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Falcons - Commanders recap: Victory slips away again

The Falcons seemed on the cusp of moving to 6-6, but two late plays led to yet another agonizing defeat.

Atlanta Falcons v Washington Commanders Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Falcons had this one. Washington had just burned all three timeouts, Atlanta was inside the five yard line, and after Marcus Mariota was dropped for a two yard loss on a play that could’ve been far worse had he not escaped the initial sack attempt, Atlanta still had three downs and three timeouts of their own to go. All they needed to do was pick up four yards in three downs and score a touchdown to win, and they had backs who had been chaining tough yardage together throughout the long drive that led them to the Commanders’ doorstep. The path to a win was right in front of them, begging to be traveled.

Instead, Atlanta’s now 5-7, falling out of the NFC playoff race (though not the NFC South, more on that in a moment), and left holding the bag on yet another fourth quarter what if. The Falcons fatefully decided to throw on second down, a much-debated decision that might’ve still looked good had Marcus Mariota’s pass not been tipped by Daron Payne at the line of scrimmage, sending it tumbling through the air and into the hands of Kendall Fuller, who came up with an interception in the end zone. That meant the Falcons needed a stop, which they got after using all three timeouts, only to watch Adetokunbo Ogundeji run into the punter on fourth down and give Washington a first down. The Commanders then kneeled out the clock and earned a victory, turning what looked like a likely win for the Falcons into yet another crushing defeat. A questionable decision here, a nice play by a Commanders defender there, and an over-eager player there and it was over.

It was the latest example of how narrow the margin is for Atlanta between victory and defeat. Two bonehead Taylor Heinicke interceptions, a couple of admirable stops from Atlanta’s defense, and strong drives against a Washington defense that had stymied so many good offenses should’ve been enough to give the Falcons a victory, especially on a day where the Commanders only scored 19 points. Instead, that lackluster run defense, off-and-on passing attack, and those couple of major mistakes were enough to lose the Falcons the game. Again and again this season, the Falcons have seen victory and defeat come down to excellence or error on just one or two late plays, the curse of a team not yet built to put games out of reach much earlier.

This is where we all take a deep breath, step away from this game, and repeat a mantra we’ve needed to keep in mind all season: This Falcons team is a work in progress. This Falcons team doesn’t have all the pieces yet. This Falcons team is facing injuries to key starters, limited starters at key positions, and opponents who are gung-ho about attacking their biggest weaknesses. We knew—at least most of us knew—these kinds of losses were coming, and in this game in particular, it was smart to brace for a tough one.

Yet the mere fact that the Falcons can keep these games so close—that they can be 12 feet away from a win in the rain on the road against an opponent seemingly built to give them hell—and still lose will never stop rankling. It’s less about the micro decisions and mistakes than it is about wanting this team’s evident progress to translate into more wins. However rational we are about where this team actually is in their rebuild, you see your favorite team so close to pulling off a road upset and it’s hard not to believe. It’s hard not to be somewhere between annoyed and enraged when they dash that belief against the rocks of another loss.

Big picture, though! In terms of the NFC South, the loss cost the Falcons nothing, though it turned out to be a frustrating missed opportunity given that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Cleveland Browns. In terms of the Wild Card, it was more costly, as they fell another game behind Washington (and lost a tiebreaker), while making up zero ground on Seattle, who lost to the Raiders somehow. Atlanta has chosen to push hard for the playoffs and not make sweeping changes until they’re out of contention, and that won’t change this coming week against Pittsburgh, because they’re not really out of it.

We’re left to see whether this team, which has won two squeakers and dropped four games in their last six, still have cards to play that we have yet to see, or whether they’ll simply be what so many of us thought they were before the season: A flawed team making progress in fits and starts with a brighter tomorrow on the horizon. If that’s the best they can offer, so be it, but the derelict NFC South won’t let us stop thinking about something a little more in the here and now.

Let’s get to the full recap.

The Good

  • Marcus Mariota is simply hard to stop as a runner, and his ability to escape jams to give himself a chance and simply outrun defenders continues to impress. In the early going, he tucked it down and took off often, which resulted in several key gains and first downs. By the end of Atlanta’s first drive in the second quarter, he had four carries for 37 yards, and he took multiple big hits without slowing down. He finished with 49 yards on six carries, one of his most efficient days on the ground of the entire year, and extended multiple plays with his legs once again to give Atlanta a fighting chance.

Mariota’s ability to punish defenses for giving him any leeway to run and ability to get away from pressure and keep plays alive continues to be his greatest strength, and very obviously one of the things Arthur Smith and company appreciate about his game.

