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Falcons vs. Cardinals recap: The great erasing

Now 4-6 for the third straight season, the Falcons are wiping away all the goodwill and big hopes that defined the summer.

Atlanta Falcons v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Many of us had high hopes for this season. The Atlanta Falcons, from their owner down to the front office down to their coaching staff down to their players, certainly nurtured and shared those high hopes. Tens of millions of dollars of free agent investments, the maturation of players on the roster, and a weak schedule and division were supposed to give the Falcons a legitimate shot at winning the NFC South. It was not hard to see the team getting a lift after they went 7-10 last year without all those pieces on defense, with a rushing attack that was great even without Bijan Robinson, and a passing attack expected to mature with new additions and a third year of work from the coaching staff.

Instead, the Falcons are here again. They’re 4-6 after 10 games for the third straight season. They’re third in the NFC South after sitting atop it just a couple of weeks ago. They dropped their third straight game, all of them against quarterbacks making their season debuts, and they keep losing key players along the way. Those once high hopes have curdled, and they have been replaced by a familiar dread that arises when our favorite football team is squandering an opportunity, as they so often do. The Atlanta Falcons are meticulously erasing their expectations and the fanbases’s big summer dreams every single week, and the measured but real praise for this team earlier in the season has aged like milk on the sun.

Against the Cardinals, the Falcons landed their biggest blow yet against those good feelings. A quality first half from the ground game was complemented by a couple of sparks from Taylor Heinicke, but he was later injured and threw for a net of 31 yards on 15 attempts. Desmond Ridder replaced him and punched in a touchdown of his own, but he tripped on a fourth down keeper and threw it to Drake London just shy of the end zone on a two point conversion try that might’ve meant overtime for the Falcons and Cardinals. Despite a lack of turnovers, the Falcons were a mistake-riddled team, blowing opportunities in coverage, to wrap up Kyler Murray and James Conner, to make a critical block to enable a big play. Aside from the sub-100 passing yards against a weak secondary, none of these mistakes were new; it’s just that the cost associated with them continue to rise and the patience for the team making them continues to fall. They were also more costly in a week where the lowly 1-8 Cardinals got back their most talented back and their very dangerous starting quarterback, which complicated the matchup for an Atlanta team that seemed unprepared for it.

This great erasing we’re enduring will likely mean the end of multiple short-lived eras in Atlanta, should the Falcons not pull out of their nosedive. Short of delivering one of the most inspiring career turnarounds in recent memory in the final seven games, Desmond Ridder is unlikely to stick as Atlanta’s quarterback. A hopeful Calais Campbell, who wanted to board a playoff-bound train, will have to be coaxed back by a team that is wasting one of the final years of his career, as will other big-name free agents and impending Falcons free agents who may not want to be on the 2024 version of this ride. And Arthur Smith, a coach who probably just needed a competent, playoff-adjacent season to stick, finds himself hurtling toward a third straight 7-10 season (or worse) with an owner who isn’t getting any younger and was just burnt a few years back when he kept his head coach one season too long.

There’s time to pick that pencil back up and put something meaningful down, as Smith has noted, if only because the NFC South is such a tire-fire-of-concerning-colors-and-intensity that a post-bye run could once again catapult the Falcons to the top of the division. If they manage that, shoving aside the big questions and big problems that have plagued this team all year, fans will be happy to embrace the playoff run, albeit justifiably wary the wheels will come off again.

