Of the four losses this season, Atlanta’s loss to the Tennessee Titans felt the most gloomy. They were overpowered, outsmarted, and outcoached. The defense built on organization, discipline, power, and technical efficiency looked like it had none of those qualities for long stretches of the afternoon. While the offense certainly showed all aspects of what makes them such a weekly infuriating enigma, Desmond Ridder’s regression was hugely disappointing after the strides he made from Week 5 to 7.
This review will assess what went wrong across both units while highlighting the running game starting to get back into form and how the defense remained stout on third down.
Ridder Crumbles in the Pocket
Ridder’s pocket movement had been improving in recent weeks, but it took multiple steps back to his frustrating tendencies in his first month of the season. He has a penchant for staring down a receiver, not seeing him open, and running straight into pressure. Instead of moving his feet in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield while receiving good protection, he drops his eyes and moves toward traffic.
The right side of the offensive line holds up well in maintaining a strong base and keeping their assignments in front of them. Ridder simply panics and runs into a sack on third down. If he remains patient and confident, Jonnu Smith finds space in the middle of the field on a quick hitch for a touchdown. Inconsistent pocket awareness has to be one of the primary reasons behind his benching.
Ball security had to be what ultimately pushed the Atlanta Falcons coaching staff to bench Ridder. To commit 13 turnovers in eight games for a team averaging 17 points per game is unacceptable. However, it’s not solely the woeful ball protection that must be frustrating for the coaching staff. Ridder doesn’t command the pocket and possess the strength to handle swarming pass rushers. Jeffrey Simmons deserves credit for beating Chris Lindstrom with impressive hand usage and swatting his enormous hand to force a fumble. This is still a preventable play if Ridder simply is wiser in the pocket.
The young quarterback allows himself to get the ball taken away from him too often because of his lack of awareness and grip. Quarterbacks must be able to stay composed under pressure. Ridder has gotten rattled far too many times, leading to crushing turnovers and holding back the offense from being as productive as everyone anticipated with the playmakers on Atlanta’s roster.
Lacking Attention to Detail
It can be difficult to assess pass protection breakdowns at times because the set protection isn’t always identifiable. Drew Dalman may very well have been tasked with supporting Lindstrom, who is isolated against Simmons. While that could be the case, the center must be adaptable in recognizing blitzes and being aware of his surroundings.
Expecting Matthew Bergeron to be there was a costly mistake. Tennessee has their front four rushing as Jack Gibbens swarms in. The way Dalman just passes the free rusher off is painful for someone who has endured plenty of problems in pass protection as a starter. With Dalman picking up the blitzing linebacker, Ridder would have been able to step up in the pocket to avoid the outside rush. Instead, Dalman wasn’t instinctive, leading to another punishing sack. To make this sack even more excruciating, Drake London had created enough separation to pick up enough yards to turn second and 15 into third and manageable.
There isn’t anything complex about this failed third-down conversion. It’s about showing critical errors that have been a reoccurring issue. Bijan Robinson hasn’t made much of an impact in the passing game in recent weeks. On multiple occasions in this game, he was sluggish out of his release and allowed two easy completions to be wasted because he wasn’t ready. It could be argued timing was an issue between him and Ridder (and Heinicke later on in a similar play).
That said, Robinson must show more urgency in getting to his spot and being ready to be called upon if needed. Ridder does rush a bit here, but the pass catcher has to be in a position to make adjustments. An accurate ball shouldn’t be wasted in such a disappointing manner. Robinson has to play with better awareness when utilized as a receiver.
Taylor Heinicke Invigorates Listless Offense
Getting London and Kyle Pitts lined up alongside each other is something the Falcons don’t do quite enough of. When they manage to do it, an explosive pass play usually materializes. The passing game has been more successful with two receiver route concepts in recent weeks. They use a dagger concept here, as Pitts goes vertical with London running a dig. This is a great play action design to attack two safety looks. The high-low route design causes fits for opponents, given how explosive and massive both pass catchers are.
There is also a safety option for the quarterback if the timing is off or too many defenders are back in coverage. Tyler Allgeier goes into the flat to assure Heinicke. The assurance isn’t needed here, as Pitts drifts enough inside on the vertical route to occupy the safety and create space over the top for London. The rising star wide receiver makes a jaw-dropping grab to get the offense moving with a 21-yard completion. Heinicke shows excellent patience in letting the routes develop for the much-needed explosive play.
