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7 things we’ve learned about the Falcons so far this season

Let’s take a look at this team as we come out of the bye week.

NFL: New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since early September, we all got to enjoy a stress-free football Sunday without a care in the world.

The Falcons made that a little easier for us with last week’s win over the Giants on Monday Night Football. It’s just one game, but 3-4 feels a whole lot better than 2-5 when you’re staring down the stretch.

As we come out of the bye, let’s take a look at some of the things we’ve learned about the Falcons so far this season.

Injuries suck

This isn’t a news flash or anything, but every single time I think about how many of the Falcons’ key players are currently sitting on IR, I almost have to laugh. Both starting safeties? Both starting guards? Deion Jones and Devonta Freeman? It’s completely absurd.

Injuries are, unfortunately, part of the game. The Falcons aren’t the first team to land a bunch of guys on IR, and they won’t be the last. But that doesn’t make it any less depressing to think about what a defense with a healthy Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, and Ricardo Allen could accomplish opposite this offense. Oh, hey, speaking of that ...

Matt Ryan is actually good

I’ve never understood the segment of the fanbase that irrationally hates Matt Ryan and blames him for every failure. Sure, he’s made some boneheaded mistakes over his career, but in general, he’s been consistent and reliable for the Falcons since 2008. But in 2016, his MVP season, he was beyond consistent and reliable. He was elite that season, and that’s the same Matt Ryan we’re seeing behind center this year.

Ryan’s thrown for 2,335 yards, 15 touchdowns, and just two interceptions this season. He’s done that despite being consistently under duress, because a combination of issues — primarily the instability created by losing both starters at the guard positions — has made the offensive line less consistent. He’s done it without the benefit of any consistent ground game, too.

Ryan’s on pace for 5,337 yards, five picks if you round up, and 34 touchdowns this year. He had 4,944 yards, seven interceptions, and 38 touchdowns in his MVP season.

The future of the running game is uncertain

But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As much as I love Devonta Freeman as a player, the decision to send him to IR didn’t bother me as much as any of the other guys, because Tevin Coleman is good enough to be a starter in this league, and Ito Smith has so much potential and has played up to it thus far.

But the Falcons are going to have a quandary this offseason. Coleman’s in a contract year, and with the amount of money the team has invested in Freeman with his extension, it probably doesn’t make sense to keep both.

The team could try to trade Devonta, or they could release him and eat $9 million in dead money, which seems less than ideal. But that is what many fans want to see based on Freeman’s recent injury issues. If they lose Devonta or Tevin, and it’s probable that they will lose one or the other, they’ll still have one very talented RB1 and a solid change of pace guy in Ito Smith, so either way they should be fine long-term.

This offense is stacked with talent

It took me a minute to warm up to the team’s decision to select Calvin Ridley in the first round of the 2018 draft. I take back and and all hesitation I had about the acquisition. Ridley has been spectacular and adds yet another dimension to a Falcons offense that was already loaded.

Austin Hooper is finally playing more consistently like the caliber of tight end we expected him to be coming out of the draft. Mohamed Sanu has been reliable, and the running backs have been factors in the passing game. Marvin Hall — yes, Marvin Hall — is averaging more yards per catch than anyone else on the team with 15.9. For reference, Julio Jones averages 15.3 and Ridley has 14.5.

With all of the injuries on defense, the season might not be lost as long as the passing game can keep functioning the way it has been. With the talent they have, that’s possible.

It’s OK if Julio doesn’t score touchdowns

Yes, I am aware that Julio has zero touchdowns this season. My sincere condolences to you and your fantasy team. But here’s a hot take: It’s actually fine if Julio doesn’t score.

The TEAM is still scoring, and Julio is part of the reason. They’re 11th in the NFL right now with a respectable 27.1 points per game. Rookie phenom Calvin Ridley leads the team in scoring with six touchdowns on the season, and that productivity has been helped along by Jones drawing coverage and making it easier to get the ball to Ridley or Sanu or whoever else is available.

Julio is a force of nature. Having him on the field pulls coverage away from other guys, because defenses have to account for him, lest he go off for like 300 yards, which is a thing we have literally seen him do against the Panthers in 2016.

Accounting for Julio Jones doesn’t just mean putting your most talented corner on him, because he’s not a man who can be contained by one mere mortal. Teams have to cheat safety help and sometimes even a linebacker, too, to try to rein Jones in, and even that doesn’t always work. Dedicating enough resources to Jones means that somebody else is going to be open. It’s definitely OK if that open guy scores instead of Julio Jones. Six points are six points, no matter who scored them.

There are some bright spots on defense

I don’t even want to dwell on the defense too much because it makes me sad. When a team loses that many key starters, and when the talent ceilings of the replacement players are substantially lower than those of the guys who got sidelined, you’re not going to have a good time. But there have been a couple of bright spots and some signs of improvement.

The Falcons need to do whatever it takes to hold on to Grady Jarrett. The defense hasn’t been great, but it was markedly worse during the weeks Jarrett was sidelined with an ankle injury. Damontae Kazee seems to be making fewer foolish mistakes and more big plays when the team needs them. Takk McKinley has worked through his own injury issues this season, but he’s shown a lot of promise.

This defense isn’t going to be great down the stretch, but maybe they can be just good enough, because ...

They’ve still got a shot at the postseason!

But don’t hold your breath.

They face a lot of formidable teams down the stretch. Yes, they’ll play the Browns, who still can’t seem to get out of their own way. The Cowboys are coming up, too, and they’ve been pretty inconsistent. The Cardinals and Bucs, on paper at least, should be wins for Atlanta.

But they also have Washington, the Saints again, the Panthers again, the Ravens, and the Packers remaining on the schedule. That’s tough sledding.

Maybe Deion Jones will be healthy enough to return to the field for Week 10 against the Cowboys. Maybe they’ll avoid any other catastrophic injuries. Maybe they’ll actually get a run game going and protect Matt Ryan more effectively. There is an opportunity for this team to keep the momentum they gained from the win over the Giants and carry it through the end of the season. I just wouldn’t bet on it.