Just when the possibility of creating greater distance between divisional foes seemed realistic, the Atlanta Falcons found ways to make things more difficult and fall short in another close, winnable game. In a game where the defense played relatively well, and the offense produced multiple explosive plays, it felt like Arthur Smith’s team was bound to pull through again and establish themselves as the clear best team in the NFC South.
Self-inflicted errors, more turnovers, and unfortunate injuries ended those hopes. For all the disappointment, there were standout players and thrilling positive moments from a team that clearly possesses the most talent in the division. That tey’ve managed to not be in first place after 13 games is a testament to how much they’ve fallen short in key areas, starting at the quarterback position.
This is the tenth GIF review of the season. You can view the previous ones against the Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Texans, Bucs, Titans, Vikings, Cardinals, and Saints to get a deeper insight into how the team fared in past games.
Another Mistake-Filled Desmond Ridder Performance
The improvement in processing, going through progressions, and throwing with decisiveness took a major dip in this matchup for Ridder. He was missing easy reads to keep drives going. There were moments of hesitancy where he clutched the ball and didn’t look confident in the pocket. Tendencies from earlier in the season, such as running directly into a defensive lineman when he didn’t see anywhere to throw, were on display as well. In this play, he never bothers to look in Scotty Miller’s direction coming out of a bunch set. Drake London appears to be his first read on the outside, followed by Kyle Pitts going over inside.
Ridder should be much quicker in reading the coverage and recognizing a passing window isn’t there to go to his next read. Missing an open Miller running a hitch on third and six is unacceptable, given the time he had in the pocket and how the coverage was aligned for his two top receiving weapons. The inability to process effectively and revert to bad habits of panicking when he doesn’t need to prove to be costly. Instead of completing the pass and potentially putting together a touchdown drive, Ridder falters and Younghoe Koo ends up missing a field goal in what proves to be a one-possession defeat.
The play design certainly doesn’t do Ridder any favors, with two long developing routes and no short or intermediate option besides Robinson on the checkdown. Keith Smith is sluggish in his stance, attempting to block Antoine Winfield Jr. Having to deal with backside pressure and not have any passing windows is problematic. That said, the lack of on-field awareness is alarming in this scenario. Despite having seven in protection with Smith and MyCole Pruitt, Ridder has to be aware of his surroundings in his own end zone, knowing the consequences of being indecisive.
It’s one thing not to want to throw the ball in dangerous areas. Standing in the pocket for several seconds and having trepidation as a decision-maker is a recipe for disaster, especially against a Todd Bowles defense that knows how to bring pressure in a plethora of ways. While this doesn’t entirely fall on Ridder, he has to throw the ball away and not put his team in danger by being hesitant in his own end zone.
Ridder’s attempt at using his eyes to sway an opposing linebacker out of position to create a passing window nearly proves to be another ugly interception. It’s hard to accomplish that when the linebacker isn’t fooled or looked off. K.J. Britt communicates with the defense during the pre-snap as the Falcons move around Robinson and Miller. With three defensive backs in position to handle their coverage duties, Britt doesn’t get fazed by the pre-snap movement and stays compact in the middle of the field, wary of Robinson as a checkdown option.
Instead of having to cover the rising star, he gets a gift thrown at him as Ridder predetermines that looking him off will clear space for Pitts to be open an in-breaking route. Ridder’s vision never comes to fruition as the ball directly gets thrown toward Britt. Add this to the collection of throws from this season where Ridder somehow escaped from throwing a costly interception. It’s an ugly decision where poor processing and bad assumptions nearly doom the Falcons again.
Drake London Is A Certified Star
One of the ways London has made strides in his second season stems from his ability to create separation at the top of the route. Although his route-running is not overly flashy, showcasing clever footwork, his ability to change direction and alter his speed to get corners out of position has proven effective in winning against man coverage without needing to constantly make contested catches.