If the team can’t find some answers out of the bye—and right now, no one in their right mind is going to be inclined to bet that they will—this team will likely be hitting the reset button on their coaching staff and the most important position on the roster. If the third year in a three year plan has led us to this, it will be another disappointment in an increasingly long string of them for the Atlanta Falcons, a team that excels at little else besides taking even modest hopes and dashing them to pieces.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • The touchdown to Scotty Miller in the second quarter was an example of everything Taylor Heinicke has done well since entering the lineup. Rather than locking on to a target, he took a beat with his protection to look elsewhere, which got him a wide open Miller for an easy score. Paired with a nice escape and scramble on the previous play, Heinicke capped off a great drive that showcased his strengths. It’s a shame that besides the Miller touchdown and a couple of nice scrambles, there wasn’t much going for Heinicke Sunday.
  • Desmond Ridder’s red zone fumbles against the Buccaneers overshadowed something: That man has some quality red zone scrambling in him. In the fourth quarter on a do-or-die drive, the Falcons dialed another one up with Ridder faking a handoff and rolling out, and he scored easily on the run to put Atlanta up by a point. That was Ridder’s fourth rushing touchdown of the year, and if he sticks in the starting job the rest of the way, he may be the first Falcons quarterback to lead the team in rushing touchdowns since Michael Vick. You’ll note I emphasized the rushing highlights for both quarterbacks, and for good reason.
  • I think the lack of touches narrative for Bijan Robinson was a bit overblown, but I would have agreed that he hadn’t touched the ball nearly enough in the red zone, and that he was being over-utilized as a receiver instead of a runner. In this one, the Falcons made a point of getting him the ball early and often and inside the 20, and he responded with some big runs and a beautiful touchdown gallop where he got to the outside and jogged in untouched. Again and again, he turned one nice block into a massive gain and turned a little daylight into extra yardage, showcasing the burst and ability en route to nearly 100 yards on the ground, a score, and an 11 yard catch. The Falcons need to focus on getting him the ball on the ground more, both to salvage this offense and to give Robinson a chance to really get into a groove.
  • Drake London was the team’s sole really good receiving option on a day where the Falcons somehow had under 100 yards passing. While his numbers don’t stand out, he drew a controversial pass interference call down the sideline (and almost made a nice catch), made one of the plays of the day on his one-handed bobble grab on the sideline, and made three grabs for 36 yards in total, plus a two point conversion attempt that he tried to make happen through sheer force of will. It was good to see him out there and he and Pitts leading the team in targets; it just wasn’t enough through the air on Sunday.
  • Fun sequence against the diminutive Kyler Murray on Arizona’s second drive. Backed up thanks to penalties, the Cardinals were trying to throw, but Timothy Horne deflected one pass into the air and Kentavius Street got a finger on a second to send it tumbling well short of Murray’s target and end the drive. It was a highlight for a line that predictably struggled to get any sort of pressure on Murray without star players.
  • Nate Landman’s interception was one of the plays of the game. He kept his eyes locked on Murray, and when Murray threw it behind the tight end and right at Landman, the second-year linebacker was waiting for it and snared it. That plus a 28 yard return to set the Falcons offense up inside the 20 was essentially handing this team a golden opportunity on a platter, and it was a great play for a player who has stepped up big time since Troy Andersen was lost to injured reserve. He followed that up in the fourth quarter with a critical third down sack of Kyler Murray to kill a drive for Arizona right after the Falcons turned the ball over on downs.
  • Lorenzo Carter blew up Arizona’s first half two point conversion attempt, getting into the backfield immediately to force Murray to move and throw a ball he didn’t really want to throw. The Cardinals were thankfully down two points instead of tied up at that point.
  • Kaden Elliss, meanwhile, ruined the third quarter drive after Murray threw an interception, blowing into the backfield untouched for a sack and a loss of eight yards. Elliss has had hot and cold streaks this season as a mostly quality starter, and in this one he followed a big run stop directly with that sack. The Falcons need he and Landman to do well for this defense to thrive; on Sunday, unfortunately, they were standouts on a day where not many other defenders were.
  • It wasn’t all pretty, but I thought Clark Phillips showed us why the Falcons were so excited about him today, playing a game that was heavy on aggression and quality coverage instincts. Even if this year keeps slipping away, Phillips getting playing time and arriving as a starting-caliber cornerback would be a nice bright spot.
  • Younghoe Koo with an important field goal, even if it doesn’t win the game? Your lock of the week.

