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Falcons - Steelers recap: Wearing throwback duds to a throwback dud

Atlanta drops another winnable game and scores under 20 points for the fourth time in five weeks.

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons needed to win this one to keep what you either earnestly or derisively referred to as their “playoff hopes” alive. Instead, they lost in the same way they have so often this season, by less than a touchdown, with very few points scored, and thanks to a couple of agonizing mistakes. They’ve been a bad football team of late, and what really gets under your skin is that they’ve been this bad and have nearly won games nonetheless.

They’ve scored under 20 points in four of the past five weeks. They’ve forgotten how to tackle. They run the ball well when they run and there are still big plays hidden here and there, but Younghoe Koo is once again keeping this team in games with his leg while they muddle through the rest of the afternoon. A team that had made contending for an unlikely playoff spot a priority alongside improvement and progress is on the razor’s edge fallen out of the postseason hunt while suffering setbacks on both offense and defense, though more on the former. The Falcons, a team that wants to come out of 2022 feeling that they’re in a good position for a big spending spree and contention in 2023, now has just four games left to reverse some depressing trends on both sides of the ball and show they’re ready to make some noise with a few key additions.

The loss to the Steelers isn’t back-breaking in the grand scheme of things, but it is frustrating. Pittsburgh is not anything special just yet, but broken tackles and missed assignments and mishandled passes certainly helped make them look like the super squad. This was a season where progress was the priority even in the building—they weren’t going to say that and they were going to try to contend, but it’s still a fact—and wins were going to be hard-fought and likely not abundant. If you had told me before the season that the Falcons would be 5-8 right now, given my 7-10 prediction I would not have batted an eye. If you had told me they’d start as strongly as they did and fall to these lows, and that they’d lose to the Panthers and Steelers along the way, I might have had some serious questions.

The bye week and the sobering nature of the loss set the Falcons up to, as Arthur Smith heavily implied, make some changes. Desmond Ridder ought to be on his way in so the team can at least evaluate him over the last four games and better determine whether he’s the future at quarterback, and anywhere the team can get a better look at potential 2023 contributors like DeAngelo Malone, Frank Darby, Dee Alford, and even maybe Jalen Mayfield, they probably should do so. This team won’t stop trying to win games and be competitive—they still need that ethos every year—but all that striving has only accomplished so much of late. Better to balance that push with a sober look at where this team is and what they need to truly turn the corner next year rather than clinging to an increasingly low percentage change of making the playoffs, I’d say. Whether Smith and company agree after they take the week to lean back and look at the whole operation, of course, remains to be seen.

The team wilting down the stretch heading into one of the most pivotal offseasons in recent memory isn’t something anyone inside Flowery Branch or in this fanbase is enjoying, so the hope will be that they rally and play better football down the final stretch, regardless of the moves they make. We’re all looking forward to success in 2023 that I’m pretty confident is coming, but in the here and now I’d love to see this team stop losing to opponents that are at or below their level, starting with the hated Saints in a couple of weeks.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • The ground game suffered its early setbacks—Cordarrelle Patterson was frustratingly tackled in the backfield multiple times owing to missed blocks—and carried the ball just a handful of times in the first half for 23 yards. In the second half, Arthur Smith came to his senses and put the game in the hands of his backs until very late, and the team responded with over 20 productive carries that went for over 120 yards. The Falcons aren’t scoring gobs of points owing to their rushing attack, but it’s the only way they’re consistently and effectively moving the ball right now, and they do so effectively no matter who they’re facing. That’s an essential building block for this team next year, given that they have a young lead back in Tyler Allgeier, a do-it-all-well veteran in Patterson, and Caleb Huntley available to re-sign cheaply.
  • A big early play by Richie Grant helped reverse a typically tough stretch from the defense, which allowed the Steelers to run a lot of plays and pick up first downs seemingly at will. On first down inside the 30, Pickett faked a handoff and Richie Grant was not fooled, taking him down for a five yard loss. An errant throw to George Pickens and a pass skipped into the dirt followed that and forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal, making that a gigantic, needed play for this Falcons defense. Unfortunately, that and a big run stop from Adetokunbo Ogundeji were two of the only big plays Atlanta made Sunday.
  • Drake London has been criminally underused at times this year, but the early season connection between him and Marcus Mariota returned in this game. Mariota had at least one overthrow, but otherwise there were sharp balls and great catches and London finished the day with a new career-high in receiving yardage. Hopefully he’ll continue to pick up steam over the final four weeks of the season.
  • MyCole Pruitt is a touchdown machine—he’s caught three passes over the past two weeks, and two of them have been scores—and the extra effort to stretch out and cross the plane was excellent.
  • At its best—okay, maybe not best, but reasonable best—the Falcons defense allows a lot of frustrating drives but not touchdowns. The Steelers moved the ball at will and chewed up a ton of time on their first two drives, but they only walked away with six points thanks to the big play from Grant, some fine coverage, and some Pittsburgh lapses. In total, the Falcons only allowed one touchdown, bending but not breaking much of the day and holding an opponent under 20 points for the second week in a row. It was a frustrating effort despite that, but once again they gave the Falcons a chance to win the game if they could just score. I’m really stretching for a good thing here, I know.
  • Younghoe Koo is back on track and then some. With the Falcons offense ailing owing to drops, missed throws, and poor blocking and bad snaps, Koo had to try a pair of 50-plus yard field goal attempts in the first half and hit both of them to keep the Falcons within striking distance. He’s one of the best in the NFL, and he reminds us of that often.

