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Falcons - Saints recap: Atlanta’s latest ‘yes, but’ loss is a crushing one

Not again.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons did it again. A team that routinely self-immolates came into a season opener against the Saints, opened up an impressive lead, and then spent an agonizing late game stretch losing that lead and ultimately the game. It was familiar, but no less frustrating for that familiarity.

It was the latest in a long line of what I’d call “yes, but” games from the Falcons. Yes, the offense looked much better and Arthur Smith called a good game, but the team couldn’t get the yards they needed in a do-or-die situation and it cost them. Yes, the pass rush was impressive and the defense held up extremely well in the early going, but it slackened and then fell to pieces late. Yes, the Falcons were in a position to win until nearly the very end, but they ultimately lost. And so on.

What rankles is that the early dominance of the Saints was so unexpected and impressive, minus a couple of big runs from World’s Most Annoying Man Taysom Hill, and will be somewhat lost by the end result. The promised improvement on both sides of the ball was there, and if the offense could have been quite a bit sharper and coverage was at times frustrating, the Falcons still were doing more than enough to win. Seeing that evaporate in such a tired and familiar way, and having to eat a loss to the Saints, made that reversal unbearable.

This recap was originally a lot longer until our editor decided to eat my draft, apparently permanently, but please know it was moving and lyrical. Let’s get to it regardless.

The Good

  • Marcus Mariota had a solid game where he showcased a lot of his strengths, making quality throws on the run, zipping passes into tight windows on short-to-intermediate routes, and punishing the Saints with his legs for several big gains en route to 72 yards on the ground. It wasn’t close to perfect, but Mariota should be at worst a capable steward for this offense as long as he’s starting, and with more involvement and better results with Kyle Pitts and Bryan Edwards things could get very interesting and productive.
  • Cordarrelle Patterson was not a fluke. I didn’t expect him to be, to be clear, but it was fair to wonder whether teams might have more success slowing him down after the Falcons unlocked his true potential in 2021 to great effect. The Saints had no such luck, as Patterson got quality blocking from the offensive line and turned it into consistent chunky yardage, finding holes and fighting for extra yardage. He had 80-plus yards in the first half alone and was an efficient, dangerous runner as always, which was especially critical with Damien Williams out and Tyler Allgeier inactive.
  • The weapons in the passing game are there. On a day where Kyle Pitts was unusually quiet and Bryan Edwards received only a single target, Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus, and KhaDarel Hodge combined to catch 12 of Mariota’s 20 completions for 161 of his 215 yards. London ate over the middle all day, showcasing good hands and an ability to get the job done in traffic, and Hodge looked like a very reliable target in his own right. Zaccheaus’s fumble was frustrating, but the coaching staff clearly likes him and he finished second on the team in receptions.

This passing game should look a lot more impressive once the team effectively involves Pitts and Edwards in the future, but they actually have quality options when that doesn’t happen this year, which is a welcome change.

  • Avery Williams looked good as a returner, receiver, and runner on Sunday, and his role in the backfield will certainly grow, especially if Damien Williams misses any time.
  • Patterson’s strong day was in large part due to Patterson’s excellence, but you had to be impressed with the offensive line as well. The most justifiably scrutinized unit on the team, the line blocked extremely well for Patterson all day and did a solid job keeping the pressure off of Marcus Mariota. If this is a sign of things to come, we have a really solid reason to be optimistic about the most worrisome unit on the team, which would be nice.
  • It was hit or miss, but when the pressure was on it was on. Arnold Ebiketie and Ta’Quon Graham both picked up sacks on a single drive on Winston, and Grady Jarrett killed another one with a sack before the first half ended. Mykal Walker chipped in a fourth sack in the third quarter to kill another Saints drive and force a field goal, which was magical. Dean Pees was ready and willing to throw the house and the driveway at Winston, and the Falcons appear to have at least a competent pass rush, picking up almost a quarter of their 2021 sack total in the first game of the season. We need to see that performance endure into the fourth quarter next time out, but it was a beyond encouraging start for a team that was absolutely dismal at getting after quarterbacks last year.
  • Younghoe Koo scored the first points of the season, drilling a 54 yarder that would have been good from a lot further away. He followed that up with a 50 yarder to extend the lead in the second quarter, putting Atlanta up 13-7. He remains one of the team’s persistent bright spots and most reliable performers, no matter what the rest of the Falcons are doing.
  • The difference in this Falcons offense was startling. There was shakiness along the way, but they were no shy about taking shots downfield, were pretty crisp on short-to-intermediate routes, and ran the ball effectively all day. The Saints seemed wholly unprepared for how competent Atlanta was, which is a credit to Arthur Smith’s gameplan and the execution on the field. Like the pass rush, this can’t peter out late in the game, but it’s fair to suggest that this team has some very good days on offense ahead of them.

