The Atlanta Falcons never make it easy, and at least in recent years, they never put together a dominant effort against a bad team. When they’re losing, that’s beyond frustrating and the cause of endless angst, and for good reason. When they’re winning, it’s certainly more enjoyable, even if those alarms are still going off quietly in the background.
The truth is that we don’t know what the Falcons will do over their final five games, and this game didn’t really give us much in the way of clues. The offense was not good against a tough Jets defense, with Desmond Ridder’s touchdown pass to MyCole Pruitt and a smattering of quality runs and passes being the only moments really worth remarking upon for that side of the ball. If they can’t get Ridder to stop making mistakes—he threw an interception erased by penalty and was lucky/smart to recover a fumble on the first play of the game—and get some consistent efforts through the air and on the ground aided by blocking, effective running, and passing, they’re going to scuffle at times the rest of the way. Their only hope if they can’t get that going is the defense.
The good news is that the defense, unlike the offense, is a tale of resilience and grittiness worth telling. As bad as the Jets are, they still have a couple of high-end playmakers and could’ve gotten some lucky plays, especially with A.J. Terrell exiting early. Instead, the Falcons held them to just a pair of field goals, delivered some timely sacks and some huge turnovers, and generally played a stingy, quality game. When the dust settled, the Falcons won 13-8, the Atlanta defense had their second straight game without allowing a single touchdown, and they had the victory. It has too often required quality play or downright dominance from the defense to win this year, but as a longtime Falcons fan, I’m hardly going to complain about the fact that they keep making it happen.
The fact that the team finally had a little positive turnover luck—the penalty erasing that pick, the Dee Alford return fumble joining the Cordarrelle Patterson and Ridder fumbles in being picked up by the Falcons or knocked out of bounds—was the cherry on top for a successful day at the office. The fact is that it’s tough to be dour about winning, no matter what shape that win takes, and it remains all too easy to talk yourself into mild improvement here and there paired with the defense being enough to make the end of this Falcons season really interesting in a good way.
The Falcons now find themselves atop the NFC South by a wider margin, having won on a day where the New Orleans Saints lost to the Lions, and can stay there if they build on the way their offense performed against the Saints and the way their defense has played the past two weeks. That’s far from a guarantee—good Jets defense or not, the offense looked garbage-y Sunday—but the opportunity is decidedly there for this Atlanta team. Whether they can make anything of it, especially if they do flirt with the playoffs, depends on whether they keep playing half of a good game and getting away with it or discover something akin to a full game’s quality effort.
For now, dry off after that rainy game and let’s go through the full recap. A couple of wins in a row certainly feels better than three losses, right?
- After a painfully slow start, the Falcons finally got going after a fumble recovery in the second quarter, with some nice runs and Ridder escaping pressure to hit Kyle Pitts on a good sideline ball. The biggest play, though, was a Ridder end zone shot that a diving MyCole Pruitt came up with for a touchdown. It was a pretty good throw and an excellent catch by Pruitt, who is little-used in this offense, for a much-needed score to give the Falcons the lead. Ridder is good for a handful of those kinds of plays per game, and thankfully the best ones on Sunday were a touchdown pass and some key first down throws.
- Kyle Pitts was the intended recipient on the Ridder interception erased by penalty and he and Ridder had a missed connection at another point in the game, but this was one of his more consistent and productive efforts of the season. He finished with a team-leading 51 yards on four receptions and was easily Ridder’s favorite target of the day, especially over the middle, and he showed off his ability to make tough contested catches. This isn’t going down as Pitts’ greatest season—even the mishaps and a pair of penalties on Sunday lent a sour note to the proceedings—but it was a needed reminder that he can be that sure target over the middle that Ridder needs to lean on.
- Clark Phillips was forced into the game by the early injury to A.J. Terrell, and the returns were largely positive. One penalty couldn’t take away from the fine work he did in coverage and his toughness as a tackler, with an especially impressive job of hustling Breece Hall sideways and to the sideline on one play. While we’ve seen growing pains from the young cornerback in his limited stints, we have also seen considerable promise. I hope we get to see him more often ere long.
