capable of getting these guys ready to go.

The Falcons are not a finished product and their depth will change and improve in 2023, especially along the defensive front, but the way players who may not have been expected to have significant roles heading into Week 1 are faring ranks among the many pleasant surprises of the first six games.