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Observations from Falcons vs. Jets

The Falcons halted their losing streak against the Jets on Sunday. Here are some in-depth thoughts from the game.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at New York Jets Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The losing streak is finally over. That’s great, because writing about three straight losses is as exhausting as it is depressing. Luckily, we have a win to talk about today. Sure, it was against the Jets, but I’ll take road wins where I can get them. The Falcons avoided falling below .500 and also avoided going 0-4 against the AFC East. Two truly noteworthy accolades.

Still, this team did show some improvement this week despite the poor weather. Let’s move on to some of my biggest observations after re-watching the game.

The run defense looked much better

A week after getting repeatedly gashed by the Patriots relatively lackluster ground game, the Falcons run defense stepped up in a big way against the Jets. Atlanta held the Jets to just 43 rushing yards on 22 attempts, good for a YPC average of only 1.95. They had five tackles for loss during the effort. It didn’t seem to matter much who was carrying the ball, as the Falcons completely shut down both Matt Forte and Bilal Powell. Now, nobody is claiming that the Jets have a great ground game, but that hasn’t stopped teams from piling up yards on the ground against the Falcons throughout the 2017 season.

It appears that the addition of DT Ahtyba Rubin and introduction of LB Kemal Ishmael have made quite an impact. Rubin was very active on limited snaps, showing excellent strength and contributing two tackles. He’s a very difficult player to move, even when double teamed, and will be a valuable situational piece moving forward. Ishmael also provided more consistent play in relief of the injured Duke Riley. We all know Ishmael’s limitations in coverage, but at this point he appears to be an upgrade over the rookie. The team as a whole tackled better and played more disciplined football—hopefully that will continue this week against Carolina.

Matt Ryan had arguably his best game of the season

Ryan has struggled throughout 2017 with his accuracy, and he’s generally looked uncomfortable in the offense. The deep ball—a staple of the dominant 2016 attack—has been utterly ineffective this season. Ryan was missing routine throws and had difficulty hitting any receiver more than 15 yards downfield. He had also been plagued by some truly bad drops and (in my estimate) four tipped passes by his receivers that led to interceptions. Ryan was still playing like a good QB, but after what we saw in 2016, his performance thus far was very disappointing.

The good news, then, is that Ryan had his best game passing against the Jets on Sunday in the driving rain and wind. He looked confident in his throws and his receivers, even when they continued to drop the ball. His ball placement was much improved over the last several weeks, and he hit a beautiful deep ball to Julio Jones that had thus far been missing from the offense. Ryan navigated the pocket well and even had a nice scramble at one point during the game. Outside of the fumbled snaps—which were almost certainly a product of the weather conditions—Ryan looked in control and comfortable, particularly when running the no-huddle.

The pass rush appears to be heating up again

The Falcons pass rush got off to a hot start this season, with impressive games against Chicago and Green Bay. However, once Vic Beasley went down with an injury, the unit cooled off considerably. If the Jets’ game is any indication, Beasley appears to be fully healthy and the pass rush is starting to get going again. While Beasley didn’t come up with a sack, he was generating pressure throughout the game and his mere presence demands attention from opposing offensive lines. We saw an impressive team effort on Sunday that saw the Falcons come away with three total sacks from four different players.

Grady Jarrett, Dontari Poe, Takk McKinley, and Desmond Trufant all got in on the action against Josh McCown, who rarely had a comfortable pocket after halftime. Jarrett might be the best overall defender on the team, and had an awesome ankle-biter tackle to stuff a 3rd-and-1 rush attempt. Poe has started to make more plays over the last several games, and the return of Upshaw and addition of Rubin will help keep him fresh. McKinley has shown off his speed and violent attitude, and looks to be turning into a dangerous player. The Falcons will need these players to contribute again this week against a Carolina team that has struggled to protect Cam Newton.

Steve Sarkisian’s playcalling is still disappointing at best

A big blemish on the Falcons’ win was the continued lack of cohesive playcalling by Sarkisian. Gone are the rub routes and creative packages that allowed the Falcons to exploit mismatches on the defense. The offense has become a stale, vanilla shadow of its 2016 self. Worse than that, Sark appears to have no idea about how to even utilize the obscene number of weapons he has at his disposal. Passes to Tevin Coleman out of the backfield have all but disappeared—he’s received three targets over the past three games. TE also appeared to be a largely forgotten position before this week, where Ryan started leaning on Austin Hooper again—successfully, I might add.

A lot of this boils down to how predictable the Falcons have become on first down. Against the Jets, the Falcons rushed on first down 18 times. They passed only 8 times. It’s fine to have an emphasis on the run—and you could argue this team should emphasize that part of the offense—but running more than twice as often as you pass on first down just makes you incredibly easy to stop. It’s no wonder that the Falcons often gashed the Jets on first down passes, including the big 56-yarder to Julio. Balance is key to keeping your opponent guessing, and the Falcons have apparently lost that part of their offense.

We finally saw the team play a solid second half

One of the biggest issues that we’ve seen from this Falcons team all season, and particularly during their 3-game losing streak, was an inability to finish games. The defense would get tired and fall apart in the second half, and the offense would go into a conservative shell or become ultra-aggressive for no apparent reason. It led to a 17-point blown lead against the Dolphins, where the Falcons failed to score a single point after halftime. Against the Jets, we saw the Falcons flip that script.

Atlanta arguably played better late in the game, with the offense stringing a few decent drives together and the defense allowing only three points in the second half. The pass rush stepped up and made it difficult for McCown to get comfortable, and the run defense shut down any attempts to grind down the clock. It was an encouraging sign of growth for this Falcons team after three straight weeks of poor play. Hopefully, the team can continue to build on this performance with a victory over the Panthers next week.

Those are my exhaustive thoughts on Sunday’s victory over the Jets. If you’d like more of my takes on the game film, you can check out my recap on Twitter here:

What are your thoughts on the game? Did this performance, albeit sloppy, give you hope for the 2017 season?