Who could blame you if you felt the crushing blow coming? Jonnu Smith fumbled, Bijan Robinson fumbled, the offense dithered, and the defense seemed ready to wither. Atlanta went into halftime down 12-7 with the Texans getting the ball back and they were staring at the end with Houston holding a one point lead, and the way the Falcons have played of late, even optimistic fans couldn’t help but brace for the hammer to fall. Blessedly, it did not.
These Falcons displayed the tenacity we loved in the first two weeks of the season, plus the added and welcome wrinkle of a capable passing game, and bulldozed their way by a Texans team that wasn’t quite able to close things out. A team that scored just one touchdown in the first half wound up scoring 14 in the fourth quarter, including a converted two point conversion and a pair of Younghoe Koo boots. This team saw Houston march down the field to score the go-ahead touchdown and then responded with a crisp, “who do you think you are? I am!” drive from Desmond Ridder and the offense to win the game.
The Falcons made a bevy of mistakes, some of them genuinely embarrassing, and shrugged them off to beat an opponent that had beaten their last two opponents by a combined score of 67-23. You can hem and haw about Houston’s secondary injuries if you like; this was a big win and a fantastic sign of life for this offense, one the last two weeks demanded.
It was also a necessary corrective for so many terrible trends the Falcons had found themselves indulging in over the first four weeks. Ridder had spent the first month of the season making unwise throws into traffic and waiting just a tick too long to make plays, but in this game he was smooth, decisive, and far sharper than he had been at any point in his young career. Arthur Smith and the coaching staff got justified flack for not being able to cook up good looks for Drake London and Kyle Pitts in particular, but the two led the team in receiving in this one. The pass defense got dinged for multiple costly lapses in each of the past two games and trimmed that down to just one extremely costly one in this game. It wasn’t always superlative progress, but it felt like the Falcons took some important steps in the right direction where they had scuffled the most. It’s difficult to overstate how refreshing that was after the team seemed incapable of fixing what ailed them early on.
Yes, we have to be careful about riding the roller coaster with too much gusto here, given that it is one game still marred by sloppiness. A team that was just fielding questions about benching its starting quarterback and the fundamental soundness of its passing game tenets isn’t going to become one of the league’s most fearsome aerial attacks overnight; it’s not a question of if there will be quieter, more lackluster games so much as it is when. Knowing that the Falcons can do this against a capable, well-coached football team instead of just feeling that way based on the talent on hand and our own hopes and dreams is nonetheless massive, and it will be our anchor in stormy weather going forward.
At the core, after all, this is a team that has some really terrific playmakers, a rugged defense that’s stopping the run well and putting real pressure on opposing quarterbacks via their pass rush and excellent coverage, and the potential to be much better than they look today. The Houston win was important to get them back on the right side of .500 and playing confident football, but it was equally important for them to answer the disquieting questions about their ability to bounce back from bad efforts and patch an offense that had sprung far too many leaks.
Before the season began, we talked a lot about this team’s evident ability to contend, given the state of the division and their own talent level. To this point, the performances have been a little too uneven to justify that thinking, even in that last second rally against Green Bay. Given that the drag on the Falcons Sunday was about the kinds of fumbles and mistakes you can clean up rather than fundamental issues with the way this unit or that unit functioned, and given how well they battled back and passed, this felt much more like the team we expected all along. Let’s hope they keep it up.
On to the full recap.
- When the Falcons do goofy, fun things, sometimes it works and is a blast to watch. That was the case on the double handoff to Bijan Robinson and then Drake London, who found himself under pressure but somehow got it off to Jonnu Smith for a first down. That was the case again when Ridder threw a pretty ball to Keith Smith, who was blasting his way downfield against a Houston defense that did not seem fully prepared for the fullback running wild. And it was the case to a lesser extent when Scotty Miller got a handoff and would’ve had an easy first down if he didn’t dance around too much. This team has a number of weapons and can give teams fits when they’re creative about how they utilize them, and we need to see more of that even if it’s not heavy on the trickery. I don’t need a direct snap to KhaDarel Hodge, but I respect the willingness to get everyone involved and do so in ways that might surprise defenses.
