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Falcons vs. Buccaneers finale recap: A fun Sunday to end the year

Atlanta’s win comes loaded with asterisks and a lack of meaning, but it also leads to daydreaming.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons were in the game against Tampa Bay’s starters, but of course the Buccaneers were down a few of those players. They caught fire and ultimately won against a mix of starters and backups. Because of that, if you came out of this win with any grand conclusions about the Falcons and their future, you probably need to reel those in a bit.

Why? Simple: We don’t know much about the offseason ahead, from Desmond Ridder’s prospects of starting to who will be the starting left guard to virtually anything about the defense. Atlanta has the cap space and draft capital to remake significant portions of the roster, and for the first time they’re unfettered by the need to rid themselves of onerous contracts or significant cap limitations. The road is a wide open one, and nothing we saw against the Buccaneers by itself caused Atlanta to change their plans for 2023. It was one final opportunity to get a good look at would-be contributors for next year, and while that (and the win!) matter, the course of the franchise is still to be determined.

For one Sunday, though, the Falcons were fun. They mixed in a big defensive play here and a long drive there in the first half amidst the expected ineptitude—Desmond Ridder’s fumble was incredible and some of the catches from Chris Godwin and Cade Otton equally so—before turning on the jets against backups. In a game that didn’t mean much for either team, though, that second half was incredibly fun to watch after two straight months of poor-to-decent showings from our favorite football team. It’s easy to forget in an era where fandom feels pressurized and professionalized, but we’re still supposed to enjoy this stuff, and for once Atlanta made that easy.

We’ll have countless articles about how this year went, what we expect for next year, and what the Falcons actually do, and it’s going to be one of the more exciting offseasons I can remember. For right now, though, just bask in an enjoyable Sunday featuring performances from players who may very well be real contributors on the next great Falcons team.

On to the full recap for one final time this season.

The Good

  • Richie Grant has his flaws—some of his open field tackle attempts should come with a warning label—but he’s turning into the kind of playmaker the Falcons envisioned when they took him in the second round in 2021. In this one, the Buccaneers got the ball back after a Falcons touchdown drive and Tom Brady was able to hit Chris Godwin for a quick gain, but Grant punched it out of his hands on a really nice play to cause a fumble Atlanta recovered. That set up a field goal try for Younghoe Koo and thus led directly to points, but it was the precision and effort from Grant that made that play special. 5
  • Tyler Allgeier is the guy. I’ve typed that over and over again, but it’s worth stepping back and appreciating how good the rookie was this season even for those of us who expected big things from him. He cleared 1,000 yards on the ground, broke William Andrews’ rookie record, was a capable receiver, and an excellent blocker, and Allgeier did all of that as a fifth round rookie on a team with plenty of veteran talent heading into the year. At worst he should be a good lead back in a committee for several years to come, but his ability to be more than that is there for all to see.
  • Drake London also looks like the guy, just at wide receiver, and it’s clear that Terry Fontenot and company found some gems in this rookie class. This was a career game for London, who cleared 100 yards, made a number of nice grabs in traffic, and set the team rookie receptions record along the way. Regardless of who ends up quarterbacking this team in 2023, London will be a favored target.
  • Who will be under center? This was a Desmond Rorscach performance for Ridder because depending on how your brain is wired and what biases you carried into the day, you saw something very different, as he either Proved He Belongs (TM) or Showed He Isn’t The Guy (TM). On the positive side of the ledger, I’d list Ridder’s sharp throws over the middle all game and several deeper shots, as well as his first two touchdown passes. If the team was looking to see him stay cool after making mistakes and under pressure, as well as show he has a good enough arm to succeed in the NFL, then they probably are feeling pretty good after these past four games, and the fact that they were willing to only see him for four games could underscore that they already had confidence in him. But there were significant downsides to his performance, which we’ll cover below.
  • Olamide Zaccheaus seemingly disappeared over the past few weeks with Desmond Ridder under center, so it was nice to see those two find some chemistry and success on Sunday. Zaccheaus finished his season with career-best marks in receptions and yardage and tied his career-high for touchdowns, and he seems like a strong bet to be back as WR4 next year.
  • Speaking of strong bets to be back, how about MyCole Pruitt? The veteran tight end capped off a productive 2022 season after suiting up for the first time five games in, tying for the team lead in touchdowns with four and making tough catches when called upon. This was his most impressive effort of the season, as he made a jumping touchdown grab (Ridder’s first ever) and picked up a big gain over the middle of the field despite absorbing contact. There are several options here, from John FitzPatrick to Feleipe Franks, but it’d be disappointing not to see the Falcons consider Pruitt as a depth option in 2023 after he showed well as a receiver and blocker this year.
  • I don’t think you can say enough about the strides the offensive line made this year. Left guard is not a settled position and center may not be, either, but a line that got Matt Ryan killed and couldn’t block at all for Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson a year ago morphed into one of the league’s most effective run blocking groups this year and took at least a small step forward in pass protection. More than anything else the Falcons managed this year, coaxing that kind of improvement out of a line that has been a liability for far too long bodes well for the future.
  • On the other line, the mandate and mantra are both simple: Get Grady Jarrett some help. He finished the 2022 season with the team lead in sacks and remained the most effective force Atlanta has up front, including a beautiful run stop against the Buccaneers where he diagnosed the play, swatted away multiple hapless blockers, and made the tackle in a blink of an eye. Jarrett deserves to play on a great Falcons defense, and I hope it’s coming.
  • Lorenzo Carter is another one-year deal that you could see turning into a long-term one. More than once against the Buccaneers, he was bringing the heat and coming up with a nice stop, including a particularly effective one where he drilled a running back for a seven yard loss. A solid, durable player who the Falcons counted on all season, Carter belongs in the rotation here even after upgrades.
  • Cornell Armstrong, starter, is something I’ve been adjusting to for weeks now. To his credit, he ended the season with his best performance of the year, making a couple of plays on the ball and showing well against starters and reserves for Tampa Bay. The depth chart is unsettled after A.J. Terrell, but in a year where there weren’t all that many standouts at corner, Armstrong may have helped himself hang on as a reserve next year with his improvement in recent weeks.
  • Isaiah Oliver had another good game, too, even if he missed one tackle attempt along the way. After seeing his playing time dwindle in the mid-to-late season, Oliver came on strong at the very end of the year and seems to be a player this coaching staff is very fond of. It’ll be interesting to see if they prioritize re-adding him, and it may depend on whether Dean Pees returns.
  • Younghoe Koo finishes off the year as one of the league’s most reliable kickers yet again. Even if the team becomes less reliant on him because the offense improves, knowing you have someone who can consistently hit kicks under pressure remains a boon.
  • Put all the asterisks you want on it, the Falcons beat Tom Brady and he endured his first ever losing season because of them. It’s petty but I love it.