The Ugly

  • Heinicke had a couple of nice scrambles and a couple of good balls on Sunday, but his day as a passer was not one he’ll add to the scrapbook, as he finished with 55 passing yards and just 31 net yards thanks to 24 yards worth of sacks. As the game wore on, Heinicke appeared to get worse at noticing pressure and escaping it, leading to a couple of costly sacks, and the Falcons barely gave him a chance to throw and watched hit-or-miss streaks when they did so. A hamstring injury on a really nice run ended his day, so any chance he had of building on that quiet day through the air was dashed, and now we don’t know who will be under center post-bye. Heinicke was inserted into the lineup to give the Falcons a spark and some wins, and while he provided the former in stretches, Atlanta wasn’t able to grab any off the latter.
  • The Falcons dialed up two Desmond Ridder fourth down keepers on the same drive. The first one got two yards and an easy first down, but the second one saw Ridder bang his leg into a lineman, trip, and fall just shy of the first down for a turnover on downs. That was a brutal play for Ridder, whose short stint in this one mixed a couple of nice plays with off-kilter throws and the seemingly obligatory stumble. He may well start after the bye, but the Falcons need far more from him him the rest of the way if they’re going to dig themselves out of their current hole.
  • When there’s a communication issue on your opening drive, that’s not ideal. On third down, Taylor Heinicke threw the ball directly to a Cardinals defender who dropped it, and the best guess for that particular problem was that Heinicke was expecting Kyle Pitts to be somewhere he wasn’t when he threw it. Those kinds of communication failures are unfortunate, and have been all too frequent this year.
  • The passing game in general was unbelievably anemic. The Falcons threw the ball 21 times on Sunday and came up with just 94 yards and that Heinicke touchdown pass, and there were times when the Falcons legitimately seemed to be taking pains not to let Heinicke throw the ball. For a team that switched out its starting quarterback in the name of winning and improvement and then had to go back to him due to injury, that’s a disastrous outcome, one that highlights that the Falcons don’t appear to have a good answer at quarterback for the final seven games. They also don’t seem to have a gameplan that will allow them to consistently pass the ball well regardless of who is under center, because remember, the Cardinals are a bottom third of the league pass defense. That should have been an advantageous opportunity, not a problem.
  • Heinicke uncharacteristically got himself into trouble today, but the offensive line does not get a pass for their performance on the day. Multiple costly holding penalties, three sacks allowed with very fast pressure on all three, and plenty of other instances where a minorly inconvenienced Cardinals defender was sprinting into the backfield made for yet another day where the line fell short of the sometimes lofty praise directed at it collectively. Despite good health, stretches of poor play like we saw Sunday from the starting five hurt, as do lackluster blocks from this team’s tight ends.
  • Coverage lapses and fooled defenders were once again a rather major problem in this one. We saw Richie Grant lose sight of his man on multiple occasions, Jessie Bates get crisped one-on-one against Hollywood Brown, Clark Phillips beaten by Brown on a would-be touchdown, and Kyler Murray jog in for a touchdown on a fake to James Conner that should not have fooled the entire defense.
  • The Falcons let Trey McBride kill them all game long. He just ate over the middle over and over again, winning against whoever he was matched up against and proving to be a particularly difficult time for Grant, who I think is sometimes overly maligned but was an undeniable disaster in coverage and as a tackler in this game. That was sealed when McBride was somehow open enough to catch a Murray deep ball to set the Cardinals up for the game-winning, chip-shot field goal, thanks to Grant sort of tumbling away. Teams with halfway decent tight ends have to be salivating right now, given McBride’s performance and some of the success other teams have had targeting their tight ends in recent weeks.
  • Grady Jarrett is out for the year and David Onyemata was out against the Cardinals, so you’d expect this front to struggle somewhat. The problem, of course, was that they went from not having a consistent pass rush to absolutely not having one at all. That fueled some of those coverage lapses as Murray lollygagged in the pocket with all the time in the world, and it made it extremely difficult for the Falcons to get off the field against Arizona. Arnold Ebiketie, who seemed to be picking it up in recent weeks, had multiple plays where a poor angle took him out of the opportunity to make a big play, none more costly than on the Murray first down scramble that effectively sealed the win for Arizona.
  • More on that: It was impossible not to see it coming once the pass rush didn’t immediately get home on that third down, and we could only watch in horror as Murray started rolling and rolling and then took off, with no Falcons defender willing or able to go get him once it became clear he was about to pass the line of scrimmage. A stop there would’ve won the Falcons the game, so that one hurt, especially because everyone knows how good Murray is on the run and that was the exact situation in which the team ought to have feared it most.
  • Missed tackles were a problem yet again, with the whiffs proving costly on special teams and defense alike and setting up big gains and big scores for the Cardinals. This has been the defining problem for the Falcons defense, alongside the pass rush, for basically as far back as I can remember. The fact that the weeks are slipping away and it seems to be getting worse is a bad omen for the defense.
  • Special teams lapses have been far more common this year after there were relatively few in 2022 and even 2021, and that is to the detriment of this football team. On the late third quarter return by Greg Dortch, he was crunched by two different defenders and managed to stay on his feet, getting away and turning what should’ve been a short return into a 49 yarder that set up an easy score for the Cardinals. Special teams was the rock the Falcons could count on when everything else was going awry in 2021 and throughout most of 2022; it’s bad news
  • Arthur Smith has always taken pains to note that failures for this team are on him, no matter how nettlesome he may be about it. That’s still true, but right now, he looks and sounds like a man who fully understands what it means for this team’s failures to fall on him, perhaps because those failures feel so weighty.

