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Falcons vs. Commanders recap: Quagmire quest

Atlanta’s stuck fast in bad habits and bad mistakes, and those are a large part of the reason they lost to Washington.

Washington Commanders v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Your Atlanta Falcons have played well enough on defense to win multiple games this season, and this was another one. Given two very short fields to defend owing to a long punt return and an unfortunate Desmond Ridder interception, Atlanta allowed two touchdowns on drives that totaled just 38 yards, but otherwise held the Commanders to 10 points and allowed just a single score in the second half. You can win a game with 24 points allowed if your offense is sharp and your mistakes are few. The Falcons, unfortunately, didn’t do the heavy lifting in those two areas once again.

Atlanta’s passing game looked fairly lively again and the run got going a little bit late, but the offense was sunk by too many unproductive plays and three interceptions from Desmond Ridder, each one brutal and driving Arthur Smith into sideline grimacing and then outright frenzies. A delay of game, a pair of near-delay of games, penalties, missed throws and poorly run routes, and some play designs that simply went nowhere were paired with an inefficient rushing attack once again, and as a result the Falcons scored just 16 points. They were repeatedly given a chance to go tie the game up near the end and they couldn’t do it, and the sheer number of communication issues, hesitations, and sloppy moments late were unbearable.

Arthur Smith said after the game that those issues getting plays in and executed were a new issue and he may be right, but the larger issue with this team making boneheaded mistakes at the worst time go back a lot further than that. The Falcons are mostly sound defensively but have a nasty habit of leaving a man wide open or missing a key tackle at exactly the wrong time. The Falcons have stretches where they look like a thrilling, talented offense, but they turn the ball over, commit costly penalties, or cross wires in big moments where they really need to be smart and efficient. They even have made uncharacteristic errors on special teams, with a poor punt here, a missed field goal there, and a punt return coverage lapse there contributing to the flames that are burning this team to a sad little pile of ash.

All of these issues ultimately land at the feet of the coaching staff, which has a mandate to maximize what they’re getting from the team they’ve built and are putting out there on the field. I wrote last week that the Week 5 game felt like progress and that I hoped it was; instead it was just the latest moment over five seasons where Atlanta seemingly got their act together and then faceplanted the next game. The excuses about a lack of talent that were legitimate in 2021 and still mostly sound in 2022 seem far less resonant this season, and while the execution is clearly lacking in a way that only players can ultimately fix, Smith has had to stand up there nearly every week and pledge to get things (in his words) cleaned up or fixed. Many of the foundational problems with the offense in particular are still awaiting those patches and panaceas, and we still come away weekly wondering how that interception could possibly happen or why the team is running then. The coaching staff is doing good things in the midst of this, but this is a pivotal year where the league is full of struggling teams, and genuine progress is both expected and necessary. We’ve only truly seen it in fits and starts on offense and in a more lasting fashion on defense.

Is this all a little dramatic for 3-3? Surely. The Falcons are still in the thick of the NFC South, and nearly every team in the NFL has an excruciating effort or two on the resume for 2023. I just find it difficult to shake the uneasy sense that this team is fundamentally inconsistent in a way that doesn’t have a simple fix, as their unravelings are spectacular and come without warning. This is a team that is having to win in the fourth quarter and hasn’t even flirted with scoring more than 30 points, and it may be that only time and effort can smooth out the rough edges and give us a better, more finished product. The fear is that time and effort, from the coaching staff and the players alike, won’t be enough to rescue this team from its maddening bad habits and miscues. When you can’t run consistently, when you turn the ball over too often, when you’re penalized in key spots, and when your defense is quite good but not elite, how many games will you end up triumphing in?

