At one point last winter, after a storm that saw freezing rain and ice angrily pouring down from the sky, I found I couldn’t get my car to move. I put it in drive, I put it in reverse, I put it in neutral and pushed, I put sand and salt down to give the tires some purchase, and still the damn thing wouldn’t budge. All of those measures helped get me free of my driveway in the end, but it took me taking a pick and a sledgehammer to the ice for 15 minutes—tackling the underlying problem that had me stuck fast—to finally get loose and go somewhere.
It’s heavy-handed, I know, but this story neatly echoes the Falcons themselves: They can’t get this thing going on offense, and no amount of half-measures in these first four weeks seems to create any lasting momentum. Whether Desmond Ridder is slipping on an ice-cold gameplan, the offensive line is revving the engine but getting zero traction, or Ridder is the frozen mire this offense is stuck in is up for debate; the somewhat ugly truth is that they all have a role to play or we might be going somewhere. Whatever the impediment is to an offense loaded with would-be playmakers getting going, it has to be chipped away at and eventually removed. The Falcons can’t just leave this thing idling until the spring thaw, not after a year where they declared they were ready to contend and spent like they were.
The Jaguars game was the second straight week where the offense almost single-handedly doomed Atlanta, and they had the lack of grace to do so in front of an international crowd that was excited to see them in person, however briefly. The defense certainly had their lapses, most notably in allowing Trevor Lawrence to scramble for first downs and in an embarrassing blown coverage to leave Calvin Ridley wide open in the end zone. They still held the Jaguars to just 16 points, with the other touchdown coming on a pick six from Ridder, and were routinely put back on the field quickly and with a tough job owing to the offense’s misery. Atlanta scored just seven points a week after scoring just six points, and even their threatening drives ended in frustration with that one exception. It isn’t just one person causing this malaise, but no one person should be immune from a major shake-up if one is on the way. I know that “we’ll clean it up” has been the weekly mantra for this coaching staff and these players dating back to last season, but when the floor is collapsing underneath you, it doesn’t matter how much you sweep it.
I wrote last week that the team couldn’t survive performances like this very often; I also wrote that I didn’t expect too many Sundays where the Falcons scored fewer than 10 points. The fact that one horrible week beget another lays to rest the idea that this is a passing issue. That doesn’t mean Ridder can’t be better—I don’t know that he could be much worse than he was in the first half Sunday—or that this coaching staff and passing game can’t find a groove that has eluded them. What it does mean is that we have to reckon with these shortcomings in the plain light of day fresh off two terrible losses, and understand that this passing game has gone nowhere on a regular basis since the beginning of the 2022 season. Yeoman’s work from the defense and Bijan Robinson aren’t enough to fix that, and the seeming daze this team is in after each new low is not inspiring.
The Jaguars took full advantage of all of that. A team that had been scuffling a little bit once again found Atlanta to be their get-right, with Trevor Lawrence making enough happen with his legs and arms to win a snoozer. Jacksonville’s defense took full advantage of their opportunities, making plays on Ridder’s interceptions, tipping his passes over and over again, and snuffing out even the dim hope of a late comeback by blowing through the offensive line to drill Ridder as he reared back to throw and forcing a final fumble. They even took advantage of suspect run blocking in stretches to completely stymie Tyler Allgeier, who took the ball and was hit by multiple defenders more than once on Sunday. The Jaguars might not have won this game if Atlanta’s offense had been able to do a damn thing besides Bijan Robinson magic and Jonnu Smith rumbling here and there, but they didn’t have to concern themselves with that question.
The Falcons don’t have a post-London bye week to figure this thing out, which means they don’t have much time to find traction before Houston comes to town next Sunday. If they’re sitting at 3-2 a week from now and they get the offense back on track somewhat with a string of (at least on paper) easier games on the way, the panic will recede, as it’s a long season and there is both time and talent on the team’s side over the long haul. I think, despite Arthur Smith’s pledge to jumpstart the offense, that we won’t see any major shakeups in personnel heading into this week. With this year expected to be a contending season, though, big changes may not wait any longer if the Falcons slip below .500 against Houston.
On to the full recap.
- Bijan Robinson is a wizard in cleats, and the only reason at the moment to watch this offense and feel good on a weekly basis. Over and over again in this one, Robinson turned an errant throw or a go-nowhere play call into a big gain, showcasing elite burst, wiggle, physicality, and awareness along the way. This team’s offense having three top ten picks and two of them barely involved is not ideal; that said, until that changes simply letting Robinson get the ball as much as he can possibly handle is the Falcons’ ideal and perhaps only path forward on offense.
