With both starting wide receivers injured, it was going to be an uphill battle for the Falcons offense. Replacing Julio Jones isn’t humanly possible. Mohamed Sanu’s value as a possession receiver would have been useful in this particular matchup. Gregg Wiliiams’ heavy blitz scheme forces quarterbacks into making quicker decisions and throwing shorter passes. With no healthy wide receiver above six feet tall, there was concern about Matt Ryan putting together effective drives.
He only needed to manage two successful drives, as the defense overwhelmed Jared Goff and produced their finest performance of the season. The pass rush managed to create havoc without heavily blitzing. Every player in the secondary contributed in a positive manner. On 41 pass attempts; the defense broke up ten of them, as Robert Alford celebrated his new deal with three passes defensed. It was an impressive defensive performance on every level.
Defensive cornerstones generate big plays
With Desmond Trufant done for the season and Adrian Clayborn likely sidelined until January, the Falcons lost two of their most consistent defensive players. A stout cornerback and versatile pass rusher are two valuable pieces. It’s nearly impossible to find a player on the roster, who can replicate their production. Rather than Jalen Collins shutting down half the field or Jonathan Babineaux turning back the clock, expecting key players at other positions to step up is a more realistic approach.
In my recent film breakdown, the rookies were heavily criticized for their respective performances against Kansas City. They found themselves at ease in a good matchup. Keanu Neal wasn’t tested very often. De’Vondre Campbell suffered a rib injury and played limited snaps. Deion Jones proved to be a difference maker, as the upstart middle linebacker is starting to develop into a consistent starter. Scouts raved about Jones speed, when coming out of the draft. What didn’t receive enough recognition are the rookie’s instincts.
Unlike his running mate Campbell, the second round pick displays solid awareness and rarely makes mental mistakes. After taking a poor angle on Tavon Austin’s 23-yard run, he responded two plays later by stopping Todd Gurley for a two yard gain. Jones made the ultimate splash play by reading Goff’s eyes, intercepting a hurried decision, and taking it to the house. Many playoff-caliber teams have linebackers, who are tremendous athletes and can make great plays in coverage look basic. The Falcons have been missing that for years.
It’s hard to remember the last linebacker, who jumped a route and made the opposing quarterback pay for a costly decision. Jones brings many qualities to a rebuilding defense. His excellent instincts and speed should make quarterbacks hesitate, before thinking they can pick up quick easy yards. Jones broke up another pass on third and two, as Goff tried to find Lance Kendricks on a quick hitch route. Jones was making plays all over the field, which this defense desperately needs going forward on a weekly basis.
With Jones’ strong performance and every cornerback making plays, someone had to emerge up front. Vic Beasley continued his fantastic season with another statement performance. The NFL’s new sack leader tormented Rob Havenstein with three sacks, three hurries, and two tackles for a loss. There are some plays, where Beasley doesn’t move like a standard edge rusher.
His ability to explode off the edge and change direction is breathtaking. On Beasley’s third sack, Havenstein couldn’t gain any leverage, as the star pass rusher quickly changed direction and used a rip move to get past the embattled right tackle. To secure the loose ball immediately deserves praise as well, considering how defensive lineman and linebackers are known for not initially scooping up a fumble.
Beasley validates himself as a true difference maker
Despite clearly possessing freakish traits and showing a knack for causing fumbles, Beasley’s rise this season seemed slightly exaggerated at first. Some of his sacks came from terrific coverage downfield or being utilized as a spy and cleaning up Clayborn’s dirty work. There wasn’t enough consistency on a snap-to-snap basis to consider him a true force. Coming off a much-needed bye week, he is starting to rattle quarterbacks more frequently rather than two or three times a game.
The second year player isn’t hesitating anymore. There isn’t any thought process behind constantly trying a new pass-rushing move on a weekly basis. Attempting to implement a spin move to his repertoire has been erased. He is sticking to his blazing first step, changing direction (whether it’s from a stutter step or dipping and bending), and vicious rip move. Beasley is also converting speed to power more effectively, which was evident on his second sack. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit criticized Beasley earlier in the season for guessing and coming off the edge without a plan. That isn’t in the case anymore.
Beasley’s emergence as an above average pass rusher can be credited by multiple outlets. Dwight Freeney’s influence will certainly merit praise. It should be fascinating to see how much information is revealed during the off-season, when Beasley and Freeney start doing more media appearances. The coaching staff is starting to use him better as well. When facing Tampa Bay last month, they oddly decided to use Beasley and Clayborn on the interior, as Courtney Upshaw and Grady Jarrett rushed from the edge to mix things up.
It was a poor idea, which materialized into Jameis Winston having ample time in the pocket. How would a 240-pound edge rusher be successful lining up as a defensive tackle? If they want to be more creative with their prized talent, use his athletic gifts to fluster offensive lines. Running twists with Beasley has generated more big plays, as his first sack came from beating Tim Barnes. The center wasn’t agile enough to obtain leverage and Beasley blasted right past him to start off a memorable performance. Using an edge rusher’s impressive speed and forcing offensive lines to make adjustments with players twisting around should result in a positive outcome.
Shanahan’s game plan
The offense didn’t generate many successful drives, but they operated an effective game plan. This game wasn’t going to be decided on the offense scoring over 30 points by itself. It simply wasn’t possible with Jones and Sanu sidelined. Winning the turnover battle and Ryan staying upright needed to occur for them to avoid a colossal upset.
Shanahan’s play calling helped secure a comfortable win. With the offensive line not opening many holes, Ryan needed to made quicker throws and not allow Williams’ blitzes to rattle him like they did during his tenure in New Orleans. Calling more screens and three-step drops helped the wide receivers become more involved. None of them can be replied upon to beat man coverage on a consistent basis. By using more trip sets and misdirection plays, they all made meaningful contributions.
Nick Williams was the offense’s unsung hero, as the crafty route runner made multiple receptions on third down. He didn’t miss a beat with Ryan at the helm. Justin Hardy is capable of making highlight reel catches in traffic, while Aldrick Robinson’s ability as a deep threat makes defenses account for him. Taylor Gabriel has surpassed being a role player with his weekly big plays. Given all of their limitations, the wide receiving corps faired well.
As everyone starts to get healthy, the Falcons have to regain their consistency. They haven’t won two straight in over a month. It has been a rollercoaster with heart breaking defeats and questionable decision-making. When the pass rush emerges, everything appears to flow better. Babineaux, Ra’Shede Hageman, and Courtney Upshaw all showed flashes as pass rushers yesterday. A decent pass rush benefits a young secondary, which is trying to gel as a unit without their main leader. This is the most promising stretch of the schedule, as New Orleans was essentially eliminated. With three non-playoff teams left, they have a prime opportunity to reach the playoffs and surpass most preseason expectations.