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Strong supporting cast gets the Falcons offense back on track against Packers

To beat playoff-caliber teams, role players need to step up. The Falcons received valuable contributions from several different players in a thrilling victory.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It only takes one week to change a perspective. Following a heartbreaking loss to San Diego, there were several articles criticizing the Falcons offense. My piece from last week analyzed the growing concerns about them operating like the 2015 offense. Matt Chambers wrote a scathing piece about Mohamed Sanu. The dreaded hot takes were being dished out all across major networks. Was the offense going to decline thanks to its dependence on Julio Jones far too often and missing Tevin Coleman?

While the Packers defense was missing key players, this was another unbelievable offensive showing. Aaron Rodgers played like his old self, despite not having Randall Cobb or Ty Montgomery. It was the first game this season where the Falcons were in an all-out shootout against a respectable defense (sorry New Orleans). With Julio Jones hobbled and the defense incapable of stopping anything in the first half, the game was going to fall on Ryan. The MVP candidate delivered in a major way.

Other receiving options stepping up

For the offense to play at a high-level, it can't function like it did last season. Targeting Julio Jones 13 to 15 times a game isn't sustainable. Devonta Freeman can't handle 20 to 25 touches a game.

Both players were the only major contributors in last week's disappointing loss. That wasn't the case yesterday. Eight different players caught a pass. Julio Jones was fourth on the team in receiving yards. They still managed to score 33 points, which is a testament to the receiving corps.

A supporting cast is essential for any team with Super Bowl aspirations. That is why the organization ultimately gambled on Sanu. They wanted to invest in a wide receiver so that defenses have to account for two players. Unlike two weeks ago in Seattle, when Ryan threw three consecutive incomplete passes intended for Sanu, the vilified wide receiver stepped up in crunch time. Sanu caught five passes for 50 yards on the final drive to go along with the game-winning touchdown.

Sanu is a solid possession receiver who can get extra yards after the catch. He made the Packers pay on multiple underneath catches. Kyle Shanahan set up packages that allowed him to line up in the slot or alongside Julio Jones. On a third-and-two, both cornerbacks were focused on Jones and Sanu caught an easy out route for a 12-yard completion. Shanahan deserves credit for designing high-percentage plays to get the best out of him. His superb play calling was rewarded on the touchdown, as Sanu ran a seam route to beat Jake Ryan. Ryan should be looking for Sanu in the red zone more often. His size and ability to make catches in traffic are valuable traits.

It was important for Sanu to be productive in a favorable matchup. After being anonymous against San Diego's decimated secondary, he emerged in a huge spot. Similar to Austin Hooper stepping in for Jacob Tamme, Sanu needed to pick up the slack for Jones, who was being double-teamed on a consistent basis. Jones and Tamme were Ryan's two favorite options last season. It speaks volumes how well Ryan played with both players banged up.

Taylor Gabriel's return was expected to be a much-needed boost for the offense. Not having him against San Diego proved to be costly, particularly in the second half. Gabriel contributed with three receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown. There have been glimpses of Gabriel making key plays on third down. Besides drawing a big pass interference against New Orleans, Ryan hasn't targeted him downfield this season. They needed to exploit Green Bay's secondary and successfully did so with a picture-perfect 47-yard touchdown. Brian Billick described the throw better than anyone could put into words. Gabriel adds another explosive dimension to a Falcons offense that desperately needed it. Replacing Nick Williams and inserting him into the fray appears to be a game-changing personnel move.

Unexpected players emerge

Gabriel and Hooper were mentioned for their key contributions. They weren't the only breakout players. Terron Ward showed drastic improvement from last season. The undrafted free agent didn't look like a NFL-caliber running back. Nothing stood out from watching him. He displayed decent power and little else. Quinn praised him for being an excellent pass blocker, yet allowed a blitzing linebacker to hit or sack Ryan on several occasions. Nobody understood what Ward offered as a backup running back.

Ward gained 46 yards on six carries, along with a big catch on third down. He displayed much better agility, shiftiness, and vision. On a big 25-yard run, Ward shook off Blake Martinez and juked past Demetri Goodson in the open field. He looked incapable of breaking tackles or juking past defenders last season. The Falcons may need to be wary going forward. Teams could try to sign him, if Atlanta decides to release him and try to add him back to the practice squad following Coleman's return. Ward looked like a completely different player against one of the top run defenses in the league.

Another surprising standout was C.J. Goodwin. The converted wide receiver broke up two passes that could have gone for big completions. He responded well from allowing a touchdown to Jeff Janis. With the Packers using four wide receiver sets, the coaching staff needed him more than usual. Goodwin looked more comfortable changing directions compared to preseason. There have been ongoing debates about Jalen Collins' status. With Brian Poole playing exceptionally well for an undrafted free agent and Goodwin making plays, he simply isn't needed right now.

Responding from adversity

When it comes to the most pitiful defensive performances during Quinn's tenure, the first half against Dallas comes to mind before the embarrassing shutout loss to Carolina. They were getting bullied inside the trenches and routine tackles were being missed. Carolina generated big plays to gain a comfortable lead. Dallas thrived off their dominant offensive line. It looked awfully similar to what Green Bay did in the first half minus Dallas' commitment to the running game.

The defensive line couldn't get any pressure, while players were missing tackles on a consistent basis. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal were responsible for many of them. They couldn't prevent a struggling offense from scoring on nearly every drive. Rodgers was clearly on his game. That doesn't overshadow wide receivers getting separation and making plays without much resistance. The defense's first half performance was humiliating. It appeared to be déjà vu in reference to the unforgettable 2011 divisional playoff game.

That didn't come to fruition, as the defense buckled down and only allowed eight points in the second half. Adrian Clayborn is continuing to play the best football of his career. The versatile defensive lineman always stands out on film with his violent hand usage. Unfortunately, opposing quarterbacks tend to release the ball a second before Clayborn gets home. His hard work is finally being rewarded. With two sacks on third down, he is becoming Atlanta's most reliable pass rusher. Vic Beasley may have the sack lead, but Clayborn is far more consistent.

Final word

Despite his noteworthy late-game heroics, it's been quite some time since Ryan directed a game-winning drive, which is what happens when you stop winning a lot of games over three seasons. Ryan looked composed and unfazed by the high stakes. A third consecutive narrow defeat would have been very damaging. The offensive line responded from two porous performances and provided excellent protection for the majority of the game.

Everyone knows that the defense is a work in progress with four rookies playing significant roles. It will fall on Ryan and the offense to score at least 30 points to beat above-average teams. Roddy White set a goal for the Falcons to score 30 points per game in 2014. Two years later, they are meeting those expectations.