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Falcons vs. Panthers: Putting two years of fine work on the field

The recent draft classes and undrafted rookie signings were on full display against Carolina. Everything culminated into a satisfying win for the entire franchise.

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Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

When Vic Beasley strip sacked Cam Newton at this time last year, it was a very memorable moment. A remarkable defensive performance ended Carolina’s quest for an undefeated season. Although the game was special, nothing felt dramatically different about the Falcons. They still had major flaws on both sides of the ball. The win was well deserved, but everyone still viewed Carolina as the NFC South’s superior team.

That belief ended in one season. The Falcons have overtaken them with two more convincing victories. Newton has been disastrous against the Falcons this season. Despite Jonathan Stewart’s return after missing the previous two matchups, a capable running game didn’t benefit the erratic quarterback. With Matt Ryan making wise decisions and running game flourishing, it was another disciplined performance from the NFC South champions. The coaching staff’s personnel decisions over the past two seasons played a pivotal role in their onslaught.

Young players shine on both sides of the ball

When Dan Quinn arrived in 2015, the roster desperately needed talent in several areas. Drafting difference makers was going to be crucial following countless forgettable draft picks. By overhauling the front office, the recent draft classes are filled with success stories. It hasn’t been only the high draft picks contributing in a positive manner. Multiple undrafted rookie free agents made their presence felt as well.

Joshua Perkins’ NFL career started with two inexcusable plays. He dropped a wide-open touchdown against Tampa Bay, which most tight ends should catch, although Ryan’s throw could have been better. That miscue was followed by being penalized for offensive pass interference against Philadelphia on a big pass to Devonta Freeman. Perkins was caught setting an obvious pick during the fourth quarter of a one-possession game. He surprisingly didn’t get cut or placed on the practice squad in September, which meant the coaching staff saw enough value in him to keep four tight ends on the active roster.

Jacob Tamme’s season ending injury created an opportunity for Perkins. He is developing into Atlanta’s top vertical threat at tight end. Austin Hooper isn’t a great route runner, while Levine Toilolo’s limitations are well documented. Perkins possesses good speed and athleticism. On his first career touchdown, Ryan’s phenomenal ball placement wasn’t the only impressive part to the play. The undrafted rookie free agent ran a smooth route and didn’t allow stud linebacker Thomas Davis to rip the ball away. If Perkins can make plays in traffic like he did on Saturday, Kyle Shanahan will need to feature him in the red zone.

On a day filled with first career moments, Brian Poole’s interception set the tone for Newton’s miserable performance. The 2015 NFL MVP missed countless throws and threw two dreadful interceptions. Poole took advantage and continued his strong season. Some have wondered about his future possibly being at free safety. That sounds intriguing on paper, but his value as a nickel corner can’t be ignored. Similar to Perkins, Poole made some standout plays in preseason and rightfully earned his player on the roster. He is right behind Keanu Neal as Atlanta’s best tackler in the secondary. The interception was well deserved from one of the defense’s few consistent players.

No player was more targeted than Jalen Collins on Saturday. According to Pro Football Focus, the second-year cornerback allowed six receptions for 80 yards and one touchdown on a whopping 15 targets. He battled against Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess for the majority of the game. Collins covered both players without any safety help. It was arguably the best game of his career with one pass breakup and first career interception. Besides Benjamin stiff-arming him to the ground like a prime Marshawn Lynch, Collins never looked overwhelmed.

Newton threw one of his few perfect passes for a touchdown, where the former second round pick couldn’t have played it any better. Between turning his head around and locating the ball better on deep throws (which was an issue against Arizona) to reading Newton’s eyes on the interception, Collins played like an above average cornerback. That should give him confidence headed into a matchup against New Orleans’ explosive wide receiver trio.

Tevin Coleman seals the deal

On a day where several recent draft picks and undrafted rookie free agents made big plays, Coleman was the ultimate difference maker. The offense faced a major predicament on third and 21. Carolina started gaining momentum against a slowly tiring Falcons defense. In a two-possession game, everything started pointed towards another heart throbbing finish. The NFL’s best offense stopped stumbling at an opportune time.

Shanahan devised a brilliant play call to attack Carolina’s inconsistent secondary. James Bradberry was focused on covering Perkins. With Davis failing to recognize Coleman, it left acres of space open for Ryan to pick up a much-needed first down. The in-demand offensive coordinator is constantly looking to exploit mismatches and opposing defense’s biggest flaw. Coleman’s blazing speed offers an array of different options. Clearing the left side open and putting the ball in your fastest player’s hands took away Carolina’s soul. Ben Garland deserves major praise for replacing Andy Levitre and holding his own against Kawann Short on the play.

On the very next play, Coleman delivered the final bullet. The explosive playmaker followed his blocks and scored on a 55-yard run. Tre Boston’s abysmal effort received plenty of attention, but the strong run blocking can’t be disregarded. Ryan Schraeder and Toilolo did a solid job creating daylight. Patrick DiMarco’s seal block on A.J. Klein catapulted Coleman into the secondary. The former third round pick is starting to make more defenders miss, which rarely occurred last season. If he can improve his balance and cutting ability, his upside is unlimited. Coleman showed how he could change a game at any moment. According to Andrew Hirsh, he gained 86 yards on those two plays. The second year running back is their x-factor headed into January.

Secondary rises to the occasion

The solid coverage played a key role in Newton’s horrific performance. On many overthrows or passes behind his wide receivers, most plays were well covered. Robert Alford didn’t allow Ted Ginn to beat him downfield like last season. He shadowed the dynamic receiver, which included covering him in the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Alford only allowed two receptions for 24 yards on five targets. The recently re-signed cornerback also broke up two passes, including one well-executed breakup, as he perfectly timed his jump on Ginn’s post route to break up one of Newton’s rare accurate throws.

The trio of Alford, Collins, and Poole won their individual matchups. When someone needed a break, Deji Olatoye continued his recent emergence. He looked very smooth against San Francisco, when asked to play man coverage. Olatoye made a great stop on third and eight to prevent Newton from reaching Greg Olsen. The entire secondary contained Olsen by being well organized. Unheralded players like Poole and Olatoye made key contributions to keep an opposing offense under 20 points for the third consecutive game.

It was important for a young secondary to stay composed in a heated divisional battle. They can’t always be dependent on the pass rush, which has drastically improved, but still limited in certain places. With the pass rush struggling to affect Newton, it was on the secondary to not allow any openings. They were fortunate on two deep passes, as Benjamin and Funchess continued their underwhelming seasons with glaring drops. Those were the lone blemishes for an overall fantastic performance.

Looking Ahead

When battling for playoff supremacy, the Falcons couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. They control their own destiny headed into the final week. A win against New Orleans secures an unexpected first round bye. It wasn’t the most efficient performance, as both lines struggled against Carolina. Jake Matthews allowed two sacks and looked uncomfortable against Carolina’s speed rushers. The defensive line couldn’t exploit a below average Panthers’ offensive line, which benefitted from some max protect formations.

Style points don’t matter in December. Although you want to be playing your best football, it’s all about being one of the twelve relevant teams in January, especially when you haven’t been a perennial contender like the Falcons. The offense finds ways to score over 30 points a game and protect the ball. Ryan hasn’t thrown an interception in three games. The defense has forced three fumbles and produced four interceptions over a three-game winning streak. With a historically great offense, young players improving every week, and consistently winning the turnover battle, the Falcons are becoming one of the NFC’s most frightening teams.