- Give Bud Dupree his praise for a nice two play stretch in the first quarter, and a great one later. On second down, he perfectly read the run play and blew into the backfield to drop Breece Hall for a loss. On third down, he then brought down a panicked Tim Boyle for a sack to decisively knock the Jets out of field goal range and force a punt. In the fourth quarter, a panicking Trevor Siemian hung in the pocket too long and Dupree both sacked him and forced a fumble, though the Jets unfortunately recovered it. A nice game for a player who has been close in the past.
- The Falcons needed some big plays early with the offense struggling, and they got one in the second quarter. With Clark Phillips bringing Breece Hall down, Nate Landman punched the ball out of his hands, forcing a fumble Dee Alford quickly fell on. It was a huge turnover and a needed one for Atlanta, and a team effort from a defense that is starting to find its way to big plays.
- Speaking of big plays, Jessie Bates had his fifth interception in this one, where he smartly positioned himself on a quacking duck from Tim Boyle that landed right in his arms. Bates has proven to be one of the team’s best free agent signings in recent memory, and plays like that just cement that fact. The fact that the offense didn’t do anything with that gift does not lessen the magnitude of it, and it’s fair to wonder if Bates will wind up among the top couple of players on the team’s all-time single season interception leaderboard by season’s end.
- Arnold Ebiketie delivered another big sack in the fourth quarter on third down, getting around the line very quickly and taking down Trevor Siemian for a big loss and forcing the Jets into a fourth down and very long situation. He now has the second-highest sack total for Atlanta in the last four seasonss—his 5.5 is second only to the 6 Grady Jarrett managed last year—and a chance to keep building on it over the final five games.
- Richie Grant’s forced fumble and sacked was a relentless play and one that showcased his savvy. His coverage misadventures have justifiably drawn a ton of scrutiny, but Grant can be a capital-P Playmaker, and his ability to slip around multiple defenders and hit Siemian’s arm to force that critical turnover is a display of his talent for disruption.
- Andre Smith Jr. scooping up that fumble and trying to house it was a good, heads-up play, and if the officiating crew erased it with an inexplicable whistle, that doesn’t erase the effort. Smith may be a player the team will have to count on soon if Nate Landman is hurt, so seeing anything positive from him in that limited stint late in the game was welcome.
- Bradley Pinion is a weapon most days, but on a sloppy, slippery New Jersey afternoon, he was predictably more of one. His punts stuck the Jets deep in their own territory repeatedly, and given the quality of the New York offense, that was the difference between long field goal tries for the Jets and punts. With an extremely heavy workload, Pinion was solid-to-very-good all day, and continues to be the kind of player the Falcons can rely on.
- Younghoe Koo is the man the Falcons rely on to get points when they absolutely need them, and unsurprisingly, Koo delivered against the Jets. He hit a pair of big field goals to give the Falcons a fighting chance on a day where the offense often stalled out; those points were unsurprisingly a margin between victory and defeat.
- Too often, the Falcons have been guilty of allowing new starters, starters returning from injury, and lousy quarterbacks to have quality days against them. In this one, the Falcons got Tim Boyle and eventually Trevor Siemian, and they forced three turnovers, managed four sacks, and held those two passers to a 50% completion mark, 214 yards, and no scores. There were momentary lapses along the way and momentary frustrations, but on balance this defense did what it could not do against Will Levis, Josh Dobbs, and Kyler Murray. The strength of that accomplishment is muted by the fact that it was Boyle and Siemian, obviously, but clearing a low bar is still clearing a bar.
- An opening play fumble for Desmond Ridder and the offense was about as bad of an omen as you could ask for—not that you would ask for it—and the following two drives were heavy on the lowlights, a theme that held throughout the game. The ground game never got going, the blocking was largely suspect, and the offense in general could not regularly take advantage of Jets turnovers and punts. New York’s defense is excellent, but 13 points (and two points for the Jets via safety) from the offense isn’t good enough most weeks regardless of the quality of the opponent.
