Welp. The Falcons have lost four of their last five games, this time dropping a close game at home versus the Indianapolis Colts starting 40 year old Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback. While losing that game definitely stung, there are a fair number of positives to take away from the game.
This was the most complete game the Falcons have played since their blowout win against the Texans, even though they lost in heartbreaking fashion. Yes, Matt Ryan's pick six on the goal line in the fourth was disgustingly horrific, but even he had his best game in quite some time.
Looking at the box score from the game it would appear that Matt Ryan had one of his worst games of the season: 25/46, 280 yards, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. However, context needs to be added to those numbers. Going into the bye week, two of the most common complaints with the offense were the lack of deep throws and the absence of no huddle.
I stated that the passing offense should pick up the slack once Leonard Hankerson came back from his hamstring injury, and that proved to be true. While Kyle Shanahan's offense is definitely centered around Julio Jones, the presence of a legitimate number two threat checks and balances the passing game. Roddy White and Justin Hardy weren't able to step into that role while Hankerson was out; it was nice to see a downfield passing attack against the Colts.
Matt Ryan is a quarterback that thrives when his drops are in sync with the receivers breaking in and out of their routes. Shanahan's offense likes to attack defenses vertically featuring athletic presences at the top two receiver positions. Hankerson allowed Ryan to stay in rhythm while getting downfield in a hurry.
The addition of Hankerson back into the lineup took a ton of pressure of off Julio Jones as well. Once the Colts defense realized that they had to respect the number two receiver, Julio was able to consistently rip off large chunks of yardage down the field.
On the play above, the Colts are running Cover 3 while the Falcons are running mirrored deep posts with Jones and Hankerson. Hankerson and Jones are throttling down the field right towards the deep safety forcing him to stay honest until the ball is thrown. These are the types of routes that allow this offense to excel through the air and they're the types of routes that Roddy White can't run anymore.
Another positive from the Falcons loss to Indianapolis was the resurgence of Brooks Reed. Reed flashed in the first game he played this season against the Texans, but had been relatively quiet since then. The Falcons big ticket free agent acquisition put together his best game of the season. He had some rough moments in coverage, but that wasn't the main reason why he was brought to Atlanta.
Reed's job as the strongside linebacker is to be a run stopper first, especially when the Falcons run their "under" front. He's arguably the best edge-setter on the team and he showed that ability repeatedly on Sunday.
Reed was also brought in to bolster a pathetically weak pass rush. The pass rush is still weak, but Reed flashed the pass rush ability that made him a valuable chess piece during his time with the Houston Texans. Disruption off the edge can have varying degrees of impact and success, but Reed's pressures made life much easier on the rest of the defense.
Kroy Biermann was credited with the sack, but he had a much easier path to Matt Hasselbeck than Brooks Reed. Reed was able to "run the hoop" and sink his hips around the Indianapolis offensive tackle before reaching the quarterback just a split second later than Biermann. If Reed can continue to provide solid pressure (and Vic Beasley regains his early season form), then the Falcons might have a formidable pass rush as the season closes and the playoffs begin.
Atlanta also continued it's dominance against opposing ground attacks. The Falcons currently rank 3rd in the NFL giving up a stifling 3.6 yards per carry. Frank Gore, who continues to be ageless on the gridiron, couldn't get anything going against the Falcons stout defensive line. Nose tackle Paul Soliai is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career and he kept his streak of dominant play alive against the Colts.
Soliai's main job is to dominate both A-gaps and allow the linebackers to flow freely around the line of scrimmage, but he possesses surprising athleticism for a 345 pound defensive tackle. Even at age 31 Soliai can still disengage and make plays as his gap expands away from him.
As the Falcons get ready to take on Adrian Peterson, Doug Martin, Mark Ingram, Cam Newton, and Jonathan Stewart in these last five weeks, Soliai's massive presence is going to be crucial.
Are the Falcons a great football team? No, the past five game have proved that much, but there is a very good foundation in place for future success. The free agent class is having a growing, positive impact on the team ,and the rookie class appears to be destined for future success. Remember, Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan are only in their first season and they inherited a roster largely depleted of talent.
Atlanta is a much improved team over last season, and Quinn and Shanahan haven't even had a full year together to grow and mold this roster to their liking. Losing four of the last five games is definitely disheartening, but after the team's underwhelming preseason performance, being 6-4 isn't the end of the world. The Falcons were always a year or two away from being a serious contender, and the past month has displayed that. The Dirty Birds still have a very, very bright future under Dan Quinn, they've just hit a minor roadblock on the way to future success.