The Atlanta Falcons had too many mistakes and too many injuries to overcome on Sunday in a game that would have gone a long way toward securing a division title and playoff berth. Instead, the Falcons lost to the Buccaneers 29-25 and remain in the thick of a confusing and tight NFC South race.
Atlanta came into the game dealing with a myriad of key injuries, and things didn’t get any easier on that front for the home team. Despite the mounting injuries, the Falcons managed to make this a tight game late into the fourth quarter, something that they’ve done pretty much all season long. They couldn’t come through with the big stop when they needed it the most, though, and the pressure is on with the division title still very much in play for the Bucs and Saints.
“Everything is just like life,” Jessie Bates said after the game. “There’s going to be a bunch of ups, there’s going to be a bunch of downs. I think the team that comes out successful is the one that can weather through the storm, stay grounded. No matter whether it’s going good or whether it’s going bad, we’re going to go to work and prepare like we’re a championship team. That’s the mindset.”
Here are the immediate takeaways from Sunday’s game:
Injuries mounting at the wrong time for Atlanta
The Falcons have been largely healthy for much of the season, but that good luck is starting to run out. On Friday, it was announced Atlanta would be without three starters: Nate Landman, Kaleb McGary and David Onyemata. When the inactives were released prior it kickoff, starting center Drew Dalman and starting corner Jeff Okudah were on the list.
No team wants to be down five starters for any game, let alone an important division matchup. The Falcons are a team that wants to control matchups from the trenches, so losing key guys in that area is especially challenging.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a run here the last two weeks of some injuries,” Arthur Smith said in his post-game press conference. “A lot of different O-linemen were playing, some D-linemen were playing and it’s our job to problem solve and find ways to go win.”
Once the game began, things didn’t get any easier. In the first half, the Falcons lost two more mainstays on the offensive line—arguably their most important two. Left tackle Jake Matthews left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury, and right guard Chris Lindstrom exited with an ankle injury late in the second quarter. Only rookie left guard Matthew Bergeron remained among the starting offensive linemen at halftime.
“He was ready to go back in if he had to,” Smith said of Matthews after the game. “Obviously, he didn’t feel great, that’s why he didn’t. Hope to get some good news tomorrow with a lot of those guys, and we’ll go from there.”
Fortunately, Lindstrom was able to return to the game in the second half, but his presence didn’t do much to help the offense find a rhythm.
In the second half, defensive tackle Kentavius Street, one of the primary reserves filling in for Onyemata, sustained a shoulder injury and was ruled out for the rest of the action. Once Street left the game, the Bucs began to assert themselves on the ground. On the following possession after Street’s injury, the Bucs marched 66 yards in nine plays—six of which were runs—to score their second touchdown of the day.
It’s incredibly difficult to win in this league with all hands on deck, and the Falcons weren’t anything close to that by the time the final whistle was blown. But this was still a game the team needed to win, and there were more than a few opportunities to achieve a favorable outcome even while short-handed. Now, the main concern becomes whether or not these injuries will persist for the remainder of the season.
When it’s bad on offense, it’s really bad
Atlanta’s offense is an especially erratic one. There are more than a few moments when the unit looks dangerous and capable of stringing together long drives to put points on the board. And all it takes is one snap for that house of cards to tumble down.
Two such moments occurred in the first half. Near the end of the first quarter, in the shadow of the Falcons’ end zone, Ridder caught the snap and quickly fired a pass to the right sideline where Bijan Robinson set up for a screen. Unfortunately, Carlton Davis was also set up for the screen. Tampa Bay’s corner undercut Robinson and picked off the pass to set the Bucs’ offense up at the 8-yard line. Two plays later, Baker Mayfield scored on a 2-yard scramble.
Late in the second quarter, the Falcons were once again backed up against their own end zone. This time, Arthur Smith dialed up a shot play, which is something a lot of offensive coordinators like to do in those situations. Unfortunately, the blocking did not hold up and Ridder was stripped of the ball just before he could get the pass in motion. Fullback Keith Smith grabbed the ball, but he was tackled in the end zone for a safety. It’s the second safety Atlanta has given up in as many weeks.
