Mistakes are at the heart of this Falcons season. Sometimes those mistakes doom the team, as they did when Desmond Ridder was chucking three interceptions against the Commanders last week. Sometimes those mistakes are something this team has to overcome, as was the case with those three Ridder fumbles and some costly team penalties against the Buccaneers. Nonetheless, the team’s ability to get in its own way continues to be perhaps the resonant theme of the season.
That’s why it’s so remarkable that they’re a 4-3 squad currently in first place in the listless NFC South. You don’t usually turn the ball over three times in a game and win it, and you don’t usually win games where you score just 16 points. This team is incredibly comfortable in the muck of a close, low-scoring game, and they’ve become exactly the kind of hang-around-until-the-end team that is capable of lurking just long enough to win it late. That’s not what we expected for the Falcons in 2023—not with this offense’s talent—but it has carried them further than you’d ever have anticipated through the first seven weeks.
And that brings us to this Buccaneers game, which was a microcosm of the season. The Falcons had 20 first downs to Tampa Bay’s 21—but the Buccaneers got six of those first downs thanks to penalties compared to Atlanta’s one—outgained the Bucs by 80 yards, had over a full yard more per play, and were in the red zone five times versus Tampa Bay’s two trips. They were a decisively better football team if you remove those six penalties that give the Buccaneers life and the three fumbles that ruined Atlanta scoring drives; because you can’t remove those, it ended up being a last second 16-13 win. These Falcons are resilient and absurdly solid on defense, two things that matter a great deal, but they’re also leaving anywhere from 7-to-21 points on the field some weeks. You can talk about the strides the offense is making in between the 20s and in general and I’ll have an open ear; it’s still clear those strides have not carried them far enough.
Atlanta still looked like the better, more capable team, a squad capable of moving the ball effectively against a quality Tampa Bay defense much of the day, and one capable of going long stretches without getting beat by anyone but the incomparable Mike Evans. Now with back-to-back losses, the Buccaneers may be coming down to earth a bit, while the Falcons are atop the division despite those persistent turnover issues and mistakes. They did all that with Bijan Robinson effectively sidelined for this one, as he was (per Arthur Smith) not feeling well and only received a handful of snaps on Sunday. The intractable problems are, as it long has been, the turnovers and avoidable mistakes. Those put a hard cap on this team’s ceiling until they’re fixed, but the fact that the Falcons have been doing this for weeks and are still cashing in victories tells you they’re made of sterner stuff than they were the past two seasons. That said, you can only be better than your opponent at everything but actually scoring touchdowns every so often; a continued insistence on scoring in the low 20s or even less is going to doom the Falcons more often than it pays off for them.
I’m not sure if the Falcons defense can carry this team until they figure things out, but so far so good on that front, and the scary thing is that the defense appears to be getting more confident and capable in terms of both coverage and pass rush minus tough spots against elite receivers. Now in front in the NFC South and with a 2-0 record against the division, plus sporting their first road win in ages, the Falcons are about to roll into a stretch against three mediocre teams. If they can finally stop trying so hard to give the game away, they may never give that divisional lead back.
On to the full recap.
- Desmond Ridder is not the same player he was at the beginning of the year in a few important ways. There are a couple of major issues we need to discuss—we’ll do so below—but the speed with which he’s making decisions and the caliber of his passing is picking up as we go. The statistics bear that out as he increases his passing and rushing totals, but so does the eye test, as Ridder ripped off a few productive runs where he might have hesitated in the past and mixed a small handful of misses with a lot of sharp throws, even if he still took some big risks. None of this adds up to Ridder being great just yet, but he pulled off one of his longest throws of the season, took just a single sack on Sunday, and mixed in some stellar throws. The Falcons are going to stick with Ridder unless it becomes completely untenable to do so and point to those improvements as a reason to do so, so we’re going to find out in the weeks ahead if he has a terminal case of being being a red zone bonehead or if it’s something he can iron out.
- The numbers don’t jump off the page, but Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson had to carry the load and did so pretty well. This was not the past couple of weeks where Atlanta’s ground game was completely stymied, as they put up 115 yards on a combined 31 carries and ground Tampa Bay’s vaunted front to dust over time. As was the case the past couple of weeks, a lot of that yardage came on a handful of big carries, but Atlanta was picking up two or three yards instead of zero or one, and that’s a tangible sign of progress given the opponent. We don’t know what’s going on with Bijan Robinson, so having Allgeier looking sharper and Patterson healthy matters a great deal.
- Another productive opening drive for Atlanta. Desmond Ridder rifled in some good passes in this one, challenging tight coverage and finding Jonnu Smith in particular three separate times, with the ground game offering up 12 yards on three carries before Desmond Ridder kept it on third and goal and rolled in for a touchdown. The team’s progress is easy to see on these opening drives, because they were putrid through the first several weeks but have now put together compelling ones in back-to-back weeks.
