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Falcons - Rams recap: Blowout becomes a comeback becomes a loss

We still don’t know what the Falcons are in 2022.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons almost took an early lead, but miscues doomed them. Then they watched the Rams, helplessly, as they went up 28-3, that most loathsome score. Would the 2022 Atlanta team come back or just fall apart in the face of such an onslaught from a contender?

As it turns out, they came back, even if they fell just short. Through two games, the Falcons have shown more fight against contenders than they gave us a glimpse of throughout 2021, even if they’re still sitting at an ugly 0-2. They dominated the Saints and then wilted late, and then fell apart early but rallied furiously against the Rams. The question isn’t whether this team is better—they are—but how much further they have to go before they can win these games where they’re toppling in the fourth quarter or on the cusp of victory near the end. That question, obviously, remains to be answered, but it sure seems like they still have a ways to go.

A year ago, that halftime deficit to the Rams would’ve meant ruin. The Falcons collapsed and stayed deflated against the Cowboys and Patriots, as we all remember, so the fact that they climbed back into it at all against the defending Super Bowl champions means something. If tenacity is a virtue the Falcons want to instill as they climb toward a brighter future, then it appears they’re all on their way. It’s just a question of finishing the job, and that may need to wait for an infusion of talent that only another draft class and a treasure chest full of cap space can deliver.

The progress against the Rams still deserves recognition. This team was woefully down and out at 28-3, and all any of us were really hoping for at that point was the salvaging of some dignity. It appeared Atlanta had underestimated a Rams team that had gotten slapped around by the best team in the league but is still objectively one of the better squads in the NFL, but the fight and opportunism that animated the Falcons in the second half was truly impressive. They were a couple of missed opportunities away from completing the comeback, but considering virtually nobody expected that comeback to happen, the fact that Atlanta got so close is a sign that they’re figuring out how to come back. Future versions of the Falcons will ideally not need to make up a 25 point deficit, but that’s where we are right now.

What’s clear is that the Falcons will do what they will in pursuit of who they want to be. Arthur Smith is quick to wave away suggestions that Marcus Mariota is falling short or that targeting Kyle Pitts infrequently is a losing strategy, and he’ll look to address both lines of questioning with stellar performances from the duo while winning games in the coming weeks. With a shaky but talented Seahawks team on the way, it’s the right time for the Falcons to prove that the investments they’ve made to this point and the big rallies and early statements are building toward something cohesive that can lead them to victories. It’s probably already getting to be too late for this season to turn into anything more than another campaign where progress matters, but we’ll be here because progress does matter.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Marcus Mariota continues to use his legs to great effect. On the first drive alone, Mariota picked up a first down by threading through defenders on the run and got another first down after using his legs to escape pressure and connect with Drake London. Throughout this game, even though he wasn’t nearly as effective scrambling, Mariota bought time to make plays that the Falcons simply couldn’t have a year ago.

He even fell down, got back up, and managed a first down strike to Parker Hesse that was truly unbelievable to watch. That tenacity and mobility works well in Arthur Smith’s offense and will likely keep him in the starting job for a while yet, and it’s possible that as Mariota’s comfort level grows, we’ll see more of the spectacular and less of the shaky. We’ll get to that below.

  • Drake London just keeps impressing. The rookie receiver looks poised, but more importantly, he looks sure-handed and capable of making big plays when called upon. In this one, he managed his first NFL touchdown grab and was once again the team’s leading receiver, pulling in eight grabs for 86 yards on a day where nobody else had more than two catches and 57 yards. The Falcons have real work to do in order to get the rest of their receiving corps going—particularly their tight end group—but London will happily gobble up catches and effectively power this passing game until that happens.
  • KhaDarel Hodge was also effective, with two grabs for 57 yards, including a nice catch that he turned into a significant gain. Through two weeks, he’s at a sterling 5 grabs for 95 yards, or 19 yards per reception, and has shown enough of a rapport with Mariota that it’s worth considering how the coaching staff might get him more looks. That plus significant special teams value should guarantee him a quality role all season long.
  • This Falcons coaching staff isn’t always great about using their talent, but they clearly recognize it. Olamide Zaccheaus stuck around because this staff likes him, and aside from one bad fumble in Week 1, he has been an asset. In this one, he had a couple of solid grabs, including a touchdown, and could very well be a long-term top reserve at minimum for Atlanta.
  • The Falcons were down 28-3 when Mykal Walker came up with a huge interception to give Atlanta a chance at fighting back into it, which was beyond welcome. Walker has been at least solid through two games thus far and has that big play potential within him, which makes him one of the more exciting Falcons going forward. The Falcons need to find long-term options who will be part of the next great team, perhaps as soon as next year.
  • Criticize Darren Hall, I dare you. He did slip on one play, but he also was the only player on the field who could come up with the ball on a crucial Cooper Kupp fumble in the fourth quarter that rolled forever, and that in turn gave Atlanta another shot.
  • Casey Hayward’s pick kept this from becoming a blowout. With Matthew Stafford taking an end zone shot, Hayward came up with a fantastic interception on a would-be touchdown that almost certainly would’ve put this game entirely out of reach. After a puzzling bit of coverage against the Saints last week, it was a nice bit of redemption for a very good veteran cornerback who wanted to show his value in Atlanta.
  • Troy Andersen is making some big plays early. The rookie linebacker was up-and-down in his defensive action on Sunday, at least on first glance, but that tremendous athleticism proved game-changing on the blocked punt against the Rams. Andersen is likely to get the Richie Grant treatment this year and spend most of his time on special teams honing his craft for Marquice Williams, who got a lot out of Grant a year ago. Of course, that blocked punt set Lorenzo Carter up to...
  • ....return the blocked punt for a touchdown. Carter has only been in Atlanta for two games, but has made an outsized impact with a sack and the heads-up recovery and return for a touchdown. For a slightly better team, we’d be pointing to that as the game-winning play. For the Falcons, it’s still a sensational one, and Carter continues to show he’s worth every penny after hopping over from the Giants in free agency.
  • Going for it on fourth down is welcome, especially this season. I want to see this Falcons team looking aggressive and playing without fear, so going for it early in the second quarter in no man’s land was fine by me. We can debate whether the play call was the right one—Patterson up the middle after attempting to sow some pre-snap trickery didn’t work all that well—but I am not going to criticize the Falcons for doing for it this year in a season where I expect more ups and downs than wins.

