When evaluating the Falcons going into the season, there were two major talking points about the team’s outlook. The looming concern about not having Kyle Shanahan to marshal the offense was frequently discussed. Nobody could expect them to replicate what they did a season ago, and with Steve Sarkisian’s lack of experience at the highest level, many questioned the Falcons’ ability to finish what they started last February. What kept them in the conversation was a talent-rich roster filled with rising stars at almost every level.
After producing multiple outstanding draft classes and making several key free agent signings in a two-year span, the front office built a formidable group that can beat any team in the league. That’s what made even the harshest critics still consider the Falcons as a worthy contender. For all their talent, it hasn’t quite coalesced on either side of the ball this season. There hasn’t been much of an identity with the offense under Sarkisian. What appeared to be a rapidly-improving defense forced three turnovers in the first six games of the season. Despite having the right personnel, big plays have been severely lacking in Atlanta. At some point, they had to stop playing “pretty average football” as Matt Ryan labeled it. A game against one of their fiercest rivals provided the necessary spark.
Performance outweighs box score
On this day exactly one month ago, Dan Quinn’s team faced serious adversity following a definitive loss to the Patriots. A game filled with missed opportunities and poor execution raised serious eyebrows about the entire team. How did Ryan not pick apart a below average defense? How could the defense continue to allow multiple double-digit play scoring drives on a weekly basis? There seemed to be a lack of urgency across the board, which was alarming considering the opposition. Championship-caliber teams know how to produce big plays and deliver in critical situations on both sides of the ball. That was on display in the NFL’s most hostile environment.
Another terrific showing from Ryan has silenced any discussion about regression. Although the stat sheet won’t reveal flashy numbers, his composure and ball placement were something to behold. He found a variety of different ways to pick apart Seattle’s defense. Spreading the ball around and connecting with eight different players is always a good sign for the offense. Creating big plays off play action like it was 2016 proved to be another encouraging indication about their overall improvement. Ryan was missing routine throws against New England in the Sunday night debacle. On Monday night, the reigning MVP played like a man on a mission.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan completed six of ten passes for 115 yards and a touchdown on throws ten yards or more. Some of those throws showcased his tremendous accuracy in tight window areas. Hitting Julio Jones near the right sideline on the second drive put them in the red zone. It’s all about giving your special playmakers a chance to make a play on the ball. On a play action fake, he connected with Mohamed Sanu on a deep cross for a 21-yard gain. The infamous tight end throwback design didn’t exactly create the acres of space that it normally does, yet Ryan placed a picture-perfect ball into Levine Toilolo’s hands. Sarkisian deserves major praise for bringing it back at such an opportune time during a highly contested game.
Facing Seattle’s decimated secondary certainly helped Ryan, but let’s not discount the superb talent still on their roster. Not many defenses can match up with Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Frank Clark, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Earl Thomas. Ryan never looked fazed against them. When facing pressure, his quarterback rating was 145.8. The offensive line did well handling four-man rushes to give Ryan sufficient time in the pocket. Dwight Freeney failed to make any impact, as many wondered if not re-signing him could end up costing the Falcons. To only allow one sack on 28 drop backs against Seattle’s plethora of pass rushers is a tremendous feat.
The other element to Ryan’s special night came on third down. He made numerous big time throws to help the Falcons convert on nine out of 14 third down situations. No throw was bigger than Ryan’s dime to Jones down the right sideline. As Seattle blitzed, he had to make a quick decision. Recognizing Jones was isolated against Jeremy Lane presented a glorious opportunity. Ryan has struggled to connect with the superstar wide receiver on downfield throws all season. They didn’t produce an explosive play until Week 8 against the Jets. With Bennett storming in, Ryan unleashed another pinpoint ball for Jones to put the Falcons in field goal range. As Alex Mack said after the game, “it’s a cheat code” when they are on the same page.
