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Falcons vs. Buccaneers Week 14 recap: Just short, just wide, just frustrating

With a chance to win three straight and put themselves in an excellent position in the NFC South, the Falcons do what they have done best this year and fall short in crunch time.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons had a golden opportunity in this one, with the scuffling Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming to town and a chance to truly take control of the NFC South. Injuries tarnished those chances, sure, but Tampa Bay is lousy enough that Atlanta figured to and ultimately did have a thousand chances to win this game.

Of course, they did not win this game. Undone by turnovers and drive-killing mistakes, unraveled late by defensive miscues after three-plus quarters of terrific play from that side of the ball, undercut by a safety, and most unbelievably, derailed by a pair of rare missed Younghoe Koo field goals, the Falcons lost by four on a day where it legitimately felt like they could’ve won by 10 by cutting down on the mistakes that have defined this season. Atlanta had nearly 140 more yards than the Buccaneers, eight more first downs, better efficiency on critical downs, and fewer penalties, and still managed to fritter the game away. That’s a commitment to NFC South Football (TM) that you have to admire, even if it disgusts you.

It also was the latest proof that this really is who the Falcons are in 2023, glimpses of potential and power not withstanding. They have never been able to clean up the mistakes and unforced errors that keep losing them football games, and if they were able to tidy it up a little bit against the Saints and Jets, it came roaring back against Tampa Bay. They aren’t quite the elite rushing attack their personnel suggests they should be—offensive line injuries played a role in that Sunday, obviously—and the passing game is inconsistent to an extent that would be maddening if it wasn’t so expected. The defense keeps doing excellent work against shaky opponents, but as injuries mount there and fatigue sets in late, they’re susceptible to those fatal final lapses that put the nail in the coffin. When not even special teams is reliable—Koo missed field goals this week, the return game has been shaky off and on all year, and coverage has been unreliable—it’s little surprise the Falcons are 6-7 and dealing with another frustrating loss. It’s a testament to their ability to hang on by their fingernails that they’re not even worse than that.

None of this is to suggest that the Falcons are out of the NFC South, not with the Panthers up next and the Bucs and Saints looking just as flawed as our favorite football team. What it does suggest is that regardless of how Atlanta finishes this year, they need to take a very hard look at their roster and coaching staff and determine where they simply need work and growth and where changes are necessary. A failure to self-diagnose the ailments eating away at this team’s fortunes week-in and week-out will lead to more of the same in what’s likely to be a season facing a tougher schedule and in a less putrid division, and given how long the losing has gone on in Atlanta, that doesn’t seem survivable for anyone on the staff.

After all, this is not just the longest playoff drought of Arthur Blank’s ownership; this is the longest playoff drought in over 30 years for the Falcons. NFL coaches and front offices do not simple get gimme years, but Atlanta suggested that the hard work of the rebuild post-2020 meant that 2021 and 2022 would be seasons where they’d have to battle just to win seven games. This year was supposed to be different, and I’m not confident that the eerie familiarity after all those big offseason investments and seemingly blithe confidence in Desmond Ridder and this offense is going over well in the upper reaches of Flowery Branch. The Falcons still have four weeks to figure this thing out; if they do not and fall short of the postseason again, it’s less of a question of whether changes are coming than how significant they will prove to be.

