The Firebirds are finally back in the win column. After a three-game losing streak including a 38-6 thrashing at the hands of the Orlando Rockets, Atlanta righted the ship with a 30-17 road win over the Memphis Bombers.
“I’d almost forgotten what this felt like,” said Atlanta coach Rob Ryan, exhaling with a long sigh. “It feels good to come out on top again.”
The game was a defensive battle throughout, especially in the first half, as neither offense could find the end zone. Ty Long opened the scoring with a 33-yard field goal to give Memphis an early 3-0 lead. Atlanta responded with a 51-yard scoring drive, capped off by a 10-yard Matt Breida touchdown run.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett bullied his way through the line early in the second quarter to take down AJ McCarron for a safety and a 9-3 lead that would last into the half.
The Firebirds took to the air on the second half’s opening drive. A departure from a more conservative game plan in place most of the day, Matt Barkley went deep to Cameron Meredith, who slipped behind the defense and went untouched for a 53-yard touchdown.
Unable able to find much traction on offense, it was the special teams that blew the game wide open. After another Bomber drive stalled, future Hall of Famer Trindon Holliday made them pay with a 79-yard house call to extend the lead to 20 points.
DeMarco Murray pushed the lead to 30-3 on the first play of the fourth quarter with a 2-yard plunge.
Memphis made them sweat late with Trevor Knight coming off the bench and tossing a pair of touchdowns to Malcolm Mitchell, who has now been traded from Atlanta to Memphis twice in two seasons.
“That Memphis team is a heckuva team. I’m happy we got out of there with a win,” he said. “And hats off to Malcolm for a big game. He’s going to make us miss him.”
Barkley finished the game 17 of 32 passing for 250 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception. For now, he’s still holding onto the starting job.
“It’s an improvement, but he knows he’s still got a ways to go,” said Ryan.
The rushing attack was completely stonewalled by the Bombers, as they managed just 69 yards on 24 carries. Breida led the way with 22 yards and a score on 6 attempts. Murray added 13 yards and a touchdown on 5 carries.
Meredith was the team’s top offensive weapon, hauling in 8 catches for 168 yards and a score. Nick O’Leary added 4 catches for 47 yards.
Defensively, the Firebirds were outstanding, limiting Memphis’s starting QB to just 134 yards and holding Jordan Howard in check at only 39 yards on 20 carries.
Joplo Bartu led the way with 8 tackles and a sack. Joe Vellano and Ethan Westbrooks each added a sack of their own, and Bacarri Rambo and Telvin Smith each intercepted a pass.
“That’s the kind of performance we need out of our defense each week,” said Ryan. “When we go out hitting like that, we’re going to be hard to beat.”
Atlanta will need to build on the positive momentum with a big matchup looming this week, as the 6-3 Firebirds host the 6-3 Boston Dragons. In week four, Atlanta was victorious on the road, 30-20, but the Dragons are picking up steam, having won four of five games since that matchup.
“We’re going to have our hands full this week,” said Ryan. “They look like a different team since we last played them, so we’re going to have to put on our big boy pants to battle them.”