Atlanta Falcons football has had a certain inevitability to it for years now. The contours might change a little bit—maybe the defense lets down the passing game, maybe the passing game lets down the offense, maybe you can run effectively and maybe you average two yards per carry—but this is a team that has turned falling short into an art form. That sounds sharply critical in a way I don’t intend it to be; it simply is what these Falcons do and have done for so long that you just have to brace for it.
None of us signed up for the 2018-2022 stretch thinking and hoping that we’d watch five straight losing seasons, but that’s where we are. Playoff hopes have shriveled on the vine, individual brilliance has been overshadowed by the collective dimming, and at every step of the way we’ve looked for a sign that there’s a way out of the current quagmire. The upcoming offseason, with all its glimmering expanses of cap space, is the most promising off-ramp we’ve seen in a year. That’s why, even if we can’t get wins here at the end of another year with a losing record, we’re all so keen to see progress, signs of life, and signs that some of these Falcons can be major parts of a brighter tomorrow.
We are only getting that in fits and starts this year, with a dominant rushing attack standing out as the team’s largest and most critical improvement. That was the case on Saturday, too, as Atlanta was outclassed in this one but showed a familiar red zone resilience and signs of improvement from their rookie passer. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to a win.
The Ravens weren’t stellar through the air and their defense started to show cracks late, but they still won by eight points and it rarely felt like the Falcons had a realistic chance of catching up. Baltimore is headed to the playoffs even without Lamar Jackson in the lineup over the past few weeks, and the disparity in talent showed up on Saturday. You can’t be overly mad at the results—though I was certainly frustrated for long stretches—when you consider how unlikely it was that the Falcons would steal this one away.
That said, the Falcons did make us think there was a remote chance, and it was due to some welcome improvements that didn’t really show up in the final score. We can and sometimes do make too much noise about what are essentially moral victories, but Desmond Ridder took a pretty major step forward as a passer on Saturday, Tyler Allgeier continued to show he can lead a backfield, Drake London showed off his excellence as a receiver despite a very costly fumble, and the defense overcame early infuriating play to clamp down hard again and hold yet another team under 20 points. They endured a terrible start, some very questionable decision-making, a costly turnover, and poor officiating and at least sort of hung around until late in the game. It isn’t much, but when you’re looking for signs of life ahead of a hugely impactful offseason, it’s at least a seedling peeking out of half-frozen soil.
The Falcons may not win a game the rest of the way—I certainly hope they do, but let’s manage expectations—but the key for Ridder and the team will be showing that they’re figuring out how to play better and more consistent football ahead of a spring where Terry Fontenot and the front office will be tasked with giving them significant reinforcements. For many players, it might be the difference between having a role on the 2023 Falcons and looking for a new job, so my hope is that there’s an energy in the final two games we have only seen in short stretches over the past several weeks.
Still, prepare yourself for two more days of ugly football, because that seems to be the absolute ceiling of what the Falcons can offer us at the moment. May we emerge from the holiday season and head into warmer weather with a better sense of where this is headed, and may it feature far fewer sub-10 point efforts on the road. We haven’t seen the sun in so long that even a few rays can cut through the cold and gloom.
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and here’s your traditional recap.
- Adetokunbo Ogundeji had perhaps the play of the game with his blocked field goal. Justin Tucker tried one in the first quarter from 55 yards out, and Ogundeji got those long arms up and was able to knock down the attempt to prevent the Ravens from adding to their lead while also setting up Atlanta with excellent field position.
- After the first couple of drives, I was ready to put Desmond Ridder down in the ugly section. He looked indecisive, jittery, and shaky once again, and the Falcons offense looked like it was terrible. He was 1⁄4 for 8 yards on his first four passing attempts, was sacked twice and fumbled along the way, and generally the offense seemed to be in an impossible hole.
Then things changed, with the offense changing things up to give Ridder easier looks and Ridder settling in as a passer, going 21/29 for 210 yards the rest of the way with some extremely impressive throws along the way. The day wasn’t blemish-free after the rough start—he missed a couple of throws and his decision-making is a work in progress—but despite the lack of scoring I did think the rookie quarterback improved significantly in his second week. We’ll have to see if he can continue to do so at home against the Cardinals in what should be an easier effort, but the single-game growth alone is extremely encouraging for fans and likely the coaching staff as well.
- Drake London’s lone major miscue was a massive one that helped swing the momentum of the game, so we can’t simply wave it away. Still, we have to acknowledge that the Ridder-to-London connection is bearing fruit, and ball security issues aside London is looking pretty terrific right now. He once again easily led the team in receiving yards and receptions, posting seven catches for 96 yards, and put together a pair of absurd leaping grabs on the day to help the team move down the field. London has a ways to go to be a truly great receiver, but the signs have been there all season that he has that kind of ceiling, and that rapport with Ridder might pay off in a big way in 2023.
