For the second consecutive week, very few felt confident about picking the Atlanta Falcons. A daunting West Coast trip started in Denver, which meant facing the best defense in the league. With a vicious pass rush and outstanding secondary, Wade Phillips' defense looked to be unstoppable. They forced Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck into below average performances over the past seven games.
Combine those assets with an offense featuring a dynamic wide receiver duo and physical running back, and this was going to be a tall order for the Falcons.
From the first snap, Dan Quinn's team imposed their will. The offensive line continues to validate themselves as one of the top units in the league. It's becoming a foregone conclusion that Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is the best running back tandem in the league. Kyle Shanahan is devising brilliant gameplans to exploit opposing defenses' flaws on a weekly basis.
They knew it would take a complete team effort to beat the Super Bowl champions. For all the discussion about Atlanta's top ranked offense against Denver's preposterous defense, this game would ultimately be decided by Denver's volatile offense against Atlanta's undermanned defense.
Rebuilding process finally showing positive results
It's no secret that Quinn inherited an abysmal defense from the previous regime. It was going to take two seasons at minimum to assemble a potential decent defense. That hasn't exactly transpired yet, but the Falcons have faced above-average quarterbacks to start the season. Derek Carr, Drew Brees, and Cam Newton can give any defense trouble on their best day. Comparing last year's defense filled with declining veterans to the current young defense isn't fair, given the quality of opponents. This defense hasn't faced a career backup like Ryan Mallet or Brandon Weeden.
Facing Paxton Lynch in his NFL debut provided some relief. Without Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, it was going to be an uphill battle against Denver's improved offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, they were ranked as the sixth best offensive line in the league coming into the afternoon. The front seven stepped up and forced the game into Lynch's hands. C.J. Anderson was limited to eleven carries for 41 yards. Led by Grady Jarrett, they didn't allow him many openings.
Jarrett had a crucial stop on third down, along with forcing Lynch into throwing an interception. The emerging defensive tackle gave star center Matt Paradis fits all game long. Kemal Ishmael made several plays in the running game as well. With his size, he could fit into a hybrid role similar to how Arizona uses Deone Bucannon. Ishmael is becoming one of the team's unsung heroes this season.
By stopping the run, it turned Denver into a one-dimensional offense, which is never a good sign for a quarterback making his debut. After showing signs of life against Carolina, the defensive line consistently finished plays for the first time during Quinn's tenure. Dwight Freeney frustrated Russell Okung with a plethora of moves. He contributed with two-half sacks by utilizing his trademark spin move and bull rush.
Adrian Clayborn has been quietly generating the most consistent pressure this season. His persistence was rewarded with a half sack, along with mauling Ty Sambrailo on one particular play. The Falcons recorded six sacks, which is the most since their victory over New Orleans in Mike Smith's final win as head coach. They couldn't have done it without their young, oft-embattled pass rusher.
Vic Beasley's emergence
It has been a slow start for the second-year player. Although Beasley showed flashes against New Orleans and Carolina, the first round pick needs to produce more than two pressures a game. Sports Illustrated's Andy Benoit questioned his ability to set up pass rushing moves. With his inability to bull rush opposing right tackles or properly use a spin move, it became evident that Beasley needed to use his greatest gift more often.
His blistering first step was on display by recording three-and-half sacks and two forced fumbles. He beat Sambrailo to the edge on a consistent basis. Instead of wasting movement, Beasley used his speed advantage, improved hands, and a devastating rip move. He used that rip move against Mike Remmers in a breakout performance last season. It allowed him to strip Lynch on his third sack. Chuck Smith said that it takes most pass rushers three years to develop a signature move. Although Beasley likes to try spinning past right tackles, he may have found his bread-and-butter with the rip move before the usual time span is up.
Confidence is very important for a young player. While nothing indicated Beasley was losing it, this was a massive performance. The pass-rushing burden primarily falls on him. With only one sack this season, Beasley needed to start producing better results. He turned in a dominant performance that hasn't been seen from a Falcons' defensive lineman since John Abraham.
Sambrailo was apparently suffering from a shoulder injury, despite not being included on the injury report. A young pass rusher needs to find momentum somewhere. When you annihilate an opposing right tackle to that extent, it deserves to be applauded. The coaching staff has been waiting for Beasley to be a difference maker. Every sack proved to be vital, especially when the game started to become a field position battle. Beasley wasn't the only player from the 2015 draft class to have a career day. Another emerging star broke out as well.
A new matchup nightmare
When training camp reports revealed Tevin Coleman was making plays as a receiver, it was quite surprising. Coleman caught a mere two passes on eleven targets last season. He dropped three passes, which included a potential forty-yard play against the Vikings. Coleman's breakaway speed could become an asset in the passing game, as even outstanding speedy linebackers like Anthony Barr couldn't keep pace, but it was clear that his hands needed work.
The second-year running back has made drastic improvements, as he caught four passes for 132 yards and one touchdown against Denver, and has been making noise in the passing game all year. From abusing man coverage to Shanahan's cleverness, he made three massive plays. What makes Coleman's rise so unique comes from lining up as a receiver. They aren't using him out of the backfield or on designed screens. Shanahan places him as a receiver to force the opposing defense into putting a linebacker on him. They can't risk a safety, as Julio Jones commands extra attention at all times. This creates mismatches, which Ryan targeted on almost every occasion.
It started with a well-executed pick play, as Austin Hooper wisely ran his route and didn't try to set an actual pick on Brandon Marshall. Coleman made hard-hitting safety T.J Ward miss in the open field for a 48-yard play. Eventually, they allowed him to run clean routes and dash past linebackers. On second-and-nineteen, Marshall had no chance against him. It was a crucial touchdown, as it became a three-possession game. Todd Davis had a similar experience allowing Ryan to complete an easy 49-yard completion to Coleman. Two simple seam routes produced ten points, as that big play translated into a field goal.
With Coleman suffering from a sickle cell trait, many expected Freeman to carry the load. He ended up receiving 23 carries, while Coleman was limited to six rushing attempts. The coaching staff did an excellent job handling the situation. On the ground, Freeman is still the superior back. From a passing standpoint, Coleman's speed on the outside adds another dimension. Both running backs are skilled in both areas. Coleman will receive more carries in the future, along with Freeman being utilized on screens. This is an exceptional duo, which has essentially carried the offense for the second time during Atlanta's four game winning streak.
It's safe to say anything is possible with the Falcons. They've surpassed expectations during this grueling stretch. An expected 2-4 start to the season is going to end either 4-2 or 5-1. With both rookie linebackers possibly returning this week, the defense should take further leaps. Keanu Neal is already developing into an enforcer. Everything is starting to gel headed into another huge challenge against a rested Seahawks' team. Based on the offense not slowing down and pass rush's awakening, that fast and physical mantra is starting to translate onto the field on both sides of the ball.