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3 Up, 3 Down: Defenders are stepping up and the run game is doubling down

Atlanta went old school with the ground game and stout defense in its latest victory

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have now won back-to-back games and could very easily have been 3-1 at this point in the season, which is likely going to be a big talking point this week. It’s fair to expect that a lot of national media members will pick this surprise NFC South team as their favorite 2-2 team.

Whether or not that public attention occurs, this team is building some real confidence. They are finding different ways to win games in complementary fashion, which has become a bit of a theme during Arthur Smith’s short time as head coach thus far. It wasn’t all pretty on Sunday, and there are some very real obstacles still in place, but this was a great win, nonetheless.

Let’s get to some stocks.

Three Up

Dee Alford

Last week, Richie Grant, a young defensive back who was one of the breakout players in Atlanta’s training camp, intercepted a pass late in the fourth quarter to secure a close victory for the Falcons. Now, reread that whole sentence again but add Dee Alford’s name in place of Grant’s, because the stories are very similar.

Atlanta is getting contributions from players all over its roster, and Alford is a great example. A former CFL player who attended Tusculum University, Alford has grown into a player capable of moving the Falcons to .500 with one great play. Talk about a stock rising.

Grady Jarrett

What a start to the year for Ol’ Reliable on the defensive line. One play before Alford’s game-winner, Jarrett took down Jacoby Brissett and put Cleveland in a position to force the ball downfield. He now has 3.5 sacks on the season, which puts him in the company of players like Joey and Nick Bosa, Micah Parsons and Von Miller to start the year.

Atlanta is finding ways to get Jarrett good looks along the line of scrimmage, and he’s taking advantage in some big moments, especially late in games. Jarrett’s career-best sack total came in 2019 when he registered 7.5 sacks. He’s well on his way to crushing that mark.

Caleb Huntley

If these were real awards, I’d fully expect Huntley to stand on the stage and unroll a list that dropped to the floor filled with names of people to thank. This was a true group effort from the Falcons on the ground, but Huntley provided perhaps the key spark of the game late in the third quarter and gets the nod here.

Atlanta had failed to do much of anything coming out of halftime, but Huntley carried the ball eight times for 54 yards on a single 10-play drive, and he punched the ball in for a 5-yard touchdown to give the Falcons a 17-30 lead.

The offensive line deserves a massive amount of credit for what Atlanta was able to do on the ground yesterday and this season (and if you think I’m crazy for not giving them their own spot on this list, you may be onto something). This is now the second time the Falcons have gained more than 200 yards on the ground in the past two weeks, and it’s clear the run game has become the strong identity of this team. Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson were also big factors at times, and it’s fun to see a unit rolling like this.

Three Down

Marcus Mariota

There’s no getting around it: Sunday was a poor showing from Atlanta’s starting quarterback, and it prompted many fans on Twitter to wonder whether another, younger signal-caller should get the nod moving forward. After a close victory over a good—albeit injured—Browns team, I don’t expect the Falcons to shake things up too much. However, an argument could be made that the team won in spite of Mariota on Sunday.

He finished 7-of-19 for 139 yards with a poor interception and another fumble (although this one the Falcons recovered). We knew the first stretch would be very difficult, but Atlanta is 2-2 out of the gates. Still, could a quarterback change be coming at some point in the near future?

Atlanta’s tackling

By and large, the Falcons have been a pretty sound tackling team—they’re tied for the NFL-low missed tackle total with 7—but that wasn’t the case against the Browns. There were multiple missed tackles against Nick Chubb, who had 19 carries for 118 yards and a touchdown, and Kareem Hunt, who gained 49 yards on 10 carries. Most notably, Mykal Walker missed an open-field tackle in the second quarter on a third-and-long that led to Cleveland going for it and getting a first down on fourth-and-short.

The drive ended in the Browns’ first touchdown. Also, Richie Grant took a very poor angle on Chubb’s 28-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, allowing the Browns running back to gain the edge and go untouched to the end zone.

The passing game

After what should be counted as a good win on Sunday, it’s always tough to find too much to gripe about. This one links back to the Mariota comment, and it feels as though the offense can be made one-dimensional if the quarterback play is off. Now, penalties did negate a few plays in the passing game, but Kyle Pitts was once again a non-factor as a receiver, Drake London had his worst outing as a Falcon and there were some big plays that were missed, including Damiere Byrd not coming down with a Mariota touchdown ball.

Arthur Smith said he knew this would be a heavyweight matchup on the ground, and fortunately, the Falcons were equipped to emerge with a victory, but their aerial attack was very out of sync. That can’t happen every week if this team wants to keep winning.