- Of course, the most valuable player on offense was probably once again Tyler Allgeier. The rookie back easily led the team in rushing—despite not receiving any attempts early on, he got 18 carries to Cordarrelle Patterson’s eight and put up 74 yards to Patterson’s 17—and threw a couple of nice blocks to go with four grabs and 43 yards through the air. That’s a combined 117 yards, which led the team by a comfortable margin, and a few key third down conversions along the way for a team that otherwise struggled to make that happen. Allgeier’s emergence is real, and he’ll have a huge role in this backfield next year.
- Arnold Ebiketie was one of the few players to consistently harass Tyler Huntley on Saturday, and while that didn’t translate to much in the way of concrete results, it was nice to see for a rookie who will be a significant part of the pass rush next year. I know I will receive your moral victory cries now and I will accept them.
- As frustrating and as inconsistent as the defensive effort was, their ability to clamp down in the red zone and force field goal attempts is something we’ve seen over and over again in recent weeks. In this one, they kept the Ravens from scoring more than a single touchdown, coming up on the critical downs and distances that Dean Pees is obsessed with. It was not a stellar effort, but it was good enough to earn a victory once the offense started performing well in the red zone themselves.
- Avery Williams finally got a little more work on offense, and while his output wasn’t tremendous, his five touches for a combined 30 yards were a sign that he can be a valuable role player when utilized properly.
- Koo may have bounced one off the uprights, but it still went in, and he hit all three field goal attempts on the day to help keep Atlanta in the game despite everything else. The Falcons locked him up to hit those tries when they needed him to, and despite a few hiccups along the way, Koo continued to get the job done.
- The offense couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. Desmond Ridder looked jumpy and absorbed two sacks while fumbling a slightly errant Dalman snap, and a combination of smothered receivers, poor protection, and Ridder’s own inaccuracy and decision-making led to drives fizzling out immediately over and over again. Once again, an inability to get ahead early virtually ensured Atlanta would not win.
- Drake London had the ball punched out on yet another big fourth down catch, the second time in two weeks and his third fumble in a big situation this year. London is very good already and is only going to get better, but he have to solve the ball security issue to become the kind of elite option he can be.
- The run defense continues to underwhelm, and it’s not going to get better until the Falcons get Ta’Quon Graham back in the offseason and add talent. On the day, the Falcons allowed nearly 200 yards on the ground again, allowing the Ravens to bleed the clock and get into a good position for Justin Tucker to score points. Given how few points it takes to beat Atlanta right now owing to the state of the offense, the sad state of the run defense is a liability.
- God, I would love to have a consistent pass rush.
- I don’t think Darren Hall has had a great season filling in for Casey Hayward, but I’m not sure I understand having Cornell Armstrong rotating in for him. Armstrong had a rough go of it against Baltimore, including in coverage against DeMarcus Robinson on his second quarter touchdown, and he’s a player I’m very comfortable having as depth but not super comfortable having playing critical snaps as a starter in any case but an emergency.
- The play calling and decision-making certainly was a mixed bag, perhaps because Arthur Smith spent parts of Saturday blinded by his justified rage towards the officiating crew. The fourth down calls were a great example of this, as Smith got it right at least once (an Allgeier run for a first down against a Baltimore defense that wasn’t ready) and didn’t other times (a fourth down call in the red zone that gave Allgeier a slow-developing carry that had no chance to succeed, for example). This was part of a larger problem with situational football that Arthur Smith alluded to in his postgame comments, as the team only occasionally seemed to come up with the right call and right execution to keep the drive alive on third down in particular and fourth down as well.
I’ve said all year that I think the coaching staff has generally done a good job with what they have, but there have been times when they’ve seemingly struggled to get the right call at the right time for critical situations. It’s something to prioritize scrutinizing and improving in the offseason.
- Honestly, an awful day from the officiating crew. Ridder’s arm was clearly hit on the intentional grounding call in the second quarter, causing an extended Arthur Smith tirade on the sideline, but the officials blew the call and it could not be reviewed. That proved to be an extremely costly mistake. That said, did the Falcons need to rush it, and did they do a great job of managing the situation? No. A multi-tiered problem.
If that was the only call you could forgive it, but they also messed up a pass interference call on the Ravens that shouldn’t have been, and then they blew a holding call on a Cordarrelle Patterson touchdown run on a play where Olamide Zaccheaus obviously wasn’t holding. At the end of the day, I understand that poor officiating is just another challenge you have to overcome and that the Falcons didn’t do themselves any favors, but it was a miserable day for the referees and that’s a problem the NFL have to fix but probably won’t.
I’m giving it to Allgeier again, given that he once again accounted for over a third of the team’s yards, picked up a couple of critical third downs on a day where that was a struggle for the offense, and contributed on the ground and through the air. Honorable mentions to Ridder, London, and Koo.
This team is stuck fast where it is, hovering above the worst teams in the league but too shaky and limited to rise above that. We’ll take the encouraging signs where we can get them, but it’s clear that the first six weeks or so of the season were relatively golden times that could not last.
The Falcons head home at last to face the reeling Arizona Cardinals, who will not have Kyler Murray. It’s their best opportunity to get a win the rest of the way, and I for one hope they can manage it.