The Falcons have started the 2021 season 0-2. They have conceded 80 points in the process. They’re dead last in points conceded, 3rd from last in points scored, and fan confidence has plummeted. Despite that, and despite the 48-25 shellacking received at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons have shown some positive signs. Enough, for me, to suggest they’re not far from being a side worth sticking with.
The loss against the Buccaneers shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, nor should the scoreline. But the Falcons showed something on Sunday. Not “fight”, or “desire”, or any of the nonsense intangibles that the fanbase claims trumps all. No, they showed cohesion, innovation, and guile that, on another day, against another team, would have resulted in an unlikely victory.
Finding their feet
The offense didn’t have a great day, by any stretch. They stalled out in inopportune moments, and were ultimately to blame for squandering a golden opportunity. But you have to say, when they looked good, they looked good. Kyle Pitts, who was anonymous in week 1, led the team in receiving yards. Calvin Ridley, who disappeared after the first quarter that same week, hauled in the team’s first receiving touchdown. Goodness, even Cordarrelle Patterson had people discussing the possibility of a break-out season at 30 years old following his 2 touchdown effort.
The defense, too, had some moments. AJ Terrell left the game with a concussion, but his two fingertip pass deflections kept the Bucs from further adding to their score. But the defenses ability to just get Brady and the Buccaneers off the field was admirable. The Bucs ended the day having only converted 4 of 12 times on third day, and once from two 4th own attempts. Much like week one, the Falcons defense hung the team in there. Unlike week one, the offense was alive.
Something that’ll be forgotten from the loss is just how close it actually was. The Falcons were 3 points down, with 9 minutes left to play, and with possession of the ball. They conceded 20 points in those final 9 minutes, but things could have been so much different with a couple of different outcomes. A 3rd and long 2, the Falcons attempt to run Patterson up the middle, only for him to be stuff thanks to a total breakdown in run defense. On 4th down, Cameron Nizialek punts the ball 33 yards to give the Bucs possession of the ball in Atlanta’s half. That felt like game over right there. Everything that followed; the tipped interceptions, the breakdown in offense, is almost irrelevant. The game ended with 9 minutes to play.
So where are the positive signs? Well, for one, the offensive line was better. Not good. God no. But better. Matt Ryan attempted 46 passes in the loss. 19 of those passes were attempted with 2 seconds of the snap. Simply put, that’s just not going to win you games. The coaching staff have to do a better job of nullifying opposing defensive lines, but, more importantly, the offensive line itself has to do a better job of providing a clean pocket for Matt Ryan.
Arthur Smith’s offense looked far more effective in week two than in week one. Players were being schemed open, play-action was leaned on to give Ryan the time to make throws, and they managed to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers. That’s good, and that’s what we want to see. Oh, and on the other side of the ball, the defense stood tall, and put a side with hall of fame talents in nearly every position in an uncomfortable sport for most of the afternoon. That’s good! That’s progress! No, don’t look at the scoreline!
Asking for time
If you take anything from the opening two weeks, it’s that steps forward are being made. For much of the game, the Falcons looked capable of worrying the league’s finest. A week after being blown out by a side who isn’t one of the finest. If Smith and his staff can find a way to really amplify those positive moments, and further improve in the areas they’re not great in, the Falcons have a shot at being more than the sum of their parts in 2021.
And a word on those less than great areas. Those are positions largely filled by stopgaps, or players in the first couple of years of their professional careers. Players in their first or second seasons are being asked to step up in a major way. You’re not going to get perfect play from those guys straight away. And the coaching setup knows that.
Jalen Mayfield was allowed a second crack at left guard after week one was because there’s a chance he can be the answer long term. They might not have said it outright, but based on the decisions being made personnel-wise, it’s clear the Falcons are taking a long-term outlook with this roster.
The positives are there for the Falcons, even if you have to squint a bit to find them. The Falcons have three more games before the bye week; at the Giants, home to Washington, and then a trip to the United Kingdom to face the Jets. Those are three games are all against sides with problems of their own, and all games the Falcons should be looking at as winnable. If they come away from the Metlife Stadium having displayed the positives we’ve discussed already, the Falcons might have a season. Either way, maybe think twice about calling time on the Falcons just yet.