During the Julio Jones era, 100-yard receiving games were routine for the Atlanta Falcons. That has been far from the case in the first season post-Jones.
The Falcons had just three 100-yard receiving games coming into Sunday, and none from Atlanta wideouts. (Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts delivered those triple-digit performances.)
With Calvin Ridley out for much of the season. alone with Jones being gone, the lack of receiver production in Atlanta hasn't been all that surprising. But in a 30-17 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Russell Gage broke out with Atlanta's first 100-yard receiving day from a receiver this year.
Gage was clearly quarterback Matt Ryan's favorite pass catcher in Week 13, leading the team with 12 targets. Gage caught 11 for a career-high 130 yards.
No other Falcons pass catcher had more than seven targets, five catches or 50 yards.
"He made some plays and toughed it out at the end," Ryan said of Gage. "I appreciate that."
Gage posted two catches for 15 yards in the final two minutes when the game was already decided. But while he padded the stats a bit, Gage still had more than 100 meaningful yards. He also suffered an injury with 1:09 remaining and returned to the field despite the game being decided.
The 25-year-old receiver probably will never be a star on a great offense. Gage seems best suited for a complimentary role playing opposite an elite wideout or even as a third option in the slot.
He excelled in that job last season with 72 catches and 786 yards in eight starts. Most of his production occurred while Jones was injured.
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It was a slow start to the 2021 season. Dealing with an injury, Gage had just 95 receiving yards in the first two months of the season. But Gage has led the Falcons in receiving yards each of the last three weeks.
In the last five weeks without Ridley, Gage is averaging 61 receiving yards per game. That's more than what Ridley averaged in his five games.
With Sunday's performance, Gage also has more yards than any other Falcons receiver this season. He has 42 receptions for 400 yards and two touchdowns.
It wasn't all rosy for Gage against the Buccaneers. Trailing by three at halftime, the Falcons had the to start the third quarter. Gage made a great catch for 19 yards on third-and-13, but he fumbled and Tampa Bay recovered.
After the giveaway, the Falcons didn't have another great scoring chance the rest of the afternoon until the garbage time.
Ryan and Falcons coach Arthur Smith minimized the importance of the blunder in a game where the Atlanta defense gave up four touchdown passes to Tom Brady. Smith adamantly declined to call the fumble a turning point in the game, and Ryan downplayed its role in the 13-point loss.
In Gage's defense, the Falcons defense did force a Tampa Bay punt immediately following the quick change of possession. It was only after another Atlanta punt did the Buccaneers regain a 10-point lead.
"I thought our defense did a nice job after that of getting another stop and giving us an opportunity to still go down there and take the lead," Ryan said. "Physical mistakes happen. That's part of sports. Those kinds of things happen at different times. Are they inopportune? For sure. And I thought Russ bounced back and did some good things for us."
The Falcons will need him to do more good things to keep them in the playoff hunt. Atlanta faces another NFC South rival in the Carolina Panthers next Sunday. Both teams will enter the game with a 5-7 record.