Make no mistake: This is where the axe will land at the end of the season if the Falcons don’t pull out of this tailspin. I don’t imagine Arthur Blank relishes the thought of having to fire Smith, as he held on a year too long with Mike Smith and arguably two years too long with Dan Quinn, but I think at some point the losses will mount to the point where it becomes an option at season’s end. The Falcons have talent, and even if there are players who are less talented than we thought or playing worse football than we think they ought, the axe is not going to fall on the front office that has been building this thing up. It’s going to fall on the coach who can’t seem to get this thing right, who is barreling toward a third straight losing season, who has drawn nearly constant criticism for not getting the most out of this player or that player, and who creates very visible brushups with everyone from the media to fantasy football players on a regular basis.

Again, this is a team with chronic offensive problems, including a no-show passing day keyed by a lot of short routes against an attackable Arizona secondary. It is a team with an endless slop bucket full of ill-timed penalties and errors of execution, which fall on the players but get (and should be) flung in the face of the coaching staff when they persist for as long as they have. The specific ways the Falcons are losing games, in such sloppy fashion and so often because the offense spends much of the game falling short of its considerable potential, might combine with the number of losses in a crucial year three to make this Falcons team start over with a new head coach. Back when the betting markets were mulling Smith’s firing ahead of the 2022 season, I said he was absolutely safe last year but might be in trouble in the face of three straight underwhelming seasons. I had thought the Falcons would have to be really terrible, record-wise, for that to happen, but even if their win total is merely lousy and not horrific, the on-field product is moving in such a poor direction that this is a conversation we have to have and will likely continue to have in the weeks ahead. Smith can only save himself by getting this team to win some football games; right now, that lift feels like a heavy one.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Nate Landman for killing a couple of drives on his own, between an interception that gave the Falcons great field position and a crucial third down sack that forced a punt.

One Takeaway

It’s the same as it is nearly every week: Dumb errors are killing this football team, and they are not getting better.

Next Week

The bye week, which gives the Falcons a chance to decide on their starting quarterback the rest of the way and work on the many things that ail them, all in the name of salvaging a season that’s dangerously close to being lost entirely.

Final Word