This was expected to be a tightly contested matchup between the Falcons and the Browns, and that’s exactly what it was. As Atlanta continues its season of growth, this was also a major step in the right direction.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Falcons did what they needed to and emerged with a 23-20 victory to improve to 2-2 on the season. They accomplished this victory in a variety of ways, leaning on the run game at times and getting some big plays from the defense. Every game in the NFL is different, and the Falcons are showing a penchant for entering each contest with a specific game plan to maximize their chances. That speaks to quality coaching and execution, which is absolutely transferable week-to-week.
With a two-game win streak on our hands, let’s take a look at some of the immediate takeaways (not unlike the one Dee Alford made to win the game).
Atlanta is (again) learning how to win close games
The hope for this season was that it would feature plenty of growth and competitive play from the Falcons. Through four games, we’ve seen plenty of each. Atlanta has been in each and every game they’ve played in 2022, and the Falcons are gaining some very valuable experience because of it.
After giving up the lead in the third quarter, the Falcons didn’t blink. They continued to stick to their offensive game plan and tightened up on the defensive side to chip away and eventually regain the lead late in the fourth quarter on a Younghoe Koo field goal. Like last year, it wasn’t always pretty, but this team has developed a penchant for gritty wins under Arthur Smith.
Caleb Huntley sparks the Falcons
It was tough sledding for Atlanta’s offense in the second half until Huntley entered the game. Or perhaps it was Derrick Henry wearing a Huntley jersey. The second-year running back who was promoted from the practice squad prior to Sunday’s outing provided a huge boost for a flagging Falcons offense in the third quarter.
Following a pair of three-and-outs to start the second half, the Falcons decided it was time to lean on the run game. They ran the ball 10 straight times with Huntley receiving eight of those carries, including a 5-yard touchdown. On the drive, he gained 54 yards and provided Atlanta with the lead. If Patterson’s injury lingers, the Falcons should have a stable of backs they can turn to.
Dee Alford delivers
What a time for the rookie’s first career interception. Alford was a star in training camp, earning a roster spot and significant playing time, and he continues to show why. The Falcons needed someone to step up on defense, and Alford rose to the occasion with a game-sealing turnover.
Missed tackles kept the game close in the first half
Atlanta’s defense played fairly well for most of the first half – Donavan Peoples-Jones’s big play aside – but missed tackles proved costly. In particular, Mykal Walker missed an open-field tackle on third down that set up a fourth-and-short that the Browns converted. That drive resulted in a touchdown on a play that also featured a few missed tackles.
Missed tackles haven’t been an egregious issue for the Falcons so far this season, but against a team as efficient and effective on offense as the Browns, any extra granted opportunities can really hurt. Fortunately, the Falcons did enough to survive these miscues, and tackling is something that can be improved with practice.
The offense hits a few bumps in the road
The Falcons entered Sunday’s game with only three three-and-outs this season, but they added to that total against Cleveland. Atlanta’s first two drives of the second half both ended after three plays from the offense. Fortunately, the defense was able to respond with stops of their own, but Atlanta had a prime opportunity to put Cleveland in a bind if it kept its offensive flow going.
Once they turned to the run game, however, the offense came back to life. That seems to be the key to success for the Falcons this season, which isn’t a surprise given Smith’s ability to scheme up quality looks on the ground. Atlanta finished the game with 202 rushing yards, which topped the 177 yards on the ground put forth by Cleveland, a team which had entered the game as the league’s best rushing offense.
Calls for Desmond Ridder grow louder
We don’t quite know when Ridder’s time will come in Atlanta, but there is a growing portion of the fan base that would like for that to happen sooner rather than later. Marcus Mariota hasn’t done much to quell those requests, and his play on Sunday likely fueled them. The former No. 2-overall pick has done his part to keep the offense efficient, particularly with his legs, but he had several poor throws against the Browns that held his unit back.
With the Falcons emerging victorious, it’s unlikely that Mariota, who finished the game a paltry 7-of-19 for 139 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, will be shelved next week. However, these wins have largely been delivered by other members of the team, and Mariota’s fourth-quarter blunders are starting to become a real thing.