Atlanta now has to travel to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an urgent need to get a win before they slip under .500 for the first time in 2023, and I’m betting strongly that there will be no personnel changes before next Sunday. That puts the onus on this team’s current group and coaching staff on offense to figure out how to avoid game-changing mistakes, because there’s too still much talent here to squander so many opportunities. A win against Tampa Bay would go a very long way to making us all feel better, but only multiple quality efforts in a row will signal to us that the 2023 Falcons team we hoped for is here to stay. The talent is here and the coaching staff has shown an ability to squeeze the most out of what they have in moments and even stretches; it’s about getting everything on the same page at the same time in a way that has eluded them to this point, and doing so sooner than later.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Ridder’s comfort with Kyle Pitts seems to be growing, and Pitts is beginning to thrive as a result. In this one, he made a couple of tough catches over the middle, turned a short route into 19 yards, and brought in a rare touchdown on the opening drive for Atlanta en route to another terrific day. The wheels don’t appear to be fully back—that 19 yarder felt like it could’ve gone for more—but he’s winning his opportunities, and that’s a really good sign for this offense and this passing attack.
  • I don’t think you can say enough about Drake London’s effort in this one, as he appeared to be banged up and grimacing and still finished with nine grabs and 125 yards, nearly tripling the output from the next closest receiving options. He made tough catches down the sideline, he made tough catches over the middle, and has looked over the past couple of weeks like the contested-catch master and trusted Desmond Ridder target we figured London was. He should only continue to build on this as long as he’s healthy.
  • Jonnu Smith has been such an impactful addition, even if his ball security is occasionally the source of elevated blood pressure. In this one, he had a bobbled but ultimately caught touchdown grab and four receptions for 36 yards in total, and he was a bit of a bulldozer on all of them. The yardage total may be modest, but he’s one of the team’s more reliable targets over the middle of the field and a yards after the catch threat every time out.
  • As you might guess when I’m calling out multiple receivers, this was a day where Ridder did show strides as a passer, though they’ll be somewhat lost thanks to the disastrous ending to the day and result of this game. When Ridder was on, he threw some absolute lasers and made a couple of nice plays with his legs, and he once again surpassed 300 yards and spread the ball around effectively in this one. The mistakes have to stop for this kind of result to matter, but the strides as a passer are there when he’s not panicking.
  • That was helped by another solid day in terms of pass protection. We’ll need to re-run the game and look at pressure numbers, but considering how great this Washington pass rush can be, the fact that the passing game was mostly functional and Ridder was not consistently impacted by pressure is worth a note here. Ridder is getting a bit better at navigating that pressure, but the seemingly endless parade of pass rushers in the backfield is lessening.
  • This was a sign of life game from Tyler Allgeier, and it wasn’t even a hugely impressive one. The stuff near the goal line hurts a lot, but when he was given a little space to work, Allgeier piled up a handful of nice runs that reminded us how quick and physical he can be. If the Falcons can get the ground game going again at some point—and they’d better be able to—Allgeier should be a prominent piece of it.
  • Bijan Robinson didn’t have much luck on the ground and had his share of blame in one missed connection with Ridder, but again, even a quiet day has him tied for second on the team in receiving yards and second in receptions while contributing as a runner. There are bigger days ahead, but the Falcons do have to figure out how to get him going on the ground.
  • Calais Campbell’s 100th career sack came in the second quarter when he tripped up Sam Howell, and the ensuing celebration was both fun and very well-deserved for the legendary veteran.
  • Grady Jarrett also got in on the sack party, and he was one of the few run defenders I felt consistently did work in the first half, when Washington had some success on the ground.
  • Bud Dupree has been one of the team’s most consistent defenders, and he broke through a bit on Sunday against Washington, with he and Arnold Ebiketie each getting credit for 1.5 sacks on the day. Dupree tied his 2021 sack total on Sunday and is only one away from his 2022 total, and the quality of run defense he’s brought to this point in conjunction with the fact that he offers at least some pass rushing punch means he’s been yet another great free agent addition for Atlanta.

Kudos to Ebiketie, too, who has faced a lot of questions about his future in Atlanta both here and otherwise given limited snaps and Ryan Nielsen’s seeming preference for his EDGEs. Ebiketie’s 1.5 sacks on the day should be, if nothing else, a nice confidence booster for a second-year player I’m still high on.

  • I thought Jeff Okudah did a pretty nice job against Washington, and while he got popped for one defensive hold, his aggression and physicality played well against the Commanders. He and A.J. Terrell did a nice job in the second half in particular in forcing Sam Howell to sit in the pocket looking for open options, which helped lead to the gobs of sacks the Falcons managed.
  • While some of the decisions and calls were frustrating, the common thread of aggression was something I do approve of. Going for it on fourth down from midfieldish, the deep shot to Van Jefferson that just missed, and the two point try were all signals that this team is not going to meekly pack up shop even when a more conservative call would be better received. The fact that they didn’t work should, as I’ve said in the past, not discourage the Falcons from going for it on fourth downs or trying to stack up points. They may just need to consider the situation and the call a little more carefully in the future.

