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Falcons – Bengals: 7 takeaways from a sobering road loss

After a strong performance at home, the Falcons look lackluster in a cross-division matchup on the road

Atlanta Falcons at Cincinnati Bengals NFL Week 7 Sam Greene-The Enquirer

Coming off of their best performance of the season, the Falcons played arguably their worst game on the road in a 35-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. In honor of Halloween, the score turned downright spooky, and the Bengals’ vaunted passing attack haunted a diminished Falcons secondary.

Offensively, the Falcons never found a rhythm and struggled to put up points quickly once falling behind in the first quarter. Days like Sunday were always to be expected and should serve as a reminder that Atlanta is still in the midst of a journey. We’ve seen glimpses of what the future could hold, and perhaps how that future could unfold in an even brighter fashion, but the team is not there quite yet.

There’s no shame in losing on the road, especially to the reigning AFC champions, but the Falcons will have to wait at least another week for their next opportunity to pull above .500.

Let’s get into some takeaways from Week 7.

Joe Burrow shreds the banged-up Falcons secondary

The Falcons entered Sunday’s game without No. 2 corner Casey Hayward Jr. and skilled rotational piece Dee Alford in the secondary, and things didn’t get better from there. A.J. Terrell left the action early after re-aggravating a leg injury, and reserve corner Mike Ford also exited the action after sustaining an injury on special teams.

Down several important pieces, Atlanta was at a huge disadvantage to defend what is arguably Cincinnati’s greatest strength – its passing offense. Joe Burrow looked like a league MVP against the Falcons, dicing them up in every way imaginable. He hit short, quick passes to beat the blitz in the nick of time. He delivered perfectly placed deep shots for explosive touchdowns. He evaded pressure and made pinpoint passes on the run. He did everything.

On paper, the Falcons didn’t appear to have many answers for Cincinnati’s loaded offense except to make this a true off day for Burrow. The opposite of that happened, and it’s the No. 1 reason for Sunday’s outcome.

Burrow finished the game completing 34 of his 42 pass attempts for 481 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He had a quarterback rating of 138.2 and also scored a rushing touchdown.

Bengals dominate the first quarter

One week after stepping on the gas in the first quarter against the 49ers, the Falcons couldn’t seem to find a way to disengage their parking brake against the Bengals. Atlanta gave up some short passes on the first drive of the game, but a slip by Richie Grant allowed the Bengals to strike first on a 60-yard pass from Joe Burrow to Tyler Boyd. Bending only works as long as there isn’t such an egregious break.

The Falcons put together a trickle of a drive in response, but miscues on back-to-back screen passes ended any threat by the visiting team. On the Bengals’ second offensive drive, a large boulder was added to the Falcons’ uphill climb. While covering star receiver Ja’Marr Chase, cornerback A.J. Terrell reaggravated his leg injury and was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

Cornell Armstrong, who was promoted from the practice squad for the game in light of the mounting injuries at cornerback, replaced Terrell and was promptly targeted by the Bengals. Cincinnati capped off its second drive with a touchdown run by Joe Mixon, and its defense forced a three-and-out to further the growing momentum.

After a dominant start against the 49ers, the Falcons managed just one first down and 25 yards on offense. Defensively, they allowed 212 yards, including 196 through the air, and the two touchdowns. That set the tone for a tough day ahead.

When the chips are down, the Falcons run the ball

In losses such as this one, it can be hard to gain too many insights. However, I think it’s beyond safe to say that when the Falcons face a must-have-it kind of drive, offensively, they will turn to the run game. Regardless of the deficit they face, they have time and again proven that the ground attack is their bread and butter.

This time, that moment showed itself in the form of a 16-play drive that ate up more than 10 minutes in the second quarter. Down 21-0 and looking listless for most of the afternoon, the Falcons didn’t suddenly join the Bengals in throwing the ball all over the yard. Instead, they ran the ball 13 times – some of which were Mariota scrambles – and marched 75 yards for their first score of the game.

Of those 75 yards, 56 came on the ground, including the 1-yard touchdown run by rookie Tyler Allgeier. Atlanta had every reason to dust off the air-it-out section of its playbook, but it once again proved that the run game is the true core component regardless of the score.

Damiere Byrd takes flight

Atlanta faced a very serious TKO possibility when Ja’Marr Chase scored the Bengals’ fourth touchdown of the game with under a minute remaining in the first half. Staring down the real possibility of entering halftime trailing 28-7, the Falcons dialed up a deep shot. Damiere Byrd, who had not caught a pass all season for Atlanta, torched Eli Apple in man coverage and raced untouched for a 75-yard touchdown. It was exactly the blink-of-an-eye score that the Falcons had to have to avoid the game script completely flipping after halftime.

Should we be worried about the Falcons’ passing game?

Even in an impressive outing from Marcus Mariota, it was notable that Atlanta only threw the ball 14 times against San Francisco. Now, it seems like the degree to which the Falcons really do need the run game is a bit concerning. Despite trailing by double digits for most of the game, Atlanta did not move the ball through the air and certainly did not get its two top receiving weapons involved.

Drake London finished Sunday’s game with just one catch for 9 yards deep into the fourth quarter. Kyle Pitts, one week after catching his first touchdown pass, secured three passes for only 9 yards. Were it not for Byrd’s 75-yard play, the Falcons might have been held under 100 passing yards on a day when they never had an offensive possession when they weren’t trailing.

At the moment, this is the Falcons’ fatal flaw.

Falcons get a big boost from special teams

At various times this season, Atlanta has shown an inspiring ability to play complementary football to get back into a game. Think back to how defensive turnovers and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown help jumpstart the second-half revival against Los Angeles. This team doesn’t rely on one facet to shoulder the brunt of the comeback load.

It wasn’t to quite the degree that Troy Andersen’s blocked punt was, but the 57-yard punt return by Avery Williams just before halftime deserves immense praise. It single-handedly flipped the field and allowed Younghoe Koo to bang through a 43-yard field goal as the clock expired. In the span of 49 seconds the Falcons scored 10 points. The final three came entirely due to special teams.

Injuries have turned a strength into a pit of despair

The Falcons secondary was a true bright spot coming into training camp and then turned into a real blindness hazard throughout the preseason. The emergence of players like Darren Hall, Dee Alford and Richie Grant along with the arrival of Casey Hayward and the return of Isaiah Oliver gave the Falcons not only quality starters but a deep bench to turn to.

After injuries to Terrell, Hayward, Alford, Ford and safety Jaylinn Hawkins to start the season, this group has been stretched extremely thin. It remains to be seen what the extent of several of these injuries are, but they threaten to derail Atlanta’s promising start.