This is arguably the best throw a Falcons quarterback has made this season. The touch Heinicke puts on this ball in the back corner of the end zone is outstanding. Smith dials up a stack release with Kyle Pitts and KhaDarel Hodge running short inside hitches. The congestion commands the attention of three defenders, as Scotty Miller remains patient and loops to the outside on a modified slot fade. Heinicke places it where only Miller can make a play on the ball.
The timing must be right, particularly with Jake Matthews getting beat by Arden Key instantly off the edge. This play can easily be ruined by outside pressure or a rushed inaccurate throw. Instead, Heinicke shows poise to cap off a nearly flawless performance off the bench to pull off a near-unexpected comeback victory.
Running Game Getting Back Into Form
After a largely forgettable first half, the offense produced one of its best halves of football. It started on the ground from the first snap, with the Falcons going on a gap-blocking concept running duo. Multiple double teams on both interior tackles create a gaping hole through the gap. Although using duo can be risky with four offensive linemen, especially when an explosive linebacker like Azeez Al-Shaair comes in unblocked, it can be effective with capable personnel.
Robinson’s agility wins here to evade the tackle and capitalize on the terrific blocking. Dalman and Chris Lindstrom do a terrific job in providing quality seal blocks to keep the hole clean. Once Robinson gets in the open field, expect extra yardage to be gained. He gains 25 yards here, showcasing outstanding change-of-direction ability and lower body strength to keep pushing downfield.
The rookie sensation’s first career rushing touchdown comes on a well-designed, tremendously executed toss to the left off a pin-and-pull concept. Considering all the above-average blocking wide receivers on the roster, it was surprising to see Van Jefferson responsible for pinning the edge rusher, but he handled his assignment with authority. Matthews continues to be as dependable as ever in space. Bergeron shows his capabilities at the second level with excellent hand placement and control.
Creating that space is going to give Robinson an opportunity to break any play open. He does exactly that, as Eric Garror’s indecisiveness helps Robinson get into the end zone with ease. The coaching staff must continue to prioritize getting him on the outside to pick up chunk gains and utilize the offensive line’s biggest strengths.
Hodge Goes Beserk
After London was out for the remainder of the game with a groin injury, the Falcons needed contributions from everyone. Hodge has shown flashes in recent weeks with timely catches on third down. His ability to find space in zone coverage is valuable for a team that struggles to convert on third and long. The special teams ace proves he can make plays against man coverage and create after the catch. As he gets held by Garror, he shows good body control to create separation at the top of the route.
What he does afterward is pure determination. Hodge refuses to go down and breaks open what is now the longest pass play of the season for the Falcons. It’s these effort plays that will be needed for a passing game still looking to find some sort of rhythm. Hodge has played himself into more opportunities, and he was already the team’s best blocking wide receiver.
The Titans deserve credit for constructing a terrific game plan to maximize Will Levis’ strengths and get the Falcons’ defense off balance. This was the first game all season that Ryan Nielsen’s defense allowed several explosive plays in the air without much resistance. This play action throwback was well-timed in exploiting Cover 1. Jessie Bates is left in isolation and gets baited going outside with Nick Westbrook-Ikhine changing direction inside across the middle of the field.
This isn’t the first time Bates got caught in the wrong position for a touchdown trying to anticipate where the pass was headed. Levis delivers a picture-perfect ball off his back foot to cap off a remarkable debut. It’s never ideal to have your safety matched up on a wide receiver downfield. The Falcons got caught out on multiple touchdowns in that unfortunate scenario.
Out of DeAndre Hopkins’ touchdown hat trick, this is the one that’ll sting the most. Missed offensive pass interference calls can happen. Having Nate Landman get isolated on a crossing pattern with a wide receiver can happen. For Richie Grant to bite on a double move in quarters coverage against Hopkins will leave Jerry Gray searching for answers. There is a notable assist by Levis to help spring Hopkins free. The way he uses a left shoulder fake to influence Grant’s movement, as the safety is watching his eyes, was a shrewd move.
A combination of the rookie quarterback adding an extra element to the play with Hopkins using a stutter step to lean inside proves too much for Grant. He anticipates Levis pulling the trigger to Hopkins on a dig. That leaves him completely out of position, with the savvy veteran receiver roaming free downfield into the end zone. This play exemplifies how this was the worst defensive performance of the season for the Falcons.
No Longer The Same Without Grady Jarrett
After losing Jarrett to a season-ending injury, it was tough for a stout run defense to adjust. David Onyemata had his worst performance of the season. LaCale London was forced into an expanded role and looked overwhelmed in holding his own at the point of attack. The same can be said for Ta’Quon Graham, who has regressed playing in Nielsen’s defense.