  • Tyler Allgeier led a typically potent ground game that gave Washington fits all day, piling up quality runs and explosive 10-plus yard runs. Given how good the Commanders run defense had been of late, it was even more impressive that the Falcons were knocking on 150 yards on the ground through three quarters, and that they finished the game with 167 yards. That was more than they threw for when you add in sacks. Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson combined for 22 carries and 106 yards, Caleb Huntley added 12 yards on his lone carry, and of course Mariota chipped in 49 of his own, all against a very good Washington run defense. At this point, as Will McFadden wrote, it’s time to stop asking how defenses can stop Atlanta, not whether the Falcons can run effectively against opposing defenses.
  • Olamide Zaccheaus has been one of Mariota’s most trusted targets in 2022, and he took that to extremes in this one. Zaccheaus had the second best day of his career in terms of targets (8), catches (5), and yardage (90), including a 45 yarder on a play where Washington foolishly left him wide open after Mariota slipped, rallied, and found him with a nice throw. Instead of it being MyCole Pruitt or Drake London or even Damiere Byrd dominating targets, it was Zaccheaus, who has proven to be one of the team’s most reliable targets this year as defenses continue to not prioritize stopping him and OZ continues to make them pay for it. He hadn’t received more than four targets in a game until now in 2022, so I guess this is a sign that OZ will be a favored target the rest of the way.
  • MyCole Pruitt was the man expected to step up the most at tight end with Kyle Pitts out, and sure enough, he did some quality work. Pruitt scooped up two grabs in the first half for nine yards, one of them a crucial touchdown grab where he managed to get behind Washington and get wide open for Mariota to find. That was Atlanta’s lone touchdown of the day, and further proof that Pruitt can be an asset in the red zone.
  • Mykal Walker will never have an easier opportunity to pick off a pass than the one Taylor Heinicke threw right to him, but plenty of defenders whiff on that opportunity. To Walker’s credit, he came down with it and ended Washington’s potential end-of-the-first-half scoring drive. Walker was an absolute pest on Sunday, as he also tipped a Heinicke pass at the line of scrimmage, and we’re hopefully seeing the start of a late season jump in his play.
  • A.J. Terrell nearly had an interception, had a heads-up hit on John Bates that knocked the tight end out of the back of the end zone before he could get his feet down, and was effective at shutting down Terry McLaurin when he matched up against him on Sunday. He’s back, in other words, and a critical piece of this defense that they sorely missed.
  • Defensively, the Falcons had a frustrating day and still held the Commanders to 19 points, the fourth straight game where they’ve allowed 25 or less. There aren’t any huge improvements happening here, but the return of Terrell and little strides are allowing Atlanta to keep the offense within striking distance in recent weeks. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to capitalize, but hopefully this is something that we’ll see continue over the final weeks, rather than a mirage caused by playing bad teams.
  • Younghoe Koo has had his shaky moments in 2022, but they didn’t come in this one. His sole miss was a 58 yard attempt—only 10 kicks have been made this year from 58 or longer, and that would’ve been a career high—and he nailed two other longish attempts to help the Falcons keep pace.
  • The Falcons are still in the NFC South race. Tampa Bay lost in overtime to the Browns, bringing them to 5-6 and just a half game behind the Buccaneers, so while they fell further behind in the Wild Card pursuit they didn’t move at all in the division. This is a profoundly dumb version of the NFC South full of deeply flawed teams, and it’s hard not to be thankful for that right now.

The Ugly

  • The Falcons pass defense ended up putting the brakes on Washington, but that was more of a function of how effectively the Commanders were running than anything else. Early on, coverage lapses were frequent and Heinicke ate on the opening drive, allowing him to throw an easy touchdown. He’d throw two on the day, and despite the philosophy shift and interception-and-near-interception, did enough damage to help Washington win this game. There are small strides happening here for Atlanta and I like their chances of building on them against Kenny Pickett and Andy Dalton in their next two matchups, but given Dean Pees’ preference for putting the brakes on teams in the red zone, there’s still work to do here.
  • The Falcons run defense is not cutting it. For the third straight week, they allowed more than 150 yards on the ground, this time 176 yards and a number of big gains and broken tackles that came via Brian Robinson, Antonio Gibson, and Jonathan Williams. Late in the game, the Commanders largely took the ball out of Heinicke’s hands and let their backs work, and they worked extremely effectively. Offenses are going to continue to try to pound the ball and chew up clock until Atlanta shows they can consistently stop it, which is a shame because there are big plays from Grady Jarrett, Abdullah Anderson, Timothy Horne, and Rashaan Evans along the way that suggest they could be doing more.
  • Outside of the rare big play, the Atlanta passing game is just sort of there. Early on, Mariota was able to get it done on a series of sharp short passes, including a nice ball to MyCole Pruitt in the end zone for a touchdown, and it looked like we might get that level of slow and steady production all day. Instead, we got more of the same from a passing attack that has produced just four touchdowns over the past four weeks and hasn’t topped 200 yards once in that stretch, with Mariota missing high at times, Drake London dropping an easy catch, and pass protection woes becoming a factor again late. Atlanta’s passing game (6.96 yards per attempt) was not all that more productive on a play-by-play basis than Atlanta’s ground game (5.75 yards per attempt) on Sunday, especially given that more than a third of that production came on two long passes to Zaccheaus.

