The Falcons came into this one facing a tough but reeling Titans team starting a rookie quarterback and down a pair of impact defenders in the secondary. Our favorite team never makes it easy, but expecting a win from your Atlanta Falcons was not at all unreasonable.
Instead, the Falcons rolled out some familiar mistakes and tried out some new ones. Coverage lapses and a quiet day at the office from the pass rush allowed the Titans to score four touchdowns, all of them thrown by rookie quarterback Will Levis, and injuries made it tougher for Atlanta to get off the field on that side of the ball. Parking Desmond Ridder, who was checked out for a concussion, reportedly cleared, and then did not re-enter the game, led to a bit of a revival from the offense and a 20 point second half, but they fell short in the end thanks to pass protection woes and a brutal Van Jefferson drop.
Now this team, which gutted out a win against the Buccaneers last week despite turnovers and took control of the NFC South in the process, is sitting on a razor-thin divisional lead and back at .500. They’ll have a week of questions about the quarterback position—questions Arthur Smith doesn’t seem like he wants to answer—and a week where they’ll hold their breath and hope players like Grady Jarrett, Drake London, and Keith Smith can return after getting injured against the Titans. They are a team in flux, a team too talented to be this shaky but a team without clear answers to pointed questions like “who is your starting quarterback?” and “when are the offense and defense going to play well at the same time for the majority of a game?” They could rally and figure something out and finally start stringing wins together and only a few of us would be surprised; this could be the start of a long, slow decline and only a few of us would be surprised. They are at yet another crossroads, with the luxury of figuring these things out without being under .500 and underwater in their division.
The loss to the Titans hurts chiefly because instead of illuminating any answers for this team, it created more of them. Letting Will Levis play that caliber of football game against them, even if most of his production came on three big plays, was alarming. Going to Taylor Heinicke for reasons Arthur Smith said were not related to performance and not immediately having an answer for whether Heinicke or Ridder will start next week is alarming. Seeing a 2-4 team score a season-high 28 points against you and being unable to exceed 23 yourself against a dented secondary is alarming. There are bells ringing, and their peals are not joyful ones.
But again, at 4-4 the Falcons could rebound from this and never relinquish their hold on the NFC South, and they scrapped their way back into this one after falling down by 11 points. They have to answer these questions and ensure there are no more Titans games, especially with a Vikings team coming up that may well be without Kirk Cousins, but that still doesn’t seem like an impossible ask. You cannot be a team incapable of coming up with compelling whys when confronted with your biggest weaknesses week-after-week and win in this league, but I’m an unwavering believer in this team’s potential, enough so that I think it’s a matter of when and not if they start pulling together quality performances. It just has to be sooner than later for the Falcons not to finish this season once again feeling like a vaguely disappointing team, only this time with more scrutiny and justified anger, given that it’s year three of the current regime and they’ve spent so much to get better.
This will be a long week, regardless, as we wait to find out what the Falcons are doing at quarterback and whether they’ll get some of their key players back against Minnesota. It is a team seemingly at a crossroads for each of the past five years arriving at a new one that feels meaningful, and how they navigate the messiness to come may determine much about how the rest of this season goes. The fact that their next three games come against the Cousins-less Vikings, frisky but lousy Cardinals, and so-so Saints should give them a real opportunity to build something worth building, but you can only point meaningfully at the bricks so many times and pantomime a house being put together before your arms get tired. Just as I was fond of saying at the beginning of the year, we need to see the Falcons chain together some quality games, and until then they’re merely intriguing and frustrating.
On to the full recap, in the meantime.
- Taking over for a largely ineffective and evaluated-for-a-concussion Desmond Ridder after the half, Taylor Heinicke showed why the Falcons gave him a nice contract to serve as veteran insurance. The ball came out of his hand quickly, he escaped the still-present pressure effectively, and he engineered multiple scoring drives after the Falcons managed just a field goal in the first half. His final line was unremarkable, but pressure and drops were a factor in that, and he threw an absolutely beautiful touchdown ball to Scotty Miller. It was an efficient, quality effort that really helped the Falcons climb back into this game.
I don’t claim to know if the change will be permanent—Arthur Smith has been an ardent Ridder defender and seems ready to cite an abundance of caution with the concussion check for putting and keeping Heinicke in—but the pressure on Atlanta to stick with Heinicke will be immense after the Falcons looked like a far livelier offense with him at the helm. If the Falcons truly believe in Ridder as their long-term starter, they have an obligation to stick with him and ride it out, criticism about it be damned. If they’re entertaining doubts and they’re simply eyeing the maximum number of 2023 wins, Heinicke’s Sunday performance suggests he’s probably the right short-term option, even if I need to warn everyone that inconsistency is a big part of his game, as well.
