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5 things we learned: Week 9 vs. Chargers

The Falcons are putting together their roster of the future, but still has a number of underperforming stop-gaps starting.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons left Sunday with a very Atlanta Falcons loss. The team looked good. It looked bad. Then it was frustrating. Atlanta remains competitive in most of its games but can’t get it all together. After a very dispiriting end to the 20-17 game, we’re taking another look at this team for what it is — and what it isn’t.

The Falcons aren’t there yet

Virtually no one expected the Falcons to be ready to compete this year. No one was calling Atlanta as a dark horse to sneak into the playoffs. Pushing to .500 and (briefly) leading the bad NFC South sure reset some expectations. The Falcons were, after all, no longer flirting with top picks in the 2023 draft. Instead, they were in the playoff race.

We have seen a lot of progress since Week 1. Regrettably, a few injuries, too, which seriously hurt the defense. Despite this team’s strengths, the roster is too limited to compete in the playoffs. The Falcons couldn’t put away the Chargers, a team dealing with significant injuries and traveling across the country.

The Falcons are fun some of the time. What the team has done with this roster is impressive, but the roster is still bad. Atlanta needs another good offseason. Maybe two.

Arthur Smith is giving Mariota a chance to take the job

Mariota hasn’t been able show he’s the team’s quarterback for the future, as we’ve seen no Geno Smith type of resurgence. Mariota is still the limited player he was in Tennessee.

One of the more confusing series of play calls on Sunday was asking Mariota to complete deep passes in back-to-back plays, something that just hasn’t happened often this year. Outside of one amazing deep pass to Damiere Byrd, Mariota is 1 for 8 on deep passes of 40+ yards. He’s missing open pass catchers when the Falcons need completions.

Why is Smith even dialing up these calls when they’re not working? Mariota should be improving his connection with Kyle Pitts, Drake London and others. He should be progressing. Smith is giving Mariota a chance to take the next step. Instead, Mariota is teeing up the job for Desmond Ridder.

This run game is absolutely elite

Smith drew up another 200+ yard rushing performance on Sunday. The Falcons ran the ball at will, with all three backs showing off different skill sets. Ranging from pricier free agents like Cordarrelle Patterson down to undrafted players like Caleb Huntley, Smith has done a phenomenal job in building arguably the league’s best and deepest run game.

Regardless of what the quarterback spot has in store for Atlanta, the offense will rely heavily on a creative and effective rushing attack. Things will look a lot better if the defense can get up to snuff.

Please get Rashad Fenton playing ASAP

Not many teams can deal with injuries to its starting corners. However, Atlanta’s rebuild has left it sorely lacking after the injuries to A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward. But the likes of Darren Hall, Cornell Armstrong, and Dee Alford extensively is a bad spot to be in, compounded by the rest of the defense struggling. Not all of those players have been consistently bad, but there’s a reason the secondary is struggling.

The Falcons could use Terrell back, of course (the return of a Pro Bowl-caliber player is always a good thing). He’s still listed as a non-participant in Monday’s “theoretical” practice, where the team didn’t practice due to Thursday’s early game but is still required to provide a practice report.

The Falcons are not going to win many games with a secondary that can’t cover the Chargers’ mediocre pass catchers. The secondary helped give up 16 first downs via passes. Dean Pees needs Fenton to suit up and hopefully help settle the corner spot ASAP.

The pass rush is DOA

Justin Herbert was sacked three times by the Seattle Seahawks in his last game, plus twice the week before by Denver Broncos. In fact, Herbert has been sacked every game since Week 1 against Las Vegas. You should know where this is headed, as we have been writing similar things about Atlanta’s pass rush nearly every year the last decade. Herbert was not sacked on Sunday.

The Falcons are 31st in sack rate in the NFL, behind only the struggling Las Vegas Raiders. With 12 sacks on the year, Atlanta is tied for 2nd place for the fewest sacks in the NFL with the Detroit Lions (who played one fewer game).

We’re not seeing much outside of Grady Jarrett and occasionally rookie Arnold Ebiketie, and not a lot of reason for optimism.