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Falcons vs. Panthers recap: Slow starts and hiccups can’t tarnish a golden win

Atlanta earns its first victory of 2023 by leaning on the run and a magnificent performance from a defensive addition.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons have some items to work on, and it showed. They needed big plays to bail out a defense that was allowing Bryce Young and Miles Sanders to move down the field with relative ease, and they couldn’t balance out an offense that was almost wholly reliant on the run. At the end of the third quarter, this was a tie game, one the Falcons of yesteryear would’ve probably lost. If we were lucky, maybe they would have won by a field goal.

These aren’t the Falcons of 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, or even 2018. Despite an underwhelming day through the air, the Falcons won 24-10 on the strength of timely turnovers, a defense that gained strength as the game went on, and an offense that ran well all day and found its footing late with one crucial big pass. Beating even a new-look Carolina team by two scores requires requires effort and excellence; if the Falcons came to it late, they still arrived.

What we saw in terms of strengths encouraged us. In the second half and the fourth quarter in particular, the pass rush was at least solid and the run defense was good, with coverage that forced many out-of-bounds Bryce Young throws. The ground game, split between nimble sorcerer Bijan Robinson and swift-footed bulldozer Tyler Allgeier, was effective-to-lethal throughout, and that was without Cordarrelle Patterson even suiting up. Special teams continued to be a positive factor, and even the passing game came up with the couple of bigger plays necessary to help close things out. The Falcons were tied up 10-10 at the end of the third quarter, then they scored two touchdowns in the fourth and didn’t allow a point to close this one out in style. Like last year, they were better late; unlike last year, they were good enough late to truly put this one away.

Of course, we can’t ignore where the Falcons fell short, given that it could be how they fall short in the future. If that big throw to Kyle Pitts late hadn’t happened, this would have been an underwhelming day from the passing attack, who turtled hard after a shaky start and chose to average something like three yards through the air in service of not getting Desmond Ridder clobbered. The defense more or less needed the turnovers that Jessie Bates repeatedly authored to ensure they stayed ahead in this one early on, given that the Panthers were marching. And the offensive line’s early struggles, “highlighted” by Kaleb McGary’s shaky play in the early going, gives one pause with some quality defensive fronts on the horizon.

Still, as it says in the title, a mildly tarnished victory is still a very welcome victory. The Falcons are now 1-0 and won by two touchdowns despite having played far less effectively than their talent suggests they’re capable of. They’re over .500 for the first time since the 2017 season, won their first Week 1 since the 2017 season, and truly have the league’s most terrifying rushing attack. The present is glowing and the future is bright so long as this team can address their mistakes, and if so, these Falcons are finally heading somewhere that’s worth going.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • It was not a stellar day for this passing game, which we’ll cover more below, but Desmond Ridder’s throw to Kyle Pitts to help set up the team’s final score was a great play. Needing to get it in between a pair of defenders, Ridder ended up placing it in a place where only Pitts had a good shot at it, and Pitts obliged by fighting through contact to make the nice catch. It was a glimpse of what can happen when Ridder can rip it downfield and the Falcons’ passing game isn’t seemingly intent on avoiding risk, as it was so often Sunday, and something I hope we get to see more often in the weeks ahead. The beauty of that extremely short-range passing attack, I suppose, is that the Falcons did not turn the ball over, either, but an offense that doesn't try to get the ball to Pitts downfield is not one I love.
  • Bijan Robinson looked good immediately, but he looked special on the first play of the second quarter. Taking a quick dump off from Desmond Ridder, Robinson left a defender on the ground, plowed through incidental contact, and turned on the jets to get into the end zone and score the Falcons’ first touchdown of the season. Every time he touched the ball there was a sense of infinite possibility, and more than once Robinson turned one nice block into a massive gain. He turned 10 carries into 56 yards and 6 catches into 27 yards and a touchdown, and Robinson looked much better than that stat line would indicate.
  • Tyler Allgeier didn’t turn into a pumpkin just because the Falcons drafted Bijan Robinson. His first three carries went for 45 yards, including a 19 yarder and 21 yarder to carry Atlanta past midfield. He continued to run well all game, and then punched in a touchdown to give the Falcons the lead back early in the fourth quarter before punching it another touchdown to put it out of reach. Allgeier finished the day with 75 rushing yards and 19 yards on three catches with that pair of scores. His physicality and seeming ability to absorb contact and speed up are tough to stop, and the Falcons look like they’ll be nearly impossible to shut down on the ground.
  • It was same old Falcons through the first two drives, until the Panthers went for it on fourth down inside the red zone. Atlanta’s big (literally) additions combined forces to stuff Chuba Hubbard hard and force a turnover on downs, the kind of beefy lad play we’ve craved from this team. Naturally, it was a revitalized and finally supported Grady Jarrett leading the way on that play. We saw that play out repeatedly—if not always—with timely run stuffs of Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard late, and it’s clear that once this front really gels they’re going to be a problem for opposing ground games.
  • Troy Andersen is still learning on the job, but he had a sack in this one and nearly had a second, with Lorenzo Carter beating him there by a half-second. The hope is that we see Andersen iron out the wrinkles and deliver nothing but the good stuff, but a couple of splashy plays represents a fine start.
  • Speaking of Carter, he had a sack and a fumble recovery on the day, the kind of big play contributions the Falcons sorely lacked a year ago outside of Carter. His value to this defense as a consistently available, consistently solid defender with a nose for the occasional big play is considerable value.
  • Jessie Bates is a killer. With Bryce Young backed way up on second down and looking to make something happen, he risked a throw over the field that Bates read the entire way, resulting in an easy interception deep in Carolina territory that finally set the Falcons up in scoring range. It was the kind of impactful play we dreamt of when the Falcons added Bates, and it didn’t take long for him to deliver.

