Laughingstocks. Embarrassments. Roman Empire cosplayers. It’s not controversial to say that the Falcons have been known in recent years for their late collapses and rougher efforts, underscoring how difficult the going has been for a team that has been through considerable change since they last saw real success. Heading into 2023, the Falcons had spent a lot of money and nearly three full years trying to build something that could withstand not just the NFL’s rigors, but also the awful weight of their recent reputation.
It’s only two games, but it certainly feels like that effort has been successful. The Panthers and Packers have taken sledgehammers and jackhammers and oil drills to this foundation, building leads and revealing embarrassing cosmetic cracks along the way. A lucky break or two has fueled this run—if one of those gimme interceptions from Desmond Ridder yesterday actually are caught this is obviously a different game, for example—but mostly this has been the Falcons staggering early and striding late. The additions of talent and the smart adjustments in the middle of games have managed to turn hideous starts into beautiful endings, and your Falcons are now 2-0.
There is plenty to be concerned about, from the state of the passing game writ large to the defense’s early struggles, but we won’t do much hand-wringing here because there’s so much to celebrate, as well. A victory is the ultimate goal in this weird, wild league, and the Falcons have now strung together two in a row to start the season for the first time since 2017 despite playing frustrating football for long stretches in both efforts. You can point to opponents having injuries or luck if you like, but the stark truth is that the Falcons would’ve gotten smoked in games with these efforts and this luck in past years. What has changed is the Falcons franchise itself.
There’s a level of talent and grit here that didn’t exist before, and it was on full display against the Packers. Atlanta went into that quarter and needing to effectively play perfect ball to claw their way back into it, and that’s more or less what they did. Green Bay was completely shut down and forced to punt, Atlanta came alive offensively and did big, bold things that were missing early in the game, and the team outscored the Packers 13-0 to win the game. We had grown accustomed to this team playing better in the second half—they were demonstrably a second half team in 2022—but this sort of superlative fourth quarter effort is new and exciting.
Falcons in Fourth Quarters this year…— Mike Conti (@MikeConti929) September 17, 2023
-Outscoring opponents 27-0
-Outgaining opponents 244-56
-Longest play allowed: 11 yards
-Two total penalties
-Ridder 10-12, 181 yards, 0 INT, 0 sacks
-7 for 9 on 3rd down defensively
I have no illusions about this team continuing to pull off the tightrope act against, say, the Jaguars or even the Lions, teams capable of pulling together a complete four quarter effort. It will take something more complete to beat them, in all likelihood, requiring a faster start from a team that wakens slowly. What I will say is that we have yet to scratch the considerable potential of this squad and have still seen them pull of consecutive victories against frisky opponents, especially the Packers, and the fourth quarter magic has been something to behold.
For a Falcons team with enough talent to make a serious run and clear challenges to work on, the fact that they’re 2-0 with so much improvement to realize bodes extremely well for the immediate future. Whether the Falcons can be more than an entertaining mid-tier contender this year will depend on how they address those challenges, but for the moment, winning late in thrilling fashion is certainly enough for long-suffering Falcons fans like...well, all of us.
On to the full recap.
- Desmond Ridder had a real roller coaster of a game, and we’ll address the shaky part of that later on. What was noteworthy was that after he threw a pick and the Falcons suffered a turnover on downs in the first half, they scored on four second half drives, with Ridder clearly settling in with his decision-making and throws despite a handful of hiccups. Long-term, the Falcons are hoping to get a more consistent effort from Ridder, but the fact that he can power through his early struggles, deliver some increasingly sharp passes, make plays with his legs like he did yesterday, and isn’t derailed by mistakes are good bellwethers for his growth. The Falcons have talked a lot about their belief in Ridder; you can see the why in those big moments where he rises to the occasion.
- Bijan Robinson, looking shifty and dangerous? I never. The electric first year back ran for well over 100 yards, reeled in four passes for for 48 yards, and generally looked like the most unstoppable player on the field for either team. It is one thing to be a very capable back who is a threat through the air and on the ground; it is another thing entirely to turn seemingly hopeless causes into first downs through some mixture of sorcery and skill. Bijan is exactly the kind of player he was purported to be coming into the league; given that he was favorably compared to Barry Sanders, that’s startling.
- You can see the weapons at work here in the Falcons passing game. Jonnu Smith looked to be a sure-handed option for Ridder, Kyle Pitts continued to make tough catches, Drake London’s size and route running played a major role for Atlanta in Week 2, and everyone from Mack Hollins to Bijan Robinson look like potent pass catchers. When Arthur Smith and company start to figure this thing out and Ridder looks comfortable early on, this passing attack could legitimately be lethal. Right now, it’s just intriguing.
- Let’s take a second to praise London, who didn’t catch a ball in the first game but led all Falcons receivers in the second. We saw a little bit of the yards after the catch magic he’s capable of and a little bit of the potent red zone wizardry he can work given his size and hands, and this is not the ceiling for London’s production given that he managed just 67 yards on six catches to go with his touchdown.
- Mack Hollins had a really good game. I thought the deep ball from Ridder was pretty on target on first look, but it was a bit short and Hollins made a great leaping grab on it in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown. His awareness on the touchdown-that-wasn’t earlier in the game was also stellar, as he tapped his toes and was so close to having a grab that was overturned on review. Pair it with his quality blocking and you have a frequently-doubted player who looks like a great fit at WR2 for this football team.