- Drake London made a nice play on the touchdown, with pretty good placement from Ridder that still required London to reel in a ball behind him and force his way into the end zone. We got the coveted London score in London, which was a small delight. Otherwise, it was yet another quiet effort from London despite a very game effort in the end zone on a would-be touchdown #2 when he was pushed out of bounds. London, who looked legitimately dejected on the sideline for long stretches of the game, is someone the Falcons have to find a way to get the ball to.
- Jonnu Smith has emerged as one of Ridder’s favored targets, and one of the few players he’s having any consistent success getting the ball to. Smith reeled in a team-high six catches for a team-high 95 yards, or over half of Ridder’s yardage total, and had a couple of nice stiff arms and rumbles to turn relatively modest gains into big ones. It’s beyond obvious that Smith was wasted in New England given his sure hands and blocking ability, which is good news for these Falcons, but it’s also obvious that Smith should be a high-end complement to Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Bijan Robinson, not this team’s leading target.
- David Onyemata’s stretch of dominance continues. He was an impactful force against the run, forced a holding call, and wound up finishing the day with 1.5 sacks. Onyemata has been far better than we had any right to expect, and an instrumental piece of a re-tooled defensive front that has been wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. The Falcons defense has been, for much of this young season, the thing worth watching about this team.
- Bud Dupree is coming on a bit too, with another half sack in this one and far more impact off the edge than we had seen to this point. With Arnold Ebiketie showing some flashes in his playing time, it feels like we’re not all that far away from turning near-sacks into gobs of them, hopefully starting next week with the Texans and C.J. Stroud.
- I’ll have a note on Lawrence’s scrambles below, but this run defense is making strides. Against a talented back in Travis Etienne and useful backup in Tank Bigsby, the Falcons held the duo to only about three yards per carry and forced Jacksonville to make plays through the air. The night and day difference between last year and this year—hell, between Week 1 and Week 4—is a testament to how good the guys up front have been and how much of a difference Nielsen’s addition has made.
- Nate Landman won’t get a weekly call out just for holding up well, but I don’t think you can say enough about how well he’s done stepping in as a former undrafted free agent with zero starting experience and showing himself to be a rock solid defender against the run in particular. This defense is just firing on (nearly) all cylinders right now, and getting the pass rush home a bit more often will mean we’re all on cylinders soon enough.
- A fine first effort from Jeff Okudah, too, who worked his way back in and was solid in coverage and as a tackler throughout much of the day. Getting him spun up to full, quality games is the next priority, but his return shores up one of the team’s biggest weaknesses on defense.
- The safeties were quietly pretty good in this one. Richie Grant has been a stellar blitzer and was flying all over the field early in this one, while Bates had an impactful blitz of his own, forced a fumble, and continues to be a fearsome presence in this secondary. Grant needs to build off this performance and continue to find his footing, while Jessie Bates just needs to continue to be Jessie Bates.
- Thank goodness for Bradley Pinion. The Falcons couldn’t get past the 20 on their first, unproductive drive, but Pinion was able to boot it 60 yards and prevent the Jaguars from starting with excellent field position. He has been an absolutely vital special teams cog for Atlanta again in 2023.
- Desmond Ridder needed a bounceback performance after an ugly game against the Jaguars, but instead he absolutely imploded in London. Whether the playcalling and pass protection did him any favors—and they did not—he looked like a quarterback with shot confidence throughout the first half of this one and only somewhat got it going in the second half. The absorbed sacks early on were rough, but the excruciating pick six on a telegraphed pass and subsequent interception on the very next offensive play were crushing. He had seven passes batted down Sunday, per the broadcast, and the game ended as he was hit while trying to throw and fumbled.
The Falcons have to endure growing pains with Ridder if they want to have him be the guy, and there are no guarantees that he will be. We knew that and they knew that, and my thought heading into the season was that he could be somewhere between the 18th-and-26th best quarterback in the NFL and the team could endure inconsistencies while coaxing constant improvement out of him. It was certainly the thought process I assume the team had favored heading into the year, given that they did not pursue a high-end starter and refused to let Taylor Heinicke even compete for the starting job, indicating a level of faith that surprised even those of us who thought Ridder might be able to grow into the job. Right now, though, Ridder is not making steady improvements as he did at the end of last season, but seemingly regressing in front of our eyes and making the same kinds of costly mistakes at the beginning of every game.
I’m not sure what the breaking point is where the pains are too severe for a would-be contender to endure; I don’t think it’ll be this week given the extent to which the Falcons made their belief in Ridder known and have staked the success of this season on him, but I doubt he gets as much time as Marcus Mariota did in 2023 with Taylor Heinicke lurking as a perfectly legitimate option behind him if he can’t get on track and the team’s expectations running higher. The Falcons didn’t come into this year, with all its big additions, with the thought that they could lose games while getting Ridder where they wanted him. There’s more here than Ridder has shown us, but time waits for no man, and it especially does not wait for a quarterback struggling this badly.
