Every time the Atlanta Falcons seem poised to take a step forward, they take one back. After they captured the NFC South with a road victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 7, the Falcons looked mostly sloppy in a 28-23 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
There were some pretty important developments in Sunday’s game, including a quarterback swap for Atlanta. Taylor Heinicke started the second half for the Falcons and sparked the offense for the first time. Did Heinicke do enough to make the change permanent?
The most pressing concern for Atlanta at the moment is its 4-4 record. This is a team that has high expectations for itself, but the Falcons have yet to play anything close to a complete game. Against teams it should handle, the Falcons have found ways to lose. Until they find an answer to that particular problem, it’s hard to see them making this season a comfortable one.
Taylor Heinicke took over in second half
When the Falcons’ offense took the field to start the second half, it was Taylor Heinicke at quarterback and not Desmond Ridder. Reports indicated that Ridder was being evaluated from a head injury, but he was later cleared, according to a tweet from team reporter Tori McElhaney. Still, the Falcons stuck with Heinicke.
He led the Falcons on scoring drives on each of his first three possessions, helping the team cut Tennessee’s lead to 21-16 in the fourth quarter. Heinicke’s best throw of the game came late in the fourth quarter on a touchdown pass to Scotty Miller, and it cut the Titan’s lead to 28-23 with under four minutes remaining.
Ridder’s start to the game was very underwhelming, especially considering the strides he had seemingly made in recent weeks. The offense gained possession for the first time in the game at Tennessee’s 28-yard line following a turnover, but Atlanta came away with only a field goal on the possession. Atlanta’s other six drives of the first half—not counting the kneel-down to end it—did not amount to anything.
When it did appear the Falcons had found their rhythm on offense, Ridder was stripped of the football. It was his fourth fumble in two weeks. As of now, there’s no indication as to whether Ridder was held out for a reason or if Heinicke is the man moving forward, although that is very likely to be one of the first questions Arthur Smith is asked after this game.
Atlanta’s defense allows a rookie QB to shine once again
This is unfair to the particular 2023 Falcons defense to which this comment applies, because it’s fueled by performances for which this unit is not responsible. But, over the years, Atlanta’s defense has given up numerous big performances to rookie quarterbacks. This game was supposed to be different, because, well, to this point everything about this Falcons defense had been.
But it wasn’t.
In his first career NFL start on Sunday, Will Levis had a pretty huge game. He connected with Hopkins for 128 yards and three touchdowns, two of which displayed his ability on the long ball. He showed off that big arm once again on a fadeaway 33-yard touchdown pass to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine in the fourth quarter that put the game away for Tennessee.
Levis looked poised and confident throughout the afternoon, which is something that can’t be said of most quarterbacks the Falcons have played this season. He finished the game 19 for 29 passing with 238 yards and four touchdown passes.
Falcons get a rash of injuries for the first time
Injuries were an early storyline for Atlanta. Calais Campbell, Grady Jarrett and Kaden Elliss all left the game in the first half. To start the second half, it was announced that Desmond Ridder was being evaluated with a concussion. Not five minutes into the third quarter, defensive tackle LaCale London went to the turf with an injury. Keith Smith and Drake London were two other notable offensive players to leave the game.
Campbell went to the sideline with what appeared to be a finger injury on the broadcast, and there wasn’t an official update during the game because he wasn’t out long. Elliss left the game after taking a big hit in the rib area, but he also quickly returned to the game. Unfortunately, it was Jarrett who didn’t make it back. He left the game very early on with a knee injury and went to the locker room shortly thereafter. He was ruled out for the remainder of the game after halftime.
London was deemed questionable to return to the game due to a knee injury, but he did later return to the action. Smith was ruled out in the third quarter due to a concussion. Later in the third quarter, Drake London left the game after making one of his patented acrobatic catches for 21 yards. London injured his groin on the play, and he was deemed questionable to return.
The Falcons have been very fortunate on the injury front, and they’ve entered most games this season with no players listed with an injury designation. Linebacker Troy Andersen was the only starter to a notable, long-term injury to this point, but that good fortune may have come to an end.
DeAndre Hopkins torches Atlanta’s defense
The Falcons’ defense has been the story of the season so far, and that’s been especially true of the team’s pass coverage. Atlanta entered Sunday ranked seventh in passing yards allowed per game and had played well in recent weeks. The combination of Will Levis and DeAndre Hopkins proved difficult to stop, however, and brought that defensive momentum to an abrupt halt.
Hopkins caught three touchdown passes on Sunday, including scores of 47 and 61 yards. It was this quick-strike aspect of Tennessee’s offense that caught the Falcons off guard, and it ultimately proved to be the difference in the outcome. Hopkins is undoubtedly one of the alpha receivers in the NFL, but we’ve now seen some bigger receivers give Atlanta trouble.
He finished this game with four catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns.
The return game put Atlanta’s offense in a bad spot more than once
In a game that figured to be as tight and hard-nosed as this one, small mistakes can be critical. The Falcons had multiple, uncharacteristic special teams miscues in the return game in the first half, and they put the offense in some tricky situations.
The first ill-advised decision occurred early in the second quarter when Mike Hughes decided to field a punt at the 1-yard line. He only managed to reach the 7-yard line on the return, costing Atlanta 18 yards in field position by not letting the ball go for a touchback.
The second miscue came later in the second quarter after the Titans’ second touchdown of the game. On the ensuing kickoff, fullback Keith Smith fielded a bouncing ball at the Falcons’ 3-yard line and lumbered his way to the 13-yard line.
It seemed likely the ball would have bounced into the end zone, resulting in a touchback. It also seemed possible the ball would have bounced out of play on the sideline, which would have been a penalty and provided Atlanta with starting field position at the 45-yard line. Either way, what happened was worse.