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Falcons vs. Panthers Week 15 recap: Running out of road

High hopes have been extinguished and the Falcons have hit bottom with three games to go, and the season appears to have all but hit its end.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons were lined up to take a step forward, what with their investments in defense and their significant investments on offense. National types and many Falcons fans shook virtual hands and agreed this summer that this was a team on the rise, and after a big money free agency period and three years to think about how personnel and scheme could be wed to generate something bigger and better than 7-10, it seemed likely that at least modest improvement was in the offing for Atlanta. I was among the many who set my sights considerably higher than that; I predicted 10 wins and a playoff berth.

Maybe the Falcons finish 8-9 or even 9-8—it’s not easy to believe that at the moment—but this is not the improved team we hoped for, taken as a whole and looked at over the course of the whole season. Torpedoed by the mistakes of their hand-picked quarterback, failing to generate much in the way of rushing or passing production on a consistent basis despite an offensive-minded head coach and three top ten selections among their weapons, asking a good defense with a limited pass rush to be a great one despite attrition and exhaustion, and seemingly picking the wrong play at the wrong moment all too often, these Falcons have been unable to chain together quality efforts and take advantage of outrageously favorable circumstances. Early in the year they faced lackluster opponents who were banged up, they have the league’s easiest schedule, and they play in the league’s weakest division. While some of their free agency acquisitions and draft picks have been stellar, as a collective whole none of this has added up to what it should have added up to.

In this one against the lowly Panthers, the Falcons did their usual defensive magic for three quarters and the offense did its usual frustrating mucking about for three quarters, but it seemed like the fourth quarter might turn for Atlanta. I should stress that this was sort of my basement-level expectations for the game, that it would be a defensive battle in the driving rain and Atlanta would find their way to a win late. It seemed as though it might happen, as the Falcons were driving and within field goal range, with 10 points potentially being enough to beat an awful Carolina squad. This despite an earlier Bijan Robinson fumble and Atlanta failing to do much of anything offensively outside if one big drive.

That was when Desmond Ridder made a nifty move to escape a would-be sack. He had a seemingly open Drake London, a bit of room to run, and the chance to throw it out of bounds if he didn’t like what he saw; instead, he threw a laser right to a Panthers defender. On the following drive, a tired Falcons defense broke down yet again at the end of a game, something they’ve done regularly in recent weeks, and allowed the Panthers to march down, exhaust the clock, and kick the game-winning field goal.

The Ridder play, really, was emblematic of what ails this Falcons. There is talent here and the pieces seem like they should fit together, and there are moments when Ridder leaves a defender behind or Bijan dusts a linebacker or the defense comes up with an amazing stop. When the moment is a major one, when the win has to be had, it’s Ridder making an unforgivable mistake, Bijan fumbling it away, or a defense that plays so well for so long collapsing. Losing to the 1-12 Panthers in a rain-soaked day almost feels like it takes genuine effort; Carolina had flirted with knocking off the Buccaneers and Saints, but only the Falcons are shambolic enough to actually lose to this team.

Now 6-8, the Falcons are probably toast, having run out of road that doesn’t lead directly off a cliff or down a shabby side road that doesn’t go anywhere particularly inspiring. They don’t have the talent to overcome the injuries that have piled up, the acumen to avoid the costly mistakes that a team that likes to play games so close cannot afford, or the answers for the problems that have plagued them all season long. They are a mess, a mess coming off the one loss they could not afford to tally, and the questions about Arthur Smith’s job status will justifiably pop back up after insiders have suggested he was safe barring the kind of collapse we appear to be watching in real-time. The Falcons are a disappointment, full stop, and for all the pieces they have to build on and positive momentum for the defense, it is beyond obvious that going into next year expecting growth from what they have assembled would be tantamount to punting the 2024 season. The Panthers loss only cemented what we’ve been talking about, with growing urgency and frustration, throughout this season.

