There has been plenty of soul-searching across the Falcons organization over the past three seasons. It has left general manager Thomas Dimtiroff on the hot seat, along with the obvious talent deficiencies within the roster. The list ranges from edge rushers, wide receivers, and interior of the offensive line. These issues are well documented, which has left Atlanta at a combined 18-29 since their loss to San Francisco in the NFC championship. Their inability to beat above average teams tends to go unnoticed, when looking at their recent downturn as a whole.
Before yesterday's thrilling upset, Atlanta has won exactly three games against teams with winning records over the past three seasons. They were against Arizona in 2014, along with Houston and Washington this season. Drew Stanton and Kirk Cousins played significant roles in gift-wrapping those victories for them. Houston was in absolute shambles as well.
How can any team make the playoffs without defeating successful teams? It speaks volumes as to why Atlanta went 1-9 outside of the division last season. The brilliance of certain individual players can't conceal the gaping holes against far superior opponents, unless Julio Jones starts to take over.
Julio Jones takeover happened again
It wasn't difficult to figure out how Atlanta can end Carolina's undefeated season. Jones needed to beat Josh Norman and the entire Panther secondary repeatedly similar to what he did to Patrick Peterson last year. If that meant relying on underneath routes to frustrate Carolina's safeties, Kyle Shanahan was going to keep his best playmaker involved at all costs. Jones turned a crossing route on third-and-twelve into a 32-yard gain by gaining 17 yards and forcing Luke Kuechly into a horse-collar tackle.
With Roddy White exploiting Charles Tillman in the battle of aging veterans, and Devonta Freeman's receiving ability, Carolina had to focus more attention than they would have liked towards stopping short to intermediate passes. Chris Wesseling mentioned that Bene Benikwere's injury has forced Carolina into playing Tillman and Cortland Finnegan on passing downs. Matt Ryan targeted both liabilities, which opened things up for Jones against Norman.
There has been much talk about Norman being Jones' kryptonite based on past games. Regardless of how you view individual matchups in non-competitive games (Carolina outscored Atlanta 72-3 in the past two games), Jones hasn't been successful in prior matchups. That changed yesterday, as Jones contributed with five receptions on six targets for 80 yards (courtesy of Pro Football Focus) against the future All-Pro cornerback. My colleague Charles McDonald wrote an excellent breakdown of their first matchup from two weeks ago. He specified how Norman's tenacity and body control makes up for his lack of athleticism.
That didn't apply yesterday, as Jones beat him on several plays. Whether it was getting caught on a deep curl or fading behind on a post pattern, Norman wasn't able to control the most dangerous wide receiver in the league. Kurt Coleman struggled to provide proper safety help that all cornerbacks need to contain him. The preposterous seventy-yard touchdown catch clearly made the biggest difference, but Jones continuously beating Norman was crucial in this monumental victory. They needed him to make big plays downfield. Three catches for over 20 yards was refreshing for this stagnant offense.
Matt Ryan plays the best game of his uneven season
Despite Jones' tremendous game, there were other key performances from players that haven't necessarily lived up to lofty expectations. Ryan has been on the receiving end of heavy criticism. It has even translated towards being booed at a recent Hawk game. The disparagement will simmer down, as Ryan was exceptional against a top five defense. He threw seven incompletions on thirty passes, with four of them being dropped. The composure to complete passes with blitzes from an unblocked Thomas Davis and Kuechly were remarkable. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was twelve of fifteen for 152 yards when being blitzed.
It was the type of performance that Ryan needed to restore confidence.
His stellar performance marked the first game without throwing an interception since week nine. Ryan essentially played a perfect game that was capped off by Jones putting the finishing touches to his sensational season. It was pretty surreal to see him aggressive and not hesitating to throw to Jones sixty yards into double coverage. The throw was sublime from moving outside the pocket and sensing the matchup downfield. Despite taking a gruesome hit to the ribs by Coleman, Ryan never missed a snap and remained poised during the entire game. With so many jaw-dropping moments in this game, his pump fake that embarrassed Davis in the open field set the tone. Instead of throwing it away or sliding like he normally does, Ryan embraced the danger and wasn't going to let another fifteen-play drive end with another field goal. Plays like that will help even the most critical fans appreciate him for out-dueling the likely 2015 NFL MVP.