Overall, this game was pretty well-coached until near the end, which we do unfortunately have to discuss.

The Ugly

  • Mariota mostly played a strong game in this one, but there were misfires that might be consequential against a better opponent. He misfired on several throws, couldn’t reliably find Pitts (though he tried), fumbled it away on a first down scramble in the third quarter when the team was on the cusp of scoring, and fumbled a snap on the critical final Falcons final offensive drive which effectively killed that drive, leading as it did to Atlanta’s ill-fated punt. Expecting him to be perfect would be absurd, but expecting more consistent passing and fewer fumbles seems more than reasonable, and likely essential to this team’s success.
  • There were just a lot of mistakes! Liam McCullough’s costly penalty on the final punt, Olamide Zaccheaus’s fumble, Mariota’s fumbles, some rough penalties, you name it and the Falcons certainly had an issue with it. None of those were fatal on their own and this was a crisper game from this team than basically any we saw a year ago, but those mistakes added up and McCullough’s was particularly costly.
  • A.J. Terrell had one of the most superlative years you can imagine in 2021, posting mind-boggling numbers and showing up week-after-week as an elite cover cornerback. There figured to be some regression this year—Terrell is a legitimately great player, but it’s hard to sustain that level of play year-over-year—and we saw him struggle against Michael Thomas late in this one. Perhaps there will be mitigating factors revealed on a second watch, but this is probably just something that’s going to happen occasionally when Terrell faces off against (and I’m gritting my teeth typing this, because I do not like the man) borderline elite receivers like Michael Thomas.
  • Taysom Hill is a Falcon killer, and maybe the most frustrating one alive today. The fact that the Saints can put him in the game under center, a crystal clear signal they’re about to run the ball with him, and still rip off huge runs and touchdowns is demoralizing. Hill early scampers kept this one from being a bloodbath, and in the end, helped keep the Saints close enough to come back. Hate that dude.
  • No, sorry, Jameis Winston is the most frustrating Falcons killer alive. The Falcons put him on ice for most of the game, forcing him into bad throws and bringing him down to ruin drives. Unfortunately, Winston got rolling late in this one when the Falcons slackened the watch on defense, finding holes in zone coverage and directing three critical scoring drives that wound up winning the Saints the game. His career numbers against Atlanta remain frustratingly great.
  • Arthur Smith did, as the booth suggested repeatedly, call a good game. The coaching staff did, as I think we all realized, do a nice job throughout of putting the screws to the Saints. It kept this team in front most of the day and signals, we hope, better days ahead. It’s unfortunate that the day ended in frustrating lapses, and that those mistakes unfortunately at least partially overshadow the otherwise quality day.

Start with Dean Pees. As Kevin Knight noted, the team inexplicably inserted reserves up front and appeared to be less aggressive after carving out a 16 point lead, despite there being plenty of game left. You can defend this by noting that Atlanta was just hoping to slow the Saints, bleed clock, and get out of there with the win, but that was too much time and not enough of a lead to open the door for New Orleans. Anyone coaching the Atlanta Falcons has to think worst case scenario at all times, because unfortunately this is a team that barrels through more of those in a season than most teams do in a decade.

Then there was the punt decision, which ESPN’s Bill Barnwell criticized heavily. Smith said after the game that the team was hoping to pin New Orleans deep with no timeouts, but there was enough time for New Orleans to get within field goal range, whereas a first down would have salted the game away. Given the near-total collapse of the Atlanta defense shortly before that, it was a questionable decision, one made worse by the Liam McCullough penalty that gave New Orleans 10 fewer yards to go.

Arthur Smith’s walk-off was characteristically brusque, but the central point that this was just a single game and the Falcons have 16 games left to prove they’ve improved is a fair one. The problem is that the Falcons did look improved, even greatly in some phases, and still lost in the same mind-numbing and heart-burning way they’ve made such a habit of in recent ways, in part because the coaching staff made conservative decisions in the same vein as ones that cost them a year ago. Trusting that they’ll be able to iron out persistent issues after they just reared their head to start the new season requires strong faith, to put it mildly.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Cordarrelle Patterson, who looks great and is going to be instrumental to the team’s success all season. He’s a legitimate weapon and on a fine day from multiple players, is my pick for the most crucial Falcon. It’s certainly not his fault they lost.

One Takeaway

This team is not free of its past and its habit of blowing seemingly sturdy leads, and that’s a huge cause for concern even with the team looking improved in other ways.

Next Week

A likely angry Rams team fresh off a rough loss to the Bills. Los Angeles is at home, on ten days’ rest, and not lacking motivation, so this one will be tough unless Atlanta shows up and is great out of the gate.

Final Word