Atlanta’s sad performance in front of a national audience reinforces impressions and creates new questions.
The Atlanta Falcons came into the 2022 season with low expectations, and for quite a while, have proceeded to exceed them. By the time Week 6 rolled around and the Falcons stomped the 49ers, bringing their record to 3-3, it seemed like the growth was a real, the coaching masterful, and the Falcons might squeeze an unexpectedly good season out of what was generally agreed to be a limited roster.
Four games later, the limitations have steadily become more pronounced, and the good times dried up entirely despite the wet conditions in Charlotte. The Falcons have gone 1-3 since the San Franciso game, with their only win coming courtesy of some absurd circumstances last time around against the Panthers. The crown jewel of this team, a ground game featuring effective blocking and the work of four capable backs alongside a swift quarterback, has remained the team’s most effective facet, but even that struggled for long stretches last night. When teams put all their focus into slowing the run and take advantage of the Falcons’ defensive weaknesses and inability to consistently punish opponents through the air, Atlanta has tended to lose. With weather and a short week added to the mix, the Falcons truly looked like what many national analysts thought they would be: One of the worst teams in the NFL.
Trend lines are becoming the thread of the webs this team is tangled in. They haven’t been able to pass consistently since the season began, and for the last month or so they haven’t really been able to pass well at all, making them one-dimensional to the point of comedy. Against a Carolina defense that prioritized the run and dared Atlanta to win through the air, they essentially didn’t do anything well, something other teams will surely be taking notes on. Defensively, stretches of solid play have consistently given way to missed tackles, blown coverage, and an inability to prevent the big play. Even special teams, a strength much of the year, has been a significant part of the problem in recent weeks.
The loss to the Panthers, which was the most dispiriting effort yet, showcased where all those limitations and iffy play get you. Carolina is a team that committed to a mini-fire sale, fired their head coach partway through the season, and has significant and at times debilitating limitations of their own. They were fresh off a horrendous loss at the hands of the Bengals and the Falcons surely knew that the Panthers were once again going to lean on D’Onta Foreman and sell out to stop the run, and in the end, none of that mattered at all. Atlanta just played exceptionally poor football and the Panthers cruised to a win that never felt as close as the score indicated it was.
While I frequently referenced the bye week all week owing to extreme schedule confusion, the Falcons do have ten days before they have to face the Bears to try to get back on track. During that time, they have to take a hard look at their quarterback position and play, the state of an offensive line suffering from attrition and lapses, and their ability to slow down opposing offenses, all in the name of trying to stay competitive in an NFC South that seemed to be theirs for the taking just a couple of short weeks ago.
If they can’t check off those items—a light lift, nothing to it, really—a team that has frequently talked about wanting to be competitive in 2022 is going to have to settle for making a serious run in 2023, when we’re expecting an influx of cap space and another season of experience from some of the young talent on this team to add up to greater opportunities. In the interim, the least they can do is ensure we don’t have to watch any more games like this one, where the Falcons may have hit bottom after a month of sliding downhill.
On to the full recap.
- Arnold Ebiketie, who seems to be waiting on a breakout every week, shared a sack with Dee Alford, a rare win for this pass rush. On a night where pressure was far more intermittent than the rain against P.J. Walker and the where Panthers focused on the run, Ebiketie provided a little welcome juice to the effort. Hopefully he can finish up the final stretch in 2022 with a few more big plays to make it clear what his 2023 ceiling can and will be.
- Damiere Byrd once again effectively served as one of the team’s preferred options in the passing game and one of Mariota’s most trusted connections, reeling in a team-high 58 yards on three grabs. He’ll continue to be part of this passing game as the third receiver, regardless of what happens at quarterback, but the rapport he and Mariota have forged is one of the few bright spots for this passing game right now.
- Credit to Drake London and Olamide Zaccheaus, as well. OZ is just a reliable option, coming up with a couple of important grabs per week, while London led the team in receptions and also made a nice leaping touchdown grab. With KhaDarel Hodge also chipping in his first career touchdown and a pair of grabs, Atlanta’s receivers were more of a boon than a problem after a week of struggles against the Chargers.
- Caleb Huntley was very effective on limited carries, even behind a line that didn’t block particularly well most of the night. His role may stay small with Cordarrelle Patterson back and Tyler Allgeier getting a fairly heavy workload, but you can feel confident he’ll make the most of it.
- In the end, we’ll likely remember that Darren Hall and Dee Alford didn’t catch their respective interception opportunities, but they were in positions to get them. Nobody loves the almost notes, but with so many coverage struggles in recent weeks, I’ll give both players their due for those plays and a few noticeably solid plays in coverage, which may be grasping at straws but matters for the future, given that both players will likely have at least significant reserve roles the rest of the season and into 2023.
- Grady Jarrett, Timothy Horne, and Abdullah Anderson all had their solid plays up front, creating the small handful of negative plays for Carolina on the evening. Horne in particular has caught my eye over the past few weeks, as he appears to be gaining confidence and playing solid run defense.