The Ugly

  • Younghoe Koo just doesn’t miss all that often, so it’s noteworthy and upsetting when he does. Kicking off a drive that stalled out with a 44 yard try that Koo whiffed on? That’s especially painful.

No, you shouldn’t worry about Koo long-term. Yes, that was not how any of us wanted to start.

  • Mariota is a bit of an enigma at this point, because the highs and lows wax and wane so suddenly. When he’s good, he’s escaping pressure and picking up first downs and throwing darts to his receivers. When he’s off, he’s missing passes you think he should make and hesitating at times you think he shouldn’t, and it led to some frustrating stretches in this one. The final play, where bombing it downfield was the only course of action and Mariota wound up sacked, was probably the most frustrating example of the day.

I firmly believe he’s good enough to win games for the Falcons and would deliver a solid final win total and stat line in a year where he was the unquestioned starter, but with Desmond Ridder waiting for his shot, he likely doesn’t have the luxury of up-and-down days all year long.

  • Of course, pass protection didn’t hold up the same way it did in Week 1, which is a mitigating factor for Mariota’s quieter day. The veteran quarterback was scrambling frequently (and the ground game slowed) thanks to blocking that couldn’t hold back an effective Rams front. That’s more what we expected after a summer that saw limited change to the line and up-and-down preseason performances, but given that it was against Aaron Donald and company, we probably owe them another week or two to see whether we’re stuck with the same old line.
  • Also, while the throw under pressure to Bryan Edwards gave Jalen Ramsey a real shot at the pick, it’s hard to argue with the notion that Patterson has a heavy share of blame for the first interception. The throw may have been a bit high, but the normally extremely reliable Patterson bobbled it and it landed right in the hands of rookie Kobe Durant, who nearly took it to the house.
  • Are there some snap issues with Drew Dalman? I can’t be the only one who thought many of those snaps were bobbled or coming in a bit low, and Dalman hits an in-motion Kyle Pitts on a play that’s sort of tough to assign blame for. I’ll be interested to hear the coaches address it, or you know, not address it.
  • After a huge day on the ground against the Saints, the Falcons couldn’t repeat this time. Patterson was solid and Tyler Allgeier had moments, but the backs combined for 71 yards on 20 carries (plus one three yard run for Caleb Huntley) a week after Patterson ran New Orleans to death. That will happen, but it was clear that the Falcons are too one-dimensional with only London looming as a consistent threat through the air and without a hugely productive day on the ground.
  • The defense got their teeth kicked in, emulsified, and turned into a drinkable soup in the first half. The Rams couldn’t get the ball to Allen Robinson in Week 1 and couldn’t get the ground game going, and they did both easily against Atlanta. It got better in the second half, but only so much better.

The pressure and all-around solid play in Week 1 wasn’t a mirage—it happened—but the Falcons didn’t look ready to get after Stafford at all. The Rams were undone by turnovers, but Atlanta’s ability to get after Stafford was limited, their ability to stop the run largely woeful, and the successful aggression that defined the effort missing by at least half, mostly in the “successful” portion. We probably needed that reminder that the Falcons are a work in progress on that side of the ball, but obviously a reliance on turnovers would mean some hit or miss efforts over the course of the season.

  • What to make of the lack of Kyle Pitts thus far? Arthur Smith brushed off criticism of Pitts’ lack of targets after the game with a remark about this not being fantasy football, but it’s hard to accept that at face value when Pitts is the most dangerous yards after catch (and just plain receiving threat) on the field for the Falcons in any given game. With Atlanta’s passing game failing to really take off thus far, it seems logical to give Mariota more chances to connect with Pitts, but those opportunities have seemingly been few and far between thus far. If the team really wants to strike fear into the hearts of opponents and make their quarterback’s life easier, Smith will have to turn his cleverness toward getting the ball in Pitts’ hands more often sooner than later.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Tough one to choose this week, so I won’t. Give Lorenzo Carter props for his touchdown return on the blocked punt, Drake London for once again keying the offense, and Mykal Walker and Casey Hayward for potentially game-changing interceptions that did help the effort.

One Takeaway

The Falcons are better and have more fight than a year ago, just as we suggested in Week 1. We just haven’t seen it translate to wins yet, which is what we’re hoping to see very soon with even any dim hope for a postseason bid already fading.

Next Week

The Seahawks, who impressed in Week 1 but wilted in Week 2, and even their dominance in the first week is undercut by how lousy the Broncos were even in a win against the Texans. The Falcons will hope to get their first win against them.

Check out Field Gulls for more about the Seahawks.

Final Word