Inside Tori's Notebook is a weekly series where Tori McElhaney re-opens her game notebook to look back at her notes, questions and observations from the Falcons most recent game. Tori breaks down her thoughts and gives her analysis on what happened and why it's notable.
FROM THE COMFORT OF MY BED -- Well, hello there. If this is your first time reading my day-after notebook, welcome.
Long story short: This is a writing exercise I have been doing for years now. It started just as a way for me to look back on games as I re-watched them. I liked being able to go back and see what I thought in the moment and how it compared (or contrasted) with what I felt 12-24 hours later. I tend to write out everything on game day, and that includes specific thoughts or feelings I have in the margins of my notebook. The header sentences of each section are the words, phrases and questions you'll actually find written out in my notebook. What I want you to know before you start reading is that this notebook doesn't take itself too seriously.
OK. You got it?
If this isn't your first time reading my notebook, I hope you skipped the last 100 words. If you didn't, err, my bad. But thanks for being here!
Without further ado, let's look back on the Falcons 24-10 Week 1 win over the Carolina Panthers.
Out-physical'd (yes, I realize this is not a word)
Brian Burns was a menace on Sunday afternoon. He just was. Despite what he said postgame, I wouldn't be surprised if he played the way he did just to prove a point to the Carolina front office. The story going into Sunday's game greatly involved Burns' status. Even though he had been practicing during the week, whether or not he would actually suit up amid a contract dispute was up-in-the-air until game day. He played, and he showed why he's in that dispute and looking for big money. He was a thorn in the Falcons' side in the first half, particularly Kaleb McGary's at right tackle. Burns won a lot of reps in the first half. It was a performance that could have been demoralizing if it wasn't counteracted.
Majority of Burns' production, and his overall effectiveness, came in the first half. His 1.5 sacks came in the first half, and many of his seven combined tackles did, too. As the game went on, the Falcons' protection evolved. Arthur Smith gave McGary a bit more help in key moments. This is what good teams do. It's what we've seen opposing offenses do against Grady Jarrett for years. And it worked. By the fourth quarter, Desmond Ridder had more time in the pocket and was able to see his receivers get better separation and get down the field a bit more. The Falcons also never really had an issue running the ball. This offensive line's ability to create significant holes in opposing defensive lines continued to be a theme in the first game of 2023. In the end, this offensive line (and Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier, too) were the more physical group. As the game evolved, so did this offense.
What's interesting, though, is that the Falcons defense almost had an opposite trajectory. Where Carolina's defense started fast, really wreaking havoc in the first and second quarters, Atlanta came alive as its own confidence grew. The Falcons defensive line was more effective in the second half than in the first. Arthur Smith said the Falcons wore down the Panthers, and that was most evident by the way this Atlanta defensive line worked.
In the first half, too many tackles were made by those in the Falcons secondary. Atlanta has something really, really special in Jessie Bates III, but when Bates is the leading tackler (by a long shot) going into halftime, that's not necessarily what you want. Things began evening out in the second half and, as the third quarter bled into the fourth quarter, Carolina had three consecutive drives that ended in positives for the Falcons defense: Bates' second interception, his forced fumble and then the Troy Andersen/Grady Jarrett sack on third down to force a punt. Most notably, though, was that the pocket kept collapsing around Panthers quarterback Bryce Young.
Young threw 18 incompletions on Sunday (he was 20-of-38 through the air), and 12 of those 18 incompletions came in the second half as the Falcons defense settled into a disruptive state. He also never completed a pass beyond 15 yards. Looking back, he didn't really have the opportunity. The defensive line's push became more significant as the game progressed. The stickiness of defensive backs became more evident, too.
What Smith said after the game felt true in the moment: The Falcons wore the Panthers down as the game went on, both offensively and defensively.
And here people were worried about our favorite little bowling ball's carries.
The phrase above feels kind of like a Mad Libs sentence. So, let me translate with some context:
When Bijan Robinson was drafted by the Falcons with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, there was an uproar: "But what about Tyler Allgeier?! Do the Falcons not have faith in Allgeier? Someone who rushed for 1,000 yards in his rookie season? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!"
(Note: If you haven't guessed by now, "our favorite little bowling ball" is Allgeier. It's a nickname I've had for him since the fifth week of the season last year. It's actually pretty straightforward as nicknames come: In my mind, Allgeier runs like a bowling ball destroys pins. Simple).
Now that the first game of the 2023 season is in the rearview, we have our answer to the above questions: Having Robinson around didn't really effect Allgeier negatively at all. They both had their moments to shine, and as Scott Bair pointed out in his postgame column: Perhaps they're even better together.
