Misery begets misery. That is the feeling I've felt the last two weeks while watching Atlanta Falcons football. I love this team, but man, what the heck is going on? Atlanta has faced quarterbacks Will Levis, Jalen Hall (left with an injury in the first quarter), and Josh Dobbs in the last two games and have lost both. In a season where Atlanta was supposed to be fairly competitive due to the easiest ranked schedule in the NFL and the weak state of the NFC South, it has now become a season where it seems the Falcons are scratching and crawling for a win (no pun intended). Fans have now started to point fingers at Arthur Smith for not using his top skill players, the QB situation, and overall offensive play-calling. I've tried to stay off that train, but after watching the last two weeks, it has become apparent that the problems the Falcons have may be beyond the players themselves.
Taylor Heinicke made his first start in a Falcons uniform on Sunday, and to be completely honest, it wasn't much more different than Ridder making the start. Now, that may be a bit of an overstatement, as Heinicke only turned the ball over once and was only sacked once; those numbers were usually elevated when Ridder was behind the center. Heinicke finished the day with 21 completions, 268 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Heinicke also added 20 yards on three carries. Again, it was just a "mid" performance. Here's what head coach Arthur Smith had to say about his QB's performance.
Smith confirmed today (Monday) that Heinicke will start in Arizona, and the coaching staff will assess the quarterback situation during the bye week. I think this is the wisest decision. It gives Heinicke another chance to try and take the job. Still, it also offers an opportunity for the coaching staff to look over the situation and decide who the better option is the rest of the way through the season.
Before I get to more of the "bad" in the game, I want to talk about the good stuff because there was good even through all the ugly. Tight end Jonnu Smith had a beautiful 60-yard touchdown on a screen pass that would put the Falcons up 21-13 in the third quarter. I don't care what people say; it's just nice to see Jonnu Smith have a season that he is having, as he's only 26 yards away from breaking his own personal receiving yard record in a season.
Continuing the good on offense, Tyler Allgeier also scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave Atlanta a short-lived four-point lead. On a drive where Atlanta would run the ball 12 straight times (one of those being a scramble by Heinicke), the Falcons offense looked like what they should be, running the ball down the other team's throat. Allgeier is just unit as well; he took eight of those carries, Bijan had three, and the one scramble by Heinicke. Here's another look at the touchdown by Atlanta's power back.
Finally, Younghoe Koo has been impressive once more this season. Koo made all four of his field goals from 52, 43, 23, and 54 yards. Koo also made both extra-point kicks he attempted as well. The Atlanta place kicker is tied for the league lead in field goals made at 20 and is also fourth in the league with field goals made between 40 and 49 yards at 6-7. Koo is an essential piece of this team, as he's also had three game-winning kicks this season. Here's a look at just how important Koo has been this season.
So, the good part of the offense is out of the way (yeah, I know, not much), but the struggles and disappointments showed, and it came down to the usage of players. There's one specific drive I want to point out where there seemed to be some player misusage. Atlanta was able to get the ball on Minosata's one-yard line after a Lorenzo Carter fumble recovery and was only able to scrouge out a field goal. The drive started with a false start, which put Atlanta back to the six-yard line, but right after came a pass to Jonnu, which put ATL right back at the one. The ball was then handed off to Jonnu and then Allgeier- both carries combined resulted in negative four yards, and the Falcons rolled out the field goal unit. I'm all about giving the ball to guys who usually don't get the ball to create mismatches, but where was Bijan during this series? For context, Bijan Robinson has carried the ball only once inside the five-yard line this season. For me, this is really the beginning of me jumping on the train of "Arthur Smith's seat getting hot." Atlanta used their first-round pick on him; it's time to start feeding him, plain and simple.
Defensively, Atlanta started out well. Jaren Hall was taken out of the first quarter due to a concussion, and Josh Dobbs was forced into the game. This is the situation Atlanta would want since Dobbs joined the team on the Tuesday before the game, but little did we know... Without Grady Jarrett, the Falcon's pass rush was still able to get to the QB, recording four sacks, one of those being a safety by Calais Campbell. Atlanta was also able to force two fumbles, one of them recovered by newly acquired defensive end Kentavius Street and the other by Carter (previously mentioned).
Here's Campbell's safety.
However, Atlanata still gave up a total of 217 yards and two touchdowns to Vikings' quarterbacks (mainly Josh Dobbs) and also gave up the most points of the season at 31. You could point fingers at the defense for falling apart in the final quarter, or you could blame it on the two turnovers Atlanta had in the second half that both resulted in points for the Vikings. Both turnovers occurred on back-to-back drives and, more specifically, the first play of both drives.
After two embarrassing losses, the question remains: who is to blame for the Falcon's issues? Is it the quarterbacks, Ridder or Heinicke? Is it Arthur Smith? Heck, is it held up with GM Terry Fontenot or even owner Arthur Blank? Well, I believe the quarterback situation is an issue, mainly due to turnovers. I don't think Fontenot or Blank are the issue, mostly because Atlanta has the right players, so it's time to start thinking that Smith is the problem in Atlanta. I have defended Smith all year long because he's been able to lead the Falcons to average seasons the last two years while having a below-average team. Also, Smith has now had four different quarterbacks (Matt Ryan, Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, and Taylor Heinicke) and hasn't been able to develop or mold somebody into his style of offense. However, now Atlanta has three of the top offensive players who were ranked in their own individual draft classes (tight end Kyle Pitts, receiver Drake London, and running back Bijan Robinson) while still having other playmakers like Tyler Allgeier and Jonnu Smith. Despite having all this talent, Atlanta's offense isn't taking any of their opponents by storm. Three out of the four wins have come on last-second field goals, and Atlanta ranks 25th in points with a -26 point differential. To keep things short, it'll be very interesting to see how the front office handles this situation. Atlanta's bye week comes after next week's game, and I would say if Atlanta doesn't pull out a win against Arizona, there may be a change with Atlanata's coaching staff.
As stated above, the Falcons will travel out west to take on the 1-8 Cardinals. Arizona head coach Jonathan Gannon reported that quarterback Kyler Murray will play if everything goes right in practice this week. It doesn't matter who the Falcons play at this point; any opponent will come as a challenge. This is a must-win game more than ever, for Arthur Smith's sake and the Falcons' playoff chances. As always, a more in-depth preview will come at the end of the week right here on Third Down Thursdays!
(Arthur Smith fired his own mustache..)
(Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)