The 1-0 Atlanta Falcons enjoyed a convincing 34-23 win on Sunday Night Football over the 1-0 Green Bay Packers. Atlanta came out red hot on offense and stifled Rodgers throughout the game, finally relenting a little towards the end of the third quarter. Instead of crumbling and allowing the Packers to creep back in, the Falcons shut the door with some impressive defensive plays and some great, clock-killing offensive drives late in the game.
After re-watching Sunday night’s game, here are some of my overall takeaways from the Falcons most recent victory.
The offense showed us there is no reason to be concerned
There were plenty of hot takes and alarm sirens after the Falcons’ offense “struggled” on the road against Chicago in Week 1. Plenty of us tried to tell folks to be patient—that Week 1 is often an anomaly, and that the field in Soldier Field is just downright awful. After the Falcons’ impressive offensive performance against Green Bay on Sunday night, the optimists appear to have been right.
Sarkisian called a very good game against the Packers, even after the Falcons lost starting RT Ryan Schraeder to a concussion. The run game was excellent, and the passing game was electric. Julio Jones got involved early and gave the Packers’ secondary all they could handle. The offense looked like its 2016 self again, and Sark used some innovative and creative calls to keep Green Bay off balance. There will still be some up-and-down performances from the Falcons, but I think we can officially say that this offense will be—at least—#good in 2017.
Wes Schweitzer looked better, and Ty Sambrailo was competent
After a truly awful Week 1 performance, Schweitzer was the target of plenty of criticism from the media and fans. He once again drew a tough match-up, this time against Packers’ DT Mike Daniels. Although Daniels exited the game with an injury before halftime, Schweitzer looked markedly improved. He was much better in run blocking, and held up decently in pass protection. It was a step forward for the second-year guard, and hopefully is a sign of things to come.
After RT Ryan Schraeder went down, recently-added swing tackle Ty Sambrailo was forced into the starting lineup. We all remember the last time we saw Sambrailo—when he was getting abused repeatedly by Vic Beasley to the tune of several sacks in 2016—and were rightfully concerned about his performance against Green Bay’s capable pass rush. Sambrailo, however, played competently outside of a bad first drive and a couple of miscommunications. He won’t be the elite player that Schraeder was, but the offense should remain functional if Sambrailo is still needed next week against Detroit.
Desmond Trufant is back to being awesome
Trufant was arugably the Falcons’ best defensive player from the time he was drafted until, maybe, 2016. He might have even been the best player last year, before he was knocked out for the season with a shoulder injury. Trufant seems to have made a full recovery, and was able to start the season healthy. He struggled a little against the Bears in Week 1, looking a tad hesitant and a little slow. Fans were understandably a little concerned.
Trufant responded this week with an exceptional performance. He had a beautiful interception of Aaron Rodgers (who doesn’t throw many to begin with), and later had a great heads-up play on a scoop-and-score TD. Trufant was, of course, still dominant in coverage and made some plays in run support as well. It’s fair to wonder if we’re just now seeing the peak of Trufant’s abilities. If the talented CB could have a career year in 2017, this Falcons’ defense could really be something special.
The pass rush is markedly improved from 2016
In 2016, we saw the Falcons’ pass rush make real strides from a 2015 season which saw them finish dead last in the league in sacks with only 19 on the year. Their 34 sacks last year made them a respectable T-16th in league, or about average. That’s a pretty substantial improvement, but outside of NFL sack leader Vic Beasley (who had 15.5 himself), the rest of the unit couldn’t consistently produce pressure.
This season, we’re seeing a much more well-rounded and deep rotation of pass rushers. The Falcons already have 7 sacks this season after a mere two games, putting them on track for an incredible 56 sacks in 2017. Now, that’s pretty unlikely to hold up, but it’s almost assured that this team will finish with more sacks than they did in 2016. The really important part, however, is that the team is creating more consistent pressure on opposing QBs. That pressure forces even elite QBs into making mistakes, and allows the Falcons’ defense to play better as a whole. Players like Jack Crawford, Dontari Poe, and Takkarist McKinley are all valuable additions to a defensive line that is making a lot noise early.
We may have seen the last of the soft “prevent” defense
With the Falcons ahead 31-7 in the early third quarter, the defense went into a familiar scheme: extremely soft zone coverage, or essentially a “prevent” style. This type of defense is great for forcing an opponent to bleed clock and for preventing big plays. The problem is, it allows a talented offense to move down the field quickly and without applying any pressure. Green Bay took advantage of this scheme and immediately marched inside the Atlanta 10-yard line.
Once in the red zone, the Falcons generally stop playing “prevent”, because there’s no longer any point to it. After a penalty on the Packers pushed them back, the Falcons remained in tight man coverage. The very next play was a sack, pushing Green Bay even further back. Atlanta still remained in tight man coverage. The defense made the play, and the Packers were forced to kick a field goal.
The Falcons would not return to the “prevent” defense until the very final plays of the game (when a tackle in bounds would essentially end the game). Green Bay was forced to fight for every yard, and Rodgers was hammered continuously by the Falcons’ ferocious pass rush. Even when the defense got gassed early in the fourth quarter, they still performed better than they had playing “prevent”.
This defense is at its best when they are playing aggressive. I know Quinn loves his zone coverage, but we saw this last year as well: once the Falcons transitioned into playing more man coverage, the defense improved. The fact of the matter is that these players seem to thrive in man—they’re aggressive, and they feed off of the challenge of matching-up one-on-one with receivers. This also allows the pass rush more time to get home, assuming the coverage is solid.
Atlanta’s defense features a deep, talented defensive line, two young stud LBs (and a third who is developing), a CB group that can match-up with almost anyone, and two very talented and versatile safeties. They don’t need to play scared, or play soft. The time has come to trust these guys and let them play the style that they’re best at: up close and personal.
I hope the decision-making in this game is a sign of things to come, because it’s pretty clear to me that this defense thrives when given an opportunity to play in this manner. It fits their style and their identity. I pray that Quinn and Manuel can see this, and allow them to play to their strengths instead of being married to a particular schematic preference.
Those are my exhaustive thoughts. The Falcons enter Week 3 at 2-0, and although they’re a little banged up, Atlanta has a pretty good shot at entering the Week 5 bye at 4-0. To do that, they’ll still have to get past an unpredictable Lions team in Detroit, and a very questionable Bills team at home. But after tonight’s decisive performance, you have to feel pretty confident in this Falcons team as perhaps the top contender in the NFC.
What were some of your big takeaways from the game? Any players or position groups that impressed you? Favorite sack or hit on Aaron Rodgers?