If you didn’t know the Atlanta Falcons’ season had officially begun, your blood pressure likely alerted you. After holding a 26-10 lead in the fourth quarter, the Falcons watched their bitter rivals score 17 unanswered points and escape with a stunning 1-point victory.
I’ll be frank, most of these takeaways were written during the vast majority of time the Falcons were winning in comfortable fashion. Therefore, there’s perhaps a sunnier air to them than the moment deserves, but the final outcome also shouldn’t entirely mitigate some of the better play that Atlanta showed.
There’s no skirting it, though, this one sucks. If you don’t feel like reading takeaways, I wouldn’t blame you. This hurts, but we’ll try to focus on the big picture and recount the good and the bad here.
Atlanta’s defense looks different in many ways, but the result was the same
While much attention has been paid to the change at quarterback this offseason, the Falcons have quietly revamped much of their defense from last season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees used a hybrid style defense in 2021 as Atlanta transitioned away from the 4-3 base look and Cover-3-heavy principles the team ran under Dan Quinn.
This offseason, he revealed that he deployed only about 60 percent of his playbook in his first year running the defense, but on Sunday we saw what he can do with the full thing. Atlanta wanted to be the aggressor in this game, often sending pressure from different places and utilizing blitzers liberally. The Falcons relied on their secondary to stick to receivers in man coverage, and they proved up to the task.
The extra pressure created confusion at times for New Orleans’ offensive line, allowing both the defensive line and the linebackers to get to the quarterback throughout the afternoon. It was a tremendous display of complementary football, showing how the secondary can impact the pass rush and vice versa.
After registering just 18 sacks in 17 games last season, the Falcons had X on the afternoon. Grady Jarrett led the way with 1.5, Mykal Walker and Arnold Ebiketie each had a sack and Lorenzo Carter chipped in with .5 sacks.
It wasn’t a perfect day for the defense, however. The run defense had clear lapses in either their run fits or ability to defeat blocks and make tackles. With training camp practices increasingly aimed more at preserving health and limited contact, this aspect of the game can lag for a few weeks. They were, however, much more consistently disciplined in their assignments than last year, and Mykal Walker showed active hands to force a Mark Ingram fumble, which Rashaan Evans recovered.
However, things got particularly bad in the fourth quarter, when Atlanta seemingly switched up tactics. Protecting the lead, the Falcons opted to play more zone looks and the Saints quickly marched down the field to score their second touchdown of the game. On New Orleans’ next drive, the defense tried to revert back to what had worked for much of the game, but the Saints still exploited the zone looks when presented.
Jameis Winston and Michael Thomas came alive in the fourth quarter, and the Falcons had a hand in making that happen. After completing 10 of his first 18 passes for 56 yards through three quarters, Winston went 13-of-16 for 212 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Thomas was his favorite target and finished the day with five catches for 57 yards and two scores.
It was startling how quickly things fell apart for a unit that largely dominated the first three quarters. The zone looks were exploited frequently, and the pass rush couldn’t get home when it mattered. For a team that has been recently defined by its inability to close things out, this was perhaps the worst way to lose.
Marcus Mariota looks capable in debut
The Falcons certainly looked different offensively on Sunday, but it’s not fair to say they looked any worse with Marcus Mariota at quarterback instead of Matt Ryan. Immediately noticeable from the first drive was how Mariota’s running ability helped to keep the Falcons on schedule and avoid negative plays.
He wasn’t asked to do too much through the air, but that is an ideal game plan for Atlanta, which would like to assert itself on the ground to set up big play-action passes. Mariota showed nice accuracy, delivering the ball in the right spot and consistently on time. He nearly connected with Olamide Zaccheaus on a home-run ball, but the play forced a pass interference.
Mariota finished 20-of-33 for 215 yards with 72 rushing yards and a score on the ground. His top target on Sunday was rookie Drake London, who finished with five catches for 74 yards. Tight end Kyle Pitts caught two passes for 19 yards, and Zaccheaus grabbed four balls for 49 yards.
Some late-game fumbles from Mariota, one in the red zone and one on a critical third-and-1, ultimately proved very costly and will likely be among the main talking points for his performance at the end of the day. It’s too early to see if this will become a pattern, but if he’s going to have the ball in his hands as a ball carrier this frequently, he needs to hold onto it.
A fresh Cordarrelle Patterson is dangerous
There wasn’t a heavy workload for Patterson in training camp or the preseason, and the Falcons are hoping to reap the benefits now that the games have started. Patterson carried the ball 22 times on Sunday – a large workload for the versatile weapon – and reeled off 120 yards and a touchdown. He became the first player in 20 games to gain 100 rushing yards against the Saints, breaking the longest active streak in the NFL.
Patterson was the single biggest bright spot for this Falcons team. The only question surrounding his play from the opener is: Why didn’t Atlanta ride him late in the game to put it away?
Damien Williams injures ribs
The veteran running back was expected to have a fairly decent-sized role in Atlanta’s offense this season, and he was on the field early in the first quarter. However, on the first play of the Falcons’ second drive, Williams stayed on the turf and was helped off the field by trainers. He soon left the field with trainers and it was later announced that he had sustained a rib injury and was questionable to return to the game.
Prior to the game, the Falcons announced that rookie running back Tyler Allgeier would be inactive. After Williams’s injury, that left Atlanta with just Patterson and converted returner Avery Williams active at the position.
Taysom Hill takes over on Saints’ first scoring drive
Atlanta’s defense looked confident – imposing even – during the early portion of the first quarter on Sunday. However, that changed quickly when Taysom Hill entered the game on a third-and-1 in Saints’ territory. Hill took the snap and ran a simple quarterback power to the right side of the line. He did not stop running until Casey Hayward pushed him out of bounds 57 yards later.
Taysom Hill is still a problem.pic.twitter.com/EgJgVpYz3i— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 11, 2022
It was the longest run of Hill’s career, but the real credit goes to the players in front of him who swept aside any hint of resistance by Falcons defenders. Two plays later, the Saints dialed up a similar play and Hill scored the game’s first touchdown on an 11-yard run. Atlanta’s inability to keep its second-level defenders clean or beat the blockers, individually, could be a storyline early this season with some tough opponents on the docket.
Arnold Ebiketie records first sack of NFL career
Atlanta waited a day before addressing its defense in this year’s NFL draft, but rookie edge defender Arnold Ebiketie wasted no time in endearing himself to the home crowd. Deep into the second quarter, the Saints faced a third-and-7 thanks, in part, to Grady Jarrett’s first sack of the season. When Winston reached the back of his drop Ebiketie rounded the edge and broke free to sack the Saints quarterback, the first of the second-round pick’s career.
Ebiketie wasn’t often listed among the potential difference-makers in this draft’s class of pass rushers, but he consistently improved in each of his seasons at Penn State, and the hype has grown since the spring. Atlanta’s coaches have praised Ebiketie’s maturity and physicality, and now fans have an idea of just how he can help the Falcons.
Younghoe Koo Picks up right where he left off
The undisputed fan favorite was excellent as always on Sunday afternoon. His first action of the season was a daunting 54-yard attempt, but Koo had the distance and put the ball right down the middle. He then followed that up with a 50-yard conversion and a 40-yard make to end the first half. Koo’s fourth made field goal of the day was just a simple 27-yarder.
It was the fifth and final one that hurts the most. In last-gasp mode, the Falcons sent Koo out for a 63-yard attempt to win the game. Due to the distance needed to make such a kick, Koo’s low trajectory allowed for the ball to be blocked at the line of scrimmage, ending Atlanta’s chances. He ended his afternoon four-of-five.