As the Falcons have shown throughout the season, not every victory is going to be easy. Besides the 48-21 beatdown of the Houston Texans, every game has been a dogfight through the fourth quarter. Sunday's game versus the Tennessee Titans proved to be no different.
The defense was able to limit Tennessee to only seven points, but the offense really struggled against a defense (on paper) they should've dominated. The entire offense isn't broken, though, so it's a good time to break down how each level of the unit performed and how they project going forward.
Let's start with the good.
Devonta Freeman is Carrying the Offense
By far the biggest surprise of the season has been the emergence of Devonta Freeman. Since taking over for an injured Tevin Coleman in Week 3, he's consistently produced like one of the best backs in the league averaging 165 total yards per game in that span.
Freeman is currently the focal point of the offense and his improvement from his rookie season to now is incredible. He's a perfect for the zone blocking scheme and has quickly developed a killer instinct when it comes to reading, setting up, and exploiting rushing lanes. Freeman has especially excelled on the outside zone plays where his combination of vision and quickness have tormented opposing defenses.
Outside zone plays typically have three options for the running back to execute based on how the defense reacts to the offensive line. The back can either "bend" the run against the flow of the defense, "bounce" it outside of the tackles, or "bang" it up the middle of defense.
Freeman's ability to diagnose when to bend, bounce, and bang the ball are incredible. On this twelve yard scamper for a first down, he fakes the bang before committing to the bounce. Watch his footwork as he sets up and fakes the defensive end before sprinting outside.
Factor in Devonta's receiving ability out of the backfield along with his proficiency on the ground and it's easy to understand how he's quickly become the focal point of the offense. As the season advances and the Falcons enter the playoffs, his ability to pick up consistent chunks of yardage is going to be instrumental. Freeman turned in another strong performance against Tennessee and there's no reason to think he'll slow down going forward.
The Offensive Line is Still Playing Relatively Well
The offensive line continued its strong play against Tennessee. The unit isn't as dominant as it was in the early portion of the season, but they're playing at a high enough level that the offense is able to run relatively smoothly.
Run blocking has been the strength of this offensive line since the Dallas game and they continued to display excellence in that area of their game. With the zone blocking scheme that Kyle Shanahan has implemented, being able to run inside zone is just as important as sustained success on outside zone and stretch plays.
Mike Person has been one of the key reasons why the Falcons have had success running between the tackles this season. He was an unheralded free agent from St. Louis, but he's paid major dividends as a cheap free agency acquisition. Person blows his man off the line of scrimmage to give Devonta just enough room to wiggle behind Chris Chester as he runs for a twenty yard gain.
While run blocking has been stellar with no real drop off, the quality of the pass blocking has dipped a little since starting off the season impeccably. Since the game versus Washington the offensive line has allowed more disruption on pass plays, but not enough where the passing attack should be struggling the way it is.
Andy Levitre really had a tough go on Sunday. There were several times where he was shrugged aside or bullied by his former teammates on pass plays. Jurrell Casey, one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, gave Levitre a lot of trouble with his pass sets beating him with quickness off the line of scrimmage and powering through him.
While Levitre had his moments of struggle, the rest of the offensive line seemed to hold up pretty well in pass protection. There were plenty of times where Matt Ryan was given plenty of time to throw, but simply wasn't hitting on his targets, which leads into the final aspect of the Tennessee game.
Matt Ryan is Struggling
Matt Ryan has really struggled over the past month. After getting off to a fast start with solid games against Philadelphia, New York, Dallas, and Houston, the passing game has taken a sharp turn for the worst. The struggles began in Week 5, when Washington was able to get pressure on him and make life a little bit uncomfortable in the pocket. Since then, it appears as if he's re-adjusting to facing more chaotic moments than he did earlier in the season.
There were a few occasions versus the Titans where there was pressure, but not enough to the point that it causes erratic throws. Here's an example from the first half.
When Chris Chester pulls to the left side of the line, the Titans' defensive lineman uses that as an opportunity to play underneath the block and get a pressure on Ryan. Ryan initially plays this very well. He recognizes the rusher, evades to his left while keeping his eyes downfield, and gets the throw off.
One issue that has happened again and again as the passing game has struggled has been Ryan's inconsistency with resetting his feet after initially being moved off his "spot" in the pocket. While he's re-climbing the pocket after eluding the pressure, he ends up throwing the ball off one foot, ending up in a wildly inaccurate pass to Julio Jones.
The biggest issue with the passing game is something that Aaron Freeman recently discussed after the Titans game, and it's a very good point: Ryan doesn't seem to trust any of his receivers outside of Julio (this includes Roddy White).
On the play below, Ryan tosses the ball up to Julio, who makes a sensational catch over Coty Sensabaugh. It really was a pretty play, but look at Roddy breaking out his route wide open just a few yards in front of the line of scrimmage. When Ryan does start to face pressure, his first instinct is to often heave it up to Julio Jones and see if the star receiver can make a play on the ball.
However, I don't blame this instinct completely on Ryan. Far too often, receivers just aren't getting open downfield, besides Julio. The lack of a dynamic number two receiving option is really capping the potential of the passing attack. At this point in the season it's likely an offseason problem, unless rookie Justin Hardy can inject some life into the passing game.
Having a dominant run game while the passing game is still figuring itself out is a blessing. Devonta Freeman should continue to prevail against defenses as he leads the charge for this offense. The remedy for Matt Ryan and the receivers should be the impending matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kirk Cousins just shredded the Bucs defense for the biggest comeback in Washington history; Ryan should be able to get out of his funk this week.