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Offensive brilliance erases initial early season doubt about the Falcons

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With an effective running game and Matt Ryan commanding the field, the Falcons offense remains lethal.

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Is it something about Green Bay that brings out the best of Atlanta? The reigning NFC Champions have produced plenty of memorable offensive performances over the past year. It can be argued that three of their top five efforts occurred against the Packers. By scoring 111 points in three previous games, the offense has been terrific against Dom Capers’ defense. Every offensive weapon was involved at some point during both games last season. Sunday night proved to be no different.

Averaging 37 points per game normally puts you in a comfortable position. When facing the best quarterback in the league, though, you can rarely rest. It’s an ultimate struggle of needing to win enough on third down and creating some semblance of pressure. Similar to the NFC Championship game, they played above expectations. Dan Quinn’s defense rattled Aaron Rodgers for the second consecutive game.

Aside from some mental lapses and coverage busts, it was another strong performance from the rapidly improving unit. A total team effort is required to beat the most consistent team in the NFC, and the Falcons accomplished that in their third win over Green Bay in the past 11 months.

Running game regains form

For all of Matt Ryan’s success, the most encouraging part of the offense’s efficiency was the running game. Steve Sarkisian showed that he is more than willing to stay committed to it. Despite their lack of productivity, he called 20 running plays against Chicago. A balanced game plan appears to be one of his weekly main objectives. That was evident by calling 31 passing plays and 26 running plays on Sunday. It’s easier to achieve that when playing with a lead. This is still a comforting sign about Sarkisian’s mindset going forward.

The running game looked much better. Devonta Freeman showed a more patient approach, which led to bigger gains and two touchdowns. His elusiveness and vision makes him a special talent. While everyone wants their starting running back to be aggressive, there are instances where Freeman doesn’t let plays develop and runs into the back of a blocker. The dynamic playmaker’s patience gave him more opportunities to get to the second level and make defenders miss. Gaining eight or more yards on five runs shows how Freeman was thriving all game long.

This was a big moment for the running game. Freeman barely averaged over three yards per carry in the previous two matchups. Not having Mike Daniels played a factor in Green Bay getting overwhelmed in the trenches, but either way, it was still important for Freeman to have a featured role in such a consequential matchup.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Pro Bowl running back forced three missed tackles and gained nearly half of his yards after contact. Premier players know how to elevate their team. With Ryan Schreader suffering a concussion, they needed him to be productive without their stud right tackle’s assistance. As Dan Quinn elegantly summed it up, “that was vintage Free tonight.”

The offense is at their best when the running game is flourishing. It also takes a collaborative effort from the entire group. Quinn likes to talk about the importance of getting quality blocking from every wide receiver. That is a big reason why Justin Hardy is a favorite among the coaching staff. They will use him in two wide-receiver sets and near the goal line to utilize his above-average blocking ability. Hardy lined up alongside Mohamed Sanu to deliver an outstanding block on Freeman’s first touchdown run. Considering the state of the right side on the offensive line, it was surprising to see several runs directed to the right. Based on having dependable contributing blockers like Hardy and Sanu, Sarkisian should feel confident about running the ball in any direction.

Passing the national eye test

There was some pressure on Sarkisian heading into Sunday night, given the high expectations placed on the offense. A relatively dull opening game felt unsettling to the fanbase after 2016, with the lack of creativity played a role in their struggles against Chicago. A dink-and-dunk structured game plan doesn’t suit an offense filled with unique playmakers. Calling a balanced game doesn’t necessarily translate into positive results either. Most offenses need diversity and unpredictability to create more high-percentage big plays. Sarkisian found the recipe against Green Bay.

From the first drive, they were in attack mode. Getting Julio Jones involved was inevitable, given his quiet opening game. The matchup nightmare turns into a machine when facing Green Bay’s undersized secondary. It only took two plays for Jones to shake loose on a quick flat route. By the end of their opening drive, he already gained 52 yards on two catches. Matt Ryan did miss him on a few occasions. If Schraeder didn’t get injured, they would have likely connected more often. It’s only a matter of time before Ryan and Jones connect on a deep ball.

