It all seemed doom-and-gloom for the "Quinndrella" undefeated story following an abysmal offensive performance. Matt Ryan was harassed throughout the game and threw multiple errant interceptions. Julio Jones was clearly hobbled, although still managed to contribute in spurts. Ryan Schraeder struggled significantly against Ryan Kerrigan, although the entire offensive line played equally below average in the first half.
Devonta Freeman's Rise
When an undefeated team struggles against an inferior team, even if those distinctions are just on paper, contributions will be needed elsewhere from players that aren't exactly weekly difference makers. Devonta Freeman appears to be headed into the weekly difference maker category, because his blistering cuts and outstanding vision practically kept Atlanta's offense afloat once again. After facing questions in the offseason about his ability to handle a full-time workload, the former Seminole has proven to be an absolute revelation.
The Kirk Cousins Show
Despite Devonta Freeman's efforts to single-handedly carry Atlanta's offense, it almost didn't show up in the win column. Kirk Cousins started to gain confidence following a sixty-yard drive in nineteen seconds to push the game into overtime. Atlanta's defense became creaky following a pretty stout early performance, particularly against the run.
As Dan Quinn started to dial up blitzes, it seemed inevitable that Cousins would crack under pressure. According to Pro Football Focus (premium stats), Cousins has completed just 49 percent of his passes and thrown four interceptions under pressure this season. Nate Stupar blitzed off the edge, which led to Cousins throwing an out route into the hands of Robert Alford.
Robert Alford's Big Day
The oft-embattled third-year cornerback contributed two interceptions and two passes defensed. After an inconsistent second season and not being viewed as an ideal fit for Quinn's scheme, many wondered about Alford's long-term future. The questions increased when Atlanta drafted Jalen Collins in the second round, and a once-promising prospect seemed to be getting phased out.
A productive offseason has translated onto the field, with Alford showcasing better technique and footwork through five games. Alford has improved significantly by not biting on double-moves and constantly being physical without losing position against big wide receivers. Those are two elements of his game that needed vast improvement, especially through playing physical in a legal manner (seven penalties in ten games last season).
Alford's season has been up-and-down. Odell Beckham beat him on several plays, although Alford battled quite valiantly one-on-one. The controversial pass interference against Rashad Ross essentially cost Atlanta seven points. Unfortunately, any noticeable contact affecting a receiver's ability to catch a pass downfield before the ball arrives will likely result in a penalty. That rule desperately needs refinement, along with properly maintaining possession of a reception, which nearly cost Atlanta the game as well.
Alford continue to battle through that particular setback. He faired well against Pierre Garcon, when matched up against him one-on-one. Cousins throwing behind Garcon aided the first interception, but it provided a much-needed momentum shift for a languishing Falcons offense. The streak of causing one turnover continued for a fifth consecutive week. Proper positioning can benefit a cornerback greatly towards taking advantage of a quarterback-wide receiver miscommunication.
Sunday's performance became Alford's ultimate breakout game. With an improved pass rush and being tested on a weekly basis by the number one receiver on nearly every team, Alford is developing quickly.
The Defense Wins Out
Other than allowing sixty yards on the last drive, it was another promising performance by the defense. They limited Washington's prolific rushing attack to 51 yards on 24 carries. Jonathan Babineaux, Paul Soliai, and Ra'Shede Hageman had their moments blasting through Washington's interior offensive line. They continue to benefit heavily from Quinn's constant rotation that keeps every player fresh, and it can't be discounted that Atlanta's front seven remained stingy without Justin Durant. That has to be another confidence booster for the coaching staff.
It's going to be a weekly process (remember that motto) for this revamped defense. Every week, a new playmaker or group of players emerges. Ricardo Allen and Grady Jarrett played massive roles within securing an emotional win over Philadelphia. Kroy Biermann made Atlanta's comeback against the Giants possible. A collective defensive effort shut out Dallas in the second half. Desmond Trufant and William Moore were the main catalysts last week.
Consistency will be essential against better teams, although this year's schedule doesn't present many extreme challenges. Nobody believed this team would make a deep run in January. Quinn will continue to improvise stunts to help a pass rush lacking edge rushers besides Vic Beasley. It will be refreshing for the highly touted rookie to not be matched up against top five left tackles in the NFL. Jason Peters, Tyron Smith, Duane Brown, and Trent Williams are franchise-caliber left tackles that have efficiently blocked their quarterback's blindside for years, and they were all on Beasley's docket early.
Quinn's stance on the "bend, don't break" defense concept was applauded by fans, who have used that phrase to describe their favorite team's unit countless times between 2008-2012. A new challenge awaits Atlanta on Thursday, albeit against a fading divisional rival. With this opportunistic defense continuing to make plays during the right times of the game, they will be salivating at the opportunity of taking an even larger lead over its arch-nemesis.