ATLANTA — Every football coach at every level likes to talk about the “next man up.” Even in the NFL, where the salary cap ensures that teams don’t have a stash of blue chippers waiting for their opportunity, teams don’t like to blame injuries for whatever problems they might incur.
But realistically, a 53-man roster is only built to shoulder so much adversity.
The Atlanta Falcons have had to say “next man up” at an unsustainable pace this season. In each of their first three games this season, they lost defensive starters to long-term injuries: Safety Keanu Neal (ACL), linebacker Deion Jones (foot) and safety Ricardo Allen (torn Achilles).
The question now is how much more the supremely talented Falcons can withstand before a season that started with Super Bowl hopes quietly slips away.
Just inches away from getting the one stop they needed, the Falcons instead saw Bengals star A.J. Green slip underneath their defense for a 13-yard touchdown with seven seconds remaining for a 37-36 victory. The winning score came after the Bengals converted a pair of fourth downs on a 16-play, 75-yard drive and had a sure interception go through the hands of cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Now 1-3 with little hope of having a healthy defense any time soon, the Falcons are in dire straits. If they can’t win a game in which they had 495 yards of offense, it’s hard to imagine them being much of a factor in the NFC South.
Meanwhile, the 3-1 Bengals got a superb performance from quarterback Andy Dalton (29-of-41 passing, 337 yards, three touchdown, one interception) and were able to utilize Tyler Boyd (11 catches, 100 yards) with Atlanta paying so much attention to Green.
But when it mattered most, Green was able to get free for the winning score.
Three other things we learned from Falcons-Bengals:
John Ross gets some redemption: As things stand right now, Bengals receiver John Ross looks like a massive bust. After getting picked No. 9 overall out of Washington in the 2017 draft, Ross’ impact in the NFL has been minimal, and his rookie season earned him significant criticism from coach Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati front office. This year, Ross has been marginally better but came into Week 4 with just five receptions on 13 targets. Ross, however, flashed some of his elite speed against Atlanta, hauling in a 39-yard touchdown in the second quarter. It was the first time in his NFL career Ross had caught a pass further than 9 yards. He also had a 13-yard reception in the third quarter.
Tyler Eifert can’t catch a break: Cincinnati’s talented tight end is always productive when he’s on the field, but sadly, his star-crossed career has robbed him of opportunities to do it consistently. Eifert was carted off the field after the Bengals’ second play from scrimmage in the third quarter with what appeared to be a significant foot/ankle injury. Eifert, who appeared to be in significant pain as he was being loaded onto the stretcher, seemed to have his right leg plant awkwardly in the turf as he was being tackled by De’Vondre Campbell. It was one of those replays you don’t want to see twice.
Eifert, a former first-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, played just two games last season and eight in 2016 while dealing with back injuries. He also suffered an elbow injury in the 2014 opener that sidelined him for the entire season. He caught his 21st career touchdown in the first quarter Sunday.
Happy birthday, Mr. President: President Jimmy Carter, who turns 94 on Monday, celebrated his birthday in Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s suite at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Wearing a red Falcons jersey with the number “39” on the back, was shown on the scoreboard during the third quarter blowing out candles on a birthday cake while the crowd cheered for him. Blank was also celebrating a birthday: He turned 76 this past Thursday.