- Bijan Robinson didn’t have his best game, but it was good to see him back out there with an efficient day on the ground that included his first career rushing touchdown, one where he turned on the jets on a pitch and punched it in. We’re waiting for Robinson to pull together multiple big games in a row, same as the rest of this team, but crisp efforts are very welcome and helped the Falcons get on the board yesterday. The team’s efforts to integrate him into the passing game have been less successful in recent weeks, and that does have to change.
- Before exiting with an injury, Drake London was his usual self, winning tough matchups and consistently moving the chains. He finished his day with five receptions for 55 yards, but it felt like he was in line for another 100 yarder based on his production to that point, and his final grab was an impressive leaping one. It goes without saying that this offense is better when he’s in there.
- KhaDarel Hodge had the play of the game on offense, reeling in a first down grab from Taylor Heinicke and then rumbling, and rumbling, and rumbling some more en route to a 52 yard pickup. Hodge is chiefly a special teamer for Atlanta but has done a solid job in limited action, and in this one he formed a rapport with Heinicke that translated onto the field in a big way. He finished as the team’s leading receiver, which should never happen but was welcome in this wild game.
- Scotty Miller’s grab in the end zone, while on a tremendous throw from Heinicke, was a heads-up play a week after he reeled in a big deep ball from Ridder. It seems like he may be finding his way into a niche role for this offense at last, which was all he was ever going to have for Atlanta in 2023. The Falcons can use his speed.
- Another nice play by Richie Grant this week. Will Levis launched one deep down the sideline in the first quarter targeting Traylon Burks, and Grant came flying in to break it up and prevent what otherwise would’ve been a big gain down the sideline. This is Grant, a potential playmaker who had a nose for the ball in college, seemingly finding his footing in recent weeks. Unfortunately, he also gets a mention in the ugly below.
- A revenge game for Bud Dupree, another solid effort for Arnold Ebiketie, with the duo managing to collect Atlanta’s pair of sacks on Levis between them. It was a tough day for the pass rush on Sunday, given that Levis found plenty of success and the Titans had a debuting starter at left tackle, but Dupree has mostly been an asset for Atlanta and Ebiketie finding his way to more playing time and pressure is welcome.
- I’m not going to tell you the run defense was magnificent, but they were surprisingly solid, especially with Grady Jarrett out and Kaden Elliss banged up. A couple of big carries from Tyjae Spears and the usual excellence of Derrick Henry led to a 100-plus yards, but keeping the Titans from simply (and literally) running away with the game deserves mention given the challenge the matchup presented and the injuries.
- Younghoe Koo casually cashing in three field goal tries to keep Atlanta in the game while the offense got going is just something that Koo does, and it’s nice to almost be able to take that for granted. In total, he accounted for 11 of Atlanta’s 23 points, and is the failsafe option for an offense still finding its way on a seemingly weekly basis.
- I was grateful to have Bradley Pinion out there as he continually gave the Titans mediocre field position, even if the Titans obviously overcame that on some of their deep tries downfield. Atlanta winning the field position battle is absolutely vital given the up-and-down nature of the offense, and Pinion does his part to give the defense a fighting chance on a weekly basis.
- I don’t mind trick plays, but I do think there’s a time and a place. Second down in the red zone with Jonnu Smith targeting MyCole Pruitt is not the time and place I’d choose, personally, as you’re asking for Smith to be accurate in a tight space even if he’s not under pressure, which he unfortunately was. The Falcons are good enough and talented enough to not have to resort to underhanded dealings to score points, even if their red zone performance in recent weeks suggests otherwise.
- We may be drawing down Desmond Ridder’s starting stint in Atlanta, though Arthur Smith’s statements about Ridder not being benched for performance and the medical issues with his concussion check lead one to suspect it won’t end this coming week. The offense was anemic beyond belief in the first half, with the small handful of nice Ridder throws and one very nice run only adding up to three points. The concussion scare led to the switch at halftime and Ridder spending the rest of the day on the bench, but the costly fumble, a couple of bad misfires, and the return of Ridder’s bad habit of sitting in the pocket too long and taking sacks didn’t exactly make the case for the Falcons to trot him back out there. He finished up with 72 yards passing on 12 attempts and 26 yards on three rushing attempts, plus that very costly fumble. The strides he made as a passer in recent weeks were largely missing in action in this one, but if the Falcons do stick with him, they’ll be looking for a return to his Week 7 form in that regard against Minnesota.
- Van Jefferson is going to want that one back. Heinicke’s fourth down pass was there and he simply couldn’t bring it in, and while drops are just something that happen, the fact that it happened past the first down marker in that moment is more than a little unfortunate.
- Drew Dalman’s low snaps have been a glitch the Falcons have been willing to tolerate given how solid he has been as a blocker, but the shift from Ridder to Heinicke made it clear that it’s a consistent problem for him. Dalman put probably a half dozen snaps three inches off the ground, forcing his quarterback to bend over and pick it up before they could start scanning the field. That’s an additional nuisance and potential sack/turnover risk for a team that doesn’t need it, but as I said last week, the Falcons wouldn’t seem to have a compelling alternative unless they genuinely love Ryan Neuzil. It’s just something Dalman has to clean up.
