The Falcons have now won two straight games with the same recipe. Add a dash of absolute dominance on the ground, a sprinkle of late game heroics on defense, and a dollop of a flop sweat-inducing close effort throughout the day and you have a victory. Mmm, sweet victory.
The Falcons never said the 2022 season was purely about growth—they’ve repeatedly bristled at the suggestion that they would be anything less than a consistently competitive team—but regardless of where they finish the year it was important for Atlanta to emerge from the year with a clear direction and the kind of foundation that begets a consistent winner. They’re well on their way not just to making 2022 worthwhile, but also delivering on that future promise, and the Browns win was the latest example of the team both improving and showing resolve they simply didn’t have a year ago.
Atlanta has the ingredients of one of the NFL’s most feared rushing attacks with a better-than-expected line, the great Cordarrelle Patterson, and a pair of bruising young backs in Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley, and they’re already showing up on a weekly basis as one of the best in the league. They have the makings of a defense that can punish mistakes and tighten up in the red zone, and they’ve now done so in back-to-back weeks, with obvious potential for improvement as the weeks go on. They have the weapons necessary for a great passing attack, and if that requires an upgrade at quarterback and a few more additions to really bring that thing into an elite stratosphere, at least you don’t have to squint hard to see it. And they have a really good, well-coached special teams group that consistently delivers in a pinch, keyed by the great Younghoe Koo.
There are downbeat notes, of course, that might end up haunting the Falcons later in the year. Atlanta’s defense being so hot and cold is going to cost them games at times when they don’t come up with a timely turnover to cap things off, and Marcus Mariota and the passing game went from up-and-down to borderline detrimental against the Browns. Atlanta will have to clean all of that up to stay competitive all season long—and changes may be coming to a couple of spots in the lineup, quarterback included—but it’s now clear that their floor is “fun, solid team” and their ceiling could be much higher than that.
That’s all in the future, though. In the here and now, Falcons have knocked off a solid team in a way that would have been unimaginable in the recent past, and they answered Will McFadden’s big question by beating the Browns at their own game on the ground. They’re in the mix in the NFC South with a chance to take the lead by knocking off the Buccaneers this coming Sunday, and if they’re not playing complete games, they’re playing pretty good ones. We’ve waited a long time to say that about the Atlanta Falcons, and I’m enjoying it.
On to the full recap.
- Marcus Mariota makes at least one borderline magical play per game. In this one, it was escaping a sure sack somehow, getting away from more pressure, and connecting with Drake London on the sideline. While London couldn’t get both feet down, it was an incredible play nonetheless.
He did it again in the fourth quarter after a long stretch of lackluster play, buying time with his feet and finding a wide open Olamide Zaccheaus for a 42 yard gain that put Atlanta in an excellent position. At his best, Mariota makes you think he could suddenly and unexpectedly do something absolutely outlandish, and those two plays in particular were very fun to watch.
Unfortunately, that was not the norm on Sunday, and more on that in a bit.
- I made the mistake/smart move of tweeting out that the Browns were having luck stopping Cordarrelle Patterson early after three straight stuffs, but Patterson has a way of making busting out of even momentary setbacks in impressive fashion. He ran for a 13 yard touchdown to cap off Atlanta’s second drive, and while his involvement was a bit limited today given his injury, he remains a back nobody’s all that interested in having to deal with.
- Caleb Huntley looked really good when he got involved late in the third quarter, picking up two first downs on just four carries and showcasing his physicality and straight line speed in the process to start things off. He wound up capping off the drive with an impressive touchdown run, and finished it off with 54 yards on just eight carries, probably ensuring he’s not going to spend much more time on the practice squad. The talent and fit for this offense has always been there, and it was gratifying to see Huntley get his shot. Now we need to see how the team elects to divvy up touches for this group, especially with Damien Williams only a week or so away from returning.
- Tyler Allgeier may be third on this list on Falcons’ back having terrific days, but I’m not trying to downplay his accomplishments. Allgeier actually led all Falcons’ backs in rushing yards with 84 on just 10 carries, with half of that production coming on a truly awe-inspiring run that went 42 yards and saw him drag a defender at least 30 feet on his way there. Add in a 20 yard grab—he was the team’s fourth-leading receiver today—and you saw why this Falcons team wanted him in Atlanta. The team’s eventual lead back put together the kind of performance that makes you think he can be a very good one.
- On a frustrating day for just about everybody in the Falcons’ passing game, Olamide Zaccheaus continued to be a man you can count on for at least a couple of big catches. He led the team with two grabs for 55 yards, including the aforementioned 40 yard grab, and should merit consideration for a long-term contract as a key piece of this wide receiver group. He’s certainly proven his worth.
- The offensive line struggled a bit in pass protection, which was ominous given the opponent, but they once again opened up lanes for this team’s rushing attack very effectively almost all day long. After Patterson was stuffed a few times in the early going, the line found its footing and was a key reason Patterson, Allgeier, and Huntley got going to the extent that they did.
- Grady Jarrett is the big bad guy in a video game that you thought you had gotten rid of 30 hours of gameplay earlier, only to see him pop back up at the very end with an orchestral score behind him and a range of new moves. After a mostly quiet first half, Jarrett started picking it up late and once again had a huge play on the penultimate defensive snap of the game, driving Jacoby Brissett to the turf for sack number 3.5 on the young seas on. For the second straight week, that play set up a game-sealing interception for a young defender, and it should help further cement Jarrett’s reputation as one of the best in the business.
