The Atlanta Falcons came into Week 6 licking their wounds, but with the Saints on a bye, a big loss for Tampa Bay and the Panthers in overtime as Atlanta kicked off, the Dirty Birds had a big opportunity to gain ground in the division. Despite signs of improvement last week, the defense was still the biggest question mark for the team, as the offensive line welcomed Justin Blalock back from his first injury of his illustrious career.
Receiving duo Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, along with running back Matt Forte, would prove to be one of the most talented groups the Falcons had faced in 2014 but, despite a long completion to open the game, the Falcons defense had clearly had enough of being questioned. Allowing one completion, the defense got off the field almost immediately, and it seemed to be a case of Dome Sweet Dome for the battered unit. The storyline of Devin Hester facing his former team for the first time took center stage right away, as the returner looked threatening upon catching his first punt. As Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense came onto the field, this game was as close to must win as could be, with a lot of pride and the regaining of momentum at stake in week 6.Oct 12, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Devin Hester (17) greets Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (26) before their game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
The offense moved the chains, but the all too familiar story of penalties putting the Falcons in a bad position forced Matt Bryant out to nail a 52 yarder. 3-0 Atlanta, with a lot of room to improve on offense. The game was always to be decided by the two below average defenses, and it was the Falcons turn to send out the weaker of their two units.The Bears’ second drive began very similarly to the first – a long run to Forte, followed by the defense digging in their heels. When Johnathan Massaquoi rounded the edge for his second sack of the season, the Falcons defense was flying. After a 3rd and 5 stop, with excellent coverage from rookie safety Dezmond Southward, the offense were back and ready to add to their lead. However on 3rd and 10, during which Julio Jones fumbled but managed to recover, the Falcons went 3 and out, and suddenly it was the offensive unit that needed to support the efforts of the defense.
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This time it was Dwight Lowery breaking up the pass, as the revitalised defense overcame an incorrect penalty call to hold the Bears to just 3. Back in Cincinnati, the Bengals lined up for the game winning field goal with 2 seconds left in OT, but the kick was shanked and the Bengals and Panthers tied. A win for the Falcons would keep them in touch, but would not give them the lead in the NFC South. Mike Smith backed up his words in the week, and gave Antone Smith 2 early touches to try and get the explosive veteran more touches. Despite some good pass protection, the O-line buckled on a 3rd and 7, allowing a big sack on Matt Ryan and forcing the Falcons out of field goal range.
Despite a good start, the bend-but-don’t-break Falcons were unfortunately back on defense, and with many chances to get off the field, the Falcons allowed several big plays. A 47 yarder to Brandon Marshall put the receiver over his season high for yards well before half time, and when Josh Morgan caught a goal line TD the Bears led 10-3.
Trailing seemed to kick the offense into gear, as the Falcons began to move the ball deliberately and efficiently. A huge hit on a defenseless Roddy White downfield drew boos from the Georgia Dome, but no flag was thrown as the refs maintained there was no helmet to helmet contact. Roddy White was able to come back, but another failed 3rd down led to Matt Bosher having to punt yet again. The flag differential in the game was noticeable, as two questionable decisions had gone against the Falcons and cost them significant yardage. The Falcons defense again bent, but managed a second sack on Jay Cutler at midfield, leaving the door open for one last Falcons possession to end the half. Hopes were soon dashed, as Brandon Marshall went over the 100 yard mark on a 3rd down completion. The Bears had outgained, out possessed and simply outplayed an Atlanta team not used to trailing at home.
As Chicago drove into the red zone, it was to be another halftime with many adjustments needed for the Falcons. Johnathan Massaquoi delivered the best looking pass rush move from any Falcon in 2014, and managed to pressure Cutler into throwing the final offensive play of the half incomplete. Robbie Gould finished the half off with a short field goal, and the Falcons headed into the locker room down by 10 but getting the ball after half time. The offense needed much improvement, having tallied just 97 first half yards, and as always the defense was allowing too many explosive plays.