- The pass protection was back to being a significant problem in this one. We can eat Ridder alive for his fumble—and it was his fault—but still acknowledge that he was under duress early and often on his dropbacks. Despite Heinicke doing a better job of escaping pressure, he also faced far too many snaps where he was running for his life, either having to scramble for yardage or rolling and rolling and rolling to look for an open man. The Titans had six sacks in this one and were generating consistent pressure; while that’s not unexpected, it did contribute to the lethargy and challenges this offense showed us.
- Coverage misadventures were a huge problem for the Falcons Sunday. A.J. Terrell was undeniably interfered with against DeAndre Hopkins at least once, but he still had his struggles with the star receiver, who reeled in three touchdowns. Richie Grant also simply lost Hopkins by biting on a double move, leading to an easy touchdown for the veteran. This team has done a great job of keeping things in front of them all year, and the sheer number of issues in this one had to be a one-game blip caused by not being fully prepared for Will Levis to air it out. Right? Right?
- The pass rush did not help them out. Facing a rookie quarterback and a less-than-stellar version of this Titans line, the Falcons gave Levis way too much time and room to operate, leading to those damaging deep balls and many solid short passes. The need for a plahyer like Montez Sweat, who the team has reportedly offered up a third round pick for, is apparent and acute.
- Mike Hughes has been shaky as a punt returner, but his second quarter decision to field a punt that might have otherwise bounced into the end zone was a full bore disaster, as he wound up getting tackled at the five yard line to give the Falcons awful field position. The Falcons badly miss Avery Williams back there, but they do have other options and should consider using them if Hughes is not going to be a net positive. The fact that he caught another one inside the 10 without waiting to see if it might land in the end zone is not a point in his favor. Unfortunately, it seemed almost every returner back there for the Falcons was making poor decisions in terms of when to field the ball, including the legendary Cordarrelle Patterson, and that led to a lot of long fields for an Atlanta offense that did not relish them.
- The officiating crew whiffed badly on the Titans’ first quarter deep ball for a touchdown. DeAndre Hopkins put both arms around A.J. Terrell’s upper body and spun him to give himself some leverage to get inside, with Terrell looking for a flag that didn’t come. It was, in my book, pretty blatant offensive pass interference, and proved to be a costly no-call for Atlanta.
- I’ve never been particularly interested in defending Arthur Smith, communicator, in the way that I sometimes am moved to defend Arthur Smith, coach. Yes, he is ultimately responsible for what happens with this football team, and I certainly glance in his direction when this team is doing weak things on offense, in particular. But I also think Smith is too often furtive and prickly when he doesn’t need to be, as he was this past week when he bemoaned toxic groupthink and reporters doing their job asking him about the league inquiry into Bijan Robinson, even if I think he’s right that there’s not much there. That continued into Sunday, when Smith had an opportunity to be candid about exactly what happened with Desmond Ridder’s concussion evaluation and lack of playing time in the second half, and instead elected to answer those questions in a way that served to further muddy the waters both now and in terms of how the team will handle their quarterback situation this coming week. It’s far from the largest problem this team is facing at the moment, but I think Smith is inviting more scrutiny by lashing out and trying not to answer these questions in a straightforward way, and that’s not really helping anyone.
- I said it all week, I said it the week before, I said it the week before that: The Falcons aren’t going to win consistently if they make huge mistakes over and over again. In this one, the first half was a nightmare morass of poor pass protection, poor Desmond Ridder decisions, an errant turnover, penalties, and missed opportunities. In the second half, injuries contributed to but did not fully explain their defensive miscues, and the team had miscues in pass protection that made life much harder for Heinicke.
You can believe that this team is on the cusp of figuring this damn thing out, as I do despite myself, and still fear that some of these struggles are simply innate to the team. Arthur Smith and company keep pledging to clean up these errors and get things on track but have not been able to do so to this point for more than, say, a half of football at a time. That is not a track record, spread now as it is over eight games, that suggests the Falcons will realize their potential to be one of the NFC’s tougher teams in 2023.
It would be tough to argue against Taylor Heinicke, who came in unexpectedly and led the Falcons to 20 second half points with zero turnovers and some really nice plays. Whether he sticks as the starter or not, he did good work on Sunday.
This team’s quarterback controversy is going to heat up now, and the team’s defensive struggles against the Titans are worrying given Tennessee’s many struggles heading into this game.
Okay, that’s two takeaways.
The suddenly Kirk Cousins-less Vikings, who are headed to Atlanta for a showdown that once again (say it with me) the Falcons should be able to win. Check out Daily Norseman for more.