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A Closer Look: Another all-around Falcons’ aerial assault

Matt Ryan needed all of his playmakers to put the Falcons on the winning side of another wild shootout.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an impressive resurgence for Matt Ryan over the past month. After the opening night debacle in Philadelphia, the former MVP has been playing at an elite level. The discussions about his fading arm strength and velocity quickly went away. One humid rainy night shouldn’t lead to major questions about one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league.

Excluding the game in Pittsburgh where he was left helpless under pressure, Ryan has thrown 13 touchdowns and one interception in four games. His strong rapport with Steve Sarkisian has clearly paid off. When the quarterback and offensive coordinator are on the same page, it elevates an offense filled with playmakers into becoming nearly unstoppable.

Injuries to Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu kept the Falcons from scoring more than 40 points. They otherwise shredded a discombobulated Tampa Bay defense. As Ryan’s supporting cast began to dwindle, he didn’t allow it to prevent him from leading the offense to a 30-plus point total for the fourth time this season. Role players became more involved to help the Falcons prevail in a must-win game. Here are five plays that showcase how much the offense is thriving under Ryan’s fantastic play and Sarkisian’s stewardship.

1st quarter: 1st & 10 at ATL 35

With RPOs becoming more prevalent in the modern game, offensive coordinators are starting to incorporate them more into their weekly game plan. Not having a tremendously athletic quarterback doesn’t preclude you from running RPOs. What you ultimately need is the right design and timing to properly utilize it. Ryan sells the fake brilliantly to bait three of Tampa Bay’s defenders out of position.

Between two tight ends lining up on the left and Tevin Coleman doing his part in selling the fake, everything that needed to be done before Ryan turned around was accomplished. It leaves Ridley wide open in the middle of the field. Running a slant away from the run is another intricate part into making a 15-yard gain look routine. It also doesn’t hurt to have Julio Jones accelerating downfield to attract plenty of attention. The most prolific offenses in the league know how to properly utilize play action. That’s a major reason why the Falcons’ offense is back where they belong.

2nd quarter: 1st & 10 at ATL 25

A fairly easy 14-yard completion can have more significance than it may initially appear. Despite controlling the majority of the first half, the Falcons were only up by eight with 26 seconds remaining in the first half. They had one more opportunity to make it a two-possession game. Based on how well they’ve been moving the ball, most would expect them to get into field goal range with three timeouts left. They didn’t even need all three timeouts to produce a successful drive.

Austin Hooper had the best game of his career. Although most of his catches were unchallenged, the third-year tight end continues to make a positive impact after the catch. It’s becoming a weekly habit for him to break tackles and pick up extra yardage. On this occasion, he dodges multiple defenders to get out of bounds. There is nothing overly impressive about the play design as Hooper is angling towards the soft spot of Tampa Bay’s Cover 4. Ryan Smith is practically 25 yards downfield leaving acres of space for Ryan to exploit. This was the start of a four play, 47-yard drive that only took 25 seconds off the clock. The crucial three-point swing proved to be a huge difference-maker in the Falcons’ narrow victory.

4th quarter: 1st & 10 at ATL 25

The more play action you use, the more chances you have to create explosive plays downfield. Sarkisian tends to roll Ryan out to the right to hit Jones on a crosser running from the left. It’s one of the Falcons’ more high-percentage plays. They decide to switch it up on this occasion, as Ryan rolls out to his left. Jones stays on the left and runs vertically. Smith is surprisingly playing bump-and-run coverage.

As proven last year in Jones’ monster performance, the young cornerback is simply overmatched. Jones is too physical at the top of his route and changes direction towards the sideline. By creating more than enough separation, he gives Ryan a clear option with Hooper well covered underneath. This was a massive 32-yard-gain in what turned out to be the Falcons’ first scoring drive in the second half.

4th quarter: 2nd & 10 at TB 29

When two of your top three wide receivers are injured, it puts more pressure on the offensive coordinator to scheme up effective plays. Sarkisian was aware of the task at hand. Relying on the likes of Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall, and Russell Gage in a must-win game isn’t necessarily ideal. None of these players can be relied upon to create separation or make contested catches consistently. What they can do to is use their best attributes on well-designed plays.

This is a fairly basic play call. Three wide receivers are lined up on the same side with two of them being strictly used as blockers. The slot receiver will slip into the flat and run behind the blockers. What makes this play significant is how it consists of three players that are being properly used on a key drive. The Falcons are clinging onto a two-point lead in the fourth quarter. Someone not named Jones or Hooper had to make a play at some point to get the offense into the end zone.

A modified quick screen to Gage helped the Falcons when they needed seven points. From placing the speedster Hall on the outside to using Hardy (who is the best blocking receiver on the team) in between to make a beautiful cut block, this well-timed play call was well executed. Gage picked up nine yards to put the Falcons in a manageable third and one situation. It’s these types of quick-chunk manufactured plays you need when trying to cope with injuries in a tight game.

4th Quarter: 2nd & 9 at TB 17

After Ridley and Sanu went down with injuries, Hooper became the number two option by default. That would have been troubling a season ago. By working extensively with Ryan in the off-season and making significant strides as a route-runner, the emerging playmaker is ready to take on a bigger role when called upon. Hooper was finding openings against Tampa Bay’s soft zone during the entire first half. As Smith’s defense shifted towards playing more man coverage, it gave Hooper an opportunity to prove himself as a reliable weapon.

You don’t see Hooper get covered by a cornerback often. With three receivers lined up on the right, Hooper is isolated on the left against Smith. Ryan recognizes the matchup and immediately looks his way. It appears that Smith is anticipating Hooper to run a post into the end zone. Most tight ends tend to be utilized in that manner given their size advantage in a tight area.

Hooper gets to switch it up on this occasion to force Smith off balance. A clever seven cut allows Ryan to find his primary read with ease. He wisely throws it high to not give Smith any opportunity to make a play on the ball. Using Hooper’s size advantage, quick release off the line of scrimmage, and sharp route puts the Falcons in striking distance. Tevin Coleman ends up scoring on the next play.