While the fast starts are still missing, the four weeks of deeply inconsistent and infuriating results may be on their way out, as we saw the Falcons pass well, give Ridder many good looks, and draw up running plays doomed more by blocking than plotting. It always felt like a matter of time until the offense got rolling, but I’ll be perfectly candid and say I did not expect so many things to click as well as they did this week. We were a few mistakes away from seeing this team flirt with 30 points, and I give Arthur Smith and the coaching staff credit for putting together a gameplan that worked pretty well after taking heavy criticism in the past couple of weeks.
- This was Desmond Ridder’s best game of the season, and it wasn’t particularly close. While he still missed a small handful of throws, something he’ll have to continue to work on correcting, Ridder also played a clean and confident game where he chained together the kind of sharp, decisive balls we’ve seen him throw off and on. He went from wandering into pressure to avoiding it, airmailing throws to lasering them in to his receivers, and from hesitating to hauling ass when he needed to.
The result was a much stronger passing game than usual, one that would’ve looked even more impressive had it not been for drops and fumbles, and the first 300 yard game of Ridder’s career. After the last two weeks and really the first month it was fair to wonder if Ridder would develop on a timeline a contending team could tolerate, regardless of whether you believed he would eventually turn into a quality starter (as I do) or was doomed to operate as sort of a useful high-end backup (as a strong contingent on Twitter does). This week, Ridder showed he can absolutely be that guy right now after two awful weeks, and that more confidence and quicker processing allow him to take advantage of favorable matchups. If he can build on this against other teams with more ferocious pass rushes and better secondaries, we’re looking at a very scary Falcons team. For now, seeing him rebound so successfully when under such heavy scrutiny is an extremely encouraging first step, one he and the Falcons can feel good about it.
- Bijan Robinson made a grab behind his back, a one-handed grab, and left multiple defenders in the dirt on his runs. On a quiet day from the run game in general, Robinson still found a way to make a huge impact and scored Atlanta’s lone receiving touchdown of the game, putting him on track to threaten William Andrews’ franchise record for running back receptions and continuing to put together a dominant rookie season. His scariest days are all ahead of him, and he already seems like one of the best backs in the entire NFL.
- Drake London made a number of big catches, including a decisive one down the sideline on the game-winning drive, and also hit Jonnu Smith on a 22 yard pass on that fun trick play. He finished the day with six catches for 78 yards and that completed pass, and that was the sign of life we needed from a player who a week ago looked frustrated and out of sorts. The after the catch physicality and ability to out-muscle defensive backs here was extremely welcome, and a reminder that London can be a huge headache for opposing defenses.
- The same was true for Kyle Pitts, who reeled in seven catches for 87 yards and exploited holes in Houston’s coverage while displaying strong hands. I don’t think Pitts is 100% just yet—we talked about that a bit this past week—but whatever percentage of Pitts the Falcons are getting is damn good and Ridder showed significant trust in him this week. As Pitts settles in and the Falcons figure out how to get him the ball in more dynamic after the catch situations, Pitts should flourish. The talent has never really been in question.
- Storm Norton came into this game in relief of Kaleb McGary and didn’t really blink, putting together what sure looked like a strong effort in pass protection and run blocking alike. It wasn’t the best game for the line in general in this one, but Norton taking over in a tough spot and holding up well (at least on my first watch) is a really good sign for a guy who would like to be this team’s swing tackle all season long and may well need to make a start next week.
The line held up better in pass protection, which was further aided by Ridder’s quick decision-making and the coaching staff’s gameplan, and if that can continue into next week against a capable Washington front we’re going to feel great.
- Bud Dupree was not a signing I jumped out of my seat for, given that he’s been cruising along as a useful but not standout defender for a little while now. He’s coming on in a way that has been hugely impactful for Atlanta, as he blew up multiple plays with physicality and tenacity and helped deliver pressure on a day where that pressure threw Stroud off.
- This run defense is the real deal. Grady Jarrett has been a high-level run defender for years now, but adding David Onyemata, Calais Campbell, Kaden Elliss, and Jessie Bates to help him and getting Nate Landman in the lineup has helped make this group absolutely ferocious. There were a couple of longer runs and lapses for Dameon Pierce on Sunday, as he went for 13, 15, and 8 yards, but on his other 17 carries he managed just 33 yards and was frequently tackled for a loss. The fact that this defensive front, which has quite a few older players, is still getting the job done at that level late in games is terrific.
- Credit the defensive backs for strong tackling and, with a couple of exceptions, the kind of work that made pressuring Stroud possible. Everyone from A.J. Terrell to Dee Alford to Richie Grant stepped up for long stretches to clamp down on Houston’s receiving corps, and several times you saw Stroud simply unable to unload the ball as quickly as he wanted to as a result. Special shoutout to Alford for being an outrageously good run defender, especially considering his size and the position he plays.