With no push up front and both linebackers getting drawn out of the run, it allows Derrick Henry a clear lane to bulldoze his way downfield. Kaden Elliss misses a tackle in the process after attempting to set the edge, only to realize Henry stayed inside. The Falcons defense didn’t get completely run over. It was more of when things got ugly, players were getting manhandled, as shown here with Onyemata being taken for a ride ten yards downfield.
Lined up in their signature bear front, the Falcons are schematically set up to overload the left and defend the run. Unfortunately, they don’t have Onyemata on the field to go along with not having Jarrett. London gets blown up by the double team, which pushes him so far downfield that Landman gets caught in the fray. A nicely designed trap block is able to prevent Elliss from shooting into the open gap to make the stop. This is another run where the Titans own the line of scrimmage off a well-devised run.
Nobody on the defensive line gets a push, as they are all stonewalled or pushed five yards downfield. The linebackers get caught in difficult positions. It will be interesting to see what adjustments the coaching staff makes to compensate for the loss of their defensive centerpiece after watching how much they struggled to disengage from blocks and win at the point of attack.
Not every big run from Tennessee was a cause of Jarrett’s absence. They found success on misdirection runs going outside, utilizing the unique skillset of their dynamic rookie. Tyjae Spears’ burst and elusiveness have proven to be a handful for defenses this season. With Campbell being pressed inside and Landman too slow in wrapping up, there is no edge presence to keep him contained.
Dee Alford overpursuing on a blitz leaves nothing but space for Spears to get loose. The Falcons’ front seemed to fatigue as the games wore on. Tackling continued to get worse as Bates missed another tackle along with A.J. Terrell. The lack of speed within the front seven and discipline from the secondary was on display here.
Bates Botch, Landman Loss
Similar to Robinson’s mistake, this play is highlighted for how careless the Falcons were in this game. They didn’t make the fundamental plays they had been making all season. Critical individual errors proved to be costly in this ugly defeat. If Bates makes this tackle, it goes down as a three-yard loss to set up third and 10. Considering how much the Titans had struggled on third and long for the game, this stop would have put the Falcons in an advantageous position.
Bates and Landman both fail to make routine stops to put pressure on Levis. Spears creates a three-yard gain with his elusiveness, which leads to the Titans putting together a nine-play touchdown drive to go up 28-16. These types of mistakes add up in a close game. The Falcons had to face that reality following these clumsy mistakes.
Third Down Excellence Continues
The biggest positive coming out of this discouraging performance was the third down defense remaining on point. Tennessee only went five for 15 on third down. They were positionally organized and technically proficient on most of their stops. Despite the blitz failing to get to Levis, the coverage is superb across the field.
Elliss handles his zone assignment brilliantly in covering Kyle Phillips before closing in on Chigoziem Okonkwo for the stop. The way he shadows the slot receiver and then reacts to the pass, making sure the ball doesn’t go beyond the first down marker is textbook linebacker play. Elliss continues to be such a consistent open-field tackler.
Getting legitimate pressure and fantastic coverage at the same time hasn’t come easy for Nielsen’s defense. The limitations up front have left the secondary having to force coverage sacks on many occasions this season. A crafty twist by Onyemata and Lorenzo Carter does the trick to force Levis into an inaccurate throw.
The veteran edge rusher takes the brunt of it to free up the ferocious defensive tackle. Onyemata shows nice agility to close in for the hit. The way Alford challenges Hopkins at the line of scrimmage to disrupt his route was pivotal. The rest of the secondary plays lockdown coverage for the third down stop. As frustrating as a performance this was, the defense still had some great moments.
Grant Shows Ball Skills and Range
Although it will go down as a forgettable game for Grant getting burnt on a double move from Hopkins on his third touchdown, he did produce an outstanding play that deserves to be appreciated. Levis’ first read is the star wide receiver, as he is looking in his direction the entire way. Hopkins loses his balance while jostling for leverage with Terrell. That forces Levis to look for Treylon Burks on a deep over. Grant is handling deep coverage responsibilities, with Bates commanding the middle of the field.
The former second-round pick transitions smoothly in coverage to give Alford support over the top. That safety support is crucial as Levis’ ball placement is outstanding, which proved to be the case on many of his deep throws in this game. As the ball arrives, Grant times his break perfectly to deflect the pass away in an impressive manner. The former second-round pick struggled at times last season handling deep coverage duties. Despite still having those occasional lapses, he does look more comfortable covering acres of space and making plays in coverage downfield.