Through three quarters, the Atlanta Falcons offense went scoreless as the team fell behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-0.
While the unit didn’t have a single three-and-out, several drives stalled near midfield, whether due to penalties, sacks or the natural flow of the game.
But as the game entered its final 15 minutes, the Falcons made strides, scoring two touchdowns on three offensive possessions. Ultimately, Atlanta’s defense, the big setback from controversial penalties, couldn’t get the ball back to its offense for a potential drive, leaving the Falcons wondering “what if.”
“What if” the offense had started sooner?
“What if” the officials hadn’t made two highly questionable calls?
“What if” the six-point swing between games after Younghoe Koo and Ryan Succop missed?
The fact is, none of these hypothetical or actual changes went in Atlanta’s favor, as Tampa Bay earned a 21-15 home victory to claim first place in the NFC South.
As for the theories behind the slow start, quarterback Marcus Mariota believes it was a mix of the Falcons’ offensive execution and the Buccaneers’ stout defense.
“They’re a great defense, and we got in our way at times,” Mariota said. “I think we were able to come in at halftime and make some adjustments, guys flew around and we made some plays. As you get going and get into a rhythm, that’s when this offense plays well. We’ve got to be able to get off to a better start and get into a rhythm earlier , so we’re not in those deep holes when we go into the fourth quarter.”
Perhaps no one encapsulated Atlanta’s Sunday afternoon quite like Mariota, who was nine of 18 for 84 yards entering the fourth quarter but heated up late, going five of seven for 63 yards in the final frame.
Not all of Mariota’s difficulties were to blame. He was sacked a season-high five times, and the absences of running back Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Kyle Pitts shined from the start.
The Falcons managed to rush for over 150 yards and now rank third in the NFL in rushing yards per game, but left tackle Jake Matthews remains at the center of the final score.
“We’re too late to get started,” Matthews said. “It was just too slow toward the end. There’s room for improvement and some good things, but it’s disappointing because it could have been a different game if we were a little better offensively that first half and really didn’t (wait) until the fourth quarter. .”
Matthews believes Sunday’s game could have gone differently had the Falcons started earlier. He’s not alone in that belief, as Caleb Huntley, who had eight carries for 34 yards, echoed similar sentiments.
Scroll to continue
“It was frustrating that they just did things to keep us from practicing and stuff like that,” Huntley said. “We found a way to execute (in) the second half, but I wish we had done the whole game because it would have been a different story.”
Unlike Mariota, Matthews sides more with Huntley and feels the onus falls on Atlanta’s shoulders while also providing reasons for optimism moving forward.
“It looked like we weren’t executing,” Matthews said. “It’s frustrating when you do that to yourself, but that’s the biggest thing – we know if we can all be on the same page, play with urgency, know what to do and how to do it, we can succeed, just us it took too long to start doing that.”
Matthews, who expressed his frustration several times after the game, went into more detail about what held Atlanta’s offense back.
“Everything really,” Matthews claimed. “Protection and running the ball. We also had some penalties, so we just have to execute in the broadest sense, (which is) easier said than done. It’s just frustrating – I keep saying it – but it took us too long to begin executing, so that we shall have escaped by then.’
As for what sparked the Falcons’ 15-point fourth quarter run, rookie wide receiver Drake London, who had four receptions for 35 yards, offered his take.
“The sense of urgency,” London said. “I think that was a big thing. Go out there and just execute.”
As the clock ticked down, tension built on Atlanta’s flanks and the “urgency” referred to by London began. .
Receiver Olamide Zaccheaus said making strides in that area starts in practice, and Atlanta seems likely to emphasize the fast start in next Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.
In the meantime, the Falcons will get back to the plan, trying to carry their momentum and urgency from one week to the next.
“Sometimes it doesn’t go your way, sometimes,” said the 21-year-old Londoner. “All you can do is just keep fighting and trying to break through that barrier and get through it.”
You can follow Daniel Flick on Twitter @DFlickDraft
Get your HOTlanta Falcons game tickets from SI Tickets … here!
Follow the Falcon Report at Twitter.