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Austin Hooper, Taylor Gabriel are stepping up when it counts

Two young players who could prove integral the rest of the way are making names for themselves at the halfway mark of the season.

Green Bay Packers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I want to start this article by praising Mohamed Sanu for his excellent game Sunday, because he stepped up in a major way and played a key role in the Falcons’ comeback and eventual win. The two players I want to talk about today were not the kind of big ticket free agent signings Sanu was billed to be (and may well prove to be), though. I’d like to talk about rookie third rounder Austin Hooper and waiver pickup Taylor Gabriel.

Hooper and Gabriel are currently tied for sixth on the team, with 11 receptions apiece, and each of them have a single touchdown. Hooper has 195 yards and Gabriel had 175, but both were key players against Green Bay, as Gabriel hauled in a perfectly-thrown 47 yard touchdown from Matt Ryan, and Hooper made a number of nice catches with Jacob Tamme out of the game.

There are a few key differences between this offense in 2016 versus last year’s version, chief among them the quality of blocking up front, but the emergence of secondary options in the passing game has made a massive difference. It’s no longer just Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman soaking up targets, because Sanu, Hooper, Gabriel, and especially Coleman have stepped up and delivered when called upon. That’s a huge factor, and I’m especially excited about Gabriel and Hooper, who could muscle their way into long-term roles with the Falcons. Add in Justin Hardy coming up with one or two clutch catches per game and Aldrick Robinson hanging around as a deep threat, and things look pretty good for this offense even when Julio has a mortal game.

If Gabriel and Hooper can build on this last week and keep delivering—and if this quality game was a hint about what Sanu will do going forward—this offense will remain dangerous even in unfavorable circumstances. That’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing the Falcons have not had enough of in recent years.