Sarkisian was going to keep some familiar wrinkles in the offense. Every offensive coordinator is going to look at what Kyle Shanahan did and attempt to emulate something from it. After attempting a tight end throw back last week, they used Taylor Gabriel on a jet sweep in the red zone. This is another high-percentage unique design that worked wonders for Shanahan last season. It’s great to see Sarkisian not eliminating these plays from the playbook. The play resulted in a seven-yard gain, which led to Freeman’s first touchdown. Keeping the defense guessing is important, especially on first down. Play calls like this helped the Falcons convert all three of their red zone opportunities. That is another positive stat following a one for three showing last week.

Creating space is essential for the passing game. After looking clustered at times against Chicago, Ryan found far more open opportunities Sunday. Running trips on third down caused mass confusion at times, as Jones was open underneath and only needed to break one measly tackle to convert on third and 12. Ryan’s touchdown to Coleman is another indicator of Sarkisian’s improved play calling. They created acres of space for Coleman on a simple flat by using Austin Hooper to take out one defender and Justin Hardy on a stick route. Two players eliminated three defenders to create a wide-open touchdown. That’s the sign of a forward-thinking play caller using his assets.

One other major positive came from the increased usage of play action. No team used play action more than the Falcons last season. When you’re averaging over 10 yards per play on those snaps, it’s easy to understand why Shanahan relied on it. Ryan found great success using it on a ten play, 87-yard drive. Finding Sanu wide open on a deep crosser and hitting Hardy on a slant was reminiscent of last season’s absurd offense. Green Bay’s linebackers were out of position all night long. Exploiting them on play action showcased Sarkisian’s ability to ruthlessly attack an opposing defense’s flaw.

Don’t forget about the reliable one

There is a growing theme about the Falcons’ defense. Some may describe it as a fast, exciting group that flies to the ball. Some may criticize it for leaving wide-open areas in their Cover 3 scheme, along with suffering from coverage lapses and inconsistent pass rush. What everyone can agree on is the unit is rapidly becoming opportunistic. Making game-changing plays in critical moments allows their deficiencies to be more bearable, and we saw that against Green Bay.

The most consistent defensive player rose to the occasion. Desmond Trufant found himself in a similar situation to Jones. The defense desperately needed a big game from him, especially since Rodgers is always going to put up big numbers. To have someone that is capable of shutting down one side of the field is massive against a high-octane passing attack. With the pass rush not taking full advantage of Green Bay’s decimated offensive line, Trufant played like his old reliable self.

Rodgers attempted 50 passes, yet only targeted the former Pro Bowler four times. Pro Football Focus charted him with allowing just two catches for 26 yards. If anyone deserved to shine on a big stage, it was Trufant. The quiet star corner rarely makes headlines for his consistent play. Whether it’s a lack of interceptions or remaining humble in an era filled with vocal defensive backs, Trufant tends to be ignored in the top cornerback discussion. Not many cornerbacks perform better on a snap to snap basis. Adjusting to make a remarkable interception and showing excellent awareness to keep playing after Vic Beasley smashed Rodgers will remind folks that Trufant isn’t going anywhere.

Looking Ahead

It only takes one week to change the landscape. After being somewhat of an afterthought last week, the Falcons reclaimed their top spot amongst the NFC’s upper class. The offense looked like their old self running the ball effectively and generating big plays. As frustrating as the defense can be in spurts, they continue to cause havoc. This was a complete team performance against a yearly Super Bowl contender. While losing Daniels and Jordy Nelson was devastating for the Packers, the Falcons had to respond from adversity as well. Losing Schraeder on the first drive could have caused major friction. Ty Sambrailo managed to hold up, despite not being on the same page with Wes Schweitzer at times. Takkarist McKinley hit Rodgers twice, as he replaced Beasley in the fourth quarter. Depth is essential for teams to be successful in January. This team seem well equipped to take on any challenge going forward.