Less than a month ago, the Falcons were at a complete crossroads. A second half meltdown in Pittsburgh left them at 1-4. It was the first game where the defense wasn’t squarely responsible for a defeat since the opening night red zone debacle in Philadelphia. What seemed like an unstoppable offense couldn’t find a rhythm against Pittsburgh’s swarming defense. As painful as the loss was, the locked room remained together. There were no fingers being pointed at one another or talk about injuries. They knew they were too talented to continue losing in a dramatic or ugly manner.
That notion proved to be accurate. The Falcons find themselves on a three-game winning streak coming off their most impressive win of the season. It was the type of team performance that galvanizes an entire organization. They outclassed Washington in every aspect of the game. By handling their dangerous pass rush and overpowering their decimated offensive line, it allowed them to control the line of scrimmage. Ryan Schraeder was at the forefront of their success in not only keeping Ryan protected, but also creating massive holes in the running game. The veteran tackle was thrilled after what he considered to be the offensive line’s best performance of the season.
Schraeder weighs in
“I’m excited to go watch the film after a performance like that,” Schraeder said. “It’s going to be fun to see what we can do even better. It’s a week to week thing. We have to make sure we continue to build off our recent success.”
The offensive line was under significant pressure going into yesterday’s game. There was plenty of discussion about Washington’s ferocious pass rush. They were also one of the best run stopping units in the league. Shutting down the likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley garnered major attention. With the Falcons’ struggling to find efficiency on the ground in recent weeks, this game seemed destined to be on Matt Ryan. A one-dimensional attack against a nasty defensive line is never ideal, especially with it being the first game without Brandon Fusco, who was the latest casualty in their cruel season. They were aware of the pressure and responded in an impressive manner.
“It helps coming off a bye week,” Schraeder said. “A lot of guys got healthy. The bye week helps you get your edge back. Our mindset going into the week was all about improving the running game. We did a few extra drills in the beginning of the week that set us up well. The coaching staff was really emphasizing how we need to get back to running the ball effectively. It worked.”
“We didn’t need to make any major adjustments following Fusco’s injury. I have worked with Ben (Garland), Wes (Schweitzer), Ty (Sambrailo). We know we have to stay prepared in case something happens. That helps us remain on point when injuries occur. The cool thing about our group is that we’ve been mostly together for three years now. That continuity plays a big part in our success.”
Neasman comments on expanded role
Finding continuity on the other side of the ball has been practically impossible. The Falcons’ endless list of injuries are well documented. Robert Alford was the latest starter to miss at least one game. With all the personnel changes over the past two months, Dan Quinn is accustomed to adjusting and moving players around in order to make the most out of a difficult situation. Relying on younger talent and adding veterans was the most realistic way to cope with the loss of several key players. Bringing back a player like Sharrod Neasman is proving to be another shrewd move in getting the defense back to playing at a competent level. The returning safety has seen a major uptick in playing time over the past two games.
“Ever since I came back, I have been working with everyone to prove I can take on a bigger role,” Neasman stated. “I’m ready to play wherever the team needs me. That’s how I approached it. I’ve been fortunate to get more snaps and make the most out of these opportunities. I make sure to be prepared and go into every game as if I’m the starter. That’s what I’ve been doing these past few weeks. It’s been great to play more and be on the winning end of these games. I’m extremely grateful for all of this. Now it’s time to keep pushing forward.”
That’s what Neasman has done in earning a place in Quinn’s rotation. With all the uncertainty at linebacker and safety, De’Vondre Campbell and Damontae Kazee are the only definitive starters. Every other player is fighting to prove themselves worthy of playing significant snaps. Based on Washington’s conservative ball-control style, this was a great opportunity for them to be extremely active. Neasman capitalized once again. It was another game where he helped prevent short passes from turning into bigger gains, along with playing a part in shutting down another prolific running back.
“We’ve been playing against some talented backs over the past few weeks,” Neasman said. “Everyone knows about (Saquon) Barkley. (Adrian) Peterson is a first ballot Hall of Famer. Facing high-caliber players like them gives us an extra boost in practice and in the film room. We watch their tendencies in what they like to do. We know with this type of opponent, we got to bring it. I can go out there with confidence knowing that the ten players with me are behind me 100 percent. It’s knowing that I can trust my teammates helps me play with even more confidence. That’s how I know we can stop these great players with the right preparation and execution.”
“We know the types of runs Peterson likes. The types of runs where he’s been most effective. We knew the runs they had big plays on this season. We were just hyped up for this one knowing that we had to stop the run. We were thinking it would be a cold game, where they would run the ball 40 times. It turned out to be a nice day, but we still knew they were going to run the ball. There was going to be a bunch of gang tackling and all that. We knew what it would take to stop him. I’m glad we accomplished it.”
There was a moment when Marquand Manuel seemed to be extremely upset with Neasman. The fiery defensive coordinator was shouting at him following the Redskins’ second scoring drive. This wasn’t the first and certainly not the last time Manuel will be seen getting emotional. After playing in the league for eight years as a safety, it’s not surprising to see him connect with safeties more than any other defensive position. Neasman is aware of Manuel’s high standards and appreciates his coaching style.
“Every game he gets on me,” Neasman chuckled. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is. He’s that type of coach. Every single time if anything goes wrong; you could be slightly out of position or miss a tackle. Whatever the case is, he’s going to be on you. I embrace it. It’s that type of coaching that fuels me to go out there and play at a