Then he did it again in the third quarter, with Young once again trying it over the middle and allowing Bates to work his magic yet again. That and the subsequent penalty gave the Falcons excellent field position, and Bates was the hero of this one without question. Add in a forced fumble and I really don’t think there’s any question of who Atlanta’s best player was on Sunday.

  • Other defenders worth crediting included Kaden Elliss for being an active and sound tackler even if he wasn’t a pass rushing presence, Tre Flowers for holding up better in coverage even against a banged-up opponent than I might have imagined, Calais Campbell for looking good in more snaps than I would have anticipated, and the always stellar Grady Jarrett for coming up with a half-sack and looking like the kind of nasty run defender he has always been. The simple shift in aggressiveness and physicality for this defense is a big deal, and holding the Panthers to 10 points and coming up with several big plays matters even if they are hardly the most imposing opponent Atlanta will face.
  • Bradley Pinion just gets the job done. The Falcons brought back their 2022 punter for a reason, and that reason is the hang-time and ball placement on his punts. While a wild sequence helped a lot on the fourth down punt that saw Carolina start their drive from inside the 1 yard line, Pinion giving the returner no room and pinning him deep also made a big difference. He’s an asset for this very good Falcons special teams group.
  • I try to never take good kicking for granted, given that so many teams across the NFL are burnt by it. The fact that the Falcons can play for a 49 yard field goal and feel confident they’re going to get it to tie the game, as they did in the third quarter, speaks well to Younghoe Koo’s abilities and reliability.

The Ugly

  • The Falcons passing game looked hapless almost immediately. Ridder was sacked twice by Brian Burns on the first two drives, had a pass tipped that he ultimately caught himself, and endured a drop from Drake London and too many short-of-the-sticks calls. I’ve said all year that this team can win with Ridder being a capable game manager and can excel if he can provide more, but early game jitters from the young quarterback and a ultra-conservative gameplan following that made it clear the Falcons weren’t even interested in finding out what he could do on Sunday.

The stream of checkdowns and shorter passes in conjunction with that dominant ground game kept things moving in this one, but I don’t think anyone with this team would tell you with a straight face that that backs catching nine passes for 46 yards—just about 5 yards a reception—with only a whisper of involvement for Kyle Pitts and Drake London is how this thing is supposed to go regularly. Bluntly, the Falcons have two truly compelling weapons in the passing game; if the team can’t get them the ball, the offense is less effective for it.

