The Falcons started 2-0, and while I tried very hard not to be lulled into a false sense of security, I did count on some sort of forward motion when projecting this week’s game. If the team could outscore opponents 27-0 in the fourth quarter for two straight weeks, then there were lessons they could apply from slow starts and strong finishes against a tough Detroit team down a few key starters. That’s why I predicted a high-scoring game for both teams, knowing the Lions had a dangerous passing attack and figuring Atlanta would come ready to exploit Detroit’s weaknesses.
Fortunately for Atlanta, their defense kept this one from being overly high-scoring, as they limited Detroit to just 20 points on the day. Unfortunately for the Falcons, that didn’t really matter, because 20 points was enough to beat Atlanta by two full scores, given that they scored just six points themselves. This was an indignity in between the 20s for a team that didn’t even sniff the red zone; it was every concern about the state of this offense set in gelatin and served up for a queasy audience to down with too-small spoons. We were force-fed bad Falcons football after two weeks that were much more palatable, and it was a lousy way to spend a Sunday.
You have to give credit to the Lions for this, as they ratcheted up the pressure all game and leaned on their excellent passing attack, and those both paid off in a major way. Desmond Ridder absorbed seven sacks, with a fairly even split between ones where hesitation cost him and those where he was lit up before he had a chance to scan the field. Jared Goff threw an interception and missed several throws, but he also was more than sharp enough against this Falcons defense to win the game easily.
The offense was obviously the bigger problem for the Falcons than the defense. If Atlanta was not 2-1 at the moment, having gritted their way to a big win over a banged up Green Bay team and having earned some early divisional headway with their win over a lousy Carolina team, we’d be ringing alarm bells. As it is, the fact that a quality-but-injured opponent was able to trounce them so thoroughly should give you pause if you were daydreaming about this being an elite football team. It has to give Arthur Smith and company pause, because this offense has been painstakingly built with big free agent dollars (Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary), draft picks (Bijan Robinson, Matthew Bergeron, Kyle Pitts, Drake London, and yes, Desmond Ridder), and to its current stature, and it has delivered inconsistent results outside of the fourth quarter and stretches of brilliance from Robinson and Tyler Allgeier to this point.
It should be obvious that the Falcons won’t have many Sundays like this, given how hard it will be for the average NFL team to stop Robinson and Allgeier for a full afternoon, and given that this passing attack has too many pieces to be this dreary. It should also be obvious that this team cannot survive any Sundays like this, because that in turn would threaten to submarine this entire crucial Falcons season if it persists. It’s worth remembering that it certainly did a year ago, when the team had a stretch where it couldn’t muster more than one 20 point effort in a string of seven games.
The reason I’m not willing to write this off as a bad Sunday, even if it looks like that after a rebound in Week 4 from Atlanta when they play the Jaguars, is that these issues are ones we legitimately fretted about in the offseason. The lack of a pass rush is a problem that limits the effectiveness of an otherwise impressive defense, while the inconsistency from Ridder, lackluster pass concepts from this coaching staff, and devil-may-care attitude toward pass blocking is creating mighty ugly stretches for an offense that has the talent to be good-to-great. The Lions exposed Atlanta’s weaknesses mercilessly for three hours yesterday, and the Falcons have to ensure that those weaknesses don’t come to define them if they’re to reach the lofty heights they and I have dreamt of throughout 2023.
The bright side and the perspective, if you need a little of either, is that this was a truly terrible effort by the Falcons that seems unlikely to repeat, and the defense was still quietly pretty good. It’s unlikely we see Atlanta play that poorly on offense more than maybe once more this season, and they are still 2-1 with good positioning not just in the NFC South but the larger NFC, especially with Dallas and New Orleans losing. Especially this early in the season, this can be an ugly setback rather than a defining moment. The Falcons just have much work to do in order to ensure that.
On to the full recap.
- A drop hurt his day, but Bijan is Bijan. He made something out of nothing on multiple carries and catches, and is a security blanket with a machine gun attached to it for Ridder and this offense more generally. The fact that he only touched the ball 14 times for 60 yards in a close game is a more than a bit inexplicable, especially given that he had just 10 carries on a day where Allgeier was stymied, but this will be the exception and not the norm for the gifted back. Atlanta just needs to remember that Bijan makes this offense sing when normally it merely hums.
