When it comes to all-time chaotic Atlanta Falcons’ games, this one against the Minnesota Vikings will be included on the list. It will also be on the list of most excruciating losses, considering the circumstances at quarterback for the Vikings. This was a horrific setback for a team already in a state of uncertainty following the decision to bench Desmond Ridder and start Taylor Heinicke.
The quarterback change ended up doing more harm than good when assessing the veteran’s performance. Arthur Smith didn’t exactly do much to help provide high-leverage situations. It was an overall frustrating showing from the offense, while the defensive decline continued, particularly in the secondary.
This is the seventh GIF review of the season. You can view the previous ones against the Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Texans, Bucs, and Titans to get a deeper insight into how the team fared in past games.
Heinicke Experience Crashes
Hesitancy is one of the last words that would be used to describe a play involving Heinicke. His confidence and decisiveness as a passer can’t be denied. That’s why Heinicke deciding not to pull the trigger to connect with a wide-open Kyle Pitts was hugely surprising. Pitts has been most efficient when utilized in the slot. With Bijan Robinson running a wheel route out of the backfield, it commands the attention of Harrison Smith. That leaves acres of space for Pitts running a post towards the middle of the field.
Although Van Jefferson is his first read, Heinicke has plenty of time to go through his progressions and identify Pitts crossing into the open field. This miss plays a massive role in the Falcons not scoring before halftime. In a three-point defeat, these missed opportunities are incredibly painful, especially knowing how much the Falcons have struggled to produce explosive plays through the air.
Things began to unravel in the second half for Heinicke. If he wasn’t making poor decisions reading different coverage looks, he was throwing passes behind his intended target. Missing Jonnu Smith on the cross-hash where Jordan Hicks is face-guarding him and in a difficult position to make a play on the ball is a bad miss. Heinicke is operating in a clean pocket where he can set his feet and launch an accurate throw to capitalize on a favorable matchup.
The veteran quarterback should put touch on the ball and loft it over the top. Instead, the throw becomes an underthrown dart, directly hitting Hicks in the back. There will always be lumps with Heinicke under center, but some mistakes are incomprehensible.
On the very next play, Heinicke nearly throws one of the most reckless interceptions a quarterback can ever throw. There are moments where you simply have to take a sack. Coming off play action with an unblocked Josh Metellus bolting in, Heinicke is in no position to see the field. He decides to throw the ball up in an attempt to throw it away despite being in the pocket. This easily could have resulted in an interception. It’s no secret Heinicke is turnover-prone and will force the ball into passing windows that aren’t there.
Being an aggressive to overly aggressive gunslinger is his playing style, which is why you have to expect some of these plays with him under center. It’s one thing to be ambitious to create a big play. It’s another thing to play carelessly and put your team at a disadvantage with irrational decisions. No quarterback, let alone a veteran, should be attempting to throw this away. Heinicke has to play with much better composure to complement his aggressiveness to help the Falcons win games.
The inevitable interception comes on a throw behind his intended target. Heinicke’s ball placement on in-breaking routes had been shaky all game long. His eyes were glued to the primary read that Byron Murphy Jr. locked in on from the snap. It’s a tight window throw, one where he is trusting a wide receiver in Damiere Byrd who has never excelled at making contested catches and was only added to the main roster a few days before the game.
This play could have easily been included in the next section of this review. Due to how erratic Heinicke was leading up to the interception, it had to be placed here because the throw was put right into the cornerback’s chest. That doesn’t preclude Arthur Smith from receiving criticism for this interception. The two-route simplistic concept with no variation or urgency from Byrd or Pitts against a defense playing nickel was doomed to fail.
From a personnel usage standpoint, how is Byrd being inserted into a prominent role after just being reinserted into the lineup? Why isn’t Scotty Miller, Van Jefferson, or KhaDarel Hodge running the in-breaking route? The decision to put him in such a role raises questions about Smith’s ability to properly utilize the wide receiving corps.
