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Falcons hit San Francisco’s biggest weakness, leading to another offensive masterclass

The Falcons offense continues to produce outrageous numbers on a weekly basis. Kyle Shanahan’s willingness to run the ball more often and abuse San Francisco’s front seven worked brilliantly.

San Francisco 49ers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When a productive offense is averaging 33 points a game, their success can be dissected in several different ways. The quarterback, offensive line, and wide receiving corps are likely at the forefront. With the league becoming more pass-heavy and running back rotations being utilized more frequently, there is far more attention directed towards an offense’s aerial attack, unless a top-tier running back is marshaling their efficiency. What doesn’t receive enough recognition is the offensive coordinator’s play calling.

Kyle Shanahan has gone from being vilified to beloved in a matter of three months. The unorthodox play designs, zone blocking scheme, and chemistry with Matt Ryan have all paid massive dividends. His ability to pinpoint an opposing defense’s most apparent deficiency and execute a successful game plan targeting it makes this offense so unique. Most coaching staffs can identify an opposing team’s biggest flaw. Implementing a proper game plan to attack it is the real obstacle. From abusing Denver’s linebackers with Tevin Coleman to exploiting Arizona’s below average cornerbacks excluding Patrick Peterson, Shanahan’s methods have contributed to assembling an offensive powerhouse. That was on display against a porous 49ers defense.

The dynamic duo strikes again

It doesn’t take much research to recognize San Francisco’s most problematic area. They were allowing a league-worst 170 rushing yards per game before yesterday’s matchup, which is 24 more yards than Cleveland. Without their leader NaVorro Bowman, the linebackers are overwhelmed and can’t shed blocks. They don’t have much depth either in a limited defense. After failing to establish the run against Los Angeles, it was important for Atlanta to stay committed to the run. They couldn’t rely on scoring multiple defensive touchdowns against a more composed Colin Kaepernick.

The offensive line paved running lanes on nearly every other snap. Devonta Freeman only needs a small window to get loose. The third year running back got to the second level on a consistent basis. With his ability to make defenders miss, it wasn’t surprising to see him have a field day. Freeman had only 182 carries on the season headed into this game. They’ve done an excellent job balancing his workload compared to last season, where he received 264 carries and faded down the stretch.

Freeman received his second-highest total of carries on the season, as he carried the ball 20 times. Julio Jones’ absence and San Francisco’s inferior front seven provided an enlarged role. Freeman showed more burst than usual, especially after fumbling on the one-yard line. He ran visibly angry on his second touchdown, which left three defenders searching for answers. There are still moments, when Freeman becomes somewhat forgotten about in a playmaker-filled offense. A consistent above average running back like Freeman deserves more appreciation.

Tevin Coleman is starting to be more effective after missing three games. It’s important for him to find a rhythm and not be dependent of explosive plays to make an impact. A big-play running back isn’t going to break loose for a 40-yard run or catch a 30-yard pass on a weekly basis. Coleman will be the feature back on certain drives and be responsible for picking up tough yards. The second-year running back received 14 carries and gained 58 yards. It was a solid overall performance without producing any jaw-dropping moments. He finished several runs more violently than usual, while his vision and balance is slowly improving.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Falcons gained 173 rushing yards before contact. That indicates how well the offensive line played. Jake Matthews looked fully recovered from his knee injury and made several key blocks, which includes Freeman’s third touchdown. Alex Mack continues to be a difference maker on a weekly basis. He repeatedly took out San Francisco’s linebackers, which allowed Coleman to break into the open field. When an offense gains 248 rushing yards, it usually comes from an all-around team effort. Patrick DiMarco and Austin Hooper flashed on numerous occasions. DiMarco was vital in Freeman’s first touchdown and made a crushing block on another big run from Coleman. Hooper contributed on the third touchdown, along with other successful runs. The entire unit put on a clinic that other zone-blocking schemes should study in the film room.

Well-rounded passing game

The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote a fantastic piece about Ryan, which gave readers some insight behind the quarterback’s mindset. He wasn’t oblivious to last year’s disappointment. By trying new techniques and taking a more simplistic approach, Ryan looks more comfortable in the pocket. That doesn’t only come from excellent pass protection. Mastering the playbook and trusting his improved receiving corps has elevated the franchise quarterback’s confidence.

Nick Williams was the standout wide receiver last week. With Jones being sidelined again, Aldrick Robinson made the biggest contribution. He took an enormous hit from Tramaine Brock, yet still managed to hang onto the ball. The explosive deep threat isn’t known for making catches in traffic or taking punishment well. Robinson savored the moment and continued to make big plays with catches of 20, 21, and 59 yards. The overlooked free agent signing ran a quick skinny post, which left cornerback Dontae Johnson immediately chasing him. Big plays like that weren’t there for the Falcons last season.

Following last season’s debacle, the wide receiving corps desperately needed more speed to a unit filled with possession receivers and Jones. Taylor Gabriel and Robinson have been their long-awaited solution. They can make a 20-yard catch look as easy as a four-yard run. Mohamed Sanu’s return allowed them to run more crossing and vertical routes. It benefitted Ryan, as he only needed 17 completions to throw for 286 yards.

Rookies make their mark

For the second consecutive week, the defense faced below average competition. They still played their part in a commanding performance. Ryan can’t leave the game early without the defense doing their share. It was the first time in his career, where the MVP candidate didn’t have to play a full game in consecutive weeks. The defense harassed Kaepernick into throwing inaccurate passes and rushing his reads.

Deion Jones and Keanu Neal were the standout players. After playing his best game of the season last week, Jones responded with eight tackles and a forced fumble. He is starting to become more of an asset as a run defender. By shedding blocks and not taking poor angles, the second round rookie is starting to become a legitimate playmaker at middle linebacker.

Neal was flying to the ball during the entire game. A freaky finger injury didn’t prevent him from landing brutalizing hits and making key stops on third down. It was one of Neal’s best performances of the season. The rookie strong safety has recovered well following a rough learning experience covering Travis Kelce.

Looking Ahead

The Falcons took care of business against two dysfunctional teams. After facing playoff-caliber opposition all season, a few favorable matchups were needed. For them to secure the NFC South, they need to beat their divisional foes. The status of De’Vondre Campbell and Austin Hooper needs to be monitored. Both key players suffered potential serious injuries. Injuries continue to occur; yet they’ve managed to overcome nearly every loss. Resiliency isn’t only a word that Dan Quinn says at every press conference. His team personifies it.