- Jonnu Smith is kind of a beast. He’s a reliable outlet for Ridder and a player who routinely picks up yards after the catch, which is welcome for a team that needs a dependable option.
- Drake London is also a beast. Again, the numbers aren’t necessarily there with just six catches for 54 yards, but nobody else on this team can come up with big grabs on the sideline quite like London, and his big effort to stretch out across the goal line very nearly ended up being a touchdown, even if he fell just short and the ball came out. London’s rapport with Ridder is getting better, and the numbers and the ability are going to show up on a weekly basis.
- Kyle Pitts had to make that last minute grab from Desmond Ridder, given that it was right on the money, but the yards after the catch work he put in to set up Younghoe Koo’s field goal try was stellar and necessary. Like London, Pitts is getting going a bit, and if most of his production this week came on a single catch, the fact that he looks more like himself and has Ridder’s trust in big moments suggests there’s more to come.
- The line had its not-so-great moments in this one and we have to talk about Drew Dalman below, but overall a better effort more or less across the board. There was more room for Atlanta’s backs to work with, time for Ridder to operate much of the day, and fewer of the penalties that have infuriated us from the group at times. Small steps, but again, important steps.
- Finally, give Scotty Miller props for turning on the jets and reeling in Ridder’s longest successful passing attempt of the season. We’ve been waiting all season for Miller’s speed to be an asset for this offense, and that was hopefully something we’ll see a little more regularly.
- A big week for practice squad callup LaCale London, who recovered a fumble Nate Landman forced and looked really solid in his opportunities on Sunday. The Falcons haven’t settled on a rotation behind their starters on the defensive interior just yet, so London’s fine work the past two weeks as a practice squad flex might bode well for his chances of pushing for a permanett roster spot.
- Jeff Okudah once again held up very well. It was more of a boom-or-bust day from A.J. Terrell, who mixed in some excellent, disruptive play with a couple of major lapses and a few penalties, but Okudah was rock solid aside from a single penalty. He’s yet another offseason addition who has paid off in a huge way.
- Dee Alford was here last year, but man is he a stellar young player. Week after week there’s a play or two that catches your way, and in this one it was the heroic effort to deflect a pass that otherwise likely would’ve been a Baker Mayfield touchdown. Tough as nails and twice as sharp, Alford should be here for the long haul as a high-end starting nickel cornerback.
- Richie Grant is a bit of a fanbase punching bag, and last week it was for good reason with so many missed tackle opportunities. This week was a sharper week for Grant, and his ability to read Baker Mayfield paid off in a major way on an overthrow that went right to the third-year safety and was picked off. Grant is capable of authoring big plays like that one and delivering the kind of big tackles he managed against the Bucs; we just need to see more consistency from him going forward.
- Nate Landman continues to be far better than he has any right to be, and it’s remarkable that a former undrafted free agent pressed into starting duty because of injury is not just decent but pretty damn good. He led the team in tackles, forced a fumble, and made a couple of open field stops that others struggled with on Sunday. The Falcons will have a little bit of a good problem when Troy Andersen is back next year in terms of how they divvy up playing time here, because Landman has made it clear he can start and the defense can still thrive.
- Coverage helped, but the pass rush is starting to pile up some sacks. Calais Campbell had one of them, and we heard his name frequently on Sunday as he levered his way into the backfield and pestered Tampa Bay’s largely hapless running backs all day.
- Lorenzo Carter was disruptive and troublesome for Tampa Bay in this one, coming close to getting one sack and picking up a coverage sack early in the fourth quarter. It’s been a quieter season for Carter, who is not being relied upon to the extent he was in 2022, but he remains a capable and active player who is an asset at times both against the run and as a pass rusher.
- David Onyemata’s third down sack in the fourth quarter as Tampa Bay was trying to score the decisive touchdown was massive, as it backed the Bucs up, allowed Atlanta to take a timeout, and gave the Falcons the ball back with a tie game and over 40 seconds left. He also hit Mayfield three times and turned in customarily solid work against the run, and has been perhaps my favorite free agent addition of the group, which is saying something.
- God, this defense is awesome. Do you guys ever just feel like celebrating that? I feel like celebrating that.
- Younghoe Koo has had his ups-and-downs over the last 12 months, but even great kickers have stretches of inconsistency, and Koo remains a pretty great kicker. In this one, he hit a critical field goal and then cashed in the game winner from 51 yards out to win it. The fact that the Falcons ran the clock down so it was either a successful Koo field goal from that distance or overtime tells you everything about their deserved faith in their kicker.
