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Falcons vs. Vikings recap: What now?

The Falcons have to find modest improvements or shake things up, but the answers are missing for this snakebitten, shaky team.

Minnesota Vikings v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be a lot of things this season. A competent, sometimes explosive passing attack. A dominant rushing team. An improved defense that could help keep them in games. An elite special teams group. A well-coached squad finally finding their way to the top of the NFC South. A big change from five grinding years of losing seasons and of wait until next year.

There are eight games to go, and the Falcons have been some of these things for stretches, especially on defense. The largely brilliant free agent class has largely delivered. The talent is evident for everyone from Bijan Robinson to Kyle Pitts on offense. Yet the results have been uneven at best, unsettling at worst, and through nine games this team is 4-5 and coming off what is inarguably their most dispiriting loss of the season.

Against the Vikings, who saw Jaren Hall exit with a concussion early on, the Falcons struggled to contain Josh Dobbs, a hard-charging, occasionally dangerous fill-in starter who has been with the team for less than a week. This is a neat summation of how bad things were on Sunday for Atlanta.

They allowed big plays when they shouldn’t have, with the defense allowed a season-high 31 points on the day despite multiple big turnovers and a safety. The offense chipped in two touchdowns and a lot of “let’s set up a field goal” drives for a very game Younghoe Koo, keeping this one competitive, but once again the final numbers and results were less-than-inspiring on that side of the ball. Atlanta’s special teams were, once again, solid but not game-changing outside of Koo. The Falcons played like a mediocre football team and lost to an injury-riddled one; their record and their results say they are in fact a mediocre football team.

Given how straightforward their schedule was and the fact that expectations were justifiably heightened thanks to preseason comments and spending from the team, this qualifies as at least a minor disaster at this stage of the season. Dropping a game to a fully healthy Vikings team at home would’ve been disappointing but defensible; dropping one to a Vikings team down its first and second string quarterbacks, their top receiver, and the handful of players they lost along the way is somewhere very far south of defensible. The Falcons are underachieving versus the expectations that they set and what the talent on hand suggests they are capable of doing, and their season is on the cusp of slipping away as a result. The NFC South’s mediocrity is the best reason for hope, because the Falcons still have a 2-0 record in the division and still have a tiny bit of time to figure things out.

For those of us who had visions of elite offenses and playoff berths, the team’s current predicament is beyond infuriating. Falling short of the playoffs and still being a good squad is one thing, but continuing on the team’s current trajectory and looking like a muddled-up 7-10 or 8-9 team yet again might mean we head into 2024 with major changes on the horizon for the coaching staff and roster yet again. As frustrating as this season has been, we have to hope the Falcons can pull out of their current tailspin and salvage it, because the specter of turning this thing over yet again and hoping for better results is not all that appealing given the lack of luck and success of late. The problem is that there is no easy way out of this mess minus the vague and not particularly likely-seeming “get a lot better at everything,” which the team has presumably tried without much success.

There’s one more game to go against Arizona before the bye, and grabbing a win there and getting some time to reflect and re-adjust can’t be a bad thing for Atlanta. Fresh off their worst loss of the season, under .500, and having just surrendered the NFC South lead to the Saints, though, it’s difficult to expect the pieces to suddenly fit in a way they have not all season. Hope is a dangerous thing, and with the Falcons this season, it has also been an exhausting thing to hold onto.

On to the full recap, regardless.

