It was an “all-day fight” as Falcons coach Dan Quinn likes to say.
The Falcons, with some clutch kicking and an errant throw from Bucs’ quarterback Jameis Winston, rallied to pull out a 28-22 victory to close out a disappointing season on high note Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Falcons took some shots and then gave some at the end of an end-of-the-season battle of two teams heading for vacation. The Falcons’ offensive line struggled with the Bucs’ stout defensive front as quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked six times and hit 14 more times.
But Ryan, who was sacked a career-high 48 times this season, took a licking and kept on ticking. He drove the Falcons, while seemingly running for his life, into position for two late field goals to force overtime.
On the first play in OT, linebacker Deion Jones stepped in front of tight end Cameron Brate, intercepted the pass and high-stepped 27 yards for the touchdown — the team’s first defensive touchdown of the season.
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With the victory the Falcons finished 7-9, dropped three more spots in the draft derby to 16th and will play Dallas from the NFC East (instead of Washington) and Seattle (instead of the Rams) from the NFC West, next season.
Here are five things we learned from the season-ending win over Tampa Bay:
1. Carryover to 2020? The Falcons, who had playoff aspirations, went 1-7 to start the season. After some soul searching and juggling of coaching responsibilities, they went 6-2 to finish the year.
They are hoping the hot finish carries over into the 2020 season.
“We saw how strong the group can be,” Quinn said. “Obviously, it’s disappointing for this to be the last game and the last moments of this team. Usually, one doesn’t carry into the next season, but in this case, I don’t see how it couldn’t.”
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Quinn believes the struggles the team went through in the first half of the season, when they weren’t competitive and were giving up 32.1 points per game, made the team tougher, stronger and more resilient.
“Every good team that I’ve been a part of has those traits,” Quinn said. “A number of these men have developed those (traits) and the lessons may be (learned) by 20 players, it may carry through for them who haven’t been in this space before. How hard it is to win in the National Football League.”
Some believe the Falcons were complacent at the start of the season and felt they were good enough to show up and win.
But once the players got called out by wide receiver Julio Jones and the coaches simplified the defense, they pulled off some signature wins and beat some young quarterbacks in Carolina’s Kyle Allen (twice) and Jacksonville’s (Gardner Minshew).
Quinn believes that the younger players had to grow from the experience.
“But players who have had one, two or three (years of experience) who are still developing, anybody who can’t grow strong from that, then that’s a problem,” Quinn said.
2. Vets concur with Quinn: Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and Ryan believe the hot finish can make its way to the 2020 campaign.
“We were disappointed we didn’t make it to the postseason,” Jarrett said. “But I’m excited for the future.”
Ryan spoke of lessons for the younger players, too.
“For them to realize what it takes to win in this league is important, but then also to have the belief that you can go out there and do it,” Ryan said. “They know they can do it now.”
The key will be can the Falcons remember the lessons from both halves of the season.
“We’ve got two offensive linemen on the right side that were rookies that played extremely well for us down the stretch,” Ryan said. “Two guys at wide receiver in Russ Gage and Christian Blake that stepped up and played huge roles for us. I think those guys are going to have a confidence boost from what happened the second half of the season.”
3. Offensive line struggles: Ryan can’t keep taking a beating. He was sacked 42 times and hit 108 times in 2018. To go with the 50 sacks overall, the Falcons’ quarterbacks were hit 135 times in 2019.
It would not be a surprise if the organization, which spent $80.3 million on linemen last offseason, continued to select linemen in the upcoming draft as they need a left guard and Alex Mack is 34. While rookies Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary showed promise at right guard and right tackle, McGary needs to improve drastically in pass protection.
4. Move Sambrailo to tight end: The Falcons saw something on film from the previous game against Tampa and thought they could exploit the defensive look.
When tackle Ty Sambralio went in at tight end, he was announced as an eligible receiver. When the Falcons ran the read-pass option play, the Bucs didn’t honor the athletic tackle as a receiver.
Sambrailo, did his best Tony Gonzalez impersonation, and ran a nice route straight up the seam of the Bucs’ defense.
He caught it and race on in for a 35-yard touchdown, for the Falcons’ first and only offensive touchdown of the game.
“I surprised myself, I’ll put it that way,” Sambrailo said when asked about his hands.
While he played some tight end and quarterback in his youth, it was his first touchdown ever.
“So, we knew they were going to be in man, and it was an RPO, run-pass-option and if they would have covered me, we would have just run the ball,” Sambrailo said. “If they would have covered me and not Luke (Stocker), we would have just thrown to Luke. So, it’s one of those plays where you just go to the open guy.”
The play ignited the Falcons’ sideline.
“It was awesome, a lot of fun,” Sambrailo said. “Tons of energy, it was surreal a little bit, first time scoring kind of having that experience, but it was cool.”
5. Ryan on Quinn’s return: On Friday when it was announced that Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff would return for the 2020 season, Ryan, one of the team captains, was not made available to comment.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a coach, but even more so as a person,” Ryan said Sunday. “I mean he is as good of a guy as there is and he’s an excellent football coach.”
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There was open talk of Quinn getting fired after the 1-7 start. Falcons great Deion Sanders even predicted he’d be fired.
Owner Arthur Blank met with the media following a loss to the Seahawks to state that they would be a full evaluation of the football operation.
“You never want to be in the position where those kinds of things come up, but certainly we had to answer questions about that,” Ryan said. “I know there was no let down from anybody. I think that’s the ultimate show of respect and sign of respect for head football coaches.”
The Falcons continued to play hard and much smarter for Quinn over the second half of the season.
“When things are tough and your back is against the wall and you’re out of it and guys are pushing even harder, going for it,” Ryan said. “I think it says a lot about the players we have.”