Any sweeping statement about the coaching staff’s lack of trust in Ridder or the offensive line (which we’ll get to next) probably shouldn’t be made after one week, but we’d be foolish to pretend that a gameplan that came to favor passes that traveled three yards through the air is a winning one over the long haul. If this is a one week blip in service of unique circumstances, then it did the job and we can move on.

  • Speaking of London, having one target and dropping it while picking up a penalty for an illegal shift makes for a very frustrating Sunday, particularly after the rapport he showed with Ridder a year ago. That will change and change drastically, hopefully as soon as this coming Sunday.
  • The pass protection was a major factor for some of these struggles. Even if you make the argument that Ridder could have and should have gotten rid of the ball faster or made different decisions, he had Brian Burns in his lap on multiple occasions, largely thanks to a brutal first half performance by Kaleb McGary before the right tackle settled down. Derrick Brown giving Chris Lindstrom hell and picking up a sack where Ridder was essentially helpless did not help.

The lack of pass protection in the first half versus the adjustments and slight improvement in the second half does help to explain why the Falcons went from destroyed to a little more decent through the air, even if the run blocking was consistently excellent once again. McGary doesn’t lack for tough matchups this coming season—he’ll get Aidan Hutchinson in two weeks—so that has to be a hiccup for him for this team to really roll.

  • I don’t know if Arthur Smith will give us an indication as to whether it was the quarterback, the line, or both that prompted this team to run the ball inside Carolina’s 35 and settle for a field goal instead of going for it on 3rd and 5, or to throw a quick pass to a running back on 3rd and 22. All I know is that the fundamental lack of trust in the passing game to pick up big chunks of yards much of the game played a major role in the Falcons going 2 for 10 on third down conversions, the kind of number that would absolutely kill an offense that didn’t find themselves set up with excellent field position thanks to multiple turnovers.
  • The pass rush did start coming together late, which was welcome, but the lack of it through much of the first three quarters was a reminder that this team does not yet have the personnel to truly make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable for a full game. That will cost them at times this year, but then, the sheer number of useful players up front also guarantees that they should have better, more consistent performances than this.
  • The Falcons have been slow starters under Arthur Smith—I named it my biggest reason to worry ahead of this game—and the fact that starters sat out most of the preseason made many fans fearful that the lack of reps would lead to yet another slow start. Whether that was the reason or not, Atlanta once again fell victim to its worst tendencies, coming out of the gate sluggish on offense and looking flat-footed on defense minus a nice sequence featuring the Bates interception and a quick three-and-out.

The decision to sit starters in preseason will intensify the criticism here, but the Falcons started slow a year ago too with more work for those starters. This is something this team owes themselves to work out, given that it’s a rare game indeed where you can score seven points in the first half and win by 14.

  • Maybe this doesn’t belong here, but it should be noted that Week 1 is often ugly, and the Falcons were not alone in looking a bit off. The Vikings dropped one to a crummy Buccaneers team, the Bengals were completely helpless offensively against the Browns, the Saints barely eked out a victory in a game they looked extremely shaky in despite playing the feeble Titans, and the preseason powerful Steelers were utterly useless against the 49ers. This team has enough talent to win many games this year; we have to see whether they can keep up the smothering second half defense and frankly fantastic ground game and improve the moribund passing game. One of our uglier tendencies as NFL fans, myself very much included, is pretending we have all the answers after a single game when we very obviously don’t.

That doesn’t make this game’s worst moments any less ugly. The hope is just that they do not endure.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Jessie Bates, who was a one-man turnover machine responsible for some of the biggest plays of the day. The veteran safety could not have had a finer first game in Atlanta, and this is unlikely to be the last time he’ll appear here.

One Takeaway

Atlanta was this fundamentally off and won by 14 points, which tells an intriguing story about what they can be if they can clean it up.

Next Week

The Green Bay Packers, fresh off a dismantling of the Chicago Bears, are on their way to Atlanta. Be sure to check out Acme Packing Company for more on the Packers.

Final Word