It was the defense that once again led the way in a pivotal division game that would put the winner in first place of the NFC South. Safety Richie Grant capped off the impressive defensive showing with an interception deep in Atlanta territory as Tampa Bay looked poised to tie the game or potentially take the lead.
Although this win moves the Falcons to 4-3 on the season, it’s one that featured plenty of mistakes that need to be corrected moving forward. Chief among those issues are the red-zone turnovers that plagued Atlanta’s offense throughout the afternoon, because without those, this team may have won comfortably.
Let’s go ahead and get into those turnovers and the other key takeaways from a win that isn’t reassuring so much as it is passable.
Red-zone turnovers are a big problem
A red-zone turnover robbed the Falcons of points after a promising drive—stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Atlanta looked poised to take the lead heading into halftime after an impressive drive that covered 60 yards and bled the clock, but Shaq Barrett knocked the ball loose from Ridder as he prepared to throw.
The fumble was recovered by Jamel Dean, and the Falcons’ scoring opportunity was thwarted. A second scoring opportunity was wasted midway through the third quarter when Ridder fumbled once again. This time, the mistake occurred at the 1-yard line with Atlanta poised to score its second touchdown of the afternoon and take a 17-10 lead.
Instead, Ridder dropped the snap and couldn’t get back on it as the Falcons failed to even run one play with the ball just inches from the goal line. These missed opportunities are not the mark of a good offense, let alone a good team. Given the increased scrutiny on Ridder as he embarks on his first season as the full-time starter, this is not the reputation he can afford to gain. It’s already becoming hard to ignore for a middling red-zone offense that can’t separate from opponents because of missed chances.
The cherry on top of Sunday’s red-zone performance was a Ridder fumble as he glided into the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown. Instead, he slowed down just a touch before scoring and allowed Antoine Winfield Jr. to punch the ball out for a touchback. The turnover will only heighten the frustration surrounding Ridder, who has six turnovers the last two weeks, and his ability to execute Atlanta’s offense is critical moments.
There’s no more frustrating way for a drive to stall than to do all the work and come away with none of the rewards.
The Bijan Robinson-sized hole in Atlanta’s offense
The No. 1 topic on social media throughout the game on Sunday was the absence of star running back Bijan Robinson. The sensational rookie was on the field for only a handful of snaps in the first quarter, and he did not touch the ball once. Instead, it was Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson carrying the load in the run game.
Bijan Robinson's first half with the Falcons, per @ESPNStatsInfo:— Michael Rothstein (@mikerothstein) October 22, 2023
To answer your MANY Bijan Robinson questions: I don't know. Truly, I don't know why he doesn't have more snaps/targets/carries. I don't even think he's lined up in the backfield yet. Regardless of how the second half goes, it'll be one of the first Qs asked of Arthur Smith…— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) October 22, 2023
Following halftime, it was reported that Robinson was not feeling well, and that was the reason for his limited usage in the game. It’s a unique and interesting situation that wasn’t anticipated heading into the division matchup, and a reminder that for all of the gladiator bravado surrounding the sport, this is a game played by human beings who are subject to illness, injury and other flaws.
The Falcons would certainly have liked to have their rookie running back for the division matchup, and it’s unclear how his absence affected the game plan. Atlanta has been judicious in how they’ve used Robinson this year in an effort to keep him fresh for the long haul. Perhaps Sunday was a case of caution winning out, but in a division game with big implications for the rest of the season, Robinson’s absence was a key story.
Nevertheless, Atlanta still ran the ball well and featured Allgeier and Patterson heavily. It was the first game of the season where Patterson was a featured player for the offense, which was excellent to see.
Fast starts becoming more familiar
In back-to-back weeks, the Falcons have scored a touchdown on their opening possession. That’s notable because before Week 6 Atlanta’s offense had not scored any points on its first drives this season.
Against Tampa Bay, it was the defense who aided the offense in getting going. The Buccaneers made an aggressive early decision to go for it on fourth down near midfield, but the Falcons snuffed out the attempt and gained possession with great field position. Ridder was sharp on the opening drive for Atlanta, completing all four of his pass attempts for 46 yards, including a 19-yarder to KhaDarel Hodge to start the series. Ridder punched the ball in himself on a 2-yard run to give the Falcons an early 7-0 lead.
Atlanta’s defense has done an excellent job in the first quarters of games this season keeping the margin within reach. However, if the Falcons can start landing the first punch on their opponents, their defensive prowess can make the uphill climb harder and help set the tone early.
Mike Evans’ success against A.J. Terrell and the Falcons continues
The all-time Bucs leader in receiving yards and touchdowns has had a lot of success against the Falcons over the years. That continued on Sunday. Evans scored Tampa Bay’s first touchdown of the game on a savvy deep route against A.J. Terrell.
The matchup between Terrell and Evans has been a high-profile one the last few seasons, but it’s the Bucs star who has frequently come out on top. In his five games against Atlanta since Terrell was drafted, Evans averaged five receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown. By halftime of Sunday’s game, Evans already had four catches for 71 yards and a score.
There’s no arguing Evans’ ability. The 6-foot-5, 231-pound receiver is the reason teams like to have bigger, physical cornerbacks, but Evans is much more than just a big body and has the balletic coordination and ball skills to challenge any defense in this league. It’s just unfortunate the Falcons, and by extension Terrell, see him twice a year.