The Falcons turned a game defensive effort and shaky offensive one into their first win of the 2021 season.
The Falcons don’t make anything easy. No matter how long you’ve been a fan of this team, you’re well aware that wins don’t come easy and losses are agonizing, so you find your enjoyment in those brief stretches where Atlanta surprises you.
This was one of those games. I expected the Falcons to win going in, but I also feared they’d lose because of their continuing offensive ineptitude. In the end, Atlanta was incredibly shaky on that side of the ball, but they did just enough there coupled with Giants injuries and a legitimately tough defensive effort to win. It was ugly, I was unhappy throughout most of the game, but after all the hand-to-hand fighting and crummy play they did win. That’s something, however tenuous, that this team can build on.
Making sweeping generalizations about this game would be a mistake. I expect the Falcons to feel good about it, break it down and figure out what they have to do to survive against Washington, but for fans there needs to be a recognition that the Giants lost multiple contributors in this one and were outrageously sloppy en route to the loss. The positives here matter, in terms of the defense taking advantage of their situation and the offense doing just enough to squeak out a win, but they won’t be enough to earn many additional victories this year. Atlanta needs to take their big win, plant it and grow so they can deliver more wins and this won’t prove to be just a happy fluke.
To do so, a freshly bearded Arthur Smith will need to get more out of this offense. I swung wildly between blaming Smith, Matt Ryan, his receivers and his offensive line for their nearly game-long ineptitude, but it’s clear Atlanta could’ve salted this one away a lot sooner had the offense been capable of doing anything consistently well. That falls on many shoulders, but given that Smith was hired to be the offensive guru this team has lacked since peak Kyle Shanahan, it falls heaviest on him. Atlanta did give us something to celebrate with their final drives, wheeling their way downfield for a touchdown and game-clinching field goal
The defense, meanwhile, took advantage of a shaky matchup with injuries piling up and largely forced Daniel Jones to settle for less. That was enough to keep them in the game until the end and allow them to win it, and the Falcons will have two relatively straightforward matchups in Washington and the Jets the next two weeks for Dean Pees and company to build on. There’s work to be done on both sides of the ball, but the defense feels like it’s closer to putting consistent efforts together, especially because they got the job done today without A.J. Terrell and have those easier matchups approaching.
The Falcons are going to be a work in progress all season long. Whether that’s a half-finished painting by a drunk Bob Ross wannabe when we get to Week 18 or something beautiful by a flawed but gifted artist remains to be seen, but the work is the only way to find out. Getting something that wasn’t horrendous on the canvas was a nice first step, and I hope that they’ll find their way to more success against the Washington Football Team a week from now. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Falcons have fixed everything—or maybe even anything—because they won.
On to the full recap.
- Let’s start with a headliner: The Falcons seemed more disciplined in this one, and they did indeed wind up cutting down on their penalties. On a day where the Giants managed eight such penalties and the Falcons had just four, that wound up mattering a great deal, and it’s nice to see those mistakse trending in the right direction given how small Atlanta’s margin for error really is.
- T.J. Green largely had to get the job done against backups, but then, he’s a backup. Outside of some early struggles, I thought Green held his own in this one, and did more than enough with A.J. Terrell out to remain a valuable reserve for this Falcons defense going forward. That’s a hell of a success story for a player who hung on through a change in coaching staffs and clawed his way into a role, but it’s a welcome one.
- Grady Jarrett rules. With the Giants threatening to score, Jarrett effectively ended the drive by knifing through the heart of the New York offensive line and taking down Daniel Jones for an 11 yard loss. Jarrett does good work almost every week, but with such an obvious mismatch, he was an absolute monster.
There’s a significant caveat to his performance below, but I don’t think it should erase the fine work he regularly does. The next great Falcons defense will, I hope, be anchored by Grady Jarrett, and he’s a big part of the current decent one.
- Dante Fowler is doing everything we hoped he’d do when he was signed last year. In this one, he tipped a pass and stripped the ball out of Daniel Jones’ hands on the last Giants drive to help back New York up and put the brakes on their offense. He’s certainly looking more lively and consistent as a pass rusher, and the Falcons need him to be in order to make any tangible progress on defense in 2021.