For the moment, all the Falcons can do is hope to get healthier and keep plugging away against the final four teams on their schedule. If they’re capable of stringing together some wins and taking the NFC South, great, but seeing has never felt more like believing than it does right now.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • If Desmond Ridder’s day could be boiled down to his highlight reel, we’d all be happy. He threw the nice touchdown ball to Kyle Pitts, was quicker to process plays at times and zipped some nice passes to Drake London in particular, and finished the day with over 300 yards through the air and some really nice runs. Everyone who has suggested there are some small stirrings of improvement here has a case to make, and once again he had this team in the game late somehow. The problem for Atlanta is that the highlight reel plays were not the story of his day, and we’ll get to that below.
  • One more note on the quarterback, though: Ridder’s utility as a red zone rushing option is evident at this point, and if not for the dumb fumble the last time out against the Buccaneers in the red zone, he’d be tied with Michael Vick for the second-highest single season franchise rushing touchdown total. As it is, his five represents the third-highest total in team history and is the best any Falcons quarterback has managed since Vick in 2005, and that touchdown run was one where he showed excellent balance and decision-making. What could be if he simply made (many) fewer mistakes!
  • Bijan Robinson just needs one good block. Early in the fourth quarter, he got the ball on a quick pass and got that block to the outside, breaking multiple tackle attempts and rumbling over 30 yards to set the Falcons up inside the 10 yard line. On the next play, he took the handoff and powered through the middle of the offensive line for a touchdown, turning a nine point Buccaneers lead into a two point lead. No player on the Falcons is more capable of swinging a game more quickly than Robinson given his game-changing elusiveness and second gear—okay, maybe Jessie Bates comes close—and the team’s ability to rely on him in critical situations is encouraging.
  • A tidy day on the ground for Tyler Allgeier, who turned nine carries into 40 yards and was a sledgehammer late in the game again for the Falcons, an ideal role for him against a tired defense. The Falcons need to continue to lean on him late given how well he fares.
  • This was a stellar game from Drake London, certainly his best of the year, and really a ringing endorsement for him being the focal point of this passing game. He made tough sideline grabs, a breathtaking, leaping snag on a play that otherwise might’ve gone right into a Buccaneer’s hands, and a two point conversion catch to put the Falcons up by three. His ability to make contested catches and his trust from Ridder were huge in this one, and he finished with an eye-popping 172 yards on 10 catches for the game, including the final grab agonizingly close to the end zone on the game’s final play. If nothing else, this game should’ve reinforced that London can make the tough catches when you need him to, and the Falcons need to take advantage of that more often.
  • A pretty touchdown grab for Kyle Pitts, who took advantage of some defensive confusion to reel in a nice ball from Ridder and then powered through contact for a touchdown. It was his only contribution of the day as a receiver, but as contributions go, it was a quality one.
  • Give the offensive line credit for holding up as well as they did, considering they were down Drew Dalman and Kaleb McGary when the game started, lost Jake Matthews, and lost Chris Lindstrom for a little bit. It was unsurprising that the ground game never really got going given all those injuries, but the fact that a crew of reserves, a dinged-up Lindstrom, and Matthew Bergeron managed to key a 300-yard-plus passing game and line up some nice runs for Robinson and Tyler Allgeier is a good reflection on the depth Atlanta has assembled.
  • Another Sunday, another third down moment for Arnold Ebiketie, who let Baker Mayfield slip away from a sack but did enough to stagger him to force a half-hearted scramble that ended Tampa Bay’s first drive with a field goal try rather than a shot at a touchdown. On a day where he and Bud Dupree got close but never really took Mayfield down, the timeliness of the handful of quality pressures the duo managed was quite welcome.
  • Kentavius Street has had to play a lot, and this week he was essentially the team’s top interior defensive lineman. To his credit, a player who barely got playing time in Philadelphia has responded well to a bigger role in Atlanta, and he had a nice third down sack on Mayfield in the second quarter to kill another Tampa Bay Drive. Unfortunately, the team lost him to injury later on, something that quickly showed up as a problem.
  • Working against Mike Evans is a tough matchup for A.J. Terrell—hell, it’s a tough matchup for just about anybody—but Terrell did a stellar job in the early going. His first down pass breakup on a nice ball from Baker Mayfield to Evans helped set the tone for a quick three and out for a banged-up defense. Terrell did consistently good work all day, and he and Jessie Bates continued to be tone setters for the defense.
  • Clark Phillips is impressive as hell, honestly. Filling in for Jeff Okudah, we saw Phillips showing up again and again with some very nice plays. He was sticky in coverage, made tough tackles in the open field, and generally looked like he belonged out there against what is typically a pretty solid passing attack. His future in this defense seems very bright, and if his day was marred by one holding call, the coverage chops and tackling suggest that if Phillips needs to continue to start down the stretch, he’s more than up to the task. Long-term, he should be a really good one for Atlanta.
  • The Falcons have struggled in their return game all season with Avery Williams out for the year—that remains an underrated loss for the team—but Dee Alford was really good in this one. His decision to fair catch it at the seven may have led to the safety, but it was reasonable given the way the ball came in, and he had a pair of 15-plus yard punt returns elsewhere to give the Falcons very good field position. Given the caliber of his work on defense, the fact that he’s also killing it on special teams now is a major plus for Atlanta.
  • Bradley Pinion did his typical very good work punting, pinning the Buccaneers deep repeatedly to put a scuffling offense in a deep hole. Had Atlanta won this one, you would’ve been justified in giving him credit, but the inconsistency of the offense means it’s just a nice footnote.
  • I’ll give the coaching staff credit for getting this team out of a deep hole in the second half, turning a nine point deficit into a three point winning margin very late in the game. Again, recognizing that Allgeier late, feeding the hot hand in London, and taking advantage of how dangerous Bijan is with the ball in his hands and how dangerous Ridder can be as a runner aren’t exactly rocket science decisions, but they were a damn sight better than slow-developing passing plays in your own end zone and telegraphed screens.