The Good

  • Taylor Heinicke performed well in a couple of areas that Desmond Ridder hasn’t all year. The first was getting the ball out quickly and decisively, even and maybe especially under pressure, and the second was evading that pressure. Heinicke took just one sack against a really good Minnesota pass rush, and there were sharp short-to-intermediate throws that he repeatedly hit with pressure closing in. That was enough to move the offense for stretches on Sunday, and those traits will be what keep him in the starting job beyond this, if indeed Arthur Smith decides to keep him there. His decision-making speed and evasion were as-advertised.
  • It wasn’t exactly a vintage Tyler Allgeier game, but it did feature a vintage drive. The second-year back has not been as effective this year as last year, in part because he’s getting drilled in the backfield on seemingly every third carry, but the final scoring drive of the game saw him turn seven carries (six in a row at one point) into 36 yards and a would-be game-winning touchdown. His other five carries went for a combined four yards. When he’s on and the blocking allows, Allgeier can still be a big-time bulldozer and a nice complement to the nimble Bijan Robinson, who had a fine game on the ground himself with just 11 carries that went for 52 yards.
  • I had thought Jonnu Smith might fade into the background a bit without Desmond Ridder under center, given Ridder’s obvious rapport with the tight end, but I underestimated just how important he is to this passing game. In this one, he tied for the team lead in receptions (Kyle Pitts, who also was a quality contributor, also reeled in four) and led the Falcons in yardage while bringing in Heinicke’s sole touchdown pass of the day. It came on a screen where he reeled it in and went 60 yards, the longest play of the year, and we got to see him absolutely hauling ass on the way there. A yards-after-the-catch artist who actually got a jet sweep in this one near the goal line—it didn’t work—Smith is clearly one of the vital cogs in this offense.
  • KhaDarel Hodge has been a yards after the catch monster the past two weeks. In this one, he reeled in a 20 yard catch from Taylor Heinicke and turned it into 31 by putting a man in the dirt and fighting through contact. The Falcons seemed excited about Hodge in this offense over the summer but he had been lightly utilized; perhaps that changes with him showing off his physicality and if Heinicke remains under center.
  • Calais Campbell is still making plays in his old age (read: my age). In this one, he took down a hesitating, looking to scramble Josh Dobbs in the end zone for a decisive sack and safety, a huge play that benefited a scuffling Falcons team in a big way. Those were the kinds of plays that should have led to a win, and hopefully Campbell can keep making them.
  • Arnold Ebiketie was bringing the heat in this one, with a near sack of Jaren Hall early on and a sack on Josh Dobbs in the second quarter that led to a Dobbs fumble that put the Falcons in an excellent position to score. With the team failing to make a big splash trade at the deadline for a Montez Sweat or Brian Burns, they’re going to count on Ebiketie stepping up. It needs to go from being glimpses to full games, but it feels like we’re getting closer.
  • Kentavius Street has been here for less than a week and is already making an impact. A solid run defender, Street was as advertised as the Falcons front smothered Minnesota, and he made a heads-up play catching a ball Josh Dobbs had forced out by pressure for an interception. No one can replace Grady Jarrett, but you saw why Ryan Nielsen wanted Street back on his team.
  • And David Onyemata is still here, blessedly. He was a force throughout the day, with a sack and a team-leading number of tackles, and will be even more vital with Jarrett gone. He has been better than anticipated, and that’s not something you can say about all that many Falcons this year.
  • Lorenzo Carter had a couple of big run stops, a fumble recovery and return that set up what should have been an easy Falcons scoring drive, and was active and relentless again in this one. This team lacks consistent pass rushing punch from its edge group, but Carter still has a knack for a big play and remains a very useful run defender.
  • Nate Landman delivered some big, big hits, a couple of surprisingly nice plays in coverage, and a sack on the day for Atlanta. Getting solid starting level play from a second-year undrafted free agent linebacker is fantastic, but Landman has given the Falcons more than that against the run and a few big plays along the way.
  • Jeff Okudah continues to shine, with the huge goal line stop (that Jaren Hall unfortunately was hurt on) and excellent coverage outside of the very clearly botched handoff between Okudah and Richie Grant that led to an easy score. The Falcons should make bringing Okudah back a priority, given his fit on this defense and youth.
  • Younghoe Koo needs to kick it 52 yards? Not a problem. He needs to drill four field goals in total because the offense keeps stalling with favorable field position? Ho hum. If the Falcons had given him a ridiculously long attempt at the end instead of a doomed Heinicke hail mary, I would have more than half believed Koo would hit, regardless of the distance.

