Appreciating Younghoe Koo’s excellence in Falcons’ uneasy win

TAMPA – In the bedlam on the field, Liam McCullough brought a gift for Younghoe Koo.

Hint: It was brown, leather and oblong and had just bisected the goalposts at the south end of Raymond James Stadium.

Can’t solve this puzzler? It was the football the Falcons kicker cranked 51 yards for the game-winning field goal against the Buccaneers Sunday.

“That’s a little routine we have,” the Falcons long snapper explained to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the 16-13 win. “Anytime Koo hits the game-winner, I’m always going to run down there and make sure that that ball doesn’t get lost anywhere. I go and I hand deliver it to him.”

There are worse routines for McCullough, now in his second season. Koo has seven game-winners in his career, which is tied for the most in the NFL since the start of the 2021 season.

“The operation was great,” said Koo, referring to the pre-kick mechanics of McCullough and holder Bradley Pinion. “Liam and Bradley are money in that situation every time. All I had to do was just kick it.”

The game overall was a bit of an adventure. Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder turned the ball over three times in the red zone, errors (maybe one not his fault, two that were) that necessitated Koo’s heroics. The defense gave up a season-high 256 passing yards and were perilously close to suffering the ignominy of losing to the Buccaneers with a 31-yard scramble by plodding quarterback Baker Mayfield being the potential game-changer.

“We certainly like to make it hard on ourselves,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said, offering an ironic slogan for the 2023 Falcons that someone needs to put on a T-shirt.

So before getting to that, let’s first offer admiration to Koo, who might be better at his position than any other member of the team is at his. His 3-for-3 performance on Sunday elevated his career accuracy rate to 89.4%, second highest in NFL history behind the Ravens’ Justin Tucker.

“It just feels like whenever he goes out there, we’ve got the utmost confidence he’s going to get it done, and he just consistently proves that over and over again,” left tackle Jake Matthews said. “He’s extremely clutch. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Did anyone think Koo’s attempt wasn’t going through? He’s now 21-for-26 on kicks of 50 yards or more. Someone asked him if, in kicking from 51 yards, he had to put more leg into his kick, which was a little like asking a great white shark if it had to bite extra hard on that sea lion.

“It was only a 51-yarder,” Koo said. “It was just the same ball. I knew if I just hit the same ball as I do, it’s usually pretty good.”

After McCullough brought Koo his game ball, cornerback Jeff Okudah gave Koo a hug on the field.

“That’s my guy,” the new Falcons cornerback said. “Before I got here, I used to see him on Madden making all the kicks and whatnot. So to see it firsthand, I see why he’s got that star next to his name on Madden. When I kick with him on Madden, the meter goes real slow. It’s real easy to knock ‘em down.”

Koo’s half-field missile brought an end to an afternoon in which the Falcons did enough to win handily but also enough to merit defeat. At the top of the latter category was Ridder’s three lost red-zone fumbles, which squandered the potential for perhaps 17 points.

On the first, the pocket collapsed on him late in the first half, resulting in a sack and lost fumble. With the score tied at 10, the Falcons had a first-and-goal on the Tampa Bay 1-yard line in the third quarter when he pulled away from under center without the ball. On the last, he ran around left end on a first-and-goal from the 12 but had the ball knocked loose as he crossed the goal line and the ball bounced out of the end zone, resulting in a turnover. Ridder failed to switch the ball to his outside arm, giving safety Antoine Winfield Jr. a shot at the ball.

“You know, at the end of the day, I’ve just got to do a better job of taking care of the ball,” Ridder said.

On the other hand, as the gripping saga of “Is Ridder the guy or is he not?” continued into its seventh week, he completed 19 of 25 passes for 250 yards for his highest yards-per-attempt average in a game (10.0) and didn’t throw any interceptions. The Falcons were 7-for-13 on third downs.

What seemed an important step happened near the end of the team’s third possession. Under pressure on a first-and-goal play, he launched the ball into the first row of the stands rather than try to make a risky play. Two downs later, he did miss on a throw to wide receiver Drake London into the end zone that could have been a touchdown if better-placed, but the possession did result in a field goal that, while not a touchdown, proved crucial.

And, not least, on a drive starting with 45 seconds left, he got the Falcons from their 25 to the Buccaneers 33 to set up the Koo game-winner, picking up a 39-yard chunk on a downfield pass to tight end Kyle Pitts. While likening the process of stamping out Ridder’s flaws to whack-a-mole, Smith also stuck up for his quarterback.

“Let’s give him some credit,” Smith said. “Let’s give this team some credit for winning.”

As for Smith’s defense, the unit sacked Mayfield three times, gained two turnovers and, most memorably, kept the Buccaneers out of the end zone when it was absolutely necessary. Down 13-10 with under two minutes to play, the Buccaneers made use of Mayfield’s 31-yard scramble on a third-and-nine to reach first-and-goal from the Falcons’ 8. The circumstances were ripe for a most unsatisfying defeat. But nickel back Dee Alford broke up a pass into the end zone on first down, Mayfield threw incomplete again against an incoming pass rush on second down and then defensive tackle David Onyemata won his one-on-one to sack Mayfield on third to limit the Buccaneers to a game-tying field goal.

“It was like, got to get a stop, backs on the wall, got to control what we can control in the moment,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “Guys (bucked down) and got a good stop.”

The end result – the Falcons are 4-3 and in sole possession of first place of the NFC South. There are many things that can be said about this game after an at-times uneasy 60 minutes. Among them is that the sought-after playoff bid – which would be the team’s first since 2017 – is under their control.

That’s not bad.

About the Author