- Lorenzo Carter was perhaps the most consistently active and disruptive defender on my initial watch of the game, showing up repeatedly to terrorize Brissett (one hit, one pass deflection, more than one pressure) and make stops. He’s been an absolute bargain for Atlanta, and looks early on like he’ll be one of those one-year defenders who demands another contract.
- He was joined by Arnold Ebiketie, who was particularly impactful in the first half as a pass rusher, generating pressure and forcing a couple of off-kilter throws from Brissett. The rookie has looked as ready as advertised thus far, and it’s only a matter of time until he starts piling up sacks, given that he hit Brissett three times on Sunday.
- Richie Grant had a bit of an uneven effort in this one, taking some questionable angles to the ball that resulted in positive plays for Cleveland, but he also came up with an impressive tackle for a loss against Nick Chubb and came agonizingly close to blocking a kick. Even during his rougher days, the progress is very evidently there and the big plays are, too.
- Give it up for Dee Alford, who was one of the most impressive Falcons of the summer, pushed his way onto the roster, and has been playing a real role for this Atlanta defense through four games. Alford authored the biggest play of his young career in this one, picking off Brissett on third and long to end Cleveland’s final drive and seal the win for the Falcons. It was the second game-ending interception in two weeks for Atlanta, and hopefully not the last one for Alford.
- Younghoe Koo, perfect on field goal tries and extra point attempts? Why, I never.
- Give the coaching staff their props, as well. When Arthur Smith realized his passing game was feckless yesterday, he largely moved away from it and put together a rushing attack that worked exceptionally well, at one point running the ball 14 times in a row. The temptation to go back to what wasn’t working has to be strong when you’re always looking to stay balanced—and the Falcons did briefly try it, with poor results near the goal line—but Smith and company made a series of very effective in-game adjustments that likely won them the game. That’s a big deal for a coach who earned criticism for his lack of adjustments at times in 2021.
Dean Pees had his defense well-positioned to defend against Cleveland even though everyone in the world knew they were going to struggle at times against the run, and that’s back-to-back weeks where Atlanta came up with a heroic final effort to save the game on that side of the ball. Marquice Williams continues to coach an effective, disciplined group on special teams.
Coming into this season, we asked for improvement from the coaches as well as the players. After putting a rough effort in Week 1 behind them, they’ve largely delivered on that improvement, and it’s not a coincidence that the entire team growing is resulting in wins.
- Mariota giveth, he taketh away. His end zone shot to Drake London on third and goal was not a bad idea in practice—London is a big-time threat—but it was a risky throw that wasn’t quite threaded between two defenders and was nearly picked off. After a very strong start to the game, his accuracy issues started to crop up and the passing game ground to a halt in the second and third quarters, with one drive ending on an interception that Denzel Ward effectively took out of Drake London’s hands. He also fumbled a snap that was a bit off but hit him in the hands, though to his credit, Mariota was able to pick it up and get rid of it. The final line was 7/19 for 139 yards and an interception, which is obviously a miserable day.
We all know we’re going to see Desmond Ridder this season, even if you only know it very deep down inside, and the question has always been when. If the Falcons are solid-to-good and Mariota is a lot crisper than he was today—even as crisp as he was the first three weeks—he could helm this offense for a long time. If not, well, things will get very interesting in Atlanta by midseason.
- Drew Dalman is doing quite well as a blocker most weeks, but aside from the Seattle game, it feels like he’s been “good” for 1-2 shaky snaps per game. In this one, he was way too high on one and a bit off on the one Mariota ended up dropping, and obviously your center needs to be able to consistently snap the football effectively to remain your center. I don’t think he’s in danger of losing his job to Matt Hennessy or anything, but this is something that has to get cleaned up.
- The defense did exactly what we thought they’d do: Struggle against the run. I didn’t expect it to be because of so many missed tackle opportunities, however, with the most egregious ones coming on Jacoby Brissett’s second quarter touchdown run, where he juked, ran, and jumped his way by multiple defenders who had a shot to stop him. This was a tough matchup so we knew there would be issues, so it’s hard to drop the hammer on this group when the performance lined up with our expectations so neatly. This team can’t afford to whiff on tackles and take lousy angles to the ball the way some of their most impactful defenders (I’m looking at Grant and Mykal Walker, in particular) did on Sunday, though, regardless of the opponent.
- Odd officiating on the Falcons’ opening drive, where a borderline pass interference on Denzel Ward and a more clear late hit on a scrambling, headed-out-of-bounds Mariota were both not called. The crew missed at least two other borderline calls, swallowing their whistles on potential pass interferences, and the Falcons had a rougher go of it. Obviously a miss here or there is well within the realm of what you expect from NFL officiating, but it was frustrating to see multiple missed calls in such a close game.
I’m not going to give it to one person, but rather the entire Falcons’ ground game. Give the coaching staff credit for committing to the run and scheming for it effectively, the offensive line for blocking well most of the day after some early hiccups, and Cordarrelle Patterson, Caleb Huntley, Tyler Allgeier, and Avery Williams for running all over Cleveland. The most impressive day on the ground in years for this Falcons team, even with a depleted Cleveland front.
The days where you could start rolling your eyes about this team and saying “here comes the fourth quarter collapse” are, if not over, dying the sort of agonized death they deserved.
A tough one against a brutal Tampa Bay defense and animated diet pitchman/skeleton Tom Brady.