London’s excellent rapport with Ridder helps as well in getting the timing down to know when the quarterback expects his favorite target to create enough space for a clear passing window. The way London turns Carlton Davis around for a 26-yard catch is tremendous, and he accomplishes it by selling the inside release before shifting outside without using much of his hands to create separation. This third down conversion is a prime example of how much he has improved this season.
There have been glimpses of how dangerous of a vertical threat London is. This 45-yard catch demonstrates how exceptional a talent the Falcons have at wide receiver. Every team wants that alpha number one receiver who can make explosive plays downfield and be a tone-setter for the offense. London is exactly that type of player. It’s just a matter of getting enough targets, which is something that hasn’t materialized enough. This game was only the fourth time London received more than seven targets this season.
Regardless of how disjointed the passing game is, the priority should be finding ways to get the ball in the hands of your star wide receiver. Smith does well to use play action and motion, with Pitts providing blocking support for this long materializing play. This memorable moment showcases London’s astonishing athletic ability, winning at the catch point, and outstanding body control. The top wide receivers make extraordinary plays look ordinary. That’s what he did to put the offense within striking distance and ensure Ridder’s aggressiveness didn’t come back to haunt him. London can turn dangerous throws into game-changing plays. Give him the ball.
Frustration with designed plays for Bijan Robinson ends on a major high
The biggest reoccurring issue in this game came within the aerial attack. If the play design was good, Ridder wasn’t able to capitalize on many occasions due to poor accuracy or Tampa Bay raising its level to prevent a completion. If Ridder threw the ball accurately, it was mostly because of his arm and skill position players stepping up rather than benefitting from the play design itself. The former applies to this failed third and goal. The personnel usage instantly creates excitement, with Pitts and London lined up alongside each other. With their large frames and ability to create openings, the touchdown is there for an in-motion Robinson. Winfield Jr. comes in unblocked from the strongside to force a wayward pass. Cordarrelle Patterson has to fake the handoff, which takes him out of position to provide pass protection.
It’s a well-designed play using two big body pass catchers who command the most attention to create high leverage for the offense’s top playmaker, who is finally getting red zone opportunities after weeks of being misused. This goes down as a huge wasted opportunity, given how well-constructed the play itself is and how both pass catchers run their routes. Removing the play action aspect and having a running back alongside Ridder to protect could easily turn this into another effective way to utilize Robinson’s exceptional skill set.
When teams battle with inconsistency, one of the most identifiable reasons for their issues comes from not playing enough intricate football and failing to pick up on predictable tendencies. The Falcons give opposing defenses far too many golden opportunities to make plays because they lack details and don’t modify their passing concepts enough. This was already the third quick pass below the line of scrimmage in the first quarter. With how much they were motioning Robinson and trying to get the ball in his hands in space, there must be a moment of acknowledgment that Tampa Bay’s defense could read the concept from the snap and make a game-changing play.
Instead, Ridder pivots and bizarrely briefly turns his back to the play. While it does cause both linebackers to take a step to the left, he isn’t able to process that Davis instantly recognizes the design and shoots into the passing lane. Pitts does have to do far better in positioning himself or communicating with the receiver beside him on a quick pass where the opposing corner is ready to pounce into the backfield. That said, the coaching staff has to be more aware and can’t call redundant plays featuring unnecessary, potentially harmful aspects like Ridder turning his back to the intended target area on a quick dump-off.
Smith’s urge to construct more plays to get Robinson the ball in various ways has been evident over the past month. Whether it’s on misdirection in the running game or exploiting mismatches through the air, there is a genuine initiative to maximize the capabilities of the rookie phenom. This is a well-designed play to get your most explosive playmaker the ball toward the outside and compensate for a decimated offensive line.
Although they were shorthanded in the trenches, the centerpiece of their success was in the game, as Chris Lindstrom made a vital block to affect Lavonte David’s pursuit. His agility and desire to cover that much ground gave Robinson the necessary space to get downfield and be the dynamic creator that he is. Patterson deserves praise for staying in front of Britt to keep the outside clean for Robinson. From there, the prolific running back put a nifty stutter on Dee Delaney to gain 33 yards. It took time, but eventually, the coaching staff saw its commitment to using Robinson in a variety of ways come to fruition.
