In years past, I might be tempted to careen between emotional extremes following Falcons games, because their wild swings between competence and major failures invited such careening. Today, when the Falcons are in the midst of an encouraging if experimental in-between year after a shaky 2021 and presumably bright 2023, it’s easier to feel sanguine about this team whether they’re excelling or falling apart.
On Sunday, I found that calm tested by the depths of Atlanta’s performance, of course. By passing yards and touchdowns alone, Joe Burrow had one of the 50 or so most productive passing games in NFL history, which notably includes over 16,00 games at this point. The Falcons’ passing attack featured 13 attempts in a game that the Bengals were winning by three touchdowns for a large portion of the day. This seemed to be an effort designed to showcase Atlanta’s limitations, and when you added even more cornerback injuries to the mix, it became a perfect storm with swirling winds that blew the Falcons off the field.
We can’t just hang that on injuries if we’re not going to also acknowledge that Atlanta’s victory against San Francisco was aided by the loss of the 49ers’ entire starting defensive line, and frankly we don’t need to make excuses for this team in the first place. The Falcons have shown fans and ownership that they have the philosophy, coaching staff, and personnel to be a rock solid team in an increasingly weird NFL, and their shortcomings this year can be scrutinized to the extent that they involve prominent pieces of the future and preferences that seem likely to be core to this team’s identity over the long haul. Beyond that, it’s just understanding that this team needs another offseason and some cash to try to fix their most pressing issues, and no amount of hand-wringing in the fall and winter of 2022 is going to create an elite secondary or passing attack out of midair.
Atlanta’s still on solid ground and looks like a pretty good team overall, in other words, but they’re a team with major weaknesses that the Bengals gleefully exposed on Sunday, and some of those weaknesses are going to get much worse if A.J. Terrell and others miss significant time. Whether those weaknesses overtake the good work and major gains the Falcons have made thus far in 2022 is an open question, but with the schedule letting up beginning this week, I both hope and think they will not. The positive signs have still outweighed the negative ones this season, after all, and now we simply wait to see whether the Falcons will rebound from this one against a lousy Panthers squad next Sunday.
On to the full recap.
- Tyler Allgeier is showing he should be a major part of this backfield even when everyone is healthy. In this one, he led the team in carries and consistently found extra yardage where none might have existed for a less physical back, putting an exclamation point on his day with a second quarter leap over the Bengals defensive line to score a touchdown. He and Huntley once again again made the best of a concerted effort to stop them—the Bengals routinely put as many men in the box as they could get away with because of a borderline contempt for Atlanta’s passing attack—and came up with 72 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Once teams fear Atlanta’s ability to hurt them through the air again, expect more numerically impressive results from both Allgeier and Huntley, plus Damien Williams and Cordarrelle Patterson when they return.
- Damiere Byrd’s first catch of the season was about as big as it gets. Late in the second quarter, with the Falcons just trying to put some points on the board after falling down 28-7 to the Bengals, Byrd reeled in a really nice Marcus Mariota throw and turned on the Jets to cash in a 75 yard score. His speed has kept him around all year, and it finally paid off in Week 7 on that one. Hopefully that’s not the last big play he’ll make this year.
- Grady Jarrett was hyping guys up on the sideline when the Falcons went down by three scores and came up with an awesome effort on the sack of Joe Burrow late in the second quarter, even if the Bengals dug out of that hole shortly thereafter. Soon enough, Jarrett will be working on the caliber of defense he deserves to work on, but for now he’s just far and away this team’s best and most important defender.
- You saw rookie DeAngelo Malone showing off in this one, coming up with some near-big plays and looking active and aggressive. That all came to a head at the end of the third quarter, when Malone beat his man and drilled Burrow to the turf for a sack that wound up costing Cincinnati nine yards. The Falcons got a pair of legitimate talents in Arnold Ebiketie and Malone in this draft, and that bodes well for the future.
- Lorenzo Carter’s sack was stone simple on the surface, as he simply beat his man and took Burrow down in the blink of an eye. The work that goes into that is much more complex and difficult than that, obviously, and it was good to see a player who had been getting pretty consistent pressure coming up with an overdue sack. Carter has been one of Atlanta's more consistent and effective defenders thus far.
- On a day where he had to punt often, Bradley Pinion did a nice job pretty consistently, including pinning the Bengals very deep in the fourth quarter when they couldn’t allow Cincinnati to make a deep, game-sealing drive. The fact that the Bengals did do that has little to do with Pinion, who has been consistently useful in his role throughout the 2022 season.
- Avery Williams is, if not the best punt returner in the league, among the very best. His return near the end of the second quarter was a masterclass in evasion and fighting through contact, with the second-year pro bringing it back 57 yards to leave Younghoe Koo within field goal range with just three seconds left. He’s looking better by the week, and is doing so while also finding a way to chip in on offense.
- For all the very real problems this squad faced in this game and the depressing implications for how they’ll hold up against other teams who can air it out, the Falcons are in the NFC South, where nobody’s even close to out of the race. Atlanta’s tied up with the Buccaneers at 3-4—they’re behind owing to tiebreakers, but still—and the Panthers and Saints are a game behind at 2-5. Atlanta still looks like a team capable of taking this division without someone else catching fire, and right now, it looks like nobody else is going to.
- The Falcons have done a good job all season of limiting huge plays and creating unexpected big plays of their own. On Sunday, they got just one of those on offense—the Byrd reception—and were routinely victimized by downfield strikes and blown coverage on defense. RIP, good trends.