The Ugly

  • Drew Dalman had somewhat of a nightmare first half. I counted two low snaps, both of which made life difficult for Mariota, and at least one awful block that led to Cordarrelle Patterson being blown up in the backfield. He’s not in any danger of losing the starting center job down the stretch, but the Falcons may well shop for an upgrade if his struggles are going to continue, and the fact that those low snaps are still very much of a feature in his game at this point is bad news.
  • Marcus Mariota had to contend with those low snaps, increasing pressure, and a couple of catchable balls that simply weren’t reeled in by London and KhaDarel Hodge. All that said, this was one of his weakest efforts of the season, and it’s very possible that it was also his last starting effort of the season. He missed throws throughout the day and threw the game-sealing interception for the second straight week, and unlike last week it wasn’t owing to a heroic effort by a defender so much as it was just a poor pass. The Falcons haven’t cleared 20 points in four of their past four games, and while Mariota is not the only reason that’s happened, his come-and-go accuracy has been a factor in all of them.

The players and coaching staff seemingly love Mariota and clearly will rally around him as long as he’s under center, and Arthur Smith has made his appreciation for the quarterback clear time and time again. What is holding Mariota back is not talent but consistency, but that inconsistency has made him a liability at times of late, and I still believe this team should be taking a look at the rookie to see what he can offer for 2023 and if he can offer more as a passer than Mariota right now. We’ll see if we come out of the bye with a change at quarterback or not, but if Mariota is keeping the starting job, it’s fair to say the team has to expect more from him through the air over the final four games if they want to win them.

  • As mentioned, Mariota was undone a couple of times by missed opportunities from his receivers, the most notable of which was a tough-but-not-at-all-impossible KhaDarel Hodge would-be grab on a deep ball that the receiver simply couldn’t come down with. That has happened a bit too often of late, and this passing attack isn’t good enough to survive Mariota’s inconsistent accuracy and receivers not making the most of their chances. Even if the Falcons make a quarterback change, they’ll need sharper days from their corps.
  • The state of the passing game overall just deserves to be reinforced as ugly. The Falcons have cleared 200 yards through the air just three times this year and just once since Week 3, with a total of four touchdowns through the past four games, and that stagnation is a big reason the team hasn’t scored more than 20 points more than a single time in the last month. It takes a village to struggle this much, but it has to be a priority to get things on track after the bye, if for no other reason than that this can’t be the best they have to offer.
  • Jake Matthews getting called for a false start twice at home is bad. He’s had a good year, but those are costly penalties and not ones a veteran as experienced and talented as Matthews should be making.
  • Arthur Smith is a capable head coach who has ginned up a terrific ground game this year, and I think he’s done a good job in Atlanta to this point, certainly enough to believe the Falcons will be a very good offense next year with him at the helm. When he has frustrated me, it has tended to be owing to stubbornness, and that stubbornness reared its head again in this one. The Falcons throwing so much in the first half and not leading on the ground game that has done so well this year was inexplicable, especially when the team couldn’t put up points doing it. Given the margin and how effective the run was in the second half, it’s not outlandish to think that switching that up a bit might’ve given the Falcons a better shot at winning.
  • Despite the low point total, the Falcons defense can’t really be said to have done a good job. They allowed over 150 yards for the fourth straight game, also allowed close to 200 passing yards for the first time in weeks, and allowed the Steelers to dictate the pace of the game by repeatedly not getting off the field, especially (once again) on third down. The glaring lack of a pass rush was an issue, but Atlanta’s just not getting the job done up front at any level right now, which is allowing teams to grind out wins.
  • The tackling was once again a problem, with Grant being a trouble spot all his own. He was hardly alone, though, and the Falcons really blew it on Pat Freiermuth’s huge gain when he should’ve been taken down twice but made it inside the 20 instead on a long rumble. This is another example of something that ought to be getting better as time goes on, rather than worse.
  • The questionable lack of a call on Arthur Maulet, who was covering Drake London in the fourth quarter in the red zone, was a factor in the outcome. The argument against calling it is that Mariota threw it too high for it to be catchable, which he had done several times on Sunday, but I’m not sure it was so high that London could not have come down with it had he not had Maulet clinging to his waist on the play. Given that this was a narrow margin once again, that call proved costly.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Younghoe Koo scored nine of Atlanta’s 16 points and it was a quiet day for just about everybody else, so he wins it again.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are just stuck in a deep rut right now, one where they can’t get everyone playing well enough to win games they nonetheless always manage to stick around in. Rebuilding year or not, nobody’s thrilled with the team being in that place.

Next Week

The bye. Expect plenty of talk about how the team will improve, with the possibility of personnel changes, and hopefully a strong four game stretch to follow.

Final Word