The Ugly

  • That punt return hurt a lot. It wasn’t a stellar punt by Bradley Pinion, but some nice blocking by Washington and missed tackle opportunities from Atlanta led to a 60-plus yarder from Jamison Crowder that set up an easy Washington touchdown. I’ll give Tre Flowers credit for sticking with it until the end and preventing the outright touchdown from Crowder, giving the defense a fighting chance they weren’t able to take advantage of given how close the Commanders were. Special teams is usually a strength for Atlanta; that’s an example of how costly it can be when they are not.
  • Ridder looked like he was going to settle in to another fine day in the early going, but things started rattling and the screws were loosened by some errant throws in the first half long before the wheels came off entirely. If you were to take away his three interceptions, Ridder’s day was marred by a handful of inaccurate throws and bad decisions that were balanced out by a couple of nice runs and some absolute darts. Unfortunately, you cannot take away the interceptions, and they were brutal, seemingly blind and panicked throws that at best can be said to stem from inexperience and trying too hard. Ridder showed us last week that he is capable of playing a clean, strong game relatively free of mistakes, and he showed again this week that he is capable of throwing himself overboard tied to the anchor and stopping the whole ship with poor judgement, poor timing, and interceptions you’d be embarrassed to throw to your cousins in a backyard game. I don’t think we need to do the week-to-week moratorium with Ridder, a player the Falcons seem genuinely invested in, but the team can’t survive him literally throwing the game away as often as he has. He’s simply the most visible and important player who has to be consistently better.
  • The lack of a ground game in recent weeks is probably an underappreciated cause of this team’s woes. Running the ball is what Arthur Smith wants to do and what this roster has been painstakingly built to do, and yet teams are successfully stifling the Falcons’ best card to play. The team ran 29 times for 106 yards in this one, an inefficient performance made worse when you realize that 18 of those yards came on just two carries from Desmond Ridder, meaning Allgeier and Robinson combined for 88 yards on 27 carries, or just over 3.2 yards per carry . On a down-by-down basis, there was much effort and not much reward for Atlanta. That Allgeier would-be two point conversion saw him stuffed outright, and that was far from the only time that happened.

Ridder’s mistakes are magnified and his opportunities to make them are heightened when the offense is functionally one-dimensional, as it was for far too much of Sunday’s game. There’s more Allgeier and Robinson can do and there’s definitely more this coaching staff can do to set them up to succeed, but at some point a line praised all last year and into the beginning of this year for being stellar at run blocking has to deliver on that ability. The Falcons won’t win when they can’t run all that often—they’ll continue to force the passing game to beat them, with the inconsistent results that implies—and the outsized investment in Robinson and this line make that problem worse.

  • The communication issues in this one were legion and troubling. At least three times, the booth questioned whether Ridder and his receiver were on the same page on routes where throws were errant or even picked off. The team also got hit with an awful delay of game penalty, the snap came late to a flustered Ridder on the next play, and there was nearly another delay of game after a spiked ball on the final drive in the fourth quarter that forced Atlanta to take their final timeout. It wasn’t clear where the fault landed there, but what was clear is that it killed the Falcons and their chances to win. If plays are getting in late and substitutions are coming too slowly, that’s an issue the coaching staff has to remedy, and quickly.
  • The decision to go for it on 4th and 3 around midfield was defensible enough if you’re counting on the defense being able to stop Washington; the call and execution left much to be desired and the defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. It’s difficult to criticize them overmuch for that given that they only needed to go half a field, and that it was so early that there was absolutely no need to try for the conversion at that moment. This was just one of many examples Sunday of Arthur Smith choosing to do something that was at least vaguely defensible in a vacuum but disastrous in practice, from slowly switching out four players on the final drive to setting up labored plays that seemed designed to go to Bijan Robinson short of the sticks and hope for the best.

There are so many interlocking issues with the way this offense functions when things are going poorly that singling out Smith and company for all of it is unwise. Suggesting that the weird tactical decisions that have plagued this team against Washington—of all teams—and at other times this year are detrimental for a team that only wins close games to begin with is more than fair, and it’s one of those “we have to clean this up” items that they...well, have to clean up.

  • Finally, the five sacks were nice and I gave credit to those Falcons defenders because they deserve it, but I do have to note that a part of the reason they were so effective is because Sam Howell is simply astoundingly bad at getting himself away from pressure. The Falcons will have to build on this effort to replicate it against Tampa Bay.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Drake London playing hurt, reeling in over 100 yards, and making some nice contested catches? In a game this frustrating without a lot of clear standouts, we’ll give it to him.

One Takeaway

This team’s fortunes are heavily reliant on avoiding mistakes, and they’ve been making a ton of mistakes all season long. There isn’t any one cause of that or one easy fix, but their ability to make the playoffs and provide us enjoyable football depends on fixing it regardless.

Next Week

The Buccaneers, with Atlanta traveling to Tampa Bay to face a division rival for the second time in 2023 in a game that’s as close to a must-win as you can get in the seventh week of the season. Check out Bucs Nation for more about the Baker Bucs.

Final Word