After coming off an extended break, there was plenty of optimism surrounding the Falcons. A favorable matchup against Tampa Bay seemed like an ideal tune-up before a pivotal final two-game stretch. That didn’t prove to be the case, as they stumbled in major phases of the game. The wide receivers looked out of sync with Matt Ryan. For the fourth consecutive game, the front four didn’t generate much pressure. It contributed to Jameis Winston having his best game of the season. There were more coverage busts than you would expect against a dysfunctional Buccaneers’ offense.
Not being able to win definitively will raise concern about the Falcons’ outlook. What can’t be debated is the excellence of one of their shining stars. Devonta Freeman took over and made defenders pay at the second level. As Ryan struggled to find a rhythm, Freeman ran like his usual violent self. With the offensive line dominating in the trenches, it provided space for a special player to cause serious damage. That proved to be the ultimate difference maker in a lackluster contest.
Freeman runs wild
When Freeman is properly used, it usually translates into positive results. Freeman received 70 carries in the first four games, and it’s no coincidence that the Falcons went 3-1 during that stretch. After getting the ball consistently, the coaching staff inexplicably went away from him.
Freeman didn’t surpass 12 carries in the next four games, before suffering his second concussion in four months. Trying to find the right balance between Freeman and Tevin Coleman can be difficult. Both players deserve to be utilized as much as possible. Not giving Freeman the ball in short-yardage situations, particularly near the goal line was the biggest issue. A jet sweep designed for Taylor Gabriel on fourth-and-goal against New England was the pinnacle of him being grossly misused.
Steve Sarkisian always wants to remain committed to the running game. For him to believe in this approach, yet not use his best running back between 15 to 18 times a game was nonsensical. This problem led to Dan Quinn setting a target of running plays he wanted to see per game. Due to Freeman’s two game absence, it took some time for Quinn’s expectations to be reached. The timing couldn’t have been better for the Falcons. With their playoff hopes lingering, they needed Freeman back for a make-or-break stretch. It showed with two consecutive games of 20 plus carries.
Allowing Freeman to carry the load brings the best out of the offensive line. They are one of the most athletic groups in the league. With Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder opening running lanes, Tampa Bay’s front seven was hopeless. Not having Gerald McCoy or Lavonte David was going to be problematic. They didn’t have the personnel to set the edge or create movement inside. Sarkisian was ruthless in attacking a slow, overmatched defensive line. They consistently exploited Tampa Bay on tosses and stretch plays. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Falcons gained 105 yards on 19 running plays outside the tackles. Terron Ward found some success as well. The underrated backup continues to show good vision and power downhill.
What made Freeman’s memorable performance even more encouraging was his usage in the passing game. After torching opposing defenses last year, Freeman and Coleman are essentially afterthoughts in the passing game. This is one of the many criticisms about Sarkisian’s offense. His inability to design plays for either back has made Ryan’s job more difficult. On a frustrating night for the franchise quarterback, Freeman was finally more than a mere check down option. It translated into him leading the team in receiving yards. Tampa Bay had nobody that could cover him on wheel and option routes. Two of his five catches came on third down during scoring drives. For all his brilliance on the ground, Freeman is a dependable receiving option out of the backfield. It would be wise to continue featuring him in a pass catching role going forward.
In a league filled with star-studded running backs, there aren’t many more well-rounded than him. His ability to carry the ball over 20 times when called upon, make a difference in the passing game, and pick up blitzes is something to behold. Freeman handled Adarius Glanton, which allowed Ryan to find Justin Hardy for an easy touchdown. It wasn’t his only big play on third down. The two-time Pro Bowler was responsible for six of Atlanta’s nine conversions. Those kind of timely plays makes him one of the most reliable players in the league.
The highlight-reel moments weren’t lacking either. Putting hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward on the ground displayed Freeman’s trademark violent style. He can also mix it up with nifty footwork, as Keith Tandy joined Jairus Byrd on his victim list. In what would have been a disastrous loss, Freeman made sure the Falcons weren’t going to let a golden opportunity slip away.
Pressure mounting for Ryan
Ryan didn’t necessarily have a poor game. Other than failing to see Levine Toilolo wide open on a wheel route, he didn’t miss any potential big plays. The reigning MVP didn’t throw any near interceptions either. It was a confusing night, as the offense couldn’t produce many explosive plays downfield. Mike Smith deserves credit for making adjustments following last month’s debacle. After getting annihilated by Julio Jones, Tampa Bay limited him to three receptions for 54 yards on eight targets. Jones managed to let a perfect deep ball slip right through his hands. That was the only real opening, as Ryan repeatedly tried to hit him downfield. Tampa Bay’s undermanned secondary remained well organized. They fared well against Ryan, who started to press in the second half.
There is starting to become a reoccurring problem for Ryan. For the third consecutive game, he struggled throwing the ball under pressure. Throwing the ball needs to be emphasized because his scrambles were remarkable. His decision making isn’t a problem. When the pocket collapses, his accuracy becomes erratic. It cost them against Minnesota. Thankfully for Ryan’s sake, it didn’t result in another tough defeat. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan only completed one of six passes for 27 yards under duress. What makers maters worse is Ryan didn’t face much pressure. He attempted 31 passes against an abysmal defense. With far better defenses on the horizon, this is a genuine concern. It’s starting to hold the offense back. Whether it’s needing faster developing plays or more bunch formations, Ryan must play better if the Falcons are going to secure a playoff spot.
Just when it looks like the Falcons’ defense is starting to show more consistency, they revert to their old frustrating ways. Winston was able to stand in the pocket and dissect them in all areas of the field. Injuries to DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard didn’t faze the enigmatic quarterback. Without having to deal with much pressure, he easily found openings against the Falcons’ zone coverage. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal were responsible for multiple coverage busts. Neal was vocal about the bad field conditions, but knows that they need to be more organized in the back end.
It was a disappointing setback for Quinn’s defense. Despite ranking tenth in sacks; the pass rush continues to be maddeningly inconsistent. It’s going to remain the same, if Vic Beasley doesn’t start creating pressure. The front four desperately needs him to make an impact. For all the talent on their defensive line, they don’t have a consistent pass rusher. Adrian Clayborn’s limitations makes him an excellent complimentary piece at best. Takkarist McKinley is currently too raw to be counted on as a full-time pass rusher. Beasley was expected to become more consistent this season. It’s getting to the point, where he isn’t even making his presence felt. That will need to change against Drew Brees and Cam Newton.
It hasn’t been easy, but the Falcons find themselves in a prime position. One win confirms their place in the playoffs. Two wins means a first playoff game in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A rematch against the Saints looks daunting on paper. They will have more time to prepare compared to the first meeting. Alvin Kamara’s return is going to present matchup problems. Keeping the Saints under 20 points again looks highly unlikely. The offense must get back to their November form. That burden falls on Ryan, who needs to get back on the same page with Jones. In the last three games, his passer rating is 31.4 when throwing to the superstar wide receiver. Forget any playoff aspirations, if they can’t bounce back from this difficult stretch.