There was plenty of doubt heading into Oakland. After being gashed by Tampa Bay, how would the defense fare against an evolving offense featuring a terrific offensive line? Could the running game emerge to ease the pressure off Matt Ryan? The coaching staff faced several questions based on their defensive personnel alignments and red zone play calling. While those issues still occurred yesterday, the Falcons overcame those breakdowns in a captivating performance.
The offense put together several long drives with a balanced attack. Devonta Freeman was successful on outside runs, making multiple defenders miss along the way. Ryan looked composed behind a solid offensive line, who shut down Khalil Mack following a shaky first quarter.
Finishing drives remained as a lingering issue, but that changed in the second half. Kyle Shanahan utilized excellent play designs to fool Oakland's front seven. It was a (mostly) masterful performance from the oft-criticized quarterback and offensive coordinator.
When the opposing defense has to respect your running game, the possibilities are endless for the passing game. With Freeman and Tevin Coleman getting to the second level on countless runs, Oakland needed to commit an extra safety in the box. They were heavily committed to double-teaming Julio Jones as well. It forced Ryan to spread the ball around. This included lumbering tight end Levine Toilolo and recently signed wide receiver Taylor Gabriel.
Ryan completed passes to nine different players. It's a remarkable contrast to last season, when Ryan's top three passing options were Jones, Jones, and Jones, with a little Freeman sprinkled in. Explosive wide receivers like Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson weren't on the roster last year. Ryan has an array of diverse options that contributed in yesterday's victory.
Despite a promising first half, though, the offense wasted far too many opportunities. Shanahan's fixation on using Coleman in the red zone needs to be overhauled. Mohamed Sanu was signed to a massive contract, while the front office drafted Austin Hooper in the third round. They have an unstoppable receiving specimen at their disposal as well. There are several players on the roster that can make plays in traffic. Isolating an unreliable running back on passing plays in the red zone didn't materialize into a successful idea. It resulted in a bizarre failed screen and broken up pass that magically ended up in Justin Hardy's hands.
During the game, the Falcons reached seven red zone opportunities on the season. They had the same amount of touchdowns and turnovers, with five field goals in that range. They needed to be creative, but not predictable. Designing plays for Coleman in a crowded area won't be very effective compared to other areas on the field. Shanahan needed to go back to his bread-and-butter, which is using play action.
Pounding Oakland into submission with play action
Oakland's defense is filled with big names and intriguing players. They are either causing havoc on the defensive line or making plays in the secondary. The linebackers aren't exactly imposing or rangy. Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney struggled to handle coverage assignments. With Ryan constantly rolling out, they were flustered and didn't know which tight end was open. Jacob Tamme, Hooper, and Toilolo managed to make plays on the same basic rollout concepts.
As the Falcons faced another red zone situation, Shanahan finally used more play action to break the dreaded curse. They capitalized on another magnificent play action design, where Hooper slipped behind Heeney and caught a 34-yard pass. The same play materialized against the Giants last season. Ryan found Tamme wide open on a 41-yard pass. Besides the plays occurring from different sides, they are virtually identical. Two plays later, Ryan found Tamme on another bootleg for the easy touchdown.
These play actions designs flustered Oakland for the entire game. The touchdown forced Mack into covering Toilolo and committing a penalty. Smith was out of position, which contributed to his missed tackle. Heeney was trying to cover Toilolo, as he looked completely lost on the play. To follow up two perfectly executed play action designs, Shanahan appeared to be setting up another dreaded goal-line screen on the two-point conversion. Ryan faked the pass to run up the middle for an easy conversion. With a top-level center in Alex Mack, you can take risks and put your quarterback in unfamiliar situations. That drive put Atlanta up 21-14 and kick started their second half takeover. It was one of Shanahan's best drives as offensive coordinator.
Play action can be your best friend when the running game is constantly picking up steady yardage. That becomes even more beneficial with two versatile running backs. Both Oakland linebackers frequently bit on play action, which left Sean Smith on an island with Jones on a few occasions. Ryan sees the favorable matchup and completes a 20-yard pass to Jones.
A successful running game and limited linebackers gave Ryan endless opportunities to make high-percentage throws. It was easily his best performance in quite some time.
Defense holds strong, too
It was a daunting task for the Falcons defense against a team filled with talent. They certainly took their lumps against Oakland's offensive line. Kelechi Osemele was pushing defensive lineman backwards and throwing linebackers around. Grady Jarrett was overwhelmed against him and Gabe Jackson. It was a good learning experience for the emerging star, and with Vic Beasley flashing, things are looking up.
The secondary played exceptionally well, given the difficult circumstances. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford faced another talented wide receiver duo. Michael Crabtree was limited to only four catches for 31 yards and a touchdown. Alford played fairly well, although penalties continue to plague him. His excellent coverage and interception was ruined by an unnecessary push on Crabtree. A phenomenal defensive play turned into seven points for the Raiders. Alford is still one of the most dependable players on Atlanta's rebuilding defense, but those head-shaking moments are holding him back from being more.
Cooper contributed with five catches for 71 yards. His longest catch came on a 26-yard play, where Phillip Wheeler let him run freely in the slot and Ricardo Allen failed to close him down. Trufant broke up two passes, which included a third down breakup on a crossing route. Without any support from their defensive line, both cornerbacks held up against a crafty and physically imposing duo.
Cooper contributed with five catches for 71 yards. His longest catch came on a 26-yard play, where Phillip Wheeler allowed him to run freely in the slot and Ricardo Allen failed to close him down. Trufant broke up two passes, which included a third down breakup on a crossing route. Without any support from their defensive line, both cornerbacks held up against a crafty and physically imposing duo.
Although the season is still young, this was a colossal win for the Falcons. Everyone is aware of the upcoming stretch. It features three elite defenses and an unforgiving quarterback, who has been torturing them for the past decade. They desperately needed a win, regardless of how ugly it was. The offense played up to their potential and defense managed to hold up against a dangerous passing attack.
There are plenty of positives to take from this victory. Discounting the red zone interception, Ryan played a near-flawless game. He managed to connect with Jones on a deep pass, which doesn't happen very often. The offensive line deserves significant praise as well. Other than Chris Chester allowing a sack on third play of the game, they didn't allow much pressure. For Atlanta to beat a highly touted Raiders team, the offense had to be ready for a shootout. Three consecutive second-half touchdowns indicated their readiness and capabilities to take over a game.