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An impressive, painful victory leaves the Falcons somehow standing tall

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On this rare occasion, the Falcons aren’t on the receiving end of a cruel finish.

Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

How do you begin to analyze that overall performance? Despite outplaying Detroit on both sides of the ball, the Falcons were fortunate to emerge victorious. Committing three turnovers and eight penalties against a good team usually leads to a crushing defeat. From uncharacteristic drops to several pre-snap penalties, these inexcusable gaffes marred an outstanding performance on both sides of the ball.

The running game flourished for the second consecutive game. Leaning on Devonta Freeman more often has worked wonders for Steve Sarkisian. The defense held up against an underrated Lions’ offense, which includes nullifying their running game. A strong effort by the front seven forced them to become more one-dimensional. It’s hard to be critical of the Falcons, if you eliminate the undisciplined plays and careless miscues, yet that can’t be disregarded in what should have been a costly defeat.

Losing focus creates chaos

For a team that is normally disciplined, the Falcons made countless errors in a game they essentially controlled. The first half couldn’t have gone any better for Dan Quinn’s team. In the first 25 minutes, they had possession for over 17 minutes. That is pretty remarkable, considering how this offense is known for their quick strikes. They rarely use the clock to their advantage. Only scoring 20 points during that time period did feel as if it could come back to haunt them. When facing an opportunistic Lions’ team that is accustomed to playing in tight games, everyone knew a dramatic ending was imminent.

Losing concentration seemed to be a theme during the entire game. There were four false start penalties, which put the offense at an immediate disadvantage. Wes Schweitzer continues to endure growing pains, as he committed two penalties. An unnecessary holding penalty negated a 15-yard run from Freeman. Mistakes like that derailed an offense that should have eclipsed the 40-point mark, and by gaining over 400 total yards and getting in the red zone four times, they were wasteful during key situations.

Mohamed Sanu’s drop in the red zone changed the entire game. The reliable wide receiver hadn’t dropped a pass in 20 games as a Falcon. To turn an easy first down that would have put the Falcons near the goal line into an interception marked what was going to be a rollercoaster finish. It was already bad enough Tevin Coleman let a check down bounce off his hands for an interception. For two dependable playmakers to make crucial errors left a somewhat rattled Matt Ryan staggered. Darius Slay lived up to his moniker with both interceptions.

Ryan didn’t play particularly well. Not having Ryan Schraeder protect him for the first time since 2014 likely had an impact. The 2016 MVP took two sacks, despite not taking any major punishment. Ryan usually reacts to pressure relatively well. Detroit didn’t generate much of a pass rush, yet he succumbed to minor contact like Eli Manning. There were instances of him looking panicky in the pocket. Whether it’s over throwing or throwing behind receivers, Ryan didn’t look comfortable, unless he was running play action. His second interception is a prime example, as Ryan put too much velocity on a check down to Coleman.

As the offense suffered lapses, the defense experienced their own breakdowns. Desmond Trufant played a near perfect game until the final drive. After a stellar game against Green Bay, the Pro Bowl cornerback limited Marvin Jones to three catches. He broke up two passes, although should have intercepted Matthew Stafford on a comeback design. A terrific performance was marred by two crushing penalties.

Trufant does have a tendency of being grabby. It’s a frustrating habit, especially since he is rarely out of position in man coverage. His over aggressiveness bailed the Lions out on multiple occasions. You could see on the pass interference that he knew it was a rash decision grabbing Jones in such a narrow area. To win on the road with your most consistent defensive player making critical mistakes in crunch time is another testament to how well the Falcons played.

Blazing running game

As it was proven on a regular basis last season, the Falcons’ offense is most efficient when the running game gets going. Utilizing outside zone concepts to create lanes for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman has become the standard for them. Alex Mack continues to be at the forefront of their success. No center gets to the second level faster than him. With his presence, it elevates the play of his teammates. Schweitzer had some positive moments as a run blocker.

By rushing for 151 yards and averaging over five yards a carry, they gashed the Lions’ defense. It’s a collaborative effort on all fronts. The entire wide receiving group continues to hold their blocks and contribute to a proficient rushing attack. It allows the dynamic duo to pick up extra yardage on those stretch plays, which has been a staple in the Falcons’ offense over the past few seasons.

The one major change under Sarkisian is Freeman handling more of the workload. It’s rare to see him receive more than 20 carries. With Coleman healthy, most would anticipate a 60-40 split between both stud backs. Freeman ended up getting 21 carries, while Coleman received only six rushing attempts. Time will tell if Sarkisian prefers Freeman as his true number one back. Based on recent results, nobody will be complaining about the vast difference.

Freeman was sensational once again. The Pro Bowl back continues to show different wrinkles in his game. A more patient approach benefited him against Green Bay’s young front seven. It blends well with his terrific vision and shiftiness to make defenders miss in the open field. Slay was on the receiving end of a classic Freeman run, where he turns a three-yard play into a 12-yard gain and makes a defender whiff in the process. Not many running backs make it look more effortless than him.

What ultimately stood out was how Freeman finished some runs. Finishing violently is one of Quinn’s favorite mantras. Nobody embodies it more than the well-deserved highest paid running back in football. Instead of trying to dodge defenders, Freeman left multiple defenders on their back. Miles Killebrew felt his wrath on one occasion. Dishing out punishment is always a positive trait. The ability to withstand it marks a special talent.

Freeman’s catch on third and 16 adds another play to his lengthy highlight reel. How he managed to maintain possession from Glover Quin’s full speed close line played a significant part in their narrow victory. Given the uncertainty surrounding the United States, it felt fitting that one of the Falcons’ most emotional players delivered a memorable performance.

Defensive line responds

The effects of not having Vic Beasley was felt during the game. Without his speed off the edge, the Falcons’ pass rush looked slow at times. They failed to hit Stafford at all in the first half. That’s what made the star quarterback’s erratic play even more puzzling. Detroit only converted on three out of 13 third down situations. Although an anemic running game contributed to the poor statistic, Stafford missed some good opportunities on third down.

With emotions running high, it was only a matter of time before the pass rush delivered. Adrian Clayborn has started to become a leader in the locker room. The fan favorite produced one sack, one hit, one tackle for a loss, and one pass deflected. Quinn needed Clayborn and Takkarist McKinley to cause havoc against the Lions’ slower tackles. Both players recorded sacks against overmatched left tackle Greg Robinson.

Nobody can replicate Beasley’s extraordinary explosiveness. What the current crop of edge rushers can do is use their power and violent hand usage to their advantage. Alongside Grady Jarrett (who played outstanding), Clayborn and McKinley brought the pass rush to life in the second half. It played a major role in holding Detroit to four field goals.

Looking Ahead

The Falcons couldn’t move on faster from this game. Trying to comprehend what transpired at the end of the game would be nothing more than a mind-numbing experience. For the first time in ages, poor tackling and coverage busts weren’t the reasons behind their near collapse. That should be an encouraging sign going forward. Most close games have ended in agonizing defeats under Quinn. Although it didn’t end in triumphant fashion, they pulled off the great escape against a team that embraces close games.