- Isaiah Oliver continues to play quite well in this role for this defense, building on an improved 2020. He put his mark on this one with quality tackling, but most importantly, with an aggressive strip and fumble recovery against Evan Engram late in the second quarter. Sometimes it’s about the opportunity you’re given and the team you play on, and Oliver has finally settled in to a spot where he’s a consistent asset.
- Matt Ryan’s going to get a longer writeup down below, but he was once again really sharp on a couple of drives, and this time it was enough to get the Falcons the win. The glimpses of what Ryan can do in this offense when everything’s clicking have been really tantalizing, even if we haven’t seen any kind of downfield attack come together, and we’ll hope one of these weeks we’re seeing a vintage Ryan tearing through defenses for four quarters.
- This was another really good Foye Oluokun game. You consistently saw him around the ball, either narrowly missing tough tackles after a great pursuit or making the plays he needed to. He’s going to land a quality contract somewhere with a fine season, and given that he seems eager to make a play and is among the team’s most effective tacklers thus far, it may well be here.
- Lee Smith has been a quality blocker, but he’s also been more involved as a pass catcher in this offense than he has any right to be. In this one, he not only grabbed a short pass early in the game, he also scored a touchdown late to help the Falcons tie things up. I love it when a block-first tight end surprises, so I loved that one.
- Cameron Nizialek bounced back in a major way. He routinely pinned the Giants deep in their own territory, allowing the defense to allow a boneheaded big play or mistake per drive and still largely put the brakes on New York in the early going. He showed more than enough to keep this job, and I’m rooting for him to blossom the same way Matt Bosher did after an ugly start to his 2011 season.
- Cordarrelle Patterson does a little bit of everything well. He’s a capable runner, a capable receiver and still excellent on special teams, as he showed when he made a heads up play to down a ball within the 5 and set the Giants up for an unproductive drive. If there is one offseason addition who is fully and unquestionably worth it thus far, it’s CP.
He finished this one with 82 yards through the air, 20 on the ground and a couple of solid kick returns that would’ve turned out better had he benefited from better blocking. The team risks overusing him on the ground, where he’s most valuable as a change-of-pace option for Mike Davis, but there’s no question he benefits the Falcons on offense and special teams.
- Olamide Zaccheaus had a tough drop, sure, but he also reeled in 3 catches for 32 yards and a touchdown in this one, delivering at key moments for the team. With Russell Gage out, the Falcons needed him to step up, and on a day where Kyle Pitts was missing in action consistently and Calvin Ridley mostly was on the receiving end of short passes, he did the job he needed to do.
- Mike Davis continues to fight for yardage despite infrequently getting any real room to run and keeps grinding away all game long, and if he’s less flashy than Patterson overall, I still think he adds real value to this offense. If he ever gets consistently quality blocking up front, I think he’ll show that in more spectacular fashion.
- Calvin Ridley had a couple of rough patches in this one, most notably where he started to go sideways with about three yards for a first down and defenders closing in. There were still times where he was the only receiving option Matt Ryan appeared to have, and he led all players on both teams with receptions, consistently coming up with the ball when Atlanta really needed it. There are better weeks ahead for Ridley statistically and frankly overall, but this offense needs to at least connect on those short passes and get something going, and Ridley is there to do it.
- Avery Williams continues to look very good as a punt returner. He’s capable of making at least one defender miss and is patient and willing to lean into contact, and that led to multiple quality punt returns for a team that hasn’t had many in the past five seasons. I think as his confidence grows and this team improves, we’ll see some truly impressive returns.
- The Dean Pees defense has justifiably earned some questions about its performance through the first two weeks, and while this effort wasn’t by any means perfect, it was exactly what we wanted to see against an injury-wracked Giants offense. It’s nice to feel like the defense, at least, is climbing the ladder one rung at a time.
- Younghoe Koo nails it when it matters, with only the very occasional exception. I was delighted to not worry at all when he kicked the game-winning field goal, and I was right not to.
- Is Arthur Smith just going to spend his rookie season as head coach tinkering and cautiously working on this Falcons Rubik’s cube? The Falcons seemed incapable in the early going of doing much aside from setting themselves up with manageable third down situations, which is not at all what you want to see from an offense coached by a man you hired specifically for his offensive expertise. Atlanta eventually pulled together a handful of quality drives to win the game, but in between they wasted plays and struggled to get receivers open, and this is still a passing attack that hardly ever goes beyond 10 yards, to say nothing of 20.
