When watching the Falcons and Bears duke it out, it was apparent how both teams are limited on both sides of the ball. They are trying to rebuild their respective rosters after failed efforts to build on their respective successes from 2016 to 2018. What ultimately proved to be the difference between both teams, besides Cordarrelle Patterson being the best at what he does, is how the Falcons played fundamentally sound football.
They didn’t commit penalties. They rarely lost their positioning on the back end. The commitment to the ground game eventually wore down an inexperienced Bears’ front seven. The Falcons stuck to their principles, with some nice wrinkles from Dean Pees to generate pressure, to get a much-needed victory.
The Falcons have played poorly for over a month. They needed a solid performance to get back on track after starting the season playing inspired, entertaining football. Outside of two careless fumbles by Patterson and Avery Williams, they delivered in all three phases of the game.
After losing Kyle Pitts and Ta’Quon Graham for possibly the rest of the season, Arthur Smith must do everything possible to make sure his team stays composed. Facing Washington and Pittsburgh presents a good opportunity for them to get over a five-year-long hurdle. It’s been a long time coming for the Falcons to get over .500 and have a legitimate winning record. With matchups against two undisciplined teams accustomed to beating themselves, the time is now for their disciplined play to translate into a winning record in December.
Staying clean and forcing teams to play undisciplined
The Falcons aren’t near the top in many major statistical categories. What they can claim to be far is the team that least beats themselves. The Falcons average the fewest penalties in the league, at slightly over four per game. They don’t commit reckless personal foul penalties. They don’t get overly grabby. They know their responsibilities pre-snap. Playing a clean game can make a difference in winning close games, and that’s something they’ve done well, especially recently. Considering the Falcons rarely beat their opponents by double-digits, they need to earn every advantage to earn victories.
That advantage was fully displayed against Chicago, as they only committed two penalties. Meanwhile, the Bears were penalized seven times and put themselves in difficult positions. Pees devised several different pressures to give Justin Fields fits in the pocket. While making him uncomfortable, Chicago’s offensive line was forced into penalties that halted their drives. Pees’ decision to call only one blitz on 30 dropbacks, per ESPN, proved to be a game-changer in generating pressure and making the Bears hold players like Grady Jarrett.
For a relatively young team, it’s commendable how consistently disciplined they play on both sides of the ball. Kaleb McGary is no longer making careless mistakes to derail promising drives. Isaiah Oliver continues to prove to be a steady, intelligent nickel corner after struggling on the outside early in his career with penalties. Having players make strides entering the respective primes of their careers is a strong indicator of how much the coaching staff is making a difference. If the Falcons want to continue this unexpected playoff push, they have to maintain their discipline and cause teams to become unrattled.
Young safeties playing sound and capitalizing on mistakes
As the defense has endured numerous personnel changes primarily due to injury (cutting Anthony Rush is the lone exception), there have been different starting alignments in every positional area except one. The safety area has been marshaled by the pairing of Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins. It looked like an unorthodox duo on paper, yet they both complimented each other well providing stability on the back end.
Both players were instrumental in last Sunday’s win. Grant made multiple impressive stops in the run game to prevent the Bears from completely taking over on the ground. Hawkins pounced on an inaccurate throw by Fields to seal the win. When the Falcons come out victorious, both players usually make a difference with their savviness in coverage and consistent open-field tackling. After having abysmal safety play at times last year, the Falcons are reaping the awards of fully committing to the youth rather than taking a chance on another veteran.
Grant and Hawkins are tied for the team with two interceptions. That includes game-sealing interceptions against Seattle by Grant and Chicago by Hawkins. Grant’s ascendance has been well-documented, as I’ve written about how he’s evolved as a safety.
Hawkins’ play can’t go unnoticed, either. It’s crucial to have safeties that possess strong instincts, range, tackling, and coverage ability. From watching both players perform, they have the makings of playing with all four key elements. With upcoming matchups against Taylor Heinicke and Kenny Pickett, who are quarterbacks that are more than willing to take dangerous chances, expect both safeties to be ready to make a game-changing play.
The right strategy with the discipline
There is no denying the impact of the loss of Pitts and Graham. Despite his lack of production and chemistry with Marcus Mariota, Pitts is still an exceptional talent that must be accounted for at all times. His ability to make plays downfield and create after the catch is a game-changer. Losing him is massive, along with Graham’s steady improvement as a disruptive interior tackle. It leaves the coaching staff with plenty of work to do to compensate for two significant losses.
Smith was proud of how the game plan was executed against Chicago, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The team’s ability to make Fields uncomfortable needs to translate going into these next two games. It wasn’t a coincidence that Lorenzo Carter and Abdullah Anderson had tremendous performances last Sunday. While they made their handful of plays, Pees utilized them in creative ways to disrupt the pocket.
The offensive line made their share of key blocks to spring Patterson and Tyler Allgeier free as well. It’s going to take a collective effort on all fronts to get that long-awaited winning record. With the strategy of Smith and Pees, along with playing mistake-free football, the Falcons are more than capable of being there as a winning team going into the bye week.