The Ugly

  • The idea with switching to Heinicke was that he would give you more than Desmond Ridder and fewer turnovers. I mentioned above what I think Heinicke did well, but on balance the day was not enough to convince anyone who isn’t on the Heinicke train that he should remain the starter over the long haul, unless you are (understandably) completely out on Ridder already. The veteran quarterback threw an interception and three near-interceptions on the day and didn’t have a ton of luck piloting the offense in the red zone despite some shorter fields, with the first touchdown drive largely owed to Jonnu Smith’s work after the catch and some nice blocking (although it was a fine pass) and the second to Tyler Allgeier’s legs. The Falcons can win with Heinicke under center on his best weeks and without nuclear defensive meltdowns, but they’ll have to weigh whether they want to roll with any possible upside from Ridder versus this level of play from Heinicke going forward, because this is probably about 80-90% of what you’re going to get.
  • A team that loves to run can’t block for their backs on a consistent basis; I’m not sure the Falcons are necessarily dialing up the most effective early down plays, but I’m not sure how much it would matter if they were when the blocks aren’t there. By my count, 11 of Atlanta’s 28 carries went for two yards or less, with Robinson, Allgeier (in particular), Patterson, and that ill-fated run by Jonnu Smith all getting hit before the line of scrimmage and having to make the best of it. That’s a big problem for a team that prided itself—and still would like to pride itself—on being able to set the tone on the ground.
  • Speaking of Robinson, there was once again heated social media attention directed at the perceived lack of touches for the rookie back. While I’m not putting the exact number of carries and catches under the microscope, I do find it concerning how frequently in the red zone the Falcons are rolling out there without Bijan on the field or in their plans, and that criticism extends a bit to Kyle Pitts. The Jonnu Smith jet sweep was a classic example of a seemingly clever play that shouldn’t be necessary, like the would-be Jonnu Smith pass to MyCole Pruitt last week. If this team needs to resort to trickery to score in the red zone instead of simply trying to find the playmakers it invested top ten selections in, we have to worry about a disconnect between the coaching staff and the front office, and we also have to worry that the coaching staff is overthinking their offense to a detrimental extent. Also, given Jonnu Smith’s strong work as a receiving option, isn’t it a bit of an indictment that this team’s red zone plans for him involve the tight end throwing it and running it?
  • Van Jefferson has not found his fit in this offense yet. He gets a few targets, but while one of the penalties called on him was weird and seemingly unwarranted, Jefferson has not made much of his opportunities and has had some high-profile mistakes and penalties since joining Atlanta. The Falcons brought him in to add something they’re missing in terms of speed and potentially playmaking ability, but thus far they not found it in the veteran wide receiver.
  • The defense is suddenly a bit of a mess. Despite standout stretches and individual performances as always, for the second straight week some poor coverage and a lack of consistent pressure plagued this defense and led to big plays. This week featured the added wrinkle of an inability to stop Josh Dobbs from taking off and running; once he figured out he could consistently get to the edge and take off, the day appeared to be over for this defense. Dobbs had two really bad turnovers in the early going, but wound up having an efficient day as a passer and getting 41 yards and a score on just five carries, and considering he hadn’t had a chance to really practice with his new team and was figuring things out as he went, that’s kind of humiliating. Atlanta will have to clean up these kinds of mistakes and overcome the loss of Jarrett, and they’ll have to do so after not landing major pass rush help at the deadline. I’m confident they can do it—this is a talented bunch and there’s a good coaching staff here—but it’s a stark reminder that this team is in big trouble when the defense is scuffling.
  • Injuries are starting to hit this team hard, and a great example of just that came on the winning play for Minnesota. With Dee Alford out, Mike Hughes was in the game and appeared to be responsible for covering Brandon Powell in the end zone, and he simply wasn’t close. The lack of Drake London in the red zone and in the middle of the field showed up, the lack of Grady Jarrett obviously makes life tougher for the front, and so on. The Falcons are going to have to test their depth more and more in the weeks ahead, and they’ll have to think carefully about who they turn to.
  • The Vikings had one penalty for four yards; the Falcons had eight penalties for 62 yards. That’s a massive difference, and once again, a team that was lauded for its discipline at times in 2022 made some big mistakes when it absolutely could not do so.
  • Arthur Smith is in trouble. I thought it would be impossible for him to be in danger this season, but I thought that because I assumed an improving defense might slow down an improving offense, not the other way around. A man hired for his offensive acumen now has more pieces and has had three years to maximize them, and the Falcons have been an underperforming and frankly disastrous offense for much of the season. With the front office assuredly safe after re-stocking this roster with young talent and savvy veterans on defense, whatever their faults, the coaching staff is going to fall under increased scrutiny with every mediocre week that follows. This is not a tomorrow situation, but the Falcons failing to even contend for a playoff spot after all their additions and all the building on the offensive side of the ball could actually doom Smith at season’s end.

In this particular game, the Jonnu Smith jet sweep, the early run down calls that went nowhere, and the clearly poor challenge flag outweighed the dominant run drive and handful of nice stretches from the offense. Smith has to get into his bag of answers and find some compelling ones awfully soon. Forget his job status; the season hangs in the balance.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Younghoe Koo produced 14 of Atlanta’s 28 points and was called upon again and again to salvage drives, which he of course did. Your kicker should not be your MVP more than maybe once a season, but the Falcons remain fortunate to have one who comes up with big kicks when asked over and over again.

One Takeaway

Early in the season I said the offense was fundamentally broken; it still appears mostly broken, and now the defense appears to be breaking down, too.

Next Week

The Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta’s final opponent before the bye week and a swing out west. Check out Revenge of the Birds for more.

Final Word