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Feeding the beast puts the Falcons on course heading into December

Heading into the most crucial part of the season, Julio Jones assured everyone that the Falcons remain as dangerous as ever.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As the Falcons offense started clicking over the past two weeks, they have gotten contributions from a plethora of different weapons. Taylor Gabriel had arguably his best game of the season against Dallas. Justin Hardy and Terron Ward were immense in a huge win over Seattle. The usual contributions from Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper proved to be helpful as well. Both victories were based on offensive efficiency and stellar play from Matt Ryan.

While the offense remained productive, it mostly came on the shoulders of one of the most dominant players in the league. Julio Jones was finally unleashed. It was only his third 100-yard game this season. That is a relatively low number for a player of his caliber. Jones’ “ordinary” season doesn’t involve any individual shortcomings. A collection of questionable play calling, Matt Ryan’s early season slump, and injuries has prevented him from taking over games. All of those issues appear to be behind a red-hot Falcons team. As Jones showed against a hapless Bucs’ secondary, this means only bad news for the rest of the NFC.

Julio runs wild

Every great wide receiver has a preferred opponent on their schedule. From Randy Moss owning the Packers to DeSean Jackson skipping past the Giants, there is usually one team that brings out the best in a special talent. Jones’ past success against Tampa Bay makes this an easy selection. Prior to yesterday, Jones caught 68 passes for 1106 yards and eight touchdowns in ten games. His first career 100-yard game transpired against them. Six out of those ten games were 100-yard performances. His worst showing came in 2012, when the Falcons already secured home field advantage. The numbers are absolutely mind-boggling.

Jones did most of his damage on the left side. With Vernon Hargreaves sidelined, Ryan Smith was left helpless in coverage. It started on a comeback route to convert on third down. The mismatch couldn’t have been more apparent. If they weren’t playing quarters, Tampa Bay put Smith on Jones. As the game wore on, Smith started giving Jones more cushion. Allowing eight yards of space on third and eight and barley reacting was the sign of a broken man. Ryan was ruthless targeting Jones to the left.

Smith wasn’t the only receipt of Jones’ demolition. The entire Buccaneers secondary were left flabbergasted on the play of the year. After much anticipation, the coaching staff let Sanu’s golden right arm add to his highlight reel. The dynamic receiver had plenty of success catching defenses off guard in Cincinnati. Ask Desmond Trufant and Dwight Lowery, who were on the receiving end of the former Rutgers star’s cannon in 2014. Sanu threw a picture-perfect touchdown to Jones over rookie safety Justin Evans. Steve Sarkisian deserves praise for taking a chance on third down. It was the type of decision that can spark an entire team. That remarkable play set the tone for what was going to be an electrifying day.

It didn’t take long for Ryan to match Sanu’s pinpoint accuracy. He found Jones on their signature corner route design for a first down. Not even Kwon Alexander running at full speed to close it down could prevent them from connecting on one of their most reliable play concepts. They found similar success on the next drive, as Jones ran a corner from the slot. Tampa Bay simply had no answer for him. The inability to construct a specific game plan to contain him is extraordinary, considering their defensive coordinator was his first NFL head coach and worked with him for four years.

The Buccaneers had the second fewest sacks in the league going into yesterday's game. Robert Ayers’ absence put them at an even bigger disadvantage. Given his experience, Mike Smith should have done something to give his overmatched defensive backs more support against Jones. Jones said they didn’t make any adjustments, which shows how Tampa Bay’s coaching staff were as powerless as the players. Leaving Smith on an island is essentially playing with fire. He got burned repeatedly, which include ankle-breaking consequences on Jones’ second touchdown. Jones ran an exquisite pinch route to put Smith on the turf in humiliating fashion. His jaw-dropping footwork reminded critics that he is still at the top of his game. As Ted Nguyen eloquently put it, this should be called the Julio route.

It was a stunning performance. To catch 12 passes on 15 targets validates one of the NFL’s most reliable quarterback-wide receiver pairings. It hasn’t been easy at times this season. Ryan overthrew Jones on numerous plays during the first seven games of the season. Since their hard-fought win over the Jets, Ryan and Jones have been on the same page. With massive games coming up against Minnesota and New Orleans, they will need both players to be on their game. Xavier Rhodes and Marshon Lattimore should provide stern tests for Jones. When the competition becomes greater, the four-time Pro Bowler usually rises to the occasion. Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman can attest to what Jones is capable of in high-profile matchups.

Winning when it matters most

Besides Jones going berserk, the Falcons delivered in key moments. They built off their success against Seattle on third down. After converting on nine out of 14 third down situations last Monday, they went 11 for 14 on third down. Great teams know how to come out on top in critical situations. Unless Mike Smith called an all-out blitz, his defense failed to create any stops. Sanu found openings in their zone defense. If Jones wasn’t roaming free, Sanu made them pay.

They were also successful in the red zone. The clock prevented them from going a perfect three for three. Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward continue to show off an impressive second effort on several runs. Coleman’s ability to lower his shoulder and run physical doesn’t receive enough recognition. As they continue to lean on him, the third-yard back continues to pick up tough yards. Led by the excellent Alex Mack and Andy Levitre, Coleman found more daylight against Tampa Bay. Sarkisian’s newfound willingness to run more outside zone and counters is benefitting them as well. That was shown on the final touchdown, as Coleman left Brent Grimes in his dust to cap off a fantastic day.

Defensive resiliency

It wasn’t a strong performance by the defense, but they managed to cope with key losses. Desmond Trufant and Brian Poole were both knocked out of the game. That is troubling under any circumstance, let alone against Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. The secondary managed to hold up quite nicely. C.J. Goodwin suffered his lapses, yet still managed to keep plays in front of him and make open-field tackles. As Knox Bardeen pointed out, the dangerous receiving duo combined for 138 yards on 14 catches. That is a pretty encouraging stat for a wounded secondary.

On an overall disappointing day for the edge rushers and linebackers, other players managed to shine. Similar to Ryan, Dontari Poe has bounced back quite nicely following a poor showing against New England. The menacing defensive tackle produced three quarterback hits, including one on fourth down to halt Tampa Bay’s comeback. That play also included Keanu Neal’s well-timed pass break up on a pass intended for Cameron Brate. No defensive player on the Falcons has been more consistent than Neal this season. His shattering hits and high football IQ gives them a unique enforcer on the back end.

Looking Ahead

For what has been a rollercoaster season, the Falcons are starting to hit their stride at the perfect time. A three-game winning streak has injected life back into a once- demoralized fan base. The next two games will reveal how the Falcons match up against the NFC’s finest teams not named the Philadelphia Eagles. A well-rested Vikings’ team is going to provide a difficult challenge on both sides of the ball. If Trufant can’t recover from suffering a concussion, the NFL’s best wide receiver duo could have a field day. Minnesota’s ultra-aggressive defense can single handily destroy games as well.

If the Falcons are ready to handle the most difficult remaining schedule in the league, they will need to (at minimum) split during a ten-day stretch of games against Minnesota and New Orleans. They have done well in getting control of their own destiny. It’s time for them to maintain it, along with challenging for the divisional crown.