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Bair: Falcons beat at their own game in 'eye opener' loss to Panthers

Atlanta struggled to run and stop the run effectively, falling into an early deficit they couldn't overcome

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Arthur Smith wasn't more than a minute into his postgame press conference when he accurately summed up the reasons why the Falcons lost 22-15 to Carolina on Thursday night.

"You have to give Carolina credit. They came out, they got the [early] lead," the Falcons head coach said. "They won both lines of scrimmage. It wasn't pretty. The drives we had -- we had some ugly penalties that moved us back -- we were off track a lot of the night."

He had more to say on the matter, and we'll get to that in a bit. What you just read above, however, is not Falcons football.

The Falcons typically win the lines of scrimmage. They're typically good running the football and preventing others from doing so. And when things are really going right, the Falcons are typically on schedule, setting up manageable first-down distance and preventing others from doing so.

They perform well when they set a physical tone and dictate tempo, when they wear an opponent down with run after run and the occasional big strike.

That's when they're at their best. On Thursday night, they rarely were.

In fact, what the Falcons do to other teams is what the Panthers did to them.

The No. 5-ranked rushing attack (entering Thursday) managed just 33 yards in the first half while falling behind 10 points, the exact margin of defeat. The No. 8-ranked run defense (entering Thursday) got pushed around, to the tune of 232 yards on 47 carries. The Panthers were set on attacking the strength of this Falcons defense and did so, running efficiently on 17 of their first 23 plays.

Playing from behind is not a place the Falcons want to be. Yes, they've made some big halftime deficits manageable in the final quarters. They've come within striking distance in those instances, but they haven't won one of those games.

The Falcons worked to do so, using a never-say-die attitude that was one of the few things on brand for this squad on Thursday night.

Now we'll let Smith finish a thought quoted earlier in this column, after he said his team was "off track a lot of the of the night."

"As ugly it was, we got the ball back with a chance to go win or tie it," Smith said. "It says a lot about our guys, but it clearly wasn't good enough."

It wasn't good enough because the Falcons had to push the ball downfield in a hurry, using a passing attack that isn't as good as what's available on the ground. Marcus Mariota was able to cut the two-score deficit to one by hitting consecutive passes of 21, 18 and 18 yards before throwing a 25-yard touchdown strike to KhaDarel Hodge.

The defense got a three and out, setting up the Falcons with a chance to go win it with two-and-a-half minutes left. They couldn't make lightning strike twice. They went four-and-out and essentially sealed this loss.

They fought and clawed at the end and that's admirable, but they dug a too-deep hole because they struggled where they normally surge.

The run game ultimately finished with 138 yards but was inefficient when the playing field was relatively level. The passing game had its moments but Mariota could've done more to reverse the outcome, and ultimately finished 19-for-30 for 186 yards – 82 of that sum came on the aforementioned four-pass sequence -- two touchdowns and an interception. He was also sacked five times, frequently under pressure when the Falcons were fighting to come back.

Carolina brought pressure when they had an early lead and, watching the game live, seemed committed to making the Falcons beat them through the air, or with a more balanced attack at least.

The Falcons weren't able to churn out hard yards and stay consistently on schedule, as they do when they're at their best.

That's not Falcons football.

"It's so important to stay on track, stay on the chains and keep things manageable," right guard Chris Lindstrom said. "If the other team gets up a puts you in an adverse position, they're going to start attacking the pocket."

The Panthers were attacking the Falcons run defense, which struggled to stop the opposing ground game. Again, that's not Falcons football. And when the Falcons don't play their brand of football, things often go awry.

And, when the Falcons are playing from behind allowing the other team to establish firm control, things often go awry.

"It was one of those situations where you know you're a better defense than what you showed," inside linebacker Rashaan Evans said. "The big thing is realizing that you're going to get the best from the other team each and every week. As you saw toward the end, we were kind of figuring it out. But it wasn't enough. We have to make sure that we start faster going into these next couple games. We sometimes put ourselves in positions where we have to fight our way back into the game."

Falling behind early prompted an unwelcome end for the Falcons, who fell back in the NFC South.

"This was an eye opener, which can be kind of good for you," Evans said. "You got punched in the mouth. You know, going into these next couple games, you've got to play your best football that you can possibly play."

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers during Week 10.

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