A Kyle Pitts Touchdown Special
This explosive play does greatly benefit from a coverage breakdown between Winfield Jr. and Davis. Playing three deep coverage, it’s to be expected Winfield Jr. gets more depth or Davis passes off Scotty Miller quicker and closes down Pitts on the out-and-up. This moment still deserves recognition despite the simplicity in it. Pitts should be more running vertical routes, especially from the inside. There is no reason why he can’t be utilized more as a pure wide receiver. Given how underwhelming the receiving corps has been outside of London, why not use a player who clearly possesses the talent to be a difference-maker as an all-around playmaker?
He runs the route smoothly and covers ground quicker than almost all tight ends. It’s also encouraging to see Pitts was the primary read on this play from reading Ridder’s movement. Between the intent to be more expansive with play calls designed for Pitts and how Smith helped provide added protection for a wounded offensive line with heavier protection sets, this touchdown goes far beyond a sheer miscommunication within the opponent’s secondary.
Kaden Elliss Masterclass
With Nate Landman out, there was added pressure on Elliss to take command as Andre Smith Jr. had barely seen the field all season. He did far more than handle play calling and leadership duties. He made plays all across the field and produced numerous stops against the run. Since the middle of October, Elliss’s performance has steadily improved. His play recognition is growing, along with closing down gaps and fighting off blocks. There was no denying his savviness and open-field tackling consistency.
The question was, could he be a difference-maker in a three-down linebacker role? That has been definitively answered with run stops like this one. His positioning is frequently on point, from his movement to his stance. He doesn’t shy away from taking on blocks and embraces contact. Most importantly, his tackling technique is stellar. This is a textbook linebacker stop from a surging player. He gets into the running lane, fights off the block, and wraps up with authority.
This fourth down stop exemplifies Elliss’ intelligence. Once Cade Otton motions to the left, he recognizes the play design with how Mike Evans is positioned. It has all the makings of a pin-and-pull concept with Evans crack blocking him. Elliss instantly changes direction and goes outside to set the edge on the toss. That prevents Rachaad White from being able to turn the corner. The rising star running back had no choice but to cut back inside after Elliss beat the block and got instant penetration.
Any chance of finding space cutting back inside is ended with Jessie Bates in hot pursuit. Two of the team’s smartest defensive players combine for an outstanding fourth down stop. This is one of best all-around defensive plays of the season from how astute and adaptable both players are in this moment.
One of the best things about Elliss’ overall game is his anticipation skills to split through blockers and shut down plays. White is looking to hit the cutback lane, but the former seventh round pick closes off a potential open gap. His knack for shifting and not allowing blockers to get a clean shot on him is apparent from watching him defend the run. Elliss is crafty, strong, and persistent in his pursuit.
This is another one of his many terrific run stops in this matchup. It felt like his presence was felt on practically every drive. That’s how outstanding he was when defending the run and handling man coverage duties against White and Otton. An entire GIF review could have been made off his performance.
Third Down Success
Ryan Nielsen’s defense held Tampa Bay to six of 16 on third down conversions. They started two for nine before picking it up in the second half. It was mostly total lockdown coverage in the first half, where the Falcons’ secondary shined across the field. A.J. Terrell had his best game of the season by shutting down Evans. After struggling with the future Hall of Famer for most of his career, Terrell played with great composure and positioning for the entire game. He maintained solid control when disrupting Evans’ release and not allowing himself to be overly grabby.
The coaching staff had him shadowing in the slot, which Terrell does a tremendous job of doing by destroying the route concept. Evans wants to go inside to set up a high-low concept, with Godwin going over the top. It can’t come to fruition because Terrell’s positioning and physicality ruin the spacing of the play. Given the issues Terrell has had matching up against Evans, particularly in the first meeting this season, his performance was extremely impressive and incredibly encouraging after what has been somewhat of an inconsistent season (by his standards) from the star corner.