Questioning Arthur Smith’s Decision-Making
Brian Flores threw quite the curveball by reducing his blitzes and dropping eight into coverage more often. After leading the league in blitz rate, the impressive defensive coordinator decided to play more zone-heavy looks with extra players downfield to force Heinicke to beat them with his arm. It’s a wise strategy, especially when the opposing coach struggles to dial up effective pass play concepts to stretch defenses and produce plays downfield. Setting Robinson in speed motion was enticing, but all he did was run into the flat.
Besides that, this is a lackluster play design without many options to find an opening against zone. It’s a doomed play from the beginning with how few playmakers are on the field on third down, along with no imagination on the route concept to potentially scheme them open. These types of hopeless plays indicate how much the Falcons could benefit from hiring a passing game coordinator.
Attention to detail is something that successful teams possess and maintain every week. It’s emphasized across the entire organization, not just the personnel. Calling a jet sweep to Jonnu Smith at the one-yard line is not an effective way to score touchdowns. While the tight end does have a history as a ball carrier in Tennessee, there are numerous better ways to use misdirection and get in the end zone. What is also ludicrous about the play is having Pitts block Danielle Hunter in isolation on the outside.
If the play is directed horizontally toward the left, why is MyCole Pruitt not alongside Jake Matthews? Pruitt is the best blocking tight end on the team. You wasted a second down in the red zone last week in Tennessee trying to catch their defense off-balance by using Smith as a passer out of the backfield; here you’re wasting a trick play by asking a player who is not a stellar blocker to make a stellar block.
As good of a season as he is having, why is the veteran tight end continuing to be one of the primary focal points in the red zone? How is a jet sweep directed towards your least effective blocking tight end and inexperienced fullback starting his first game for the team, replacing an injured Keith Smith, putting your offense in the best position to succeed?
There are so many problems with this play that leaves one final question. What has happened to the coach who helped guide the Titans to having the best red zone conversion rate in 2019 and second-best in 2020?
Red Zone Woes Breaking Point
The Falcons are the third-worst team in goal-to-go situations, only ranking higher than the Cowboys and Broncos. The inability to win in the trenches when having to outpower opponents has been a massive problem. The way the coaching staff has failed to address that problem without utilizing their dynamic rookie playmaker makes it even more perplexing. As much as you want to grind it out with a true power back like Tyler Allgeier, there are times when you have to make alterations and use Robinson on the outside or have to attempt to leap above the interior line to maximize his outstanding athleticism.
That’s not overlooking the poor blocking from Drew Dalman, Chris Lindstrom, and Jonnu Smith. Players must execute better, especially with Smith being put in motion to add extra strength to get into the end zone. That said, Allgeier can’t be the only running back receiving consistent attempts at converting in short-yardage scenarios.
One of the best feelings for an offensive playcaller is dialing up an effective screen when the defense brings extra bodies in the box to generate pressure. The timing couldn’t have been better to get Jonnu Smith the ball with Flores bringing six on the blitz. All it takes is one block to spring Smith free for the Falcons’ longest pass play of the season. Dalman and Kaleb McGary get out in space instantly to create a crease. It has to be said that Dalman continues to make a difference with his agility and positioning.
Explosive plays don’t always have to be overly creative or involve a special individual effort. If the timing is right with proper execution, a 60-yard touchdown could occur from out of nowhere like this one here. It’s only fitting the current longest pass play for the Falcons this season involves the veteran tight end, who was booking it with the ball on this play.
Back to What the Offensive Identity Was Built On
The Falcons had 11 designed runs out of 13 plays on their final touchdown-scoring drive. That included six consecutive rushing attempts for Allgeier. As was the case in 2022, they found a rhythm running to the strong side behind their two best run blockers. Lindstrom and McGary were outstanding on the final drive, creating movement up front and producing rushing lanes. They do a combo block here with Lindstrom sealing off Jonathan Bullard. McGary gets to the second level and knocks Harrison Smith off balance enough to help create extra yardage. There is plenty of more to this big run.
Tucker Fisk deserves praise for a pinpoint cut block on Hunter. The same goes for Pruitt, who got impressive leverage on D.J. Wonnum. After bizarrely making the running game an afterthought during long stretches in this game, they got back to the foundation of what makes the offense flourish. Allgeier finally got loose and showcased that ability to get yards after contact, which was one of the primary reasons for his fantastic rookie season.