- Jonnu Smith tied for the team lead in receptions with Kyle Pitts, which is encouraging target share even if both players took some big hits on short passes from Ridder on Sunday. As Aaron Freeman predicted in his piece on Friday afternoon, the tight ends were heavily involved in this one and combined to catch 10 of Ridder’s 21 completions for 78 of his 201 yards. Unfortunately, aside from that one missed connection on a deep strike, nothing was working downfield for the duo, and that continues to be a waste with Pitts capable of doing much more as a deep threat even if he and Ridder seem to not be on the same page early on.
- Grady Jarrett is still a beast. He was a force against the run throughout and delivered three quarterback hits on Sunday, and if those weren’t sacks they were still impactful plays for a consistent Falcon who has been a bit quieter in the early going. I expect more days like that from Jarrett going forward.
- I was happy with the David Onyemata signing, even if the past couple of years Saints fans seemed to generally agree he had slowed down a little bit. I figured he’d give Atlanta some solid defensive line play, which was badly needed.
Instead, Onyemata has been lights out. In this one, he made plays against the run, was one of the few difference-making Falcons as a pass rusher, and generally looked like the kind of impact defender the Falcons have badly needed up front. Free agency has been huge for this team thus far.
- That stretches to Jessie Bates, who had an ugly penalty—more on that later—but delivered a couple of big run stops and a huge interception to close out the third quarter and give Atlanta a fighting chance to make up a 10 point deficit. That’s three picks on the season for Bates, who has been one of the team’s impact defenders in the early going.
- And it extends to Kaden Elliss, who had some big hits and a tackle for loss in this one. Elliss is a physical and fast player—I switched the order there so you wouldn’t have to re-live a familiar slogan—who is starting to find his footing in the heart of this defense. He’ll be even more crucial if Troy Andersen, who exited the game with an injury late, has to miss more time.
- And it even extends to Bud Dupree, who turned it on in this one to deliver a big hit on Goff that disrupted a pass, plus a pass deflection and a few of the meager handful of pressures the Falcons scrounged up on Sunday. Dupree is capable of games like this; getting him going and getting more out of this group of edge rushers in general is going to be critical to keep Atlanta’s defensive renaissance going.
- Atlanta’s run defense did, as I predicted, largely make Detroit one dimensional. They allowed a handful of nice runs in this one—the 21 yarder for Gibbs late comes to mind—but mostly they were filling up gaps and disrupting plays, including an important 3rd and 1 to kick things off in the second half. The Lions are not a great team on the ground—not yet, anyways, and not without David Montgomery—but this was a confidence-boosting effort again for the Falcons on that front after slowing Green Bay a week ago even if they did ultimately allow over 100 yards on the ground. We’ll see if they can keep it rolling against Jacksonville, a team coming off a very tough loss to an inferior opponent in the Texans.
- Bradley Pinion is doing really fine work as a punter. In this one, he had one short punt that put the Falcons in a rough spot, but otherwise got the hang time and depth to make Detroit work for their points. It’s not an exaggeration to say this might’ve been uglier with a lesser punter.
- The Saints blowing a huge lead to also fall to 2-1 ensured the fallout from this was not too terrible, assuming you’re like me and not a big believer in what Tampa Bay is going to be able to do this season. It’s a one week reprieve, rather than something Atlanta can count on, but it was welcome nonetheless.
- Ridder just has to stay in a groove, something he’s struggling to do. The pass protection was not great and he was victimized by a couple of drops and Pitts’ limping route on that early deep ball, but the young quarterback also put receivers in harm’s way multiple times with his throws, held the ball too long and took sacks as a result, and just didn’t get this offense moving throughout the day. Even the late game settling in was missing, as he took the decisive sack and fumbled it to end things.
