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Another efficient offensive performance without relying on Julio Jones

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The Falcons offense continues to win games without forcing the ball to Julio Jones. Playmakers continue to emerge, while balance is restored in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons have made significant strides in several areas this season. From Alex Mack solidifying the offensive line to an array of receiving options being productive, the offense is far more dynamic. They are capable of scoring at will against any opposing defense. With Matt Ryan making wise decisions, the offense continues to exceed expectations, as they did yesterday against a stout Cardinals defense.

The old cliché “it’s amazing how things can change in one season” applies here. Julio Jones was Ryan’s first, second, and third receiving option last year. The over-reliance converted into making costly decisions, especially in the red zone. With key off-season additions and better chemistry between Ryan and Kyle Shanahan, the offense isn’t reliant on the superstar wide receiver getting open. Jones has been held under 40 yards in four games this season. The Falcons are ironically undefeated with victories over New Orleans, Denver, Green Bay, and Arizona in those games. It’s a bizarre stat, yet a true testament to their fine work as a unit.

Regaining their balance

Although Shanahan didn’t admit it, the Falcons abandoned the run in their loss to Philadelphia. Devonta Freeman only received one carry in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game. With Tevin Coleman making his long-awaited return, they got back to what makes this offense so effective. Ryan attempted 34 passes, while Freeman and Coleman combined for 24 carries. Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu each had positive gains on their lone rushing attempts as well.

Shanahan showed more variety by using the wildcat formation with a versatile player like Sanu. Utilizing Gabriel’s blazing speed on a reverse translated into a 27-yard gain. The play calling became predictable against a terrific Eagles’ defense. Shanahan’s bootleg designs were swarmed by Arizona’s outstanding safety duo. Following that horrific first drive in the second half, the bootlegs were abolished and Shanahan went back to his workhorse back.

With so many explosive players in Atlanta, Freeman is starting to slip under the radar. He is arguably the fourth most dynamic player behind Jones, Coleman, and Gabriel. The shifty running back is still an essential piece to this offense. On a 13-play, 77 yard drive that took over six minutes, Freeman received four carries and made multiple key blitz pickups to keep the drive alive. Shanahan went to him on three occasions in the red zone, before Coleman finished the drive to give the Falcons a two-possession lead.

Despite Coleman not finding much running room, it was important for him to be involved. According to Pro Football Focus’ Nathan Jahnke, Freeman and Coleman receiving nearly the same amount of snaps. When both players are being utilized, it makes Ryan’s job easier and takes some pressure off the offensive line. That was evident against Denver last month. If they manage to face Seattle again, both running backs should be featured to avoid facing a two-score deficit.

The running game didn’t exactly flourish. Not many teams can establish a running game against Arizona’s front seven. Freeman’s incredible vision and cutting ability allowed him to find some daylight. Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, and Ryan Schraeder had strong performances. Besides making a third down stop from being unblocked, Chandler Jones was anonymous. Arizona couldn’t generate pressure without blitzing. After being pummeled by Philadelphia’s front four, the offensive line responded well against another top-tier unit.

Taylor Gabriel’s rise

Since returning from a concussion in Week 8, the new poster boy for Cleveland’s front office ineptitude has scored a touchdown in four consecutive games, which includes two from yesterday’s win. Only one touchdown was scored in the red zone, which came from a well-designed jet sweep against Tampa Bay. Gabriel is producing big plays off pure speed, superb route running (ask Leodis McKelvin), and fantastic vision. These are explosive plays, which has given the Falcons another dependable weapon.

After collapsing against San Diego, it was easy to navigate the offensive shortcomings. Ryan relied on Jones far too often and other receiving options didn’t step up. Gabriel missed that game, due to suffering a concussion against Seattle. Did the offense really miss a player, who only caught eight passes in five games? They couldn’t have missed him more based on the past month.

Gabriel’s versatility allows Shanahan to be more creative and find him opportunities in the open field. The jet sweep designs fooled Mike Smith’s defense on multiple occasions. To counter Arizona’s frequent blitzes, Gabriel was targeted on two screens. Both plays turned into touchdowns. Gabriel channeled his inner Percy Harvin on the first touchdown, which left D.J Swearinger and Patrick Peterson searching for answers. The five-foot-eight wide receiver followed his blocks and showed absurd agility to score a jaw-dropping touchdown.

Matthews and Levine Toliolo made crucial blocks for the second touchdown. Gabriel showed excellent vision once again to give them a commanding lead. The receivers are starting to find their niche behind Jones. Gabriel has developed into Shanahan’s most unique threat, as they can use him on screens, jet sweeps, or simply let him run vertical routes.

Sanu is morphing into an ideal possession receiver, especially with Jacob Tamme done for the season. He beat Marcus Cooper and Tyrann Mathieu on third down situations. His impressive catch on fourth down bailed out Dan Quinn’s overly aggressive decision and Matt Ryan’s slightly rushed throw. Combine their contributions with Justin Hardy’s timely plays and the wide receiving corps is starting to gel into a formidable unit.

Tale of two halves

Similar to their performance against Green Bay, the defense faired much better in the second half. The pass rush took advantage of Arizona’s decimated offensive line and flustered Carson Palmer all game long. Vic Beasley was practically living in the backfield, as he generated eight pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The blitz packages allowed him to come off twists, which forced Palmer into making rash decisions.

Quinn has been hesitant to blitz in the past. His willingness to blitz more often, along with utilizing more effective designs is paying off. Instead of wasting Beasley on the interior, they are having him rush off the edge and use his speed to twist inside. Beasley is their lone athletic defensive end. The coaching staff is starting to use his physical assets more often to generate pressure and alleviate the loss of Desmond Trufant.

As Jalen Collins starts handling full-time responsibilities, the pass rush needs to step up. Robert Alford is the lone veteran in the secondary. That is a troubling sign for a defense that is already allowing far too many big plays. As the secondary adjusts without Trufant, the trio of Beasley, Dwight Freeney, and Adrian Clayborn will be called upon. Clayborn suffered a knee injury, which is worrying considering his past injury history. A struggling defense can’t afford to lose another asset. His status will be something to monitor going into this week.

Looking Ahead

As the NFC South continues to regain respectability, the Falcons need to remain focused heading into the final stretch. Kansas City should prove to be a difficult challenge based on their similarities with Philadelphia. Both teams are known for their ball-control style offenses that rely on the running game. They also feature ferocious front fours, which are filled with quality edge rushers and massive interior linemen. This game could very well be decided inside the trenches. Hopefully, Quinn’s team is more equipped for this upcoming matchup.