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3 Up, 3 Down: Falcons’ offense stumbles while defense stays strong

The good and bad of Desmond Ridder, a breakthrough game for a key part of the defense and more from Sunday’s loss

NFL: OCT 15 Commanders at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Atlanta’s 24-16 loss to the Washington Commanders felt avoidable at many points, but the Falcons couldn’t take advantage of opportunities and provided too many for their opposition on Sunday afternoon.

The broader stats hint at some positives for Atlanta in this game. Defensively, the Falcons allowed 193 total yards and held Washington to just 2-of-10 on third down. Offensively, there were lengthy drives of 75, 70, 69 and 60 yards, which signals improvement for a unit searching for consistency. However, this was a game lost because of details and miscues, as is often the case in the NFL but not recently for the Falcons. At least, not in this way.

Here’s a look at the players who did well in the loss and those who had a hand in it.

Three Up

Jeff Okudah

Let’s. Go. Jeff. Okudah. The third-overall pick and consensus top corner in the 2020 NFL Draft has gotten off to a great start so far in Atlanta. It’s an important season for Okudah, who did not have his fifth-year option picked up by the Falcons and is therefore in a contract year. Despite an ankle injury that kept him out of the lineup to start the season, he’s lived up to the billing for his new club. Okudah’s play has been consistently strong as he’s been poked and prodded by offenses.

Although he tossed three touchdown passes, Howell only amassed 151 yards through the air. That is partly due to some mistakes by Commanders players, but it’s partly due to another solid game from Atlanta’s secondary. Okudah, in particular, had a pair of notable pass breakups, and his energy radiated outwards in those big moments.

Defensive line

In one game, the Falcons matched their season sack total and now have 10 through six games. It was a nice breakthrough performance for a unit that has been much better at pressuring quarterbacks than their sack total reflected. With only the Monday night game remaining in Week 6, the Falcons rank third in the league with a pressure rate of 26.6 percent – a mark surpassed by only the Bills and Chiefs. That’s especially impressive given that the Falcons have not forced opponents into game scripts that call for a pass-heavy approach, which would favor the pass rush.

Grady Jarrett, Calais Campbell, Bud Dupree and Arnold Ebiketie were the four players who accounted for the team’s five sacks against Washington. Campbell recorded his 100th career sack and first of the season, and it’s hard to convey just how much respect he has in the locker room.

It must be mentioned that Washington allowed the second-most sacks per pass attempt prior to Sunday’s game, so this was a matchup primed for Atlanta to exploit. But it was a welcome sight to see.

Drake London

London has been a primary driver of the Falcons’ improvements in the passing game these last two weeks. In that time, the second-year receiver has 15 receptions for 203 yards. Against Washington, he had the most productive day of his career, catching nine passes for 125 yards. He’s got two touchdown receptions in 2023, and although he’s been held out the end zone in back-to-back weeks, he’s still getting the looks down in the red zone to expect that number to rise. By now, it’s clear that receivers of any form in an Arthur Smith are going to serve the game plan first and foremost, and that may lead to occasional droughts. Even in the midst of his slow start this year, however, it’s been clear he’s a talented player in this league with a unique skill set. He’s now starting to show that in bigger ways.

Oh, by the way. London’s career-best game prior to Sunday? The 2022 season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who the Falcons will travel to see next weekend. He had six catches for 120 yards in that one, so there’s a chance the fireworks continue.

Three Down

Desmond Ridder

This is part of life for NFL quarterbacks. One week, it’s a win and there’s a positive air to everything. The next, it’s a loss that brings it all back to Earth. Make no mistake, though, Ridder had a big hand in the outcome not going Atlanta’s direction. Three interceptions are enough to doom teams on a good day, but he ended any chance at a comeback with interceptions that should have been avoided. Big-picture, Ridder’s stat line was at least again notable given his production to start the season. He was 28 of 47 for 307 yards with two touchdowns and the three picks.

It’s always difficult to discern who is responsible for the operational mistakes we saw against Washington. Smith and Ridder said it was a variety of mistakes between parties that created a snowball effect. Whether it was a late-arriving play call, slow personnel rotations or a lapse in clock awareness, they all demand attention this week before a division game on the road. I love the offensive creativity here in Atlanta, and I truly believe it’s brilliant at times. This was a reminder about the importance of an offense’s procedure that we all too often take for granted.

Scotty Miller

I’ve always had a hard time making sense of Miller on this offense, and it’s still a mystery through six weeks. He’s actually trending upwards in terms of snap count, playing a season-high 28 against Washington. The returns have not seen a correlating uptick, at least offensively. He’s caught three passes for 14 yards this year. Miller played the same number of snaps as Mack Hollins Sunday, who I believe has offered more to this offense to this point and would rather see on the field.

Balance in usage is part of the chemistry of Atlanta’s offense, so it’s not surprising that Miller, Hollins KhaDarel Hodge and even newcomer Van Jefferson all had a similar number of snaps on Sunday. And maybe the positives of that balance outweigh the discrepancy at times in on-field talent, but that’s not a strong point to argue after a loss like Sunday’s. If Van Jefferson’s role expands, however, Miller hasn’t made his case to keep his share in my eyes.

Punt coverage

This has to be mentioned. Jamison Crowder’s 61-yard punt return early in the second quarter was undoubtedly one of the three most impactful moments of the game. It set up the Commanders with a short field after the defense had just forced a three-and-out, a huge shift in momentum. Washington punched it in three plays later, and the Falcons were playing catch-up for the rest of the afternoon.

Special teams has been a strength of Atlanta’s under coordinator Marquice Williams, but a mistake in just one aspect can seriously impact a game’s outcome, and this was a tough one.