Two games is usually not a rational barometer when you're trying to figure out whether a team is going to succeed or fail in any one aspect. Rod Marinelli's swarming defense stole headlines last week by shutting down DeMarco Murray and the pre-season darling Philadelphia Eagles. Sean Lee was finally healthy after nearly two seasons. Even without Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory, they looked like an excellent unit from a run stopping perspective. With Tevin Coleman suffering from a rib injury, it seemed likely that Dallas would continue their assault on opposing ground games.
With a 21-7 deficit in the second quarter, Atlanta was already facing a substantial challenge. Falcon fans were accustomed to seeing former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter abandoning the run to generate a potential comeback. That decision forced more predictable play calling and increased pressure for a creaky offensive line.
Dan Quinn and the coaching staff decided to stay aggressive even when they were down 28-14, which has become the norm in Atlanta. Matt Ryan struggled with his accuracy in the first half, with his tendency to stare down his top receiver derailing the offense. That changed on the last drive of the first half, which featured Devonta Freeman running past Tyrone Crawford for a 35-yard completion. A quick field goal to cut the deficit to eleven points, and that was a major morale boost.
With key defensive stops and Julio Jones ultimately being unstoppable, Atlanta stayed balanced and didn't hit panic mode. Freeman was given a hefty workload and couldn't have made a better impression. The former Seminole always finishes his runs with authority and has the ability to make defenders miss in the open field. On the latest Falcfans podcast, fellow writer Charles McDonald, host Aaron Freeman and I tried to figure out why Coleman looked far more effective in two games than Freeman.
Besides Coleman having breakaway speed and being more elusive in the open field, we couldn't figure out a reason other than having better run blocking in front of him. As it turned out, improved blocking pushed Freeman into the open field and forced the Cowboys' safeties to make constant stops. J.J Wilcox felt the after effects of trying to meet Freeman on a head-to-head collision. Despite standing five-foot-eight, Freeman's shifty and violent running style is potent, and somewhat reminiscent of former Falcon Jacquizz Rodgers.
Besides his vision, shiftiness, and pass-catching ability, Freeman's outstanding work ethic makes him a valuable player. While some particular writers beg to differ, Freeman is talented and versatile. Former Marine and UFC middleweight Brian Stann spoke to me about Freeman's work ethic from just a short time spent teaching him boxing routines. Stann's training was directed more towards both lines to learn about hand fighting and winning one-on-one matchups, but Freeman took the initiative to train and learn about something that wouldn't necessarily enhance any technical ability as a running back.
When you watch him run, his relentless work ethic is apparent. Only sheer size limits him from maximizing certain plays. It didn't matter yesterday, as Freeman excelled through stretch plays to running straight up the gut. Shanahan deserves credit for being persistent with both particular plays based on how ineffective they were with Freeman during the past two weeks.
Most productive running backs will attribute part of their success to their fullback. After two average seasons, Patrick DiMarco appears to be the most improved player on the roster. His blocking never really made a positive impression before, and we never saw him pancake linebackers or open significant holes for the running game. This year is different, and his presence was felt on opening night by putting Malcolm Jenkins on his back. On Coleman's first career touchdown, his block drove the rookie into the end zone standing.
It appeared that DiMarco had made more of an impression in the last two games than the two previous seasons combined. Similar to Freeman, yesterday was his coming out party. DiMarco leveled Kyle Wilber on the edge, which allowed Freeman to run into the end zone untouched. Falcon fans haven't witnessed such impactful blocking from the fullback position like that since Ovie Mughelli. Throughout the game, DiMarco made key blocks that ended up being significant runs. The full back position has become somewhat endangered, but in Shanahan's offense, it plays a vital role towards the offense's success.
The same praise can be used for Chris Chester and Mike Person, who were excellent throughout the game. Both linemen made crucial blocks on Freeman's third touchdown run. They opened such a gaping hole that 2012 Michael Turner would have managed to blast right through it.
Shanahan's scheme has worked wonders for anemic running games such as Houston and Cleveland over the course of his career. In three games, he has managed to salvage a non-existent running game (with the exception of the Giants game). They face daunting tasks in the next two weeks against talented front sevens, which should provide a sturdy litmus test for the surprisingly effective offensive line.
It's far too early to rate Atlanta's legitimacy as a contender. Besides the AFC South, there is no disputing that the NFC East is the worst division in the league thus far, and it can't be discounted how Atlanta's front seven was absolutely obliterated for two quarters in Dallas. They remain undefeated and face a plethora of below-average offenses over the next month. Instead of dissecting Atlanta as a contender or pretender, we should just enjoy the reinvigorated franchise, which deserves credit for living up to the team's early promises.
Quinn's promise of being a finishing team has been justified so far. While the statistical rankings won't show it, the defense has made improvements particularly on third down. Most analysts and fans were concerned about Atlanta being a one-dimensional offense. Those sentiments have been erased following their performance against an overachieving Cowboys' defense, and even after Atlanta's first win over Philadelphia, I realized how essential their running game would be for a successful season. From converting nine out of fourteen third-down opportunities to going four out of five in the red zone, the Falcons' comeback wouldn't have happened without a proficient running game. Another victory is another reminder that a new era has truly arrived in Atlanta.