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Winning in the trenches provides optimism for the Falcons in their quest to find balance

An unforeseen terrific defensive performance, led by their returning star interior tackle, helps the Falcons come out on top in a rare non-shootout.

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NFL: New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It was only two weeks ago when the Falcons’ season couldn’t have looked bleaker. A dreadful second half showing in Pittsburgh left them soul-searching at 1-4. With a defense bereft of talent following injuries to several key players, it was difficult to envision Dan Quinn’s squad salvaging what was quickly becoming a lost season. A favorable two-game home stretch against the Buccaneers and Giants was their last glimmer of hope. Beating two bottom-tier teams was required for them to prove they aren’t in complete disarray. It hasn’t been pretty or convincing, but the Falcons are on the road back to relevancy in the NFC.

On the back of a tremendous defensive performance with some support from the Giants’ dreadful quarterback play and questionable coaching decisions, the Falcons made up for an unexpected underwhelming offensive showing. Grady Jarrett made his triumphant return to lead the front four’s surge. They controlled the line of scrimmage and generated more pressure than they previously had all season. By getting one-third of the heart of their defense back, a battered unit elevated their game in a must-win situation.

Defensive fortitude starts from up front

For all the dysfunction in New York, many expected the Giants to score loads of points on Monday night. An offense with Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram were bound to produce big plays against one of the worst defenses in the league. While Beckham Jr. and Shepard had their moments against Robert Alford, their efforts didn’t translate into touchdowns until the fourth quarter. That’s how impressive the Falcons’ defense was across the board.

They imposed their will from the beginning. The Falcons not allowing Barkley any space to turn the corner or find the cutback lane left Pat Shurmur struggling for answers. That was mainly because of an oft-criticized front four pushing around the Giants’ unstable offensive line. Jarrett was an absolute force in creating penetration to force Barkley into making immediate adjustments as soon as he got the ball. With Derrick Shelby returning to provide much-needed solid play off the edge, they bottled up the Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite on the ground.

What made this performance even more encouraging was how the entire defense contributed in shutting Barkley down. Damontae Kazee and Foye Oluokun continue to show steady progress in their expanded roles. Sharrod Neasman played a key part in their pursuit of preventing Barkley from getting loose in the open field. The recently re-signed strong safety played a career-high 40 snaps in replacing Jordan Richards for long spells of the game.

It was a true team performance in making the Giants’ offense look hopeless at times. Embattled players such as Duke Riley and Brian Poole ended up having their best respective games of the season. For them to contribute in keeping the “missed tackles machine” from exploding is a massive step in the right direction, especially when you consider their open-field tackling woes (Atlanta had the fifth most missed tackles per NFL Research prior to the game).

When Manning wasn’t checking down to Barkley for the umpteenth time, he felt the wrath of a rejuvenated Falcons’ front four. Jarrett produced two sacks (including one wicked swim move) and two quarterback hits, which provided an enormous boost for what was becoming a lifeless pass rush. Jack Crawford continues to make strides on the inside. A combination of Jarrett and Crawford could cause serious fits for opposing interior lines.

Combine those two with Takkarist McKinley, who looked like his normal explosive self after two quiet games, and the Falcons may have something consistently dangerous. It has to be noted that Quinn’s willingness to dial up more blitzes worked well in rattling the immobile Manning. A higher percentage of blitzes along with the right pass-rushing combination could be the recipe for success to compensate for the losses at linebacker and safety.

A more methodical Matt Ryan still gets the job done

In a game where both offenses struggled to get into a rhythm, Ryan managed to stay on course in what is developing into one of the more quietly remarkable seasons for a quarterback in recent history. The excessive extra pressure defensive coordinator James Bettcher was bringing in the first half didn’t rattle Ryan. It only helped him dissect an overmatched Giants’ secondary. His quick decision-making and sharp throws led to completing passes to ten different players.

Although the explosive downfield plays weren’t quite materializing, Ryan took what the defense gave him underneath. Steve Sarkisian did a great job of calling a variety of crossing patterns to counter the incessant blitzing. It didn’t matter which receiver was accelerating across the field. Ryan found them to convert on third down to help the Falcons keep possession for over 32 minutes. To hold the ball that long not only allows a lethal offense to be more creative, but it also takes some pressure off an under-fire defense.

Ryan eventually found success downfield. After hitting Austin Hooper on a tremendous 36-yard pass, his eyes were set on another big play. A nearly identical play design allowed Ryan to connect with Marvin Hall for a 47-yard touchdown. Sarkisian’s insistence on running more play action is benefitting the entire offense. By using Hooper’s ability to stretch the field on a deep cross, he can take the safety out of the area while creating acres of space for a speedster like Hall. The threat of Coleman and Ridley certainly plays a major part in creating deception and causing confusion on the backend. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ryan was 13 of 14 for 189 yards off play action. The most prolific offenses know how to properly utilize play action. It’s safe to say the Falcons are one of them.

Unsettling Moments

It doesn’t make sense that the Flacons couldn’t put this game away. Committing two false start penalties at home is simply unacceptable. To do it on the same drive in short-yardage situations is utterly outrageous. Hooper and Ryan Schraeder were flagged for jumping early. For what should have been an easy first down on second and one turned into a baffling sequence of plays. You can understand why Ryan angered ESPN executives with his reaction after Hooper’s false start. These are the type of self-inflicted mistakes good teams don’t make.

On the other side of the ball, Alford was repeatedly torched in man coverage. Allowing three plays of 38 yards or more, including two completions of more than 50 yards, indicates how much the veteran cornerback struggled. His carelessness at the line of scrimmage put him in a bad position on numerous occasions. Those brutal moments were capped off by two holding penalties on big completions to Beckham Jr. and Shepard. It hasn’t been a particularly strong season for Alford following an impressive 2017. They will need him to elevate his game, particularly against more physical receivers.

Looking Ahead

There is still plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Falcons. Despite attaining their main objective over the past two weeks, it must be frustrating that neither win was as definitive as it should have been. Not being able to finish games without needing their kickers to be extraordinary can’t be viewed as a sustainable winning formula. Relying on 50-yard plus field goals is never ideal, especially when six of their last nine games are on the road. As the weather starts to get brisker, they will need to run the ball more effectively in order to avoid these unnecessary dramatic finishes.

Those are some of more significant concerns besides coping with losing star players and suffering from being wildly undisciplined at times. November is essentially going to be a make-or-break month. Given this chaotic season, it’s all they can hope for at this stage. After when it felt like the season was over two weeks ago, the Falcons are in position to play competitive football for the long haul. That’s what ultimately matters going into the bye week.