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For the first time in years, the Falcons have legitimate depth at wide receiver

The Falcons offense has developed into the most feared unit in the league. Addressing the lack of talent at wide receiver is proving to be one of the main reasons behind their success.

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Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The stage was set for one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. After scorching countless defenses, it was time to make it count on a big platform. Could this decade’s version of “the greatest show on turf” live up to their billing?

To contain Seattle’s front four, vicious blitz designs, and physical secondary is extremely difficult. Earl Thomas’ absence did leave a significant hole in their Cover Three defense. They still have Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Frank Clark, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor. Most defenses would beg to have half of those standouts on their roster.

Given that, it was another standard performance for Kyle Shanahan’s unbelievable offense. Matt Ryan didn’t necessarily play his best game, but made smart decisions and showed tremendous poise against the blitz. The wide receiver group regularly won their individuals battles. With the offensive line overpowering Seattle’s front seven in the second half, they found their preferred balance. For them to put together four productive quarters against a stellar defense is astonishing. It starts with their under-appreciated wide receiving corps.

The perfect combination

When the new regime took over in 2015, it was fascinating to evaluate their personnel changes following a dreadful 2014 season. They tried to address the lack of depth at wide receiver. A group of Julio Jones, Roddy White, Leonard Hankerson, Justin Hardy, and Devin Hester looked like a fearsome unit. Before the 2015 season, wide receiver appeared to be the strongest position on the roster. Between Hankerson’s inability to stay on the field and consistently catch the ball to White not creating any separation against opposing cornerbacks, it proved to be one of the worst positions on the roster.

A once major issue has developed into an asset. Not many offenses have four capable wide receivers, let alone five of them. That was evident against Seattle, as Ryan continued to spread the ball around. Julio Jones got the better of Richard Sherman, when they faced each other. If the game was more competitive and Jones didn’t get injured, he probably would have surpassed 100 receiving yards. Sherman decided to play off Jones rather than play press coverage on a few occasions. That didn’t matter for the superstar wide receiver, who made multiple key plays on third down.

Unlike last season, Jones has received incredible support from his fellow teammates. For this unit to stay in sync, other wide receivers must contribute on a consistent basis. Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, and Justin Hardy played their part. Gabriel’s breathtaking speed adds another dimension to this potent offense. He took a slant for 37 yards, as Ryan threw a fastball right on the money. What Gabriel offers after the catch makes him a special player. Look at him make Steven Terrell miss in the open field. The Falcons simply didn’t have players capable of doing this last season. Explosive offenses need playmakers like Gabriel.

It wasn’t only their ability to blow past Seattle’s cornerbacks and make defenders miss in the open field. The wide receivers made difficult catches as well. Gabriel made an outstanding adjustment on third down to secure a pass, as Ryan was under duress. When they needed Sanu to run a corner route, the versatile weapon delivered in traffic. Ryan’s best throw of the game was rewarded by Sanu’s incredible strength to hold onto the ball. They linked up later on a fade to put the Falcons over 30 points for the fifth consecutive game. Sanu’s size gives Ryan a much-needed option in the red zone, as the offense struggled severely when Jones was double-teamed last season.

The coaching staff assembled a well-rounded unit. Jones is the all-purpose wide receiver. Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson can vertically stretch the field, while roasting opposing cornerbacks with sheer speed. Sanu and Hardy have found their niche as possession receivers, who can move the chains when called upon. Hardy made an impressive catch on third down as well. Timely plays will eventually add up in a game between two talented teams. The Falcons were six for twelve on third down. A vastly improved wide receiver group deserves credit for being the ultimate difference makers.

Offensive line wins the battle

There were only two realistic scenarios for Seattle to emerge victorious. It involved establishing the run to keep Atlanta’s offense off the field as much as possible and generating consistent pressure. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was under pressure on ten of his 40 dropbacks. It was far different from their previous matchup, when Ryan was hit or sacked on 11 of 17 dropbacks in the first half. The offensive line held up considerably well.

Ryan Schraeder held Cliff Avril to a quiet game. The star pass rusher sacked Ryan twice, along with a forced fumble that translated into a Seattle touchdown in the first meeting. He was a complete non-factor on Saturday. Michael Bennett made his presence felt in both positive and negative ways, but didn’t come close to equaling his five hits total from last October. While the tackles held up against a top-tier pass rushing duo, the interior line looked far more organized against Seattle’s twists and blitz designs.

They were also responsible for opening up holes against Seattle’s vaunted front seven. The biggest runs came from the right side, where Chris Chester and Schraeder made several crunching blocks. Look at both linemen giving Devonta Freeman daylight to nearly cross the goal line. Atlanta ran the ball eight times on a 13 play, 75-yard drive to start the second half. Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 44 yards, which is over five yards per carry. Using several outside zone looks gave Seattle all sorts of issues. Alex Mack played a significant role during that game-changing drive, especially on Coleman’s longest run of the game.

Defense manages to make enough plays

Despite their limitations and inexperience, Dan Quinn’s defense continues to overcome those deficiencies. The pass rush needed to emerge against a horrific Seahawks’ offensive line. Losing Adrian Clayborn didn’t prevent them from harassing Russell Wilson. They were relentless by running stunts and twists to fluster the dynamic quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson only competed four of thirteen passes under pressure, including a desperate heave that landed in Ricardo Allen’s hands.

As Chester shined on the offensive line, Jonathan Babineaux joined him as an unlikely unsung hero. The fan favorite made some key stops in the running game. A quick first step and high motor is essential for any undersized defensive tackle. It helped Babineaux become an above-average player. While age has diminished certain elements to his game, he is craftier and wiser. George Fant found out the hard way. Babineaux earned a well-deserved sack, which put Seattle in a third-and-sixteen situation. It led to Allen’s interception that essentially sealed the win.

Wilson did miss multiple opportunities. Doug Baldwin could have scored three touchdowns, if Wilson didn’t overthrow him. The secondary struggled more than expected against an average Seattle passing game. Robert Alford didn’t fare well against Baldwin, particularly in the slot. The front four abused a great matchup and swarmed Wilson during the entire second half. Babineaux, Brooks Reed, and Dwight Freeney were absolutely relentless in their pursuit.

Looking Ahead

Following an emotional win, the possibilities are endless. The Falcons offense hasn’t scored under 28 points since Week 10 against Philadelphia. Jones’ health is a slight concern based on aggravating a sprained toe suffered last month. This team can’t afford more injuries after Clayborn tore his bicep. Resiliency is one of Quinn’s most used words at every press conference. This team continues to embody it on a weekly basis. Proving it against the hottest quarterback in the league is another discussion. This matchup has all the makings of an instant classic. Similar to most weeks, another offensive explosion and enough defensive stops could take this team back to where they haven’t been in nearly 20 years.