- Jonnu Smith was part of the gameplan this time, making three catches in the first half and showing an ability to be a consistent asset on short-to-intermediate routes. He tied for second on the team in catches and finished fourth in receiving yards, and given Ridder’s established preference for a sure-handed tight end to work with, Smith may get more work in the weeks ahead.
- David Onyemata has looked rejuvenated in Atlanta thus far. After a solid Week 1, he had a huge play on the opening drive, reaching up and deflecting a Jordan Love third down pass that ended a promising drive.
- Ryan Nielsen figured to find ways to get Kaden Elliss involved as a blitzer, and he did it to great effect early in this one. Elliss got into the backfield untouched on a crucial third down and sacked Jordan Love for an 11 yard loss, and we saw firsthand just how fast he can be when given a clear line to the quarterback.
- It may have been an uneven day from A.J. Terrell, but he played a critical role in preventing a Packers touchdown and ending a drive, even if he dropped a likely interception. There’s a reason the broadcast praise for Terrell is so outsized; despite those up-and-down efforts, he’s an absurdly talented cornerback who can clamp down on opposing top receivers and will be asked to do so frequently in 2023.
- The defense has simply been marvelous in the fourth quarter, and that’s a massive shift form the rest of the game. Over the past two games, the Falcons have allowed 34 points in the first three quarters and zero points in the fourth quarter, with pressure impacting quarterbacks, coverage looking excellent, and big plays abounding. That kind of late-game focus and acumen suggests the Falcons can do this for at least a couple of quarter per game; when that starts happening, this team will really be cooking.
- I give Arthur Smith credit, despite the uneven results from the offense early on, for making absurdly aggressive calls like the fourth down pitch to Robinson and the fake handoffs to Bijan that resulted in a bomb to Mack Hollins and a touchdown run for Ridder. This team has to figure out how to pass the ball and how to convert short yardage situations when everyone is anticipating a run up the middle with Tyler Allgeier or Robinson; defeating those expectations and trying to capitalize on the confusion that causes is a priority for the coaching staff. We saw them take advantage of the completely reasonable fear of Bijan on Sunday.
- Give the much-maligned and often unfairly maligned crowd of Falcons fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium credit, too. They were loud last week, and they were loud this week, forcing a delay of game on that opening drive that knocked the Packers out of field goal range and forced a punt. That would prove to be a huge moment, and the crowd noise harkened back to the best of the Dan Quinn days and the heights of the Mike Smith era. I love the enthusiasm.
- That Desmond Ridder interception was practically quacking, and it was not the only interceptable ball he threw. Ridder was getting hit as he threw on that early attempt, but the ball just floated out of his hands for one of the easiest interceptions you’ll see. He then threw a ball into the hands of Jaire Alexander and another one into the hands of Quay Walker; both were somehow dropped despite being easy opportunities.
Ridder’s ability to avoid turnovers was a big part of his selling point through the first few games of his career, and the number of risky or off-target throws in this one is something the young quarterback has to work out. I’m confident in Ridder having the ability to pilot this offense well and have had that confidence since he was drafted, a confidence the Falcons clearly share. This team just won’t be able to survive that much early shakiness from Ridder every week, and I think Ridder would tell you that.
- Nielsen had to be pissed on Jayden Reed’s touchdown catch, as the normally sound A.J. Terrell simply missed his tackle opportunity and Elliss couldn’t stop Reed short of the pylon to allow the touchdown. The broadcast made a point to say that the Falcons were focused on avoiding exactly those kinds of plays this week. Atlanta is far more talented than last year on this side of the ball, but missing tackles is still going to kill this football team, as it did on that play and the one where two tackles failed en route to an easy Green Bay score.
- The lack of a pass rush in this one was once again a concern, as the Falcons came away with just one sack and weren’t impacting Love very much throughout the first half of the game. I think this is a feature and not a bug of this Falcons team, so we’re going to grit out teeth and hope late improvement, rock solid fundamentals, and turnovers (which were absent Sunday) will get the job done on those days where Atlanta can’t harry a quarterback.
- Two costly pass interferences on the Falcons in this one; the first against A.J. Terrell may have saved a touchdown and led to no points, but the second was 43 yards against Tre Flowers and might’ve been an incompletion. That one hurt, given that it set up Green Bay for a score. Those were legitimate calls, but the overturned touchdown for Mack Hollins and the general state of officiating in this one were annoying.
- Atlanta has just 16 points in the first half of their past two games, and just 22 points through the first three quarters of their first two games. To put that in perspective, they have 27 points in the fourth quarter of those two efforts, and have allowed exactly zero points. The fact that they’re stellar in the fourth quarter is the furthest thing from ugly; the fact that they’ve been outscored 34 to 22 in the other three quarters is a bit more ominous. The Falcons need to be less reliant on those eye-popping finishes to win games going forward, lest they get burned when the late charge doesn’t materialize.
It’s Bijan Robinson. The best player on the field for either team Sunday, Robinson piled up over 150 yards on his own and made a number of huge plays for the Falcons, including that game-sealing fourth down conversion a lesser back would’ve almost certainly found themselves falling short on. He’s outrageously great, and the Packers’ inability to resist biting on fake handoffs to Robinson bodes well for this offense faking out teams all season long.
The Falcons are so far from a finished product, but they know how to finish games at a level we have only dreamt of for years now.
A road trip at last, after a month straight of home games split between preseason and the regular season. That game comes against a ferocious Detroit Lions squad, and you’ll want to check out Pride of Detroit for more about the upcoming opponent.