Cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson read exactly where Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert was going to go with the football.
Herbert was looking for receiver Keenan Allen coming across the middle for a slant. Allen had been a frequent target all game, which is likely why Wreh-Wilson paid close attention to where he was heading. As he sat in his zone, Wreh-Wilson watched Herbert begin his throwing motion. Realizing where the ball was going to go, Wreh-Wilson jumped Allen’s route and came up with an interception with only 47 seconds left to go in the game.
It was just the game-changing play the Falcons needed, considering it had been unable to come up with a turnover until that point.
Wreh-Wilson’s interception gave the Falcons the ball at their own 38-yard line with a ton of optimism to go drive for a game-winning field goal try.
“Here we go, let’s go win this game, let’s get a field goal,” quarterback Matt Ryan said when asked for his thoughts after Wreh-Wilson’s interception. “We’re going to do it. I thought that was our chance to take over the game and win it.”
Instead, the Falcons’ offense was unable to capitalize on the Chargers’ lone turnover of the game. After a 17-yard completion to receiver Russell Gage on second-and-10, the Falcons called timeout from the Chargers’ 45-yard line. A play later, Ryan was looking for receiver Calvin Ridley, his top target, on the right sideline. But Ryan’s pass wasn’t placed where it needed to be and was picked off by Chargers cornerback Michael Davis.
The Chargers ran five plays and kicked a field goal of their own to defeat the Falcons 20-17.
After getting what could have been a game-deciding interception on one drive, the Falcons’ defense was unable to prevent the Chargers from getting the necessary yardage a possession later. On a first-and-10 play from the Chargers’ 49-yard line, Herbert found receiver Tyron Johnson, who beat cornerback Isaiah Oliver in man coverage, on the left side of the field. Johnson took the play for a 25-yard pickup. Two plays later, the Chargers won the game with place-kicker Michael Badgley’s 43-yard field goal.
“We got beat man to man,” Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris said. “We’re in a two-high, two-man defense. We’re playing underneath coverage. (Johnson) made a nice outside breaking route. We got beat on a long play and we can’t let those things happen either. We can’t lose those battles if we want to win games on the road.”
Over the course of the season, the Falcons’ defense has steadily improved. At the same time, the Falcons’ offense has struggled lately and kept the defense on the field longer than it would have liked. A week ago in a loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons’ defense was on the field for 36:54. On Sunday, it spent 34:15 on the field.
Much of Sunday’s issues had to do with Ryan’s three second-half interceptions and inability to run the ball to churn some clock. The Falcons finished with only 70 rushing yards, which dropped the team to 0-6 this season when failing to pick up 90 on the ground.
“We have to physically impose our will on teams,” Morris said. “We had a chance (Sunday) and we were not able to get it done.”
But while spending just over 34 minutes on the field, the defense still held the Chargers to only 20 points. While the unit only got one turnover with the late interception, it forced two fumbles but was unable to recover them.
Over the first five games of the season, when Dan Quinn was still the coach, the Falcons allowed an average of 32.2 points per game. Since the Falcons made the change to interim coach Raheem Morris, this number has dropped to 20.1 over the past nine games.
However, in the Falcons’ three losses in the past four weeks, the offense has failed to score more than 17 points.
“You just have to get back in the lab,” cornerback A.J. Terrell said. “Coach always says to try to put the game behind us. Just don’t dwell on it, move on and continue to go to next week and win that game.”
Earlier this year, the Falcons’ defense was unable to close games late in losses against the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions. Technically, this one can be added to the list thanks to the big play from Herbert to Johnson that set up the Chargers’ game-winning field goal.
But if not for Ryan’s late interception, the defense wouldn’t have been in such a compromising position late in the game.
“Of course it gets frustrating over the weeks,” Terrell said. “But each and every week we’re trying to make more plays and not make the same mistakes as last week.”
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