- Marcus Mariota had a couple of brilliant plays—finding Damiere Byrd on a nice ball that turned into a big score, a big third down scramble for a first down—but this was perhaps the definitive reminder that he only has so much upside as the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons for reasons that have both everything and nothing to do with him. Last week, he was brilliant in his limited chances to impact the game against the 49ers, keying a victory. This week, the team fell behind by three scores and needed to rev up the passing attack to catch up, but Mariota wound up throwing the same number of passes as he did in the second half against San Francisco.
On the day, 75 of Mariota’s 124 yards came on his terrific throw to Byrd, a play that got Atlanta back into the game for a bit and yet another reminder that he’s plenty capable of producing big plays. Aside from that, Mariota was 7/12 for 49 yards, including 3/6 for 28 yards in the second half. He also gained 14 yards on three scrambles and lost 18 yards on three sacks, making his total contribution for the second half a combined 53 yards on 18 touches.
Whether you hold Mariota or the coaching staff ultimately responsible for those woes or you split the difference, it’s clear that the veteran isn’t going to be counted on to mount furious comebacks via a volume passing attack in Atlanta. That either means the coaching staff needs to find ways to give Mariota more quick-hit options in the passing game and/or more time to scan the field, or they need to make a change at the position in the hopes that Desmond Ridder will be able to fare better. I don’t think we’re going to see the latter scenario any time soon with the Falcons in the mix in the NFC South, so they’ll have to find other answers sooner than later.
- As mentioned, the line was a problem yesterday. Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary both struggled for stretches, leading to pressure on Mariota and tough sledding for the ground game, and that’s a major concern for an offense that needs time and space to function well. When confronted with a quality defensive line expecting the run early on, they couldn’t get the job done. When confronted with a quality defensive line bracing for the pass later on, they weren’t able to buy Mariota a ton of time.
It’s the same sentiment I just wrote about Mariota: If this team wants to have a high-flying passing attack at some point, either the personnel or the gameplan is going to need to change to make that possible, because it has been in those clear passing downs and situations that the line has been most suspect. Right now, this line is great for stretches and has been terrific paving the way for the ground game, but does not seem capable of maintaining a clean pocket for a full game, which means this Bengals game is unlikely to be the last trouble spot for Atlanta.
- The defense was a disaster. I worried last week that the handful of Jimmy Garoppolo passes downfield that were to open receivers who simply didn’t come down with the ball boded poorly for the secondary, and that turned out to be true. The Falcons have done an excellent job of disguising their weaknesses with turnovers and savvy play, but against the Bengals the injuries to Casey Hayward (and unfortunately to A.J. Terrell) combined with the team’s overarching shortcomings in coverage to doom Atlanta. The Bengals had 21 points and 244 yards at the start of the second quarter, and coverage lapses from Richie Grant, Darren Hall, Cornell Armstrong and others set the Bengals up to pass basically at will.
It didn’t really improve from there. Burrow tied Vinny Testaverde for the 34th most productive passing day in NFL history in terms of yardage, with his 481 yards representing the second-highest total against Atlanta in franchise history, just behind Jake Plummer’s 499 yards back in 2004. The injuries to the Falcons’ secondary were a major factor there, but Burrow and company were rolling before then, and it takes a truly “inspired” effort to nearly set a franchise record for ineptitude through the air.
The Panthers can’t punish the Falcons that same way, but it’s very possible that other teams can and will, and if Terrell is out for a while this defense is in big trouble owing to personnel shortcomings. I’m a fan of Hall and think he’ll bounce back, but Atlanta might need to add talent just to get through the upcoming stretch. Juicing the pass rush and powering up the secondary is an absolute must ahead of the 2023 season, but in the here and now, the fact that teams will feel they can chuck it up there at will against Atlanta is not a good omen.
- The coaching staff did make adjustments, as they have all year, but unfortunately they weren’t quite as effective on Sunday. No matter what Atlanta did against Cincinnati, Burrow seemed to have success, with a pair of second half stops bookended by a scoring drive and a game-ending 94 yard grindfest. On offense, as mentioned above, Atlanta tried to pass more out of necessity but wasn’t able to do so with any kind of effectiveness or consistency, as Mariota had as many second half completions (3) as sacks (3). The Falcons have shown they can battle through adversity and make changes on the fly to better their chances of winning, but there just weren’t many answers yesterday.
This staff has shown us good things throughout the year, so it’s not time to light those torches and shine those pitchforks after one bad game, which I hope I don’t have to tell you. Atlanta’s ability to slow opposing passing attacks and gin up one of their own will be worth watching closely in the coming weeks, however, because we have seen some disconcerting trend lines with both in recent weeks.
The fans at home. When the game is that lopsided and the cheerful notes are fairly limited, I always give fans credit for sticking it out and even finding silver linings after the game is over. Hopefully this is the only time in the next 10-plus weeks I have to award the Falcons watching public with this, though.
The Falcons simply have too many weaknesses to be a great team. They can run the ball well, put together an efficient passing attack, and punish offenses for their mistakes, which is enough to get at least a few more wins in 2022 and set themselves up well for the future. It is enough to be a good, fun team, as they have been throughout most of the season thus far.
Against teams that can air it out effectively and at least slow that passing attack, they’re just not there yet. I have confidence we’ll see this team really take shape next year and that they’ll be competitive this year, but this Cincinnati game was a reminder that great teams—even teams who are just great at throwing the ball, really—will be able to make hell for them, especially if the secondary isn’t healthy.
The hapless Panthers, who just beat Tom Brady’s Mid-Life Crisis Experienced handily but are still not a good team. I fully expect an Atlanta win, and if they lose to Carolina, you’ll see me upset in a way I simply wasn’t on Sunday.