Considering how many thrilling games have occurred this season, the Falcons win over Tampa Bay felt a bit anti-climatic. There weren't many flashy plays or jaw-dropping moments. For a team that has been living on the edge, they took control in a favorable matchup. An efficient performance on both sides of the ball finally produced a comfortable victory.
A highly-penalized and turnover-filled first half wasn't surprising, given how these players were on the field for the second time in four days. Expecting perfection under these circumstances simply isn't realistic. Talent usually reigns supreme on Thursday night. That was evident in the second half by Atlanta scoring on four consecutive drives, which included Matt Ryan throwing three touchdown passes. It was the performance that you would envision from a playoff-caliber team.
Another poised performance from Ryan and co.
For the second consecutive game, the MVP candidate had a near flawless performance. Besides not protecting the ball on Gerald McCoy's sack, Ryan was locked in against his old coach's defense. He was attacking their soft zone, particularly in the middle of the field. With Julio Jones eating Tampa Bay's secondary alive on dig routes and tight ends being found wide-open downfield, it was a familiar sight for a Mike Smith defense. The Falcons didn't take advantage of those openings in their first meeting. The league's best offense eventually capitalized on it.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan only completed four of eleven passes that went for ten yards or longer in Week One. That was unsurprisingly his worst performance of the season. Ryan completed 12 of 17 on passes ten yards or longer last Thursday. That improvement is a testament to excellent pass protection and emerging playmakers. Ryan did show beautiful touch on multiple throws that haven't been completed on a consistent basis in recent years. After struggling to incorporate Jones in the red zone, the dynamic duo finally connected on a picture-perfect fade for a three-yard touchdown. It's been quite some time, since the Falcons found success using a designed fade. Ryan also made an incredible throw to Taylor Gabriel on a deep out route. Despite taking a shot from Robert Ayers, Ryan's ball placement was spot on for the leaping Gabriel.
The strong rapport between Ryan and his receivers is evident. Cris Collinsworth alluded to Ryan releasing the ball, while his receivers are still in the process of running their route. It's not surprising to see them all on the same page. Jacob Tamme spoke to me last September about Ryan's unbelievable work ethic. With Kyle Shanahan's exceptional play calling, all of the pieces have merged into an offensive juggernaut. A hard-working quarterback and brilliant offensive mind should create magic. Being on the same page and adding crucial pieces (multiple wide receivers, All-Pro center) proved to be necessary requirements for them to reach lofty goals, such as averaging over 30 points a game.
Ryan's recent performances should be attributed to outstanding protection. On 39 drop backs, the offensive line only allowed nine pressures against Green Bay. They were even more efficient against Tampa Bay. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was pressured five times on 34 drop backs. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder will have their occasional lapses.
That hasn't prevented them from maintaining their status as a dependable tackle duo. The offensive line deserves credit for doing a much better job against Tampa Bay's underrated front seven. Devonta Freeman found running lanes on several occasions. For the first time in his career, Lavonte David was a non-factor against the Falcons. The outstanding linebacker is known for having a major impact on every divisional clash. Only McCoy stood out in an abysmal defensive performance.
Coaching staff continues to make alterations
Following their first matchup, I firmly believed that Dirk Koetter and Smith outcoached Quinn and Shanahan. The Falcons defense looked completely disorganized and failed to generate any pass rush. Converting only three out of thirteen third-down situations and one of four red zone opportunities was a discouraging sign as well. The offense failed to execute on all levels, but Shanahan's play calling left a lot to be desired. Both coaches have made considerable strides over the past month. They did a superb job with only three preparation days.
Shanahan added a major new wrinkle, which gave Tampa Bay's defense fits. Gabriel's game changing speed was utilized on jet sweeps. Both runs combined for 24 yards and one touchdown. They can't always depend on traditional runs to score in the red zone. Featuring their fastest wide receiver on a misdirection play was excellent on Shanahan's part. Tampa Bay's defense was left hopeless on every red zone touchdown. From Patrick DiMarco scoring on a play action fake to Jones taking advantage of rare single coverage in the red zone, Shanahan opened up the playbook.
Using Mohamed Sanu on a rub route to free Austin Hooper for a two-yard touchdown signified a successful evening. One of Sanu's underrated qualities is how smoothly he runs this particular route. They've used him on multiple occasions to spring Justin Hardy. Sanu runs the rub route without initiating contact and showing any indication of setting a pick. In a league where rub routes (pick plays) are becoming common, the Falcons are expertly using it.
Quinn is trying to be more creative with his basic Cover Three scheme. His decision to use Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn together on the interior at times was bizarre. Although Beasley's athleticism should be utilized around the line of scrimmage, he isn't finding success when colliding with opposing guards or centers. As the sack numbers suggest, the pass rush is showing drastic improvement. Beasley showed an effective bull rush against Demar Dotson. Afterembarrassingly attempting a spin move against New Orleans, Brooks Reed got past Donovan Smith with a spin move. The play was so smooth that it resembled a classic Dwight Freeney sack. Quinn and Bryan Cox's coaching should be commended with this group.
Embattled cornerback playing quality snaps
Jalen Collins' place on the roster has been a hot discussion on social media. The 2015-second round draft pick fell down the pecking order following Brian Poole's emergence. It was surprising to see him active against Tampa Bay. C.J. Goodwin broke up two passes and showed more than enough as the fourth cornerback against Green Bay. That didn't stop Quinn from giving Collins an opportunity. It turned out to be a wise move, as Desmond Trufant suffered a shoulder injury.
Collins broke up a third-down pass intended for Cecil Shorts on the first drive in the second half. Only one three-and-out was needed for the Falcons to take a commanding lead. He looked comfortable against Mike Evans, who looked unstoppable against whoever was covering him. The physical cornerback possesses ideal qualities for Quinn's defense. If he can improve on his technique and overall instincts, Collins may reach his potential. It was a very encouraging performance, which including a crushing hit on Jameis Winston.
Regardless of the opponent, winning convincingly on a short week is impressive, especially coming off an emotional victory. They looked focused for the most part on both sides of the ball. Without three key players, they didn't miss a beat. Hooper and Levine Toilolo found success on seam routes, which is a common theme for tight ends against Smith's defense. Adrian Clayborn replaced Dwight Freeney on the edge and added his fourth sack in five games. After experiencing depth issues for years, the Falcons have reinforcements at their disposal. That is how playoff teams are built.