ATLANTA – The Atlanta Falcons found themselves in a dogfight Sunday at the Georgia Dome, but were able to squeak out a 30-28 victory and advance their record to 4-0 on the season.
Below we’ll grade each facet of the game for the Falcons.
Offense (Grade B-): The offense faced more resistance against the Carolina Panthers than any other team it has played this season. Some of it stems from it being a divisional game.
These two teams are familiar with each other, so the tough game is to be expected. Since 2008, the Falcons and Panthers have played a total of nine times, with Atlanta coming out on top in seven of those games. But the lackadaisical effort the offense displayed at times on Sunday is the reason for the B- grade.
It seemed, from the get go, that the offense was a little off. Although the offense figured it out late, no one will deny that a similar performance can, and probably will, cost the team at some point down the road. The offense played well in spurts and not so well in others.
Michael Turner silenced critics, at least for a week, with his 13 carries for 103 yards, not to mention a 60-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Matt Ryan. There aren’t enough superlatives to explain Ryan who showed up big when his team needed him the most–late in the game. The 59-yard pass to Roddy White that put the Falcons in field-goal range spoke volumes of just how far Ryan has come.
The offensive line could use work. The Panthers exposed the Falcons’ biggest offensive weakness, and if the Falcons don’t make adjustments, the Panthers wont be the only team to wreak havoc. The lack of throwing time for Ryan almost single-handedly cost the Falcons the win.
Defense (Grade C+): The defense that showed up to play Sunday didn’t look to be the same defense from the previous three games.
The defense looked confused at times and seemed to be a little out of sorts when it came to stopping the run. The Panthers were confident they could run against the Falcons, and they did. Atlanta gave up a season high, 199 yards on the ground and the last yard almost cost them dearly.
To be fair, the Falcons defense is built more so to stop the pass and Carolina is more of a running team. Carolina is ranked 11th in the league in rushing, 14th in passing. With that said, Atlanta did have one of the top-ranked rushing defenses in the league last year, so one would think it still knows how to stop the run, which was the most important thing on its to-do-list over the last couple of weeks. Sunday it failed to do that.
The Falcons finished the 2011 season as the sixth best defense against the run. This year, the unit isn’t faring as well. After Sunday, the defense is ranked 29th in the league against the run.
Its important to remember that the Falcons would have had no chance to win this game if not for the defense forcing Cam Newton to fumble and lose yardage on Carolina’s next-to-last offensive play. The defense showed up when it was needed, albeit late in the game.
Special Teams (Grade B): Dominique Franks had two punt returns on the day, one good, one bad. On his first return, Franks gained 18 yards which set the offense up with great field position.
The second one, however, wasn’t so good as Franks was forced into a negative gain. The negative return had more to do with good coverage by the Carolina punting unit than Franks himself, but backwards is never a good direction.
Matt Bosher did a great job of flipping the field position for the Falcons. His longest punt of the day which went for 59 yards.
Matt Bryant, the old veteran came through again when his name was called. He made all three of his field goals and all three of his extra points. Bryant was clearly the most important special teams player Sunday as he kicked the game-winning field goal with 10 seconds left on the clock. He is now 100 percent on his field goals this season. He is one of only three kickers in the league who has attempted nine or more field goals and has made every one.
Coaching (Grade A): Atlanta’s coaching staff kept them in this game, both mentally and physically. Its hard to keep 50-plus people focused in any activity in life. Its even harder in a team sport, with an undefeated team. The Falcons looked to be in trouble on multiple occasions Sunday, but Mike Smith did a great job keeping the team focused and driven.
Late in the game, after Ryan was sacked for the seventh time, the Falcons were forced to punt the ball back to Carolina. Fast forward to the fourth-and-1 play with just over a minute left in the game. The Panthers lined up and tried to draw the defense offsides. Smith’s unit was aware enough not to jump offsides.
That might seem like an insignificant detail, but keep in mind that the Falcons were in the exact same situation last season at Tampa Bay and they jumped. The penalty cost them a shot at a comeback and they went on to lose. Coaching is very important, and it was clear Sunday.
Dirk Koetter did a great job at giving Ryan another chance late in the game to move the ball down the field. After a dismal performance blocking, Koetter gave it one more shot. The line held up arguably the best it had all day, and it paid dividends as Ryan launched a 59-yard pass to White. Credit both coordinators for sticking to their guns and trusting their guys enough to pull it out in the end.