The Ugly

  • I don’t put the early interception heavily on Ridder, who had his back to the play and threw the screen blind as the play called for, but it was still a costly play for him as Carlton Davis read the play like See Spot Run and made the pick. I do put the safety almost entirely on him, as he hung in the pocket in the end zone far too long in the second quarter looking for a play instead of simply getting rid of it or trying a window with an offensive line missing starters. The fact that he fumbled—and was lucky to see Keith Smith fall on it—was the cherry on top of the indigestible Sunday for a player who continues to undercut this offense with mistakes. The fact that I could go on listing the questionable throws, the near interceptions, the fumbles and the would-be fumbles tells you Ridder did not have a very good day outside of those impressive moments I mentioned above.

The Falcons are still very much alive this season, but Ridder’s inconsistency and the sheer number of risky plays he puts out there will continue to put a hard cap on this offense’s fortunes until—and really if—he can start being smarter with the football. I’d like to see it come together for him for about a hundred different reasons, but the truth is that Ridder is having to revive the Falcons late in large part because he’s killing them early. Cleaner games for the quarterback would be games the Falcons would be winning, and it’s impossible to ignore that.

  • Of course, asking Ridder to turn his back to the defense and turn around and throw a screen so predictable that Carlton Davis was running to intercept it basically as soon as the ball was snapped is on the coaching staff, and having him sit in the end zone for a passing play when you just suffered a safety last week is boneheaded in the extreme, even if again I think you need to put his processing and decision-making front and center there. Ridder’s limitations are there for all to see and the Falcons certainly know that he’s shakier earlier in games in particular, and coming up with plays that earn safeties in back-to-back weeks is simply a mind-boggling thing to do. You can and should blame Ridder for the mistakes he’s making, but I don’t think it’s wise to let the staff off the hook for coming up with the kind of play calls that put an already shaky offense in danger. Given that offense is supposed to be this head coach’s bread and butter and the personnel has been built up over the past three years, these kinds of results are just not sustainable or acceptable.
  • The Falcons defense played so admirably, and it’s a shame that one of their worst plays of the game allowed a very short pass to turn into a long touchdown. A quick pass to Rachaad White saw players blocked out of the play, players reacting late, and bad angles turning into an easy touchdown for White, which put Tampa Bay up nine points. Given how well the defense played all day, it’s hard to hold that against them all that much, but it was an ugly play, one that put Atlanta in a late hole.
  • As well as the defense played all game, the play of DeMarcco Hellams and Richie Grant on the final drive proved decisive. Hellams was cited by the booth for failing to pick up Mike Evans, leading to a long completion, and then Richie Grant let Cade Otton grab a touchdown. Again, the fact that the defense broke down late when they were shorthanded and tired is not a shock, but it was still disappointing to watch.
  • Aside from Street’s sack and a couple of nice stretches from Ebiketie and Dupree, the pass rush was nonexistent again. You can blame personnel limitations for that—and you should, to an extent—but the time Baker Mayfield had to work in the pocket led to most of Tampa Bay’s productive passing plays on the day. It’s kind of a miracle they held them in check for so long given that lack of pass rush punch.