The Ugly

  • The negative side of the ledger for Ridder was mostly contained to the first half, when all of Tampa Bay’s starters were in, and they cemented his reputation as someone who takes time to get into a rhythm. One nice touchdown drive can’t be overlooked and a couple of big darts to London short and Pruitt long were highlights, but Ridder simply missed on multiple deep passes, missed high to an open MyCole Pruitt on third down, and somehow tried to throw the ball and had it slip out of his hand for a fumble...all in the first half. He then just missed Zaccheaus on third down for a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, as well.

Ridder’s four game audition was too short for any of us to say how good he can be, but the Falcons will use it to determine whether he’ll be at the helm of the offense unchallenged in 2023, facing significant competition from a veteran, or supplanted entirely. The returns have been solid enough that I’d personally feel comfortable giving him a real shot at the starting job next season, a stance I suspect the Falcons share, but the long stretches of mistakes and misfires will give them pause as they mull that.

  • The defense tried to be more aggressive, which I appreciated, and it led to some big plays and shaky throws from the Bucs. Overall, though, Atlanta was once again shaky against Tampa Bay’s full starting offense, allowing a motley collection of running backs to fight for solid yardage and letting Brady pick apart the secondary. They also let Blaine Gabbert pull off a big drive, of all people, before clamping down the rest of the way. Another solid-but-not-spectacular performance overall underscores the need for growth from young players like Troy Andersen (who had a nightmare moment in coverage against Kyle Rudolph) and Arnold Ebiketie, as well as the need to pump significant resources into improving the defensive talent level overall.
  • I could linger on some issues in pass protection and the like, but the season’s over, this is only the second win we’ve seen from the Falcons since mid-November, and we deserve a few positive vibes heading into the offseason. We can all go home.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

For the final time this season, it’s Allgeier, who paced the offensive output and remained Atlanta’s single most effective player on offense. He’s been the obvious choice a lot lately with the defense trudging along and the rest of the offense looking shaky, but you could (and might?) throw everyone from Desmond Ridder to Drake London to Richie Grant in this week if you were so inclined.

One Takeaway

Winning games makes for a good time. Sure hope we get to see more of that in fall 2023.

Next Week

The offseason, with all the intrigue, excitement, and anxiety that promises.

Final Word