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3 Up, 3 Down: Stars shine as Atlanta’s playoff hopes dim

A cornerstone player continues to perform, and two key starters are trending the wrong way

Atlanta Falcons v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Falcons are officially (mercifully?) eliminated from playoff contention after their 17-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Eve. The end result of this season will likely be about what people expected back during the summer – 5 or 6 wins and keeping most games close – but the journey wasn’t greatly anticipated.

A lot has changed already, but there are still two games to play. Given their recent struggles, the Cardinals and Buccaneers provide a great test for some of the younger players on Atlanta’s roster. We’ve already learned Tyler Allgeier is a star in the making – and his performance against Baltimore was big-time – so who else will make a statement?

With the postseason out of the question, it’s more important now than ever to look at individual players during games to get a sense of one’s ability ahead of the offseason. Here are some of the movers from Saturday’s action.

Three Up

Chris Lindstrom

Let’s start with the team’s only Pro Bowler from the 2022 season, shall we? In all honestly, Lindstrom could have earned the top spot on this list in most weeks this year, but that’s partially point of this piece’s concept (you can only rise so much when you’re at the top) and just not as much fun as spreading the love. But he has been by far the Falcons’ steadiest and most-consistent player.

Much of the success Atlanta enjoys on outside runs is made possible because Lindstrom prevents penetration and helps establish a wall. He’s the top-graded offensive lineman, according to PFF, and a cornerstone of this organization’s future.

A.J. Terrell

Last year’s breakout star, Terrell hasn’t been the same lockdown corner this fall. However, he has played much closer to that level since returning from injury in Week 11. He was among the few defenders not to miss a tackle against Baltimore’s beefy offense, and he showed versatility in his matchup assignments while largely handling them well. Terrell earns this spot because of his recent play as much as how he fared on Saturday.

After allowing seven touchdowns in the team’s first six games, Terrell has given up just one score while in coverage during the last five. Hopefully a strong finish portends a full-on bounce-back season in 2023.

Ade Ogundeji

I think it’s fair to say that after a rookie season with a full-time role that shattered any reasonable expectations for the fifth-round rookie, Ogundeji has been underwhelming as a full-time starter. I was bullish on his ability to develop into an impact run defender, and he’s been just about average and possibly below average in that area. But there are many ways to have a career in the NFL.

Ogundeji’s blocked kick early gave the team a chance to collect itself on the road, and it’s the type of play that will jump out on film as coaches make tough decisions or projections for younger players.

Three Down

Olamide Zaccheaus

As recently as 2019, the Falcons had a receiver room that consisted of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and Russell Gage. In the glow of that abundance of riches, it’s easy to forget the fact that Olamide Zaccheaus was there alongside them. The undrafted rookie has come a long way since then, and he is admired by coaches and teammates. Nevertheless, the Falcons’ skill group was as up in the air entering this season as at any point since 2015 and Zaccheaus never took that next step.

Against Washington, he had a season-best five catches for 91 yards and looked poised for a strong finish. In the three games since, he’s drawn 15 targets but caught only six of them for 31 yards. Yes, the quarterback change plays some part in that, but I think we know what Zaccheaus’s ceiling is at this point.

Mykal Walker’s Playing Time

After starting every game in which he was available through the first 13 weeks, Walker has played just 21 snaps on defense the last two. That’s largely tied into the desire to get rookie Troy Andersen more playing time down the stretch, but it’s troubling that Walker is the one with the diminished workload.

Despite showing flashes in limited playing time, it wasn’t until this year that Walker actually took on a full-time role. That is didn’t last even one whole year is disappointing, especially given that Walker is still only in Year 3 and developing in his own right. Perhaps Baltimore’s physical approach dictated a departure from Walker’s role, but this is now a trend after two games.

Playoff Hopes

The Falcons’ inability to capitalize on what is turning out to be a historically bad division can likely be traced back to the lack of evolution in the passing game. When teams had a better sense of what Atlanta did offensively, the team couldn’t adapt and take advantage of the investments in the run game during the first several weeks. Perhaps we should have always known the playoff hopes were fools gold for that reason.

The assignment for this offseason is clear now, though, and the budget will be there to make the necessary changes. Arthur Smith needs offensive personal that can adapt and evolve on a weekly basis to match the full breadth of his scheme. If he gets that, the playoff talk won’t be tucked away for long.