- Ridder’s bad decisions don’t show up as big mistakes on the stat sheet, but they were still present in this game. He threw an inexplicable deep ball to Kyle Pitts late in the second quarter where Pitts would’ve had to work a minor miracle to reel it in and had a defender running ahead of him and it was picked off, but a penalty luckily erased that mistake. He also managed an intentional grounding earlier on the same drive, something we’ve seen from him a handful of times this year, and took a couple of sacks that weren’t so much unwise as they were goofy. He can’t just be a quarterback capable of fleeting great moments amidst a sea of mediocre-to-turnover-prone play, not when the team requires consistency.
- Backed up on the one yard line, the Falcons tried to get some breathing room with a Ridder dive, but on the next play the Jets blew up the run immediately and took Bijan Robinson down for a safety. Given the way the offensive line was struggling, the choice of play was a curious one in the shadow of the end zone, with the team clearly needing to get more room via the air or a quicker-developing run play and blockers getting immediately destroyed. Once again, the Falcons did not call the right play and did not properly execute the play they did call, a problem that has plagued them all season long.
- The lack of consistent pass rush early in this one was once again disheartening, especially against a skittish passer in Tim Boyle and a Jets offensive line with some injuries. Bud Dupree had his sack and there were a couple of nice plays by David Onyemata in particular, but generally speaking the team put the onus on coverage to get the job done for this Atlanta defense for long stretches once again. That simply isn’t going to work against everyone, and it was fortunate indeed that the Falcons started getting home late to seal the win and finished with four sacks, making this a more muted complaint than it would’ve been otherwise. A faster start against Baker Mayfield and company would be appreciated next week.
- Injuries took a bite out of key payers in this one, with A.J. Terrell exiting early, Jeff Okudah leaving late, and Kaleb McGary leaving the game with an injury, plus the late loss of Nate Landman. While Terrell and Okuah are likely dealing with short-term injuries, the possibility that the Falcons lost Nate Landman for a while is troublesome because it will force them to press Andre Smith Jr. into starting duty or add a player and quickly get that player up to speed. It goes without saying that no matter how simple the Falcons’ schedule may seem going forward, they aren’t good enough to weather many losses on this roster, so we’ll have to hope for good news across the board for those three starters.
- The Falcons only face shaky opponents the rest of the way, as I’ve noted. While I’ve appreciated the resilience and the wins these past two weeks, nothing about the way the team has played outside of the strength of the defense argues that we should expect them to have an easy time with the likes of the Buccaneers, Panthers, Saints, Colts, and Bears. I’d love to get off the roller coaster at some point, as would we all, but you should buckle up for every game to be maddening and close because that’s who the Falcons are. If they make the postseason, they’d have to show significant improvement over the final five weeks for any of us to believe that they won’t get their butts handed to them in the playoffs.
- Forget the accusations of bias that sometimes follow officiating crews around. This was just a poorly called game, with an increasingly incredulous booth thinking they had figured out that referees were going to call “ticky tack” penalties, only to watch them swallow their whistles for exactly those sorts of penalties later in the game. The calls were often questionable, the missed calls and missed plays were borderline egregious at times, and both coaches were angry for a good two quarters apiece over some combination of those calls and misses. Real banner day.
You can give it to the defense overall and I think it’s likely the way to go, but I’ll give Bud Dupree a nod for wrecking two drives entirely on his own, especially because he has been a player who got close without closing it out often this year. This defense has its truly great players, but they need big weeks from other starters and role players, and it was Dupree’s week to step up.
Atlanta can win games against the right opponents with its defense—and basically its defense alone—which is a striking change from the recent past for this football team.
The Buccaneers are coming to town next, with a chance for the Falcons to move to 2-0 against them and 4-0 against the NFC South for the season. If the Bucs win—and my tiebreaker math is correct—then Atlanta will drop into second place in the division. Never a dull moment around here.