  • Younghoe Koo simply doesn’t miss like he did Sunday. To be fair to him, both attempts he missed in the first half were 50-plus yards, but he narrowly missed the first one and knuckleballed the second, turning what might’ve been six points in most games and a Falcons lead into disappointment. Koo has been nails all year, so I’m not concerned about him beyond this game, but those were very costly misses. The Falcons did, after all, lose by five games when Koo wasn’t able to put six on the board.
  • The injuries were a nightmare on Sunday, and while they don’t excuse the state of the offense in particular, they do help to explain it. Down both Drew Dalman and Kaleb McGary, the Falcons also lost Jake Matthews and (briefly) Chris Lindstrom, forcing them to dig all the way into their offensive line depth. On defense, they lost Kentavius Street on top of their already-existing attrition, which had a noticeable impact late when the Buccaneers could suddenly run the ball fairly well. I’m not going to pin the outcome on the injuries—the Falcons simply made too many mistakes for that—but this is a lesser team minus all those players, and that’s a big-time concern the rest of the way if they don’t get most of them back.
  • That final drive was kind of a mess. Ridder’s short over-the-middle throw to Jonnu Smith forced Atlanta to burn time they did not need to on a play that didn’t really help the cause much, and on the final play of the game, Ridder needed a man in the end zone and appeared to settle for hitting London short (or just didn’t get enough on it) and hoping he could power his way into the end zone. The late game urgency was welcome—the drive before was beautiful, and Atlanta got close to winning somehow—but mistakes large and small are the theme of the season and were the theme of that drive.
  • This team might hang around until late—they do, in fact—but resilience is more than just being there in the end. The fact that they could have won the game outright without the early game interception, the missed field goals, the safety, and some of their other lapses makes this an agonizing loss, and suggests the best thing you can say about Atlanta is that they never quit. That is admirable, but if they played far better earlier in the game, you could point out how well they play late in the game without having to be bummed out about a loss that was largely self-inflicted.

The Falcons need to be more than the team that makes you sweat late in the fourth quarter; they need to be the team putting their opponents in the ground before the final seconds roll around. That’s a big part of why they still don’t have a three game winning streak in the Arthur Smith era, and why they play so much close games even if the basic offensive and defensive statistics outside of the score would suggest better. Until they get there, inconsistency will be a feature for this team on a weekly basis, and it may well keep them from winning the easiest division they’ll ever play in.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Splitting this one and giving it to the secondary, because minus a couple of coverage lapses, they did masterful work despite a lack of pass rush, and to Drake London, who had a career game and represented so much of the offense’s production and excellent moments on the day.

One Takeaway

Atlanta remains too sloppy and too inconsistent to consistently win games, and with injuries taking a huge bite out of this roster, that’s an even bigger problem than it was a short time ago. The Falcons seem likely to knock off a putrid Panthers team on the road, but it’s anyone’s guess whether they can win enough in the final four weeks to get back into the divisional lead, even with how terrible this division is.

Next Week

The Panthers rematch, a best-selling novel. Atlanta travels to Carolina for the penultimate divisional game of the 2023 slate, with a win very welcome if they can get it.

Final Word