- Ryan Nielsen has been a dream hire for this team. Armed with talent and an aggressive mindset, Nielsen has helped push this defense into another level after years of bad-to-frustrating play. They took a Houston offense that just scored 37 points against the Jaguars a week ago and held them under 20 points, making Stroud look like a rookie at time, and aside from frustrating coverage lapses this defense has been excellent. He’s pushed all the right buttons for Atlanta thus far.
- It was really nice to see Cordarrelle Patterson back there returning kicks, even if it wasn’t exactly game-breaking stuff. Given time and good health, we’ll see him manage at least a couple of impressive returns this year.
- Younghoe Koo missed a couple of kicks early on in the season, but he’s back to the business of being Younghoe Koo. In this one, the team trusted him to make a kick with time expiring that would have resulted in a loss had he missed, but there was no danger of that for the cool as a cucumber Koo. The Falcons will lean on him to win games all year long, and this was a reminder that he’s consistently up for the challenge.
- Another Sunday, another frustratingly slow start for Atlanta. A penalty on the kick return brought the Falcons to the 10 yard line, and then a dismal run that lost three yards (with a declined penalty), a productive Bijan run, and a missed throw to London on the sideline by Ridder forced a punt that gave Houston the ball back around midfield. Only yet another excellent defensive effort kept Houston from scoring more than a field goal. These slow starts are seemingly chronic and almost always costly for an Atlanta team that keeps vowing to fix it and can’t seem to; once (if?) they start putting points on the board early they’re really going to start rolling.
- The run blocking was quietly shaky much of the day, which was partially masked by a better performance by both Ridder and the pass protection that led to zero sacks and minimal pressure. Tyler Allgeier and Bijan Robinson both had a couple of nice runs in this one, but their combined longest carries (12 and 13 yards, respectively) accounted for nearly a third of their yardage (25 of 86 yards). On all other carries, the duo combined for 61 yards on 29 carries, or juuuust a hair over two yards. Too often, both players were getting the ball and immediately getting hit, forcing them to do way too much work just to get back to the line of scrimmage. Ridder’s ability to punish Houston for crowding up front may give the Falcons more breathing room up front in the weeks ahead, but everyone needs to be a little sharper to give this team’s dynamic backs a fighting chance.
Pair that with too many penalties on the line and it was not the cleanest day from the line, a group that feels close to putting it all together but has yet to actually do so.
- Something to keep an eye on: On an otherwise strong day from Drew Dalman, a player who seems to be working toward a career day, he did have a handful of low snaps. Hopefully just a hiccup.
- Atlanta made so many dumb mistakes in this one that set my teeth on edge, with two penalties backing them out of field goal range in first half alone. The second, an unnecessary roughness call on Drew Dalman, made an easy field goal for Younghoe Koo into a punt, costing the Falcons a chance to extend their lead before halftime. False starts marred the line’s day, as well. This team is making strides, sure, but they aren’t good enough to leave points on the field because of that.
The fumbles and receiving miscues were also frustrating . Jonnu Smith dropped a gimme catch and fumbled away another, damaging the otherwise fine work he did as a receiving option, and Bijan Robinson simply lost the ball when it was jarred loose. Houston unfortunately recovered both of those fumbles, taking productive drives and turning them into Texans scoring opportunities.
Take away those mistakes and the Falcons probably win this game easily. We’ll hope that they avoid them against Washington and we can see what this team is truly capable of.
- Maybe the play was jaw-dropping when it worked well, but the direct snap to KhaDarel Hodge in the red zone was probably a case of Arthur Smith and company Doing Too Much. Thankfully he was able to keep that fumbled snap from turning into a disaster, but I might skip that one next time.
Desmond Ridder had his best game as a pro, avoided major mistakes, and engineered the game-winning drive. I’m giving him the award, both because he deserves and because it will surely boost his ego to be featured in such an august place.
The Falcons have been dysfunctional on offense for long stretches of the first few games, but this game was confirmation that they are quite capable of being a dangerous and dynamic unit, even if it was far from a complete effort.
Atlanta gets the Washington Commanders, who are scuffling mightily on defense under Jack Del Rio and have yet to put it all together on offense. Hopefully the Falcons are able to take full advantage.