The first of Atlanta’s two West Coast games did not go according to plan, as the Falcons were outmatched for much of the afternoon before mounting a furious fourth-quarter rally. Atlanta’s first drive looked promising, but a Younghoe Koo miss to end it should have been the first sign that things were amiss.
There were miscues and bright spots in all three phases for the Falcons, which leave us wondering what to exactly make of the first two weeks of the season. Whether Atlanta played effectively or poorly makes no difference, however. The results are the same, bringing the Falcons to 0-2 on the season.
Here are some of my quick-fire takeaways from another wild game.
This team has a lot of fight in it
There was one quote from Arthur Smith after last week’s fourth-quarter meltdown that stuck out more than typical coach bravado should.
“If they’re breathing, this team is going to fight till the end, which we did. We had a chance,” Smith said. “Tried to kick a 63-yarder, and they blocked it. That was the message.”
Atlanta proved to live by its coach’s words in Week 2 against the Rams, taking what was a blowout at halftime right down to the wire against the defending Super Bowl champions. Defensive turnovers in the second half helped to fuel a resurgence by the Falcons’ offense. It was a blocked punt from Troy Andersen that resulted in a Lorenzo Carter touchdown and a forced fumble by Darren Hall, however, that really turned this game on its head.
The Falcons had all the reasons in the world to turn in early and play out the string in the fourth quarter, but they did the exact opposite. Perhaps spurred on by the feeling of being on the wrong side of such a comeback, the Falcons did their very best to mount one. It wasn’t successful, but it should count for something.
Atlanta’s defense had no answers for Los Angeles
The Falcons’ defense shocked many with their play through the first three quarters of Week 1. They notched four sacks against Jameis Winston and had stymied any efforts by players not named Taysom Hill. Was this perhaps a sign of things to come for Atlanta’s defense in 2022?
Well, it wasn’t on Sunday. From the Rams’ first possession, the Falcons looked outmatched on defense. Matthew Stafford completed his first 13 passes of the afternoon, and Los Angeles’s receivers generally found plenty of room against an Atlanta secondary that struggled mightily. Indicative of the Falcons’ afternoon on defense was a Rams’ third-and-4 from Atlanta’s 10-yard line in the third quarter.
Cooper Kupp, the Rams’ best offensive player, lined up in the backfield alongside Stafford. Kupp then ran a simple bubble route out to his right and looked up to find both A.J. Terrell and Mykal Walker – the two defenders nearest to Kupp – guarding the same Rams receiver. Stafford tossed an easy pass to Kupp, who waltzed in for the touchdown.
There were some bright spots for Atlanta, of course – it wasn’t all bad. Casey Hayward and Walker each recorded interceptions and Darren Hall had a crucial late fumble recovery, which gives the Falcons’ defense four turnovers on the year.
Turnovers aside, though, the Rams pretty much accomplished whatever they wanted to on offense. Atlanta couldn’t generate anywhere near the pressure on Stafford that it did on Winston, and he feasted all afternoon. If Week 1 presented something like a ceiling for the Falcons in Year 2 of Dean Pees, let’s hope that Week 2 was closer to the floor.
Where is Kyle Pitts?
Upon further reflection, the Falcons’ plan for Pitts in Week 1 seemed to actually make a lot of sense. New Orleans linked star corner Marshon Lattimore with Pitts, meaning the Falcons’ decision to keep their young tight end in for pass protection also served to take away a key defender for the Saints. Given the way Atlanta moved the ball against New Orleans, that move may have paid off. There’s no such way to explain Week 2.
Pitts has been targeted early in each game only to disappear for the rest of the action; he caught two passes for 19 yards on Sunday. It was particularly troubling that the Falcons didn’t go his way on their final drive. Atlanta’s variance of formation, personnel and tempo may effectively give the offense an edge against its opponent, but a player of Pitts’s talents should be a bigger part of the mix. If the Falcons wanted to use him as a decoy and stash him away in Week 1, fine. But at what point should the “missing” posters start going up?
Welcome to the end zone, rookie
It’s been Drake London and not Kyle Pitts who has carried Atlanta’s passing game through the first two weeks of the season. In his first NFL game, London caught five passes for 74 yards to lead all Falcons receivers. Against the Rams, London found the end zone for the first time in his career. Running a quick slant on the left side of the formation, London used his basketball frame to box out the defense and haul in a 4-yard dart from Mariota.
London was once again the team’s best option through the air on Sunday. He was targeted a team-high 12 times and caught eight passes for 86 yards and the touchdown. Notably, London was a key target for Mariota late in the game while Atlanta tried to mount its comeback.
An early fourth-down gamble fails
After electing to twice punt on fourth-and-short situations in the fourth quarter against the Saints, the Falcons kept the offense on the field for a fourth-and-2 early in the second quarter on Sunday. In what was clearly a show of aggressive play on the part of the visiting underdogs, Atlanta needed to keep pace with a Rams offense it couldn’t slow down in the first quarter.
The Falcons dialed up a clever play design, motioning Olamide Zaccheaus into the pitch role in a triple-option play that also involved Marcus Mariota and Cordarrelle Patterson. It was Patterson who ultimately got the ball on a dive up the middle, but he was stopped immediately and dropped for no gain. As was the case in Week 1, Atlanta’s opponent capitalized on the decision.
Los Angeles took over near midfield and leaned on its running game to score its second touchdown of the afternoon and take control of the matchup in the first half.
Marcus Mariota does have special athleticism
Through two games, it’s now a bit easier to understand why Mariota had success in Tennessee and is well respected by many players and coaches across the league. He has a level of athleticism that needs to be seen on a play-by-play basis to fully appreciate. Mariota doesn’t possess the breakaway speed of Lamar Jackson or the battering ram size of Josh Allen, but he’s slippery and sly to a degree that few are.
Most frequently, this presents itself in his ability to avoid pressure and buy additional time to find a receiver downfield. Occasionally, it allows him to get a first down that seemed improbable just two seconds prior. At one point on Sunday, it meant he could slip to the turf while rolling out for a crucial fourth down, gather himself and still make an accurate pass for the conversion.
Atlanta’s quarterback finished this game going 17-of-26 for 196 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions; he also ran for 16 yards. Mariota may not have true game-changing athleticism, but he is going to make the Falcons a headache for defenses as long as he’s back there.
Casey Hayward gives Atlanta a gift; Cordarrelle Patterson gives it back
The Rams looked mighty difficult to defend while carving their way through the Falcons’ defense and seemingly en route to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter. Matthew Stafford had completed his first 13 passes of the afternoon, but his 14th toss, lofted to the right side of the end zone in the direction of tight end Tyler Higbee, was intercepted by Hayward.
Hayward’s interception ended the Rams’ dangerous foray, and it provided Atlanta with the chance to cut into its deficit before halftime. The Falcons got off to a great start when Kyle Pitts drew a pass interference penalty on the first play of the drive. Mariota couldn’t connect on his next couple of passes, however, and his throw to Patterson on third down careened off the back’s hands and into the hands of Rams rookie Cobie Durant.
Durant returned the ball inside the 10-yard line, and the Rams didn’t waste this opportunity. Stafford connected with his favorite target, Cooper Kupp, on a 3-yard rainbow pass for a toe-tap touchdown, and the Rams took the 21-3 lead that Hayward had previously denied them. Atlanta is going to need to play clean and complementary football to win games this season.
This was an opportunity to make this a one-possession game going into halftime, but it resulted in the Rams further extending their lead. The Falcons aren’t yet good enough to win with those mistakes.