ATLANTA -- You could physically see the wear and tear this 20-16 win took on this Falcons defense in the last moments of Atlanta's game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. As the final two minutes of the game started to tick off the clock with the Lions well inside Falcons territory, hands were on hips as shoulders rose and fell across the Falcons defensive front.
They were long past fresh, for reasons both obvious and reasonable. They had just gotten off the field following a 17-play, 10-plus minute drive by the Lions. If the offense could ice the game, the defense would earn a well-deserved break. That was the though anyways, until it wasn't, as Detroit recovered a fumble to bring their offense (and subsequently, the Falcons defense) back out onto the field. No longer the offense's responsibility to win the game. That burden fell to the defense.
By the end of the game, the Falcons defense would have been on the field for over 38 minutes. For comparison's sake, the Falcons offense was on the field for just under 22 minutes on Sunday. Looking back, it was the type of lopsided game the Lions wanted to play. It was the type of game the Falcons knew they would play.
Arthur Smith said Detroit essentially ran their four-minute offense throughout the entire game. They emphasized bleeding the clock out with the run. It worked, until it didn't, and you can thank a gritty defense for stopping it when it mattered most.
With 39 seconds left in the game and with Detroit knocking on the door of the endzone with a first and goal situation from the nine yard line, Foye Oluokun jumped in front of Tim Boyle's pass, intercepting it and ultimately icing the game for the Falcons.
After the game, Smith commended this defensive unit for the responsibility they took in that moment, stepping up when the offense missed the mark. He said when Russell Gage fumbled the ball to give Detroit a final shot at the win, there were no long faces on the sideline.
"The defense had been out there (a long time), and it says a lot about them," Smith said of the defensive stand in the final moments of the game. "I've been a part of teams, defenses, that are sitting there dragging."
The Falcons weren't, and Smith loved the energy he saw this group play with, even as the toll of the game weighed heavily on their shoulders.
From the offensive perspective, they're grateful, thankful and pensive about the final minutes of the game.
"As a player, you'd always rather be on the field," Matt Ryan said of those late-game situations. "I would always rather have the ball in my hands to try and determine the outcome that way, but being a part of a team, that's not how it is. Sometimes you have to trust other players to make the plays."
On Sunday, that player was Oluokun and his ultimately game-winning interception. And with the win, the Falcons are now 7-2 in games decided by one possession.
What's interesting about this 7-2 record of games, though, is that every unit has had its moment. Offense has put together a game-winning drive or two. Defense has come up with a handful of necessary stops, Sunday's being just one of a few. And Younghoe Koo continues to be the Falcons king of special teams excitement, winning a couple of these games on important, walk-off field goals.
The good teams that win? Oluokun said simply: "That's what they do. They know how to win situational football moments." But it can't be just one unit that does this. It has to be the team in its entirety.
"You've gotta trust all three phases," Ryan said, "and at different times throughout the year all three phases have stepped up for us."
This is - at its core - a shift in both late-game production, but also a change in late-game mindset ushered in by Smith, this new coaching staff and this front office. There's a grit that perhaps wasn't there before.
Ryan called this 2021 Falcons team a "gritty group," and they can add this 20-16 win over the Lions as another example of that grit.
"You gotta be gritty," Oluokun said, "not pretty."
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