The Falcons finally pieced together all the flashes they've shown through the first three games in a complete domination of the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon. Atlanta's starters stomped on the Texans while they were in the game, racking up 42 consecutive points before Dan Quinn let the backups get some playing time.
While the talent disparity between the two teams was clearly evident, Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan had a masterful gameplan to neutralize any threat that the Texans posed.
On defense, the Falcons employed more Cover One than they had the past three weeks. Quinn and Richard Smith clearly felt like they had an advantage in the secondary over the Texans wide receivers, and they exuded that confidence when they called for man coverage assignments.
For those who may not know, Cover One is when the defense is playing man coverage across the board except for the deep safety. On this play it was William Moore and another defender patrolling the middle of the field.
Since the Falcons defensive backs were playing so well in man coverage, Ryan Mallett was forced to throw into tiny windows whenever the Falcons used Cover One. Mallett has the arm strength to make these throws, but he doesn't have anywhere near the accuracy, anticipation, and touch to hit these throws on a routine basis.
For some odd reason, he was set on challenging Desmond Trufant throughout the game which rarely worked out in his favor.
Another area where the Falcons defense thrived on Sunday was putting the Texans into second and long and third and long situations. They seem to have distinguished a "big" lineup that they use to effectively stop the run before sending out the nickel unit in more obvious passing situations.
When the Falcons move to their 4-3 Under front (which is basically the defensive line shifting down so the strongside linebacker can play near the line of scrimmage), they put their biggest bodies on the field. Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, and Ra'Shede Hageman are the common players in the "big" lineup, and this week they were joined by Brooks Reed, who was making his first appearance from a groin injury.
Reed was brought Atlanta to set the edge and get after the passer. While he only played fifteen snaps, he flashed the ability that made him such a great chess piece for this budding Falcons defense. Reed shut down stretch plays that came into his gap a few times in his limited reps. Pairing Reed with the big bodies upfront that the Falcons already have will make them an extremely tough team to run against in the coming weeks.
One of the biggest reasons why the Falcons defense has steadily improved (minus the first quarter gaffes against the Cowboys) is the emergence of Robert Alford. The third year corner has really started to come into his own and should be considered one of the better number two cornerbacks in the league at this point. He's always had the athleticism to be a great corner, but he's adding the technical proficiency in man coverage, and the awareness in zone coverage that make him a dangerous asset to any defense.
As I stated before, some of the Falcons most successful defensive plays on Sunday came when they were using Cover One. Alford played well in this scheme, matching up nicely across from DeAndre Hopkins when he lined up across from him.
Even though Alford gets beat when Hopkins starts to break his route towards the middle of the field, he shows a nice ability to recover and make a fantastic play on the ball. We already know how dominant of a player Desmond Trufant is, and if the Falcons can start getting efforts near that caliber from Alford they'll boast one of the top pass defenses in the league. He's still just scratching the surface of the player he can become.
The offense had a fantastic day as well. Houston's defense is led up front by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, two of the best defensive linemen in the entire league. Atlanta came into the game well prepared to counteract the devastating pass rush that those two can generate. In order to ease the pressure off Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder, Kyle Shanahan called a lot of three step drops to neutralize Watt and Clowney.
In conjunction with the three step routes, Shanahan sprinkled in a few "mirrored concepts" in the Falcons short passing game. Mirrored passing concepts are simply the same route combinations being run on the opposite sides of the field.
With pass rushers that are the caliber of Watt and Clowney, short drops and quick reads are essential to get the offense going. Mirrored concepts allowed the quarterback to isolate one side of the field and get the ball out quickly without too much of a mental hiccup.
The final aspect that was fascinating in the Falcons win was the way Shanahan designed run plays to spring Devonta Freeman free for a couple long touchdown runs. One of my favorite plays was the 16 yard touchdown that put the Falcons in the lead to start the game. There's a lot of moving parts with this play, so I decided to break it down into a few different segments.
1. Offensive Line versus Defensive Line and Cushing on DiMarco
The offensive line was asked to execute their basic zone assignments on this handoff. They were zone blocking right, which the defensive line had a mixed reaction to. Jared Crick and Vince WIlfork overreacted to the offensive line's zone steps while J.J. Watt (either by design or freelance) crashed into the "B" gap hard. Piling all the defensive linemen in the middle of the line of scrimmage helped create a crease for Freeman.
Brian Cushing is keyed onto DiMarco for the majority of the play, which comes in handy for the second portion of the play.
2. Linebacker Movement at the Point of the Handoff
As the ball is snapped, Patrick DiMarco begins to execute his assignment which is to blow Clowney away from the playside of the formation. Cushing's key on the play is DiMarco so he follows him all the way across formation, creating even more room for Freeman to spring to the second level.
3. Excellent Block and Awareness by Mike Person
At this point in the play, Freeman has just received the ball. Notice that the entire Texans defensive line has been moved down one or two gaps from where they initially started. When Freeman begins to hit the hole, it appears that he'll be stopped dead in his tracks by Bernardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing.
However, Mike Person makes an incredibly athletic play to seal Cushing off at the second level, and in turn cutting off McKinney, while Freeman sprints for the endzone. Person was an under the radar signing by the Falcons, but he's developed at a rapid pace; this play is further example of how far he's come mentally as a player.
4. Untouched to the Endzone
This play looks absolutely beautiful in full speed.
Overall, there isn't much negative to say about the Falcons after that win. They completely outclassed the Texans and blew them off the field. Hopefully this team continues to move upwards as they enter NFC South play in the coming weeks.