- An embarrassing start on offense once again for a team that talks about fixing slow beginnings but doesn’t seem to be able to do so. A pair of unproductive runs and a short pass that relied on Bijan Robinson being a legend didn’t quite work on the first drive, and on the second drive a pair of short plays went nowhere and then Ridder was sacked on third down and 1, holding the ball too long on a questionable play call. Atlanta’s poor play selection, poor blocking, and poor quarterback play in the early has absolutely doomed them, and the Falcons’ inability to keep themselves out of third and long scenarios given how badly Ridder is struggling is a coaching staff failure that has to be rectified.
The big problem here? The Falcons were a slow-starting team a year ago, outscoring their opponents in the first half just four times all season; this year, it hasn’t happened once thus far and the team has scored just 19 of their 62 points on the season in the first half of games. This kind of ongoing anemia in first halves ensures Atlanta’s in a tough spot in nearly every single game. At some point, the coaching staff has to cook up something workable to get this team moving, because it was happening with the previous quarterback too.
It would be nice if fewer passing plays featured two guys converging on virtually the same spot, too, but we’ll get to that another day.
- Things looked ugly on the sideline. As I mentioned above, Drake London had a thousand yard stare on the sidelines, Kyle Pitts looked tired, and Mack Hollins vented his frustration and later had to clarify that he was not yelling directly at Ridder, whether that’s believable or not. I’m not a body language expert and I don’t know what was said, but it’s not ideal for the team to look that dejected on the sidelines in the fourth game of the season, especially when you’re .500.
- I’m going to lay a lot of Allgeier’s struggles on the offensive line; it’s worth remembering that Bijan Robinson is one of those rare backs who can make something out of nothing in a way that Allgeier cannot. It still wasn’t a great game for the second-year back, who couldn’t power through initial contact as decisively on some carries and who couldn’t come down with a high ball from Ridder for a key catch. It’s just that I don’t expect Allgeier to be able to fight through two defenders when he’s hit right after he takes the handoff.
- That points to a struggle that threatens to fade into the background with the (justified) focus on Ridder and Smith: The offensive line has had a really hard time this year. This was a better day on balance than Detroit by a wide margin, which is at least encouraging, but they still allowed quick pressure for a quarterback who has shown a frustrating inability to get away from said pressure, failed to open lanes for Robinson (which hurt less owing to his ability to make yardage out of nothing) and Allgeier (which hurt more), and generally looked like the worst version of the line from 2022. That has to get better at some point with the talent on hand, but in an offense that’s already listless, the blocking is an added drag.
It’s an unmitigated catastrophe that things are this bad in nearly every facet of an offense with this much money, this many draft picks, and this kind of focus on offense from the head coach all built in. It’ll be an even bigger catastrophe if it lasts.
- I understand that when you have a quarterback as talented as Lawrence back there, you’re going to focus on covering your man so you don’t end up on the wrong end of a highlight reel throw to open air. The Falcons still couldn’t converge on Lawrence fast enough and prevent several big scrambles to extended drives, allowing Lawrence to run for 42 yards on eight carries on a day where they otherwise impressively stifled Travis Etienne and Tank Bigsby to the tune of 65 yards on 23 carries.
- Another week, another bad coverage bust for Atlanta. It wasn’t immediately clear to me whether A.J. Terrell or Jessie Bates was supposed to have Christian Kirk in the end zone, but I do know he wasn’t supposed to be wide open for Trevor Lawrence to hit. Despite solid pressure from Richie Grant that forced Lawrence to step out of the way, it was an easy touchdown to put the Jaguars on the board a week after the team left Sam LaPorta wide open for a touchdown. That’s an aggravating trend that can’t continue.
- Why did Arthur Smith throw a challenge flag on Jessie Bates’ second quarter punchout, given that it was a possible waste of a timeout with only five yards of difference between a completion and incompletion? Given that the play result was upheld, that was exactly what happened, and it looked like the kind of impulsive, non-rational decision the Falcons have made too often this season.
As tempting as it is to give this Bijan Robinson given that he and Jonnu Smith essentially were the offense, I’ll hand it over to Ryan Nielsen and the defense for another strong collective effort. They would have kept the game well within reach had the offense been able to do their part.
The offense is broken to a degree that threatens to derail the entire season, and any fixes and changes the Falcons made from Week 3 to Week 4 didn’t end up adding up to a whole lot of improvement. It’s fix that or watch the losses pile up, based on what we’ve seen to this point, even if the schedule is blessedly lightening up a little bit.
Back to the United States for a matchup against the Texans and promising rookie quarterback and head coach duo C.J. Stroud and DeMeco Ryans. Check out Battle Red Blog for more.