The concern with Smith isn’t that he won’t get better—I do believe what we saw in Tennessee indicates he can at least put an actual NFL offense on the field, and probably much more than that—but that it will happen more slowly and less fully than any of us hoped. Nobody thought this offense would be so inept in the early going, regardless of our expectations or what lies ahead, and the fact that it is through three full games of the season tells us we ought to be very worried about the odds of it getting better any time soon. Washington is not going to roll over and make this easy a week from now, meaning the Falcons have to figure out how to score some points so the pressure isn’t almost solely on the defense. A lot of that lands on the shoulders of the head coach, who is chaining together some good-looking plays but needs to lengthen said chain considerably before the schedule gets tough again.
- There were a lot of things wrong with the offense this week, and Matt Ryan numbered among them after an improved week against the Buccaneers. Atlanta appeared to have trouble getting their receivers favorable looks, but Ryan When he did pass it, it was often to his check down option, or putting the ball at risk and thankfully getting away with it. Fortunately he capped off the game with a couple of quality drives, but he almost threw a pick in the end zone even then. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if even one of the three or so narrowly missed interception opportunities Ryan provided today had been caught, the Falcons probably would’ve lost.
As Ryan gets older, it was always clear the Falcons were going to have the make the offense more friendly for him. That was what the addition of Kyle Pitts was ostensibly about in the short term, but Pitts has only really been a factor in spurts to this point, and Ryan has been under fire with the offensive line struggling. The result has been some shaky decisions that have created opportunities for opposing defenses, from the near picks to the actual interceptions and a few costly sacks and rushed throws in between.
As always, Ryan is not the problem with this offense. Right now, however, his erratic play and this team’s extreme reliance on short passes is a big part of what’s limiting this team’s effectiveness. It’s fair to suggest that Ryan and the Falcons are going to have to become much better and more comfortable on offense for this thing to go anywhere with #2 at the helm.
- Involving Kyle Pitts seems like it would help. It goes without saying that Pitts will, if all goes well, be a major part of this offense for years to come, and his impact may not always be consistent early on. Getting him the ball just three times for 2 catches and 35 yards on a day where Russell Gage was out and he clearly had on-on-one matchups multiple times is still baffling, The Falcons can’t spend all of even half of the season trying to ease Pitts in if they want to have any success, because this offense is beyond feckless without him involved outside of the rare heroic stretch, and they were lucky enough to have a couple today.
Pitts did get more involved as the game went along and might’ve snagged a touchdown if not for pass interference in the end zone, but it’s obvious that it will benefit the offense considerably if he’s utilized more. That’s on Arthur Smith to some extent and Pitts himself, but it’s also fair to ask Matt Ryan to trust someone as talented as Pitts to win his matchups and take the shot.
- Defensively, Atlanta did enough that they ought to not absorb the brunt of the criticism. It’s worth noting that they had the advantage of playing against what sure looked like a somewhat limited Evan Engram and saw the Giants lose Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton, though, and that their tackling issues and habit of leaving one receiver open exactly five yards away from any defender was a particularly persistent problem early on when the Giants were still relatively healthy.
The D seems to be improving, considering they got the job done in this one without A.J. Terrell. They still have some bad tendencies to iron out before they start playing great offenses again, because lax coverage and ugly tackling are not a survivable combination when they happen on the same play.
- Daniel Jones ran through Grady Jarrett. I feel like 9 times out of 10 that doesn’t come close to happening, but the Falcons live in the universe where it’s always the least likely outcome coming true, and that was a rare ugly moment for the team’s best defender.
I’m splitting it. Younghoe Koo gets it for his game-winning kick, which carried the weight of Falcons failure on it and still proved true, and so does Cordarrelle Patterson for a superlative effort that saw him deliver several key plays for Atlanta.
This team can win ugly and I’m so grateful they did, but there are miles to go before they can beat a quality, totally healthy team, especially if the offense is going to continue to be inconsistent.
The Washington Football Team, fresh off a 43-21 drubbing at the hands of the Bills. Washington’s so-so offense and a defense that fell apart a bit gives Atlanta a real shot at this, but they’ll have to be better than they were against the Giants to take advantage.
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