When Ridder is on, he delivers some sharp passes and can make plays with his legs, and there were too-brief moments in this one where he managed the former. When he’s off, he’s simply not accurate or decisive enough to pilot a plus passing attack. There’s a strong reflex to protect Ridder from unfair criticism in some corners of this fanbase and a very strong urge to bury him and move on in others, but the truth in the middle of all that arguing is this: Ridder has the potential to be far better than this and has shown flashes of that acumen, but the Falcons’ offense needs much more than he has been able to give them to this point. He has to get on track and stay on track at some point this season for the Falcons to get anywhere near their potential.
- Pass protection is going to be a struggle all season for the Falcons to some degree; the question is how much they can improve and how they can mitigate the problem. On Atlanta’s second drive, Ridder took back-to-back sacks, with the first one being entirely the line’s fault and the second one complicated by his hesitation. He would take seven on the day, and as I mentioned early on in this writeup, at least half of those can be laid at the feet of some embarrassingly poor blocking. Considering the Lions had just one sack in 2023 to that point, this was a discouraging effort for a line that has put their quarterback in harm’s way too often. Paired with one of their lesser days in run blocking, the line has some egg on their face today, and it’s not really clear what the team can do with a frequently scuffling Kaleb McGary in particular.
- The touchdown to Sam LaPorta was an unbelievable play, and not in a good way. I’m not certain if Richie Grant simply went the wrong way or if the rookie tight end was supposed to get picked up by Tre Flowers after my first watch, but the end result was that Goff took a big hit but delivered the ball to a player who was open by about 30 feet in every direction for a walk-in touchdown. Those kinds of lapses against a quality passing attack are just unforgivable, and they undid some decent work by the Falcons defense otherwise in the first half.
- Jessie Bates has been a great pickup for Atlanta, but his decision to make contact with Marvin Jones (who is washed, cooked, etc.) in the end zone on a ball Jared Goff had to launch into the stands was unbelievably frustrating given that the Lions would’ve had to settle for a field goal try otherwise.
- Atlanta just can’t start this slowly or stay this shaky. The passing game delivered some nice early moments, as I mentioned above, but the ground game was sluggish outside of one big Bijan Robinson run and the team continually gave the ball back to Detroit, who were able to take advantage. Once the pass protection began to fall apart and Ridder began to hesitate, that plus the defensive lapses and penalties had the Falcons on their heels and playing uninspired football, to the extent where I was actually relieved they got out of the first half down only 10 points.
An offense with the most exciting rookie running back in football, a bulldozing second year back who is capable of great stretches, multiple major investments on the offensive line, a quarterback they insisted they believed in, and compelling receiving options in Drake London and Kyle Pitts simply cannot score six points in a game against anyone, much less a Lions defense down a couple of key players that just allowed 30-plus points to the Seahawks the week before. While I pointed out that Ridder and the line need to be better, it’s also incumbent on the coaching staff to have this offense ready to roll early on in games, something they’ve utterly failed to do through the first three weeks of the season. There is more juice that can be squeezed out of what the Falcons have assembled here; Arthur Smith, Dave Ragone and company simply have to figure out how to make that happen.
- Koo is still drilling most of his tries, but he has now missed a field goal and extra point through the first three games. He missed five field goals and two extra points in the entire 2022 season, so this is not the most inspiring start for a kicker who usually is among the league’s most reliable. That miss, which came after the Falcons meekly settled for a field goal try early in the third quarter, put the Falcons in a tough spot even if it certainly didn’t decide the game.
- I don’t think he got tremendous blocking and his most productive return was called back, but I’m not feeling great about Mike Hughes as a returner right now. He averaged 3.7 yards on three punt returns and put up just 27 yards on two kick returns, contributing to the offense’s woes by not helping them get into quality field position. Getting Cordarrelle Patterson back on kick returns will help, but the Falcons may want to also consider a return to Dee Alford on punt returns if Hughes continues to scuffle.
I have a long-standing tradition of not giving out MVPs for games where the Falcons get smoked and there are no true standouts, and that continues today. The viewer at home or (heaven forbid) at the game who endured this is, as they so often are on shaky Sundays, the true MVPs.
The offense has to get better and more consistent for the Falcons to beat good football teams on a regular basis. That’s straightforward and I think non-controversial, but also anxiety-inducing.
The Falcons travel across the pond to face the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, which should be a hell of a game even with Jacksonville struggling. You can check out our buddies at Big Cat Country for more.