There are three games left, and while I’d welcome some signs of life that make the end of this season bearable, it shouldn’t make a difference in what Arthur Blank elects to do with this team in the offseason. The Falcons stuck with something that was not working far too long just a few short years ago, and the lesson that has to be learned from that is that a team that squanders talent and opportunity like this needs significant changes to rise above where they currently stand. If the team settles for running it back with Ridder and Smith, in particular, without bolstering the coaching staff and adding legitimate competition for Ridder at minimum, it will be hard to take the 2024 Atlanta Falcons seriously no matter how good the offseason looks. It wasn’t supposed to be like this—we were not supposed to be here—and the priority has to be the Falcons getting out of the mud somehow before a decade has gone by without a winning season. We are getting depressingly close to that outcome, after all.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • The Jonnu Smith grab was a thing of beauty. It was an excellent play design to spring Smith, a nice catch and trademark rumble from a player who hasn’t been as heavily utilized in recent weeks, and a solid throw from Desmond Ridder. That added up to a 56 yard gain that set up a simple touchdown for Atlanta two plays later, and was the kind of big play this team desperately needed after an early afternoon of rain and punts. It was the sole touchdown of the day.
  • Kyle Pitts made the most of his targets again, reeling in a couple of next catches and making an underrated effort on a key third down catch where he was short of the sticks to power his way to a first down in the fourth quarter. He and Drake London only combined for five catches for 61 yards, but all of them were clutch grabs.
  • On a day where the ground game was once again pretty useless, Tyler Allgeier at least kept things moving forward in a positive direction, with 14 carries for 45 yards on the day and a handful of nice runs. His physicality was welcome in the rain, and it was a striking contract to Bijan Robinson’s numbers (1.6 yards per carry and a fumble; 11 total yards) and Cordarrelle Patterson’s stats (-.4 yards per carry).
  • DeMarcco Hellams is proving to be a very capable open field tackler. In this one, he made a couple of key stops that otherwise would’ve turned into first downs, zooming to the ball and making a tricky one-on-one tackle. The team’s confidence in the young safety seems to be growing, and with those opportunities we’re mostly seeing excellent things from Hellams. The fact that he started this one in place of Grant clues you into the team's long-term plans for him, assuming Ryan Nielsen is still here next year.
  • Calais Campbell was disruptive throughout the day, and he was also able to clean up some Arnold Ebiketie pressure for another sack. With injuries stacking up quickly on the defensive line, the fact that the oldest player in that group is not only still healthy but still playing at a pretty high level is a testament to just how good Campbell is.
  • Give LaCale London some credit, too. With David Onyemata out and London returning to game action, the team badly needed him to do well, and he delivered. Throughout the first half in particular, London was wreaking havoc that enabled other players like Nate Landman and Kaden Elliss to get a free shot at the ball carrier, and they took full advantage.
  • It was nice to see Zach Harrison get a sack after a couple of close calls earlier in the year. On this one, Bryce Young was trying to make something happen by rolling out, but Harrison saw him and made a beeline for the quarterback instead of trying to play it safe and took him down to end any hopes of a Carolina touchdown drive at the end of the half. It was a big, heads-up play for a young player the Falcons are hoping will be a fixture in the rotation down the line. His fourth quarter tackle for loss when the Panthers were knocking on the door was huge, as it wound up helping to hold Carolina to three points.
  • Finally, Ta’Quon Graham got in on the sack party, with a huge play that included a forced fumble in the third quarter that Carolina was fortunate enough to recover. It’s fair to wonder what a recovery for Atlanta might’ve meant, but that way lies madness.
  • The Falcons were gashed for a few frustrating big runs by Chuba Hubbard and (mysteriously) wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who had one carry coming into this game and finished the day with four carries for 31 yards. In between, the Falcons regularly bludgeoned the Panthers, with LaCale London and Campbell creating lanes that Kaden Elliss, Nate Landman, and Lorenzo Carter took advantage of to pile up tackles for loss. The run defense has not been stellar in recent weeks and wasn’t truly stellar Sunday, but they had more positive plays than negative ones.