- The broadcast had a Ridder roller coaster animation early on in this one that felt apropos. When he’s on, there are those sharp passes and increasingly those productive runs that help keep this offense moving. When he’s not, he just misses throws, including five yard gimmes and potential touchdowns where better touch and location would likely results in a score for Drake London. Inconsistency is a feature of Ridder’s game and really the game for a lot of young quarterbacks, but watching him miss layup throws is still a genuine frustration.
But the throws were the smallest part of Atlanta’s problems Sunday, as Ridder unbelievably managed to fumble the ball away three times. You can crush the pass protection for the first mistake and blame Drew Dalman for the second if you’d like, but the truth is there was a brief window to get rid of that football and a moment where Ridder had his hand on the snap, so he at least share the blame. The final one as he trotted into the end zone was especially egregious, given that simply switching hands, grasping the ball more tightly, or not easing up on his gallop might’ve resulted in his second score of the game and the decisive blow to Tampa Bay’s chances of winning the game.
That’s back-to-back week with three turnovers from Ridder, and whatever the mitigating circumstances and shared fault may be, all the good work he’s doing as a passer and runner in recent weeks is being overshadowed by the way these turnovers doom drives and make what should be straightforward wins into close losses or sweat-it-out wins. If Ridder is going to reach his potential and this offense is going to be great at some point in 2023, he has to stop turning the ball over so often.
- Drew Dalman’s snapping is once again drawing notice, and not in a good way. Marcus Mariota was a roller coaster ride in his own right, but there’s no denying he was victimized by Dalman’s low snaps at times in 2022. This year, that issue seemed to be largely in the past, but over the last few weeks we’re seeing them creep back into Dalman’s game again. That proved costly on multiple occasions, none moreso than the low snap that Ridder didn’t handle well. This offense is having enough problems without snap-related hiccups, so Dalman (who has no credible threat to his job, just to get that out of the way) needs to clean that up.
- The defense was frustrating at times in terms of consistency and discipline in this one, even if the overall body of work was pretty stellar. Penalties on A.J. Terrell and Jeff Okudah extended Tampa Bay drives and erased sloppy passes and drops from the Buccaneers, while missed tackles set up their first score. The penalties on Terrell in particular piled up and he was simply bumped out of the route on Evans’ touchdown grab; the grumbling I heard about his skill isn’t warranted but it was undeniably a shakier game for the team’s top cornerback. He was hardly alone in scuffling a bit, however, as several missed tackles put Atlanta in tough spots on Sunday. It seems unfair to complain about the defense even mildly when they’re once again the reason the Falcons won, though, so let’s cut that out right now.
- After the game we learned that from Bijan Robinson that Bijan Robinson was dealing with a bad headache, one that largely kept him out of the game Sunday. Given that, I’m not sure why he was even out there for the handful of snaps he received aside from trying to open things up for other players, but his absence certainly removed a dynamic element from the Falcons’ offense. The team tried late to insert him in the game only to see him trot back off, and there comes a point at which a player who is not well enough to play should not play at all, because Robinson was clearly not operating at a level where the team felt comfortable trying to get him the ball and he is not a compelling pass protection option at this stage of his career. Arthur Smith’s refusal to provide details postgame and comments about knowing more on Monday gave me some pause, but the handling of the snaps in the game and the lack of pregame clarity into Robinson’s status gave me even more pause. I just hope Robinson’s alright, and that this is just an unnecessarily opaque handling of a one-time issue.
- This was a battle of the two best teams in the NFC South. I don’t think that’s particularly controversial, given that the Saints offense is even more of a mess than Atlanta’s and Tampa Bay’s, and that the Panthers are winless. The fact that it came down to a last second field goal to decide a game 16-13 says much about the state of defense in this division—it’s legitimately good!—and plenty of unflattering things about the state of offenses in this division. Every game between teams in the NFC South this year seems likely to be the kind of inelegant slugfest that leaves even the winning fanbase stewing over all the missed opportunities. As long as the Falcons keep winning them, I’ll find that more beautiful than ugly, but brace yourself for the slop.
Handing this over to Younghoe Koo for hitting a pressure-packed 51 yarder to win the game again and contributing nearly half of Atlanta’s points. The defense gets an honorable mention for doing what they seemingly do on a weekly basis now and shutting down their opponent.
This team is good enough to win the NFC South, with the only thing that can prevent them from doing so seemingly...well, themselves. The big errors have persisted through seven weeks and have to lessen or disappear to ensure this team makes the playoff push that feels like it’s fated for them.
The Tennessee Titans. Fresh off a bye week, Tennessee will be without Ryan Tannehill and will be trotting out one of the least inspiring offenses in the NFL, but they still have Derrick Henry and a tough defense. Check out Music City Miracles to learn more about the 2023 Titans.