After a penalty heavy first series backed Atlanta up to their goal line, Matt Ryan was finally able to connect with Julio Jones to move the chains, and the Falcons finally had some space to operate. The Falcons offense was intent on giving away yards, and a series of penalties set the Falcons up in a 1st and 29. Smart play calling chipped away at the down and distance, but the Falcons still needed a spark. Like clockwork, as predictably as ever, it was Antone Smith who took it the distance on a 41 yard reception from Matt Ryan. It was his 5th touchdown of the season, all 38 yards or longer, and the Falcons suddenly had a ball game on their hands. It’s hard to do justice to the impact of a player like Smith, who has surpassed cult hero status and is now the second biggest offensive threat on this Falcons team. On special teams, Smith was the first player to meet the Bears returner, making a stop inside the 15. Antone Smith was seemingly the Falcons only hope, and it was back to the defense to make a stop and get the ball back in his hands.
The much criticised defensive unit absolutely delivered, forcing interior pressure and stopping the Bears on a 3 and out. Down 3, the Falcons had the ball at their 30 yard line, and were beginning to build the third quarter comeback they had enjoyed in recent weeks. On consecutive 2nd and 3rd downs, the Falcons again called Antone Smith’s number, marking a significant increase in touches from any previous game in his pro career. The offense was finally shifting towards the use of Smith as the featured back, and the looked all the more dangerous for it. Matt Ryan’s athletic ability was again on show, as back to back third downs were converted for the first time on the evening and Ryan found Eric Weems on a great throw from out of the pocket. After a series of good pass breakups by Chicago, the clutch boot of Matt Bryant delivered again for the Falcons, booming home a 54 yarder tiring the game at 13-13.
The Chicago Bears had only scored 3 points in its past 2 second halves, and they came out firing on the next drive. After an incompletion, Jay Cutler found Alshon Jeffery for a 74 yard completion, as the Bears again set up camp in the Falcons red zone. Matt Forte found himself in the end zone on the very next play, and the Bears lead was again restored. The big play was a killer for a defensive unit that had very much held its own, but the momentum was somewhat wrestled back as Ra’shede Hageman blocked the extra point, taking the score to 19-13.Oct 12, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Antone Smith (35) gets past Chicago Bears strong safety Brock Vereen (45) for a touchdown reception in the third quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
As the offense stalled for the first time in the half, with the third quarter coming to an end, it was hard to see where the Falcons would get a defensive spark from. For a team which had built so much of its identity around a league best offense with a defense doing just enough to get by, the onus was now on the D to bring the Falcons back into the game. The Falcons looked poised to make a stop at ever turn, but yielded on third down after third down, including one 3rd and 11 set up by a great defensive breakup of a screen. At the final break, it seemed as though the Falcons were doing so much right but never making the key play.
The fourth quarter began with Alshon Jeffery converting yet another 3rd down, and the Falcons defense looked gassed. Time and time again the defense failed to make the final stop, and on 3rd and goal from the 9, Matt Forte took a draw the distance and helped give the Bears a 28-13 lead. For the third week in a row, a very manageable game was slipping from Atlanta’s grasp in the 4th.The Falcons offense was again shut down, this time with the noticeable increase of noise from Chicago fans in the Georgia Dome. Despite rattling off a 10-0 run, the Falcons had conceded 14 straight points and possession to a rampant Chicago offense. Things looked grim in Atlanta.
After the defense forced a stop, the Falcons had one more roll on the dice, down 14 with 5:19 left in the game. Matt Ryan went into gunslinging mode, finding Roddy White and Levine Toilolo for big gains. However, when Toilolo dropped the Falcons’ sixth pass of the day, the writing was on the wall. A 3rd down sack put the Falcons in a 4th and 14 with the game on the line. The deep completion attempt was intercepted by the Bears, and the Falcons looked poised to finish their third straight 4th quarter with 0 points. The rest of the game was a mere formality, as the Falcons dropped a rare home game, and again squandered a great opportunity to move up in the divisional standings.
What did we learn in this game? The offense is human after all, and the Falcons looked particularly unbalanced and pass heavy in a game that was close all day. The defense allowed a ridiculous amount of yardage, and despite some quality cover corners, nobody in this secondary looks likely to manufacture any takeaways. The pass rush, mainly from Johnathan Massaquoi, was slightly improved, but Jay Cutler’s pocket was too clean for too long. It may be time to reassess where you rate these Falcons, if you haven’t done so already.
What did you think of the game? Comment below with your thoughts on the Bears result, how the Atlanta Falcons can improve going forward and what Atlanta need to focus on next week. Make sure to check back with Blogging Dirty for more Falcons news, opinions and analysis throughout the week.