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A closer look: A multidimensional wide receiver group shines

With Seattle’s ferocious front four looming, Matt Ryan had make quicker decisions. The wide receivers needed to create separation and make plays all game long. They accomplished that in a impressive performance.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There are so many different effective elements to the Falcons’ offense. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Alex Mack tend to garner the most attention. That doesn’t include Kyle Shanahan’s brilliance being examined on a weekly basis. It’s hard to mention every playmaker and above average player on this special unit. Until Julio Jones suffered a toe injury against Kansas City, the wide receiver group wasn’t receiving much recognition, aside from breakout player Taylor Gabriel.

The combination of Mohamed Sanu, Gabriel, Justin Hardy, and Aldrick Robinson has been productive over the past two months. None of them are necessarily stars, but they each play their part in a dynamic offense.

Despite not having Earl Thomas, Seattle’s star-studded defense is still an imposing matchup. Shanahan was going to lean on Ryan, as the Seahawks are known for shutting down opposing running games. It ended up being one of their more impressive offensive performances through the air, especially given the competition. By converting six of twelve third down situations and each wide receiver (besides Robinson) making key contributions, the offense found a healthy balance to dismantle Seattle’s defense.

I always rewatch the previous Falcons game and post GIFs on Twitter of the most standout plays or disappointing decisions. One particular player, positional group, or situation is excluded from the film review to be saved for this piece. Here are seven catches, which includes multiple angles on nearly every play.

1st quarter: 2nd and 8 at ATL 48

Ryan immediately targeted Jones on the first drive. It wasn’t surprising to see him test Richard Sherman, given his fearless mindset. Ryan didn’t shy away from the Pro Bowl cornerback during their first playoff meeting in 2013. This is a simple comeback route, as Sherman isn’t able to make the necessary adjustment. Jones’ explosiveness off the line of scrimmage is the first step towards making this an easy 12-yard completion.

His quick burst makes Sherman recognize the possibility of a go route. When Jones stops and comes back, Sherman is already off balance and can’t make a play on the ball. This was a statement drive by the offense. Jones caught two passes on Sherman that both went for first downs, along with drawing a holding penalty. If the game was more competitive and Jones didn’t aggravate his sprained toe, this matchup could have been more memorable.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at ATL 43

It’s rare to see two wide receivers open against the Seahawks. Losing Thomas left a massive hole in their secondary. After watching Steven Terrell miss one of many open field tackles, they missed their best defensive player from a tackling and coverage standpoint. Ryan could have opted for Jones, who had separation on Sherman (sorry for the poor view). Unlike last season, the Falcons have actual speed at wide receiver.

Gabriel runs a slant against DeShawn Shead. For this play to be successful, Ryan needs to throw an accurate fastball. He puts the pass right in Gabriel’s hands to let the dynamic playmaker do what he does best. No other wide receiver on the roster besides Jones last season can turn this play into a 37-yard gain. Gabriel’s agility and unpredictability gives Ryan another unique weapon. This play is a prime example.

2nd quarter: 2nd and 10 at ATL 14

Once again, Ryan’s ball placement is perfect. That needs to be mentioned before anything else. Sanu does a good job getting Jeremy Lane off balance at the line of scrimmage. It allows him to create enough separation on a corner route. Despite being known as their main possession receiver, Sanu is capable of stretching the field. It’s not his biggest strength, but the versatile weapon can surprise opposing defenses with his athleticism.

To hold onto the ball with one hand under serious resistance is impressive. Lane does everything possible to break this pass up. Sanu showcases his strength to ignite their nine play, 99-yard drive. His ability to win in traffic is one of the main reasons why Atlanta signed him. They needed another big receiving option to help them succeed in the red zone following a nightmare season. Sanu isn’t a prototypical number two wide receiver. His size, route running, and hands make him a great fit in Shanahan’s offense.

2nd quarter: 1st and 10 at SEA 34

Throwing behind your receiver doesn’t usually turn a ten-yard play into a twenty-yard gain. Ryan is slightly fortunate here. Jones makes everything happen at the line of scrimmage. Look at his release against Shead. Cornerbacks aren’t supposed to get instantly turned around in man coverage. Shead is so discombobulated that he can’t even touch Jones, who adjusted to make the catch. This is another play highlighting Jones’ ability to create separation in a heartbeat and intelligence to pick up extra yardage.

3rd quarter: 3rd and 10 at ATL 39

Gabriel doesn’t get enough credit as a crafty route runner. Most of his big plays make you gush over his blazing speed. By playing more games, football fans and analysts will eventually recognize his route running capabilities. Leodis McKelvin learned the hard way, when Gabriel roasted him on a double move. The dynamic wide receiver lines up against rookie cornerback DeAndre Elliott. After Shead suffered a torn ACL, Ryan went right after the inexperienced corner. Gabriel appears to be running a stop and go, before settling on the comeback.

The speed difference was noticeable in this particular matchup. Elliott manages to stay composed and not fall for any initial fake. His poor positioning ultimately leaves him hopeless on this completion. Between Ryan’s throw under pressure and Gabriel making an excellent adjustment to secure the pass, this is a well-executed play. Both players weren’t on the same page at times against Seattle. They looked like teammates for six years on an important third down conversion.

4th quarter: 3rd and 10 at ATL 20

Ryan started targeting Elliott in the second half. Hardy is the beneficiary on a simple out route. The second year wide receiver uses good footwork to create enough separation. For some reason, the referee decides to rule this an incomplete pass. It rightfully gets overturned, as Hardy maintains possession and gets two feet inbounds. You have to appreciate his willingness to stretch his right arm out to reach the first down marker, despite already having enough yards. Hardy is developing into one of the more underappreciated players on the roster.

4th quarter: 1st and goal at SEA 3

Sanu’s ability in the red zone was previously mentioned. All four of his touchdowns occurred in the red zone this season, including a phenomenal catch against Tampa Bay. Shanahan doesn’t call fades very often. Ironically, Jones has scored on multiple attempted fades against Tampa Bay and New Orleans. As the game is essentially over, they decide to give Sanu an opportunity.

Sanu is only two inches taller than Lane. You can’t allow a bigger receiver to get a free release near the goal line. Lane doesn’t bother jamming him, which allows Sanu to jolt outside, before adjusting inside for the touchdown. Ryan’s precise ball placement makes life easier for him. Lane’s inability to disrupt the route leaves him buried against a strong receiver and the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2016.