- Colby Gossett has held up well in spot starts, but not on Thursday night. He was called for holds on back-to-back plays in the first quarter and had breakdowns as a run blocker and in pass protection, the kind of forgettable night that might have Atlanta shopping for depth or taking a hard look at their practice squads options if Elijah Wilkinson isn’t returning soon.
- The offensive line just didn’t fare well. It felt like every runner was confronting a defender or two in the backfield, a problem that plagued Patterson and Mike Davis in 2021, and that made life more difficult for the ground game in general. Pass protection was perhaps an even bigger struggle, as Mariota was absolutely destroyed in short order a couple of times owing to missed blocks—one by Kaleb McGary looked particularly egregious—and pressure that certainly forced the quarterback to move more than anyone would have liked.
There aren’t big personnel changes coming—the biggest will be Wilkinson coming back when he can—but it’s not clear the Falcons can get out of their current line woes without just getting more out of who they have. I would put the chances of that happening as…well, slim, unfortunately.
- Marcus Mariota just looked lost, partly a product of pressure and partly a product of trying (to loosely quote the quarterback himself) to provide some kind of spark. He threw multiple balls into traffic in the first half, coming frighteningly close to being picked off at least twice, and then ultimately threw an interception when the Falcons were down 10-0 in the second quarter. He would rally to set up a field goal drive to end the first half and managed a couple of quality touchdown passes in the second half, but even the modest box score numbers do not really do justice to how poorly things went. The lasting image of Mariota from last night will likely be him barrel rolling through the air and inexplicably tossing one up that would have been picked off had he not touched the ground first.
Mariota’s scrambling was on point as always, but his work as a passer has been inconsistent all season and has cratered over the past two weeks, with the Mariota-to-Pitts connection becoming an active liability for this passing attack. Given that he’s taking sacks he doesn’t need to take, throwing ill-advised and off-kilter passes, and adding fuel to this passing game’s woes, the Falcons need to spend the next 10 days deciding whether they’re going to turn to Desmond Ridder. If not, it’s incumbent on the team and Mariota to figure out how they can avoid efforts like this, because even with the pass protection standing out as a major problem, this team is utterly failing to take advantage of their opportunities through the air.
- I understand why the Falcons were out there passing, given that the ground game was frequently stymied and Carolina was putting defenders up front and effectively asking Atlanta to throw the ball. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t a banner day for the ground game, which frequently had to deal with backs getting hit before they got back to the line of scrimmage. It was a 2021 throwback effort.
- This was the second effort in two games against Carolina that was unbelievably lackluster for the run defense. D’Onta Foreman and the offensive line for the Panthers just seem to have Atlanta’s number, as Foreman has gone for over 250 yards over that two game span and the Falcons have let P.J. Walker, Laviska Shenault, Raheem Blackshear and others chip in effectively too. For a run defense that has been that side of the ball’s relative strength in 2022, Carolina’s outsized success is worrying, especially with Justin Fields, David Montgomery, and Khalil Herbert up next.
- The passing defense got off relatively easy, given that Walker missed a couple of throws and didn’t pass all that often, but they still had their misadventures. Rashad Fenton struggled mightily in his first game action on defense, and at one point Laviska Shenault’s touchdown romp was enabled by two defenders running into one another. It was miscues and mishaps for a defense that can’t afford them.
- I said recently that Younghoe Koo might be in the midst of a down season, something that happens to even great kickers every now and then. While the rain and wind were likely a factor against Carolina, I think the fact that he missed two extra points after converting something like 70 in a row indicates Koo might be in a bit of a slump, especially considering he’s missed a few field goals this season. He has been reliable enough over the past couple of seasons to assume he’ll break out of it, but this Falcons team is struggling enough without their kicker also scuffling.
- We knew this team was coaching their way to victory early on and getting by to some extent on smoke and mirrors, but it’s still depressing to see it all come crashing down. The Falcons just didn’t have answers on either side of the ball for what was ailing them, and while that has a lot to do with talent and execution, the Falcons were able to squeeze more juice out of the orange with smart play calling much of the year. Coaching no longer seems capable of elevating the team enough to earn victories, especially on defense, and that’s a grim harbinger for the rest of the season if it doesn’t change against Chicago.
Nope, not this week.
I said this past week that the Falcons have a passing game problem, and that’s still true. On a day where Carolina sold out to stop the run without consequences while the defense at least did a decent job, the Falcons either have to consistently pass the ball effectively or resign themselves to losing most weeks.
The Bears, who have finally figured out what Justin Fields is good at and are starting to cause fits for opponents. It’s going to take some stellar preparation by the Falcons to contain him next Sunday.
I spent the entire week thinking Atlanta’s coming up on their bye but they are not, so I apologize for several very confusing bye week mentions on my part this week.