“You take a risk on every play,” Smith said of that particular call from the goal line. “We liked the look, trying to get that ball to Drake [London]. We’ve been pretty conservative back there and, unfortunately, they brought pressure. Things happen in half a second here or there. So I’ve got to really look at it. We’re not in the blame game; you take a risk there and they made a play.”
The miscues for this offense continue to be huge swings in momentum and often result in points going up on the board for the other team. With the defense playing at such a high level, anything short of disastrous feels survivable. Nevertheless, Atlanta’s offense continues to make Molly Hatchet proud and flirt with disaster every game.
“Most definitely,” London responded when asked if this game was a missed opportunity. “This is a hard pill to swallow. I love this team. I love everything that we’re about. I know that we’re some hard workers, and we’re not just going to let this diminish our season. We’ll go back in the lab and get to work and try to learn from our mistakes.”
Falcons bottled up on the ground
It’s no great secret that Atlanta’s offense feeds off its ground game. They are at their best when they run the ball well. Tampa Bay’s defense has been good against the run for much of the season, but they entered Sunday’s matchup giving up 403 rushing yards in their last three games and allowed 156 rushing yards to the Falcons in Week 7.
This turned out to be a get-right game for the Buccaneers’ defense. They stifled Atlanta’s running backs throughout the afternoon and never allowed the offense to get into a rhythm. Atlanta finished the game with 96 rushing yards and 3.7 yards per carry. Bijan Robinson did have an effective day as a receiver, especially on a beautiful 33-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter. He followed up that play with a 3-yard touchdown run.
Bijan Robinson, full steam ahead pic.twitter.com/ZczTzopAXK— Kelly Price (@thekellyprice) December 10, 2023
The Falcons have played some of their best football in the fourth quarter this season, and that was the case once again. Atlanta took its first lead of the game with under 3:30 remaining thanks to a drive that featured the offensive line and run game. Tyler Allgeier was the primary back on the drive, and the leading rusher on Sunday for Atlanta with 40 yards, but it was Ridder who scored on a 6-yard run while showing impressive contact balance around the left edge.
Still, this was a game in which Ridder threw the ball nearly 40 times behind a severely banged-up offensive line. That’s not a recipe for success for this team.
Younghoe Koo’s uncharacteristic outing
When things go wrong for the Falcons, nobody is immune. That includes the most accurate kicker in league history, Younghoe Koo, which is a title he may no longer hold come Monday. Koo missed a pair of kicks in the first half of Sunday’s game, although they were difficult attempts. Koo’s first miss came from 50 yards out and clanged off the right post. His second miss was a 52-yarder at the end of the second quarter that just missed to the left.
Koo did make his first attempt of the game from 20 yards out, but the two misses proved to be critical in a game the Falcons lost by 4 points.
Kyle Pitts scored his fifth career touchdown
There’s a nice little bit of momentum building for Kyle Pitts in recent weeks. He had one of his best games of the season in the win against New York, and he made one of his best plays of the year on Sunday.
Out in space against single coverage, Pitts ran a nasty double move that Tampa Bay’s defense couldn’t pass off correctly. The result was a nice, easy touchdown, which is something we haven’t seen nearly enough from Pitts. It was a 36-yard touchdown reception for the former fourth-overall pick, which is the longest of his career.
“It was just a double move and we schemed it up pretty good,” Pitts said of his touchdown after the game. “We ran into the defense that we wanted.”
After the touchdown, Pitts showed a big burst of emotion. He mimicked rocking a baby, which Pitts said was in honor of his recently born son and pointed to his best friend in the crowd.
That’s about all Pitts did in this game, though. The athletic tight end finished with yet another lackluster yardage total—57 yards on three catches, including the 36-yard touchdown.