Wearing down the opposition to submission by utilizing a variety of frequent runs made Arthur Smith’s offense so intriguing and efficient last season and in the first two games this season. They got into a groove on the final drive with their human bowling ball of a running back using inside zone. Dalman had one of his best games of the season, making several pivotal blocks from combos to create space on the interior and second-level in space. Fisk makes another excellent cut block to clear out Harrison Phillips. Matthew Bergeron drives Khyiris Tonga laterally to create a clean cutback lane for Allgeier to accelerate into to find the end zone.
It was a struggle for the running game to get going in this matchup, and in short yardage situations the predictability of Allgeier carries has hurt the Falcons. They do know how to find a way to eventually break down opposing fronts and make their mark on the ground. That was proven when they needed to do it most on a statement drive that hopefully reminds the coaching staff to always remain persistent in running the ball when the game is close.
Major Coverage Busts Continue
The glaring breakdowns within the secondary have started becoming a legitimate problem. Jeff Okudah isn’t aware of the change in safety alignment from playing two high to a single high. That alteration means he isn’t receiving safety help from Richie Grant.
What was expected to be Cover 2 turns into a complete miscommunication, leading to Alexander Mattison roaming downfield wide open for a 47-yard completion. Organized defenses don’t allow explosive plays to occur like this. Getting on the same page consistently is imperative for this secondary to revert to playing at a high level.
Self-inflicted mistakes involving defensive backs not being on the same page continued over the course of the game. Based on the positioning of both players, this appears to be more of a mental error on A.J. Terrell’s part. Dee Alford’s stance and anticipation show he is ready to pick up T.J. Hockenson’s in-breaking route.
It appears that Terrell gets too engaged in the route by playing press and fails to adjust once Jordan Addison accelerates on a deep corner. Using a high-low concept with his two top playmakers was well-orchestrated by Kevin O’Connell going into a two-minute offense. They capitalized on a costly misunderstanding to produce an explosive play against a secondary that has been allowing far too many of them in the last two games.
To protect the end zone with as many defenders as possible, Nielsen sets them up in Cover 4. The infrequently-used Mike Hughes replaced Alford in the slot on this play. It ultimately ends up costing the Falcons, as he loses sight of Brandon Powell while watching Dobbs. It’s a great play design by having Addison accelerate toward the back corner to put Terrell in a precarious position.
He can’t break on the pass intended for Powell because of it. Bates isn’t able to do anything about it either. The explosive returner specialist runs an excellent whip route, faking inside to create enough space outside for an easy touchdown. Dobbs smoothly operates in the pocket, processing from Hockenson his primary read to connecting with Powell to cap off his legendary performance.
Missed Tackles Bring Back Same Old Falcons Feeling
A more prepared, composed quarterback stays patient and connects with Hockenson downfield for a touchdown after using a sharp pump fake on a screen directed to Addison. That pump fake lures Terrell and, more importantly, Bates in, who is the deep-lying safety who is supposed to be covering the deep middle area of the field. It’s a nifty play design that catches defenses off balance more times than not.
A quarterback who has only been on the team for five days and doesn’t know many of his teammates’ names with impressive athletic traits turns this play into a highlight-reel touchdown with his legs. After having one of his best halves of the season, Kaden Elliss makes a critical technical mistake by trying to bring down Josh Dobbs high from an angle. If he goes low, he has a far better chance of making an expected open-field tackle. Elliss has been dependable from a tackling standpoint all season. This proves to be a costly whiff that showcases what can transpire when not being fundamentally sound when facing a big, athletic quarterback.
If there was ever a play from this season that made you want to repeat Grady Jarrett’s memorable quote from last season after the Falcons got eliminated, this is it. It’s understandable why they played man coverage on fourth and seven on the final drive. With the game on the line, you trust your secondary, even though Dobbs is dangerous as a scrambler. Using Landman on a twist is the only critique to be made schematically. Having a linebacker spy would have been beneficial to help contain Dobbs.