The Ugly

  • The ground game was supposed to be the aspect of the offense that the team could lean on during a rainy day in Charlotte, but that’s not really how it worked out. Tyler Allgeier was the only one consistently getting any kind of yardage in the first half, with Bijan Robinson picking up one nice carry and at least contributing a good block before he just fizzled out and ultimately fumbled, a costly play. The team finished the half averaging about two yards a carry, and it was little wonder that Atlanta’s lone touchdown of the half came on a pass set up by a long pass. The trend continued in the second half, with carries going nowhere, including an ill-fated 3rd and 8 try where the team dialed up a left-side outside run despite having cashed in their previous seven such runs for just 15 yards. The team seemed intent on committing to the run on long second and third downs, especially early, to try to settle up manageable fourth downs on a rough day with wind and rain. Instead, they largely floundered.
  • Desmond Ridder avoided disaster despite multiple plays that could’ve been turnovers, including a pair of botched snaps between the quarterback and Ryan Neuzil, but his luck caught up with him in the fourth quarter. Having escaped pressure and with some room to run and at least picked up a modest gain, Ridder instead tried to rip a throw that was right to a Panthers defender for an interception deep in Carolina territory. A would-be scoring drive turned into a turnover, and once again Ridder showed that he can deliver big plays and big drives, but his inconsistency and awful decision-making doom him and this Falcons offense at exactly the wrong moment. This time, it’s not an exaggeration to say he lost them the game, and the sheer number of bad decisions and big turnovers have likely ensured he won’t get a shot to return as this team’s starter.
  • That Bijan fumble was awful, too. He turned eight touches into 14 yards yards on the day, dropped a pass, and gave away the ball away yet again. I recognize the weather was a factor, but Robinson’s fumbles (three on the year, the second-highest total on the team) have been spectacularly ill-timed. Robinson has looked truly special at times this year, but in moments like those and when the blocking fails him as it did Sunday, things have been less rosy.
  • The weather was undoubtedly a factor, but there were two botched exchanges between Ryan Neuzil and Desmond Ridder on Sunday. The Falcons were lucky to recover both of them, considering the potentially catastrophic consequences if they had not, but those are the kind of sloppy moments that have plagued this team all season and set up drives for failure.
  • The run blocking has been horrendous the last two weeks, in defense of Robinson and Patterson in particular. The absence of Kaleb McGary, Drew Dalman, and then Chris Lindstrom Sunday made the Falcons less willing and less able to run effectively to the right, but their efforts to go left regularly stalled out in the middle part of the game after a couple of productive early runs. This team badly needs its line to get healthy, because the absence of some of their best linemen has been keenly felt the past couple of weeks.
  • I still think Clark Phillips did fairly well in coverage much of the day, but it was a tougher day for him with a defensive holding call at a bad time, a couple of coverage lapses, and so forth. I’m a big believer in Phillips, but not every day will go smoothly, and this was an unfortunately timed reminder of that.
  • The defense’s late lapses have now become a habit. The absence of key pieces certainly plays a role there, but it hardly explains how the Falcons do such a good job up until the end of the game and then surrender long scoring drives with time winding down. This was a particularly rough one to watch, given that the Panthers offense should not be capable of that kind of clock-grinding, field-spanning drive in the first place. It goes without saying that you should win any game where you only allow nine points, so the defense is not carrying the lion’s share of the blame for this loss. That late habit is still a big problem for a team that can’t get it done on offense.
  • Micah Abernathy somehow picked up two false starts on Bradley Pinion punts, and against a less putrid offense, that might have proven costly. Fortunately, it was the Panthers, and nothing bad happened with their improved field position.
  • Pinion did solid work as a punter on the day, but he did have a couple of short ones and kicked the ball out of bounds on the opening second half kickoff to give the Panthers excellent field position. Those lapses can be costly when the defense has so much work to do, as they did Sunday.
  • The fact is that the Falcons were largely doomed by errors of execution, a common theme for them, and less so the coaching staff may weigh in Arthur Blank’s evaluation of this loss. But the fact that this team has now suffered two straight awful divisional losses, this one to a formerly one-win team, and seem to be rickety and regularly caught off balance still reflects poorly on the architects of this team on the staff and in the front office. I don’t know that Arthur Smith will lose his job at the end of this season, even after all this, but I think nothing has put that in doubt like this loss. It is such an awful defeat and the season has been so frustrating in such a crucial year for the franchise that it has to have the higher-ups in Flowery Branch wondering if this current plan and current incarnation of the Falcons can be salvaged without major changes. If Smith returns, it’s likely to be with some significant personnel changes—quarterback near the top of the list—and likely hires for his staff that will be aimed at addressing how disappointing this offense has been in particular.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

No.

One Takeaway

This team is too inconsistent and error-prone to count on, even in the simplest matchup, and it has been that way to an extent and for a duration that make it impossible to pretend otherwise.

Next Week

The final home game of the season against the improving Colts, a game that the Falcons must win to even have a half of a prayer of keeping the season alive, which increasingly seems like a very tall task.

Final Word

Oof.