Terrific coverage on the back end leading to a coverage sack has been one of the more common defensive methods for success. It comes from a combination of great man coverage from Clark Phillips and Richie Grant, with DeMarcco Hellams and Jessie Bates handling their responsibilities nicely. The defense is at its best when it can depend on the secondary to not allow any clear passing windows to force opposing quarterbacks to operate out of structure.
Baker Mayfield can get frantic when an opening isn’t there, especially when the pocket begins to collapse. Elliss is spying on him the entire way and times his burst brilliantly to force him to maneuver around the pocket. With nobody open and Elliss getting him off his spot, the former number one overall pick ultimately gets sacked by Kentavius Street.
Slashed By Screen
Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator, Dave Canales, is punishing opposing defenses with screens this season. His timing and personnel usage are usually on point with these designs. It also helps to have one of the better pass-catching running backs in White out of the backfield. The Falcons are playing man coverage with two safeties deep. They run a three-by-one set, where the screen is dialed up, away from the three to create more space. With Tre Flowers responsible for shadowing White, he gets caught out strictly focusing on his movement rather than how the play is being developed. It gives Aaron Stinnie a favorable angle to guide him away from making a tackle.
The design and execution are on point to where the safeties are the only players left able to make a stop. Bates takes a poor angle and gets left behind in the open field. Hellams is indecisive and ultimately takes himself out of the play with his positioning. Nobody else is around to make a stop, and the Falcons get caught out on third down after a dominant first-half showing.
Depleted Defense Feels It
After a strong all-around defensive performance in the first half, the entire unit began to wear down in the second half. Losing Street left the interior with limited options, as Ta’Quon Graham and Travis Bell were forced to play extended snaps. Both players are unable to create any push here, as Tampa Bay runs a backside pull with Luke Goedeke to crash in on Smith Jr.
With Elliss unable to close in on the open gap, Chase Edmonds finds plenty of daylight and accelerates into the secondary. Bates ends up having to make a potential touchdown-saving tackle. It was always going to be a tall task to stay firm defensively without several key players. The defense struggled to manage with backups playing important roles and failed to stop the run as the games wore on.
Final Drive Disappointment
Falling short on fulfilling details within coverages doomed Nielsen’s defense on the final drive. It started on a pivotal third down when DeMarcco Hellams decided to align himself inside to take away the middle portion of the field. As Bates is in his area playing two deep man under, Hellams drifts inside to potentially anticipate an inside post from Godwin. By doing that, he allows the outside to be open, which is dangerous when tasked to contain a sharp route-running hard-nosed wide receiver.
Dee Alford’s inability to properly front Godwin in man coverage will receive criticism, but Hellams has to do better in understanding positioning and coverage alignments. The lack of positional discipline ultimately costs the Falcons at a crucial moment. It also wastes a well-crafted and executed twist from Calais Campbell and Graham.
Grant has struggled mightily when isolated against tight ends in man coverage. Unless he pulls off a last-ditch swat or punch at the catch point, he is allowing intermediate to big completions more times than not. Positioning continues to be an issue with him, as he is playing outside in despite having help over the top with Hellams. While it can be argued the rookie safety could do more to provide support for Grant, it doesn’t justify how easily Grant loses leverage to allow Otton space on the corner route. He never looks well-positioned and gets penalized in the process of trying to get back into position.
The fact that this was a game-winning touchdown an even greater indictment on Grant’s poor man coverage skills. Otton was Mayfield’s first read, and the gunslinging quarterback was all set on throwing it up to him. There was no quick loss at Evans or Godwin. Mayfield knew the mismatch and targeted Grant in the red zone, where he knew the Bucs could win. First Trey McBride, now Otton. You have to wonder when the coaching staff will look to not put Grant in these scenarios in two-minute situations after two ugly losses.