That said, this calamitous moment falls on Bud Dupree. He times his burst nicely and dips his left shoulder to get the necessary bend around the edge. As well as the veteran pulls it off, he somehow can’t finish one of his better individual wins of the season. To make matters worse, Lorenzo Carter and Terrell miss tackles, allowing Dobbs to get out of bounds. This was the beginning of the end of this gut-wrenching loss.
Extraordinary First Half Run Defense
The Falcons produced one of the most dominant run-stopping performances during the first half in recent history. While it’s evident Minnesota has one of the worst rushing attacks in the league, defenses shouldn’t do what Ryan Nielsen’s defense did by holding them to one yard per carry. It became a struggle for Mattison and Can Akers to make it to the line of scrimmage. Kentavius Street was outstanding in his Falcon debut. Only playing 87 snaps so far this season in Philadelphia meant the defense was getting a player with something to prove. To go along with having familiarity with Nielsen in New Orleans, Street had a tremendous opportunity to secure a starting role.
His get-off and pad level is tremendous in creating instant penetration. Considering how little he played in 2023, it’s understandable why the finish was sloppy, as he whiffed badly on what should have been a tackle for a loss. Thankfully, Zach Harrison and David Onyemata are there to clean up his tremendous work. The sheer power and length Onyemata plays with gives offensive linemen nightmares. It was on full display in how he disengaged from the block to make the stop.
There have been plays this season where two or three free agent signings have combined to make a terrific stop. This is one of those moments with Elliss, Onyemata, and Calais Campbell all making impressive individual efforts to shut down the run. Onyemata controlled the line of scrimmage for the entire first half. It’s no surprise to see him impose his will and play at a Pro Bowl level.
The most notable aspect of this run stop is how Elliss alerts Dupree to watch Hockenson’s incoming cut block, glides past Garrett Bradberry, and prevents a potential running lane from opening. Elliss plays with excellent awareness and positioning when defending the run. How he reads the play, beats the center to close off a gap, and forces Mattison into Campbell is textbook linebacker play.
This last run stop personifies how one-sided it was in the trenches when Minnesota attempted to run the ball in the first half. Ed Ingram was helpless in trying to get any push on Onyemata. Street knocks Dalton Risner off balance as soon as the ball is snapped. It was a complete annihilation at times. Running backs aren’t supposed to be bouncing off the back of offensive linemen repeatedly, yet that’s where Mattison found himself on numerous occasions.
A combination of the Falcons’ defense being on the field for too long and O’Connell using more up-tempo to call run plays are the primary reasons why this dominance wasn’t sustained in the second half. It was still remarkable to see the defensive line without Grady Jarrett imposing their will.
Pocket Collapses, Turnover Occurs
This was a signature moment for a defense that has struggled to force turnovers this season. Playing tight coverage and collapsing the pocket on the same play hasn’t happened often enough. It’s a unique coverage look with Okudah being shifted by scheme inside and Grant playing near the box alongside Elliss and Landman. Only Terrell is playing tight man coverage, as the rest of the back end handles their zone assignments.
Onyemata and Harrison run a T/E stunt to create disruption. Although it’s picked up initially well by Ingram and O’Neill, Onyemata’s powerful long, right arm gets Brian O’Neill falling right into Dobbs’ lap. Dupree gets a solid push on his bull rush from the other side to sandwich the pocket. That lack of space forces Dobbs into fumbling the ball into the hands of Street. Everything came together for this turnover.
Jessie Bates Bounces Back
Similar to Onyemata, Bates responded from having arguably his worst game of the season against Tennessee with one of his best performances in 2023. His anticipation and awareness were on point in commanding the middle of the field. He flashed against the run in a few instances. Despite only getting credited with one pass breakup, Bates was instrumental in two third down stops by reading Dobbs’ eyes, accelerating to the catch point, and disrupting the intended target.
This stop, in particular, was tremendous, as the Falcons only rushed three, playing a modified 3-3-5 look. Using Grant in the box appeared to be one of their strategies to limit T.J. Hockenson. Bates’ control in the middle intermediate area of the field as the deep-lying safety is impeccable. Addison never quite gets initial full possession, but the timing and punch from the potential All-Pro safety make sure the rookie receiver never gets an opportunity to make the grab.