This up-and-down season continues for the Atlanta Falcons, who looked out of sorts for most of their 28-23 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. The loss moves Atlanta to 4-4, but they remain atop the NFC South thanks to tiebreakers.
This loss could have bigger ramifications for the remainder of the season. Taylor Heinicke took over in the second half, and the offense took a step forward with him behind center. The Falcons gained a total of 89 yards in the first half; Desmond Ridder passed for 71 yards, but Atlanta had a net total of 35 yards because of five sacks for 36 yards. Once Heinicke took charge, the Falcons were much more effective moving the ball through the air.
Although the Falcons allowed four touchdown passes to rookie Will Levis, the defense is largely getting a pass from me for this performance. It’s not just because I don’t want to pile on after the devastating Grady Jarrett news, because I believe the unit has been playing well enough to forgive a day like this. Besides, there are plenty of issues on the other side of the ball to focus on.
There’s a lot for the Falcons to sort out after this game, and their decisions in the coming week might define the rest of the season. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the players on the rise and those who took a hit after Sunday’s performance.
The Falcons looked much sharper in the second half with Heinicke leading the way at quarterback. Ridder was evaluated for a concussion at the start of the second half, and although he was cleared to return to action, Atlanta felt comfortable sticking with its backup.
Heinicke looked decisive when he found a receiver open downfield and finished the game completing 12 of his 21 pass attempts for 175 yards and a touchdown. Now, the completion percentage will need to improve if he does get the job long-term, but there’s no doubt Heinicke provided a spark for Atlanta’s offense. For what it’s worth, Heinicke, himself, doesn’t expect that his performance was enough to wrestle away the starting job, but he certainly gave the Falcons something to think about.
Taylor Heinicke says he doesn't believe he's earned the starting job: "No, this is Desmond’s team.— Josh Kendall (@JoshTheAthletic) October 29, 2023
Koo was once again reliably phenomenal on the road. He made all three of his field goal attempts and helped the Falcons stay marginally in the game until the offense delivered a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Koo drilled kicks from 29, 39 and 49 yards. Had a 59-yarder been needed, I have all the faith in the world that Koo would have delivered.
On the season, Koo is 16-of-17 on field goals. His lone miss of the season came in Week 3 against Detroit. Since then, he’s made 10 straight kicks, and his longest has been 51 yards.
This third spot was a bit hard to hand out, and it very nearly went to punter Bradley Pinion, who has done a standout job so far this year keeping the field position battle even. Instead, I decided Hodge was the right guy. He caught all three of the passes thrown his way for 75 yards, which is the second-highest total of his career.
Hodge had an excellent 52-yard catch-and-run in which he broke multiple tackles late in the third quarter. The play helped set up Atlanta’s first touchdown of the day, and it will hopefully signal a bigger role for Hodge moving forward.
Ridder may have initially been held out of action in the second half because he was being evaluated for a possible concussion. However, the fact that he stayed out of the game after reports indicated he’d been cleared to return is very telling. Ridder has shown growth this season, but another fumble Sunday on the offense’s most promising drive of the first half was concerning to see. His official stat line for the game was 8-of-12 for 71 yards with three carries for 26 yards and the fumble; he was also sacked five times.
After the game, Smith said, “We didn’t take him out for performance issues,” and perhaps they really were being extra cautious in holding him out, but this is yet another moment we can point to if Ridder’s time as a starter draws to a close.
A strong 2022 season for McGary has not carried over so far this fall. He has struggled against some of the league’s top-tier pass rushers this season, and both McGary and Chris Lindstrom had issues against Titans star Jeffery Simmons, who finished with two sacks. Defensive end Harold Landry also had a pair of sacks on Sunday, both of which came against McGary. Entering Sunday’s game, McGary had allowed three sacks, according to PFF, which ranked second on the team and one behind Jake Matthews. The offensive line has been arguably the most underwhelming unit for the Falcons this season, so it’s not just McGary, but he’s not performing to the standard he set last year.
For as poorly as the Falcons played at times on Sunday, they still had the ball late with an opportunity to win the game. Atlanta had its work cut out for it on the late-game drive, starting at its own 13-yard line with no timeouts and 2:19 remaining on the clock, but crazier things have happened. The drive looked like it would continue when Heinicke released a ball to a wide-open Jefferson in the soft spot of Tennessee’s zone defense on fourth-and-1, but his pass went right through the outstretched hands of Jefferson.
As a newcomer to the team and a player looking to revitalize his career, it was not an endearing moment. He finished the game with three catches for 24 yards, but it’s the pass he didn’t catch that will stick with people.
Do you have any shoutouts or callouts from Sunday’s game? Let us know in the comments below.