This past Sunday will likely be remembered for the plethora of “anthem protests” that began the day as the NFL stood largely unified in contrast to President Donald Trump’s critical tweets and statements directed as its players over the weekend. Also, as far as the Atlanta Falcons’ 30-26 win over the Detroit Lions in particular is concerned, it will likely be remembered for its controversial ending.
Yet that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty that occurred between those two moments that isn’t also worthy of further discussion and exploration.
I became increasingly nervous about this matchup this past week as we inched towards Sunday, as is often the case whenever there is a game where I feel (overly) confident that the Falcons will come out victorious.
Notably, both games thus far during this 2017 season where I thought the Falcons were clearly the superior team, they barely pulled out a win in the final seconds against the Chicago Bears in Week One and yesterday against the Lions.
Perhaps the fact that both games were played on the road are reasons why the Falcons haven’t won as cleanly as I suspected at the outset of each week. That certainly makes sense given that it’s hard to go into somebody else’s “house” and come away completely unscathed. A trio of wins, including two on the road, against NFC North opponents has great potential to impact playoff seeding for the Falcons at the end of the season.
But the biggest takeaway from the Falcons’ “unclean” win was their ability to persevere through the adversity they faced.
One of the concerns I had heading into the game was whether or not myself and others were overlooking just how critical the absences of Ryan Schraeder and Vic Beasley could potentially become.
The Falcons could have easily seen their offensive line crumble without their bookend right tackle in Schraeder, especially going up against a Lions defense that features defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, fresh off a three-sack performance against New York Giants left tackle Ereck Flowers. Yet the Falcons offensive line despite a few breakdowns was able to keep quarterback Matt Ryan clean and keep Ansah from asserting himself in this game. The fifth-year edge-rusher was completely absent from the stat sheets with zero tackles.
The Falcons could have also witnessed their own pass rush evaporate without their most productive edge-rusher in Beasley this past week, who is dealing with a partially torn hamstring that is expected to force him to miss at least a month of the season. Albeit in all honesty, I personally was far less worried about that possibility than the issues along the offensive line.
Despite Beasley leading the NFL a year ago with 15.5 sacks and his sack total being more than the next five most productive Falcons pass-rushers combined, there were many instances recently where you’d have been hard-pressed to observe the Falcons and come away believing Beasley was heads and heels better than his teammates. There were numerous games a year ago, especially during the final month of the regular season and the postseason, where other pass-rushers looked just as if not more impressive than Beasley.
However that doesn’t guarantee such a trend would certainly continue into 2017 and not affect the Falcons this week. But the Falcons were able to take advantage of the Lions weakened offensive line (center Travis Swanson missed the game) at several opportune moments to stall them from catching up. Despite a 30-point output, the Falcons offense needed all the help it could muster.
That’s because the primary adversity that the Falcons faced in Detroit was the fact that the offense turned the ball over three times. The first of those interceptions certainly was the fault of quarterback Matt Ryan, with Lions safety Glover Quin reading him perfectly to snatch a poorly thrown ball to Julio Jones for a pick-six to cut the Falcons’ 17-6 lead late in the first half to a one-score game.
The next two picks however were on the receivers rather than the quarterback. A late, but catchable dumpoff to Tevin Coleman was tipped up into the hands of cornerback Darius Slay. The Lions corner added a second pick in the fourth quarter with Ryan’s pass going through the hands of Mohamed Sanu.
Whether those first two turnovers took points off the board for the Falcons is debatable since both occurred in their own territory. The Lions were able to certainly capitalize by generating 10 points of their own.
But the third interception certainly took points off the board for the Falcons as they were deep in Lions territory, with Slay’s interception coming inside the 10-yard line. That turnover cost the Falcons at least three points. Three additional points on the Falcons end of the scoreboard certainly would have made a significant difference with the Lions driving at the end of the game, with a touchdown not necessarily winning the game for them.
The Falcons were able to hold the Lions to just three combined points on Slay’s interceptions thanks largely to their defense’s ability to step up and help the team through that adversity.
Rookie pass-rusher Takk McKinley recorded the first sack of his NFL career on the ensuing first down following Slay’s first interception of the day. That backed up the Lions a few yards to set up a 3rd-and-1 two plays later. McKinley once again created pressure along with defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe getting push up the middle to flush Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford out of the pocket. End Brooks Reed was able to chase down the fleeing quarterback to help force an incomplete pass.
The Lions wound up settling for a 35-yard field goal from kicker Matt Prater that tied the game at 23-23 as the third quarter was coming to a close. The Falcons were able to extend their lead on the ensuing drive to get back up a touchdown thanks to a 40-yard screen pass to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
Slay’s second interception was returned 37 yards to get the Lions near midfield with an opportunity to take their first lead of the game with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Yet the Falcons defense once again stepped up.
On first down, it was cornerback Robert Alford’s coverage that broke up a slant to Marvin Jones. Then on second down, the Falcons defensive line was quick to bottle up a draw play for a loss of yardage, forcing a 3rd-and-14. The Falcons got pressure forcing Stafford to dump it off to tight end Eric Ebron well shy of the sticks and the Falcons defenders rallied to the ball to stop him after an eight-yard gain.
At the outset of that series, the Lions were a first down and some change away from being in Prater’s range, who made a 57-yard field goal earlier in the game.
All in all, regardless of your feelings towards how Sunday began and ended for the NFL and the Falcons in particular, there was a lot that occurred in between to be proud of with this Falcons defense continuing to signal that they’re beginning to coalesce into a stronger unit.
Their ability to limit the Lions offense in critical moments, even that final one, certainly speaks to their ability to pull a bit more weight this year to help the Falcons win games. That’s definitely a new development in 2017 and hopefully a trend that continues as the rest of the season unfolds.