The Falcons aren’t dead yet, so I don’t think any major changes are coming to the quarterback position, the receiving corps, or the offensive line. I do think we just need to understand that as capable as Mariota is of authoring a big play, as strong as this receiving corps can be when they’re on, and as solid as the line is for long stretches, we’re not going to see this thing take off in any fashion late in the year.

  • The Falcons would presumably like Drew Dalman to be their center over the long haul, but he’ll have to iron out those snap issues to keep the job in 2023 and beyond. In this one, Dalman’s errant snap was a factor on the failed fourth down conversion play near the end of the first half.
  • Adetokunbo Ogundeji, like fellow 2021 draftee Ta’Quon Graham, had a big, costly play that is going to earn him a ton of scrutiny. As is the case with Graham, I’m going to urge you not to throw away his whole season based on that play.

The play itself, though? Ogundeji was trying hard to make a big play and block the punt to give Atlanta a short field and good chance to win—an admirable instinct—but unfortunately he went a little too hard and wound up hitting the punter, earning a penalty that led to a Washington first down and put the final nail in Atlanta’s coffin. Ogundeji is a player the coaching staff likes and will continue to draw significant defensive and special teams snaps, but man, that was indeed a costly mistake.

  • Arthur Smith apparently makes some of his most questionable decisions in Washington. You could see the thought process late in the first half with the team clearly wanting to go for it, but not wanting to give Washington much time to work with. In that light, bleeding the clock down to :24 and then going for it on 4th and short was a decision where I could understand the logic, even if I wasn’t necessarily 100% on board with it. Unfortunately, the subsequent run play relied on Patterson going quite a ways and poor execution (a botched Drew Dalman snap, Jake Matthews struggling) doomed the play, giving the Commanders the ball with :24, timeouts aplenty, and less than 50 yards to go.

Fortunately Taylor Heinicke bailed the Falcons out with a hilariously awful pick to Mykal Walker, but the team likely would’ve been better off with a different play (a Mariota sneak, perhaps?) or punting it away entirely after that if there was a concern with Washington having time to score.

It seems likely that not leaning on the first down pass on the four yard line would’ve also been a wise decision, but Arthur Smith was adamant after the game that the Falcons felt they had the right look and Daron Payne’s effort on the tip was just a hell of an effort, which it was. I still think, given the amount of time on the clock, the effectiveness of your ground game throughout the day, and the proximity to the goal line, that it would’ve been smarter to try to lean on the most effective part of the offense, grind more seconds off the clock, and try to set things up for a very short Mariota run or pass on third down if necessary. I recognize you take the touchdown if you can get it and worry about the rest later,

Smith is a good coach who has improved this year, playing to the strengths of his roster and making better situational decisions, but I think both of those choices were iffy ones, and the run-down-the-clock-to-give-them-less-time decision in the first half was diametrically opposed to the who-cares-about-the-clock decision in the second half. This team has, again, such a narrow margin of error that they can’t survive errors of execution and questionable decisions from the coaching staff in the same game.

  • The tackling was suspect at times in the first half—think Brian Robinson running over Darren Hall—but it got really bad in the fourth quarter, when Robinson and Jonathan Williams were seemingly plowing through three Falcons defenders on every run. Atlanta is missing key pieces up front that we knew would make the job more difficult against Washington, but those missed tackles had a real impact on this game, given that bringing Robinson in particular down on a handful of the first tackle attempts would’ve cut productive Washington drives short.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

The ground game as a collective deserves it, from the offensive line to Allgeier to Mariota, for keeping this offense moving and in the game throughout and until near the very end.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are tough and clever enough to stay in games against quality teams until the very end, something they’ve done off and on all year, but they are not good enough to overcome even a small handful of mistakes. That may, in the end, be the story of the 2022 team.

Next Week

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are one of the worst teams in the NFL this year and hopefully an antidote for Atlanta’s recent struggles. After that, they finally get a bye, and whether they win or not will likely determine whether they make significant lineup changes over the final four games of the season.

Final Word