Their combined production and usage was eye-catching to say the least. The Falcons ran 48 offensive plays on Sunday night, and either Robinson or Allgeier touched the ball in 70.8 percent of said plays. This duo accounted for a whopping 80 percent of the Falcons total offensive production on Sunday. Those are huge percentages, and it showed exactly why the Falcons were 1) keen on picking up Robinson in the draft, but also 2) why they were keen on pairing Robinson with Allgeier.
"What you saw is when you go from Bijan to Tyler (was) two pretty damn good football players," Smith said after the game.
He's right. Sunday's game was a workshop in Running Back Usage 101. Do I think every game in 2023 will have this level of production and usage from Allgeier and Robinson? No. I don't. I do think the goal offensively is to be more balanced. I asked Smith about this after the game, and he agreed. The Falcons were trying to be more balanced in Week 1 but got away from throwing the ball because it just wasn't working early for them. They weren't cleanly executing in the pass game. "We can do a better job," per Smith. Sunday showed, though, that the Falcons are a major force to be reckoned with when they have either Allgeier or Robinson on the field.
This running back rotation is less about Robinson and Allgeier competing with each other and more about them feeding off of each other. I think there are a few people who should have listened to Allgeier when he said back in OTAs that he and Robinson are like thunder and lightning. They intensify one another.
The elephant in the room
Drake London had one target on Sunday night. It fell incomplete.
Kyle Pitts was targeted three times. He had two catches for 44 yards. But his first catch of the game came with less than 90 seconds on the clock in the third quarter.
After the game, it was brought to Smith's attention that Ridder (who's first pass of the afternoon was tipped into the air and caught by the quarterback himself) had more catches than London. Smith didn't like that.
"Let the fantasy guys worry about that," Smith said. "We've got to clean some things up. We can all be better in our spacing, but targets is the most misunderstood thing in the National Football League. There's progressions, there's spacing, if somebody underneath is not right, that's the stuff where I'm a little irritated as a coach.
"We had to fix it at halftime. That's on me. That's on everybody. We don't care. Drake London doesn't care. All we care about is 1-0. We have a lot of work – and that has to improve because it's not going to sustain every week. Every week is its own entity. We don't care about the stats. We care about one: Winning."
I wanted you to read Smith's comment in full before I really got into this topic because I first want to point out that he's right. Everything that he said is accurate: It's not as easy as dialing up London's or Pitts' number and getting the ball in their hands. There are too many variables that can dictate otherwise. I've also had conversations with London myself, one specifically that I can recall early last year when I asked him then if he could be satisfied in this offense, one that -- at the time and even now -- was run-first and run-often. He said yes. He said he gets satisfaction blocking for those guys. He said if it helps the team win, he'll do whatever it takes. He didn't show any signs of frustration. I believed him when he said that.
This all doesn't mean that you or I can't want more production from both London and Pitts. We saw what happens when Pitts is involved. His first catch went for 10 yards and a first down. It was a catch in a drive that put up six points. His second catch -- the most dazzling -- was a 34-yard acrobatic grab that set up yet another Falcons touchdown. There's a trend here: When Pitts was involved, the Falcons got in the end zone.
Now, is it fair of me to say that the Falcons only got in the end zone in these two drives because Pitts had a catch? No, it's not. That's one play in drives that spanned six and seven plays, respectively. But that's not what I am saying. What I am saying is that there is evidence to show that when the Falcons are more balanced, when they get more playmakers involved, they move the ball at a clip that is indicative of who they want to be.
Those two drives are the standard. I don't think it's wrong to want to see more of it, and more of London and Pitts in it. I don't think its wrong for you to feel that way, either. I'll say this, too: I don't play Fantasy Football. I haven't in years. And yet, I still want to see the No. 4 and No. 8 overall picks more involved in the Falcons offensive operation moving forward.
Can you feel it?
I wrote this one question down fairly early in the game on Sunday afternoon. It was in the first quarter, when Carolina had driven down to the 11 yard line in their very first drive. As the Falcons defense locked down the red zone, you could feel a fanbase rejuvenating.
I'll preface this by saying I am in the press box on game days. For the last few years, the press box had a glass barrier. So, I could never really tell how loud the stadium was or wasn't in certain moments. This offseason, the glass was taken away. So, I can hear you -- the fans -- now. And when David Onyemata and Bud Dupree stopped Chuba Hubbard on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 11 yard line in the first quarter of Sunday's game, I felt you.
For what feels like the first time in a long time, this fan base felt alive and together with the team itself. I felt it. Is this a sign of the winds changing in Atlanta? The more wins they put together, the stronger that wind will become.
In the second quarter of the Falcons' game against the Carolina Panthers, the rookie RB crossed the goal line on an 11-yard pass reception.