The young beasts shine in big moments
While major expectations will always be placed on a franchise quarterback, two of Atlanta's most promising defensive linemen were expected to consistently make plays. Vic Beasley and Ra'Shede Hageman are projected to be defensive anchors for the next five to seven years. The Hageman's raw power of Hageman and Beasley's blistering speed were supposed to cause havoc on opposing offensive lines. That hasn't come to fruition, which has left a restless fan-base discouraged by their lack of productivity.
The circumstances changed yesterday when Beasley started to generate pressure in the second half. Mike Renners struggled to maintain leverage against the first round pick on the outside. Whether it was utilizing his speed or simply bull-rushing him, Beasley was everywhere in the second half. He drew a holding penalty on third down, along with forcing Newton into a poorly thrown pass that should have been completed to Greg Olsen. We also saw better awareness by preventing Newton from gaining any significant yards on two read-option attempts.
With O'Brien Schofield, Brooks Reed, and now Adrian Clayborn being tried on the right side, the team needed Beasley to start being productive on the left side of the formation. Forcing multiple incompletions on third down followed by the game ending strip-sack will do wonders for his confidence. A full off-season to recover from a torn shoulder labrum can only help the promising pass-rusher. Beasley has been successful utilizing a circle rip move, which has become common for edge rushers. If he can add more muscle to boost his bull rush and refine his spin move, there is no reason why Atlanta hasn't found a long-term asset for their pass-rushing miseries. He has all the physical attributes that any team would want for an edge rusher.
Beasley isn't the only young defensive lineman with freakish athletic ability. In the 2014 draft, Hageman was considered as the second most freakish athletic defensive lineman behind only Jadeveon Clowney. His intangibles were off the charts for a defensive tackle. Unfortunately, a lack of discipline and not fulfilling gap assignments has made his sophomore season a bit underwhelming. Fans were anticipating a breakout season following his performance in week sixteen last year against New Orleans and showing more commitment in the gym.
Hageman's season hasn't been a complete disappointment, but you would expect more than brief flashes. Hageman's ability to overpower guards with sheer strength with no technique is quite remarkable. That was on display against Carolina by mauling Andrew Norwell to the ground. He continued his fine performance by making multiple stops in the running game. That included escaping a double team to prevent Fozzy Whittaker from picking up a key first down, which translated into a third-and-three. Beasley's pressure on the following play forced Carolina into a field goal. It was two massive plays, considering all momentum seemed to be in the Panthers favor following another Mike Person related turnover.
Despite playing his best game of the season, Hageman oddly played only eighteen snaps. Carolina didn't run the ball very often in the second half. With Paul Soliai and Grady Jarrett injured, you would expect him to receive more reps. Trying him out in the sub-nickel package would be fascinating, considering he's the only lineman getting any pressure in Atlanta's base package. Hageman would have likely offered more than Malliciah Goodman. Nevertheless, it was a positive performance from a player that hasn't received much recognition this season.
Dan Quinn continues to change Atlanta's identity
To beat a superior team on paper, you need your stars and blue-chip prospects to play lights out. That was on display on both sides of the ball. With timely contributions from backups such as Nate Stupar and Charles Godfrey, Atlanta's defense put together their most inspired performance of the season. Paul Worrilow played only 19 snaps, as Quinn continues to tighten up the middle of their sub-nickel defense. Those personnel decisions played a major role in Olsen's rare quiet game, along with limiting Carolina to just four of ten third down conversions.
While his late-game decision to kick a field goal wasn't smart, Quinn's lack of hesitation towards making personnel changes has been refreshing. The old stubborn regime never seemed willing to rotate players nor bench obvious liabilities. Quinn has worked relentlessly to try to find an edge rusher opposite Beasley, along with using a plethora of different linebackers and safeties to solve their eternal issues against tight ends. Opposing teams know they will be in a dogfight against Atlanta. If Ryan can receive protection like he did on Sunday and avoid making poor decisions, this team is capable of big things in 2016. One signature win can do wonders for any team.
Ending on a high note
It has been three long seasons since fans have felt this feeling. The Falcons outplayed a Super Bowl caliber team by making stops on third down, generating a pass rush, and their franchise quarterback playing a flawless game. Although the playoff dream is over, Sunday's inspiring victory will bring a much-needed positive vibe around Atlanta again. Now they need to avoid getting swept by the worst New Orleans team in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era to end this roller-coaster season on a complete high note.