This was a huge statement performance for Ryan. Signs of regression were evident early in the season. His tendency to overthrow receivers downfield started becoming a weekly issue. There were instances of him looking panicky in the pocket. The last four games have been a massive step in the right direction. Although Ryan lost his 200-yard streak, he didn’t leave Seattle empty handed without one statistical reward. The Falcons became the first team to score 30 points or more in five games against Pete Carroll’s Seahawks. While the defense contributed to their success, Ryan took control and never looked back in a must-win game.
Based on not having any semblance of a running game, Russell Wilson has essentially become the entire Seattle offense. The pressure intensified following season-ending injuries to Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. Wilson is more than capable of putting an entire team on his back. No team knows that better than the Falcons, as the dynamic quarterback torched them in the 2013 divisional playoffs. That performance put the entire league on notice. It was going to be an uphill battle trying to contain him. Quinn’s defense managed to hold up in the end.
The front four exploited Seattle’s porous offensive line. After using a heavy dose of twists in the playoffs, Quinn trusted his players to win up front without any designs. It proved to be effective by registering three sacks. Duane Brown’s surprise return didn’t prevent Adrian Clayborn from causing havoc. The Falcons’ current sack leader produced six total pressures and drew a holding penalty on Brown. Whether it’s a starter or backup, left tackles are having trouble stopping him.
Grady Jarrett and Takkarist McKinley were instrumental in their success. Quinn constantly stresses the importance of turnovers. With the defense struggling to create takeaways, he has been very vocal about it being one of the team’s biggest issues. They have forced six turnovers in the past three games. Germain Ifedi couldn’t handle McKinley’s power and explosiveness off the edge. An onrushing Courtney Upshaw put the finishing touches on a remarkable play. Jarrett made Carroll pay for attempting a bizarre fake field goal, which ended up playing a significant role in their triumph. Jarrett was a force all game long, as he produced one sack, two tackles for a loss, and three quarterback hits.
Wilson was bound to have success. Only Tom Brady and Carson Wentz are currently playing better. Winning the turnover battle and creating pressure was essential for the Falcons to come away with a victory. They accomplished both objectives.
An offense’s efficiency usually comes from being diverse. The Falcons are at their best, when they remain balanced and get other players involved. Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy made big plays in last week’s victory over Dallas. Positive game flow allowed them to be more run-oriented, which is crucial in Sarkisian’s offense. It’s easy to become one-dimensional against Seattle. A star-studded front seven can shut down any ground game. While Tevin Coleman found minimal space, Terron Ward stepped up in the second half. His second effort gave them a much-needed lift. A highlight-reel stiff arm on Bradley McDougald showed why the coaching staff believes in him. Ward is the type of stocky, physical running back that can make a difference against worn out defenses.
Before Ward got going in the second half, Hardy made timely plays in the first half. All three of his catches came on the first two scoring drives. It’s always difficult to predict which secondary option could be a difference maker. Austin Hooper and Taylor Gabriel are the usual top candidates. Facing Seattle’s physical secondary, this was a prime matchup for Hardy. His absurd diving catch while coping with Justin Coleman’s coverage was the first third down conversion of the game. It kickstarted everything, as Hardy caught another pass on third down to put the Falcons in scoring range. There are numerous games, where Hardy doesn’t get three targets (let alone three receptions). His strong rapport with Ryan gives them another reliable weapon that can make plays at any time.
The Falcons look well equipped to not only battle for a wild card spot, but the NFC South. They control their own destiny at this point. That’s all a team can ask for in late November. It also helps when you own the tiebreaker over every team in the wild card hunt. Winning close games in difficult environments validates a team’s ability. For them to beat Detroit and Seattle on the road shows that they are more than capable of playing in January.
After dealing with Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, and Wilson in three consecutive games, the defense should be able to catch their breath against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Everything is pointing up in Atlanta. It’s on them to handle a favorable matchup, before facing Minnesota and New Orleans in a grueling five-day span.