National Football League
Falcons WR Drake London had a career game. But why do TDs remain elusive?
National Football League

Falcons WR Drake London had a career game. But why do TDs remain elusive?

Updated Dec. 13, 2023 12:40 p.m. ET

What was, at least statistically, the best day of Drake London's young NFL career ended cruelly Sunday with the Falcons receiver just 3 yards short of the end zone and what would have been a game-winning touchdown.

London did not reach the end zone in Atlanta's 29-25 loss to the Bucs, but he finished with 10 catches for 172 yards — both career highs, the latter by 47 yards — in quarterback Desmond Ridder's most prolific passing day in 16 career starts.

"Drake obviously played his butt off out there," Ridder said Sunday. "You know, early on, obviously just getting a bunch of one-on-ones and then at some point you've got to heat-check him, which we did late and just gave him a ball which he could go get. He soared up higher than others and was able to go get it. Drake is a heck of a competitor, heck of a player. Obviously, he wanted that last one more than anyone."

London, the No. 8 pick in last year's draft out of USC, made big plays all day long Sunday: 26 yards on the opening drive, 22 on another early and then a 45-yard catch down the sideline to set up the Falcons' go-ahead touchdown with 3:23 left, with London catching the two-point conversion.


"Des just trusted me. He put it up there," London said of his longest catch of 2023. "He has trust in me, and I have trust in him. It's my job to come down with it."

A week earlier, the Bucs defense had faced nearly the same play late in the game, with Panthers receiver Adam Thielen running down the same sideline, a step ahead of corner Carlton Davis, and safety Antoine Winfield saw the deep pass coming and picked it off to seal Tampa Bay's win. This time, Winfield covered the same ground, but the 6-foot-4 London made an acrobatic leaping catch in front of him for the 45-yard gain.

"Oh, man, that was a great catch by him," Winfield said after the game. "I saw the ball thrown and I'm like, 'I'm about to get this one.' I honestly didn't even see him. As I'm going up, I just see two gloves and I'm like, 'Wooooo!' Next time, I've got to make sure I go higher, I guess. That was a great play by him."

On the Falcons' final drive, needing to cover 65 yards in 31 seconds, Ridder found London for a 16-yard gain, and on the final play from the Bucs' 31, London made a leaping grab at the 5 but was tackled immediately to end the game. Ideally, that's a pass thrown into the end zone where London's athletic ability can give them a better chance, but it wasn't. London has only two touchdowns this year, and none since Week 4, continuing a frustrating lack of scoring from his rookie season.

Those two touchdowns match the lowest for any of the league's top 39 players in receiving yards (London ranks 28th), and all season, the Falcons have been better at piling up yards (15th in total offense) than points (24th in scoring offense). Their struggles get worse the closer they get to the end zone, ranking 20th in red-zone scoring and tying for last place in goal-to-go scoring efficiency.

One problem for London is creating separation from opposing defensive backs. The league's NextGenStats, using GPS technology, show him with an average of 2.2 yards of separation, third-worst out of 111 qualifying players. That could factor into any hesitation to throw to him more. Right now, though, he's the Falcons' most-targeted player for the second year in a row, and needs only 127 yards in four games to exceed last year's yardage total.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith argued this week that London's impact isn't just felt on the plays in which he makes catches, suggesting the attention he commands from opposing defenses sets his teammates up for success.

"It was a lot of good," Smith said of London's game Sunday. "Certainly the production — the ball is in the air and some of the routes he ran, he's a unique player. That's why we drafted him where we did. I think he fits us. Sometimes you look at receiver numbers, and maybe seven or eight catches, and then let's call it the other 65 plays aren't productive. I'd argue every play Drake's out there, whether he has the ball or not, he makes an impact. 

[Sunday], they were bringing a lot of pressure. People were trying to pack the paint. We needed to win outside, and we won outside. That's where a lot of those big plays were. So that was really cool to see."

With a three-way tie atop the NFC South standings with four weeks left, the Falcons, Bucs and Saints can all put themselves in good position to make the playoffs if they can go 3-1 or better down the stretch. Atlanta has a fairly easy schedule — at the Panthers, hosting the Colts, at the Bears and at the Saints — but also faces some tough pass defenses along the way. Carolina, for all its struggles, ranks third against the pass and has allowed only nine touchdowns to receivers all season. New Orleans ranks seventh and has allowed only eight.

"We have to put up points and do all that. We're not out of it," London said Sunday. "We're going to keep on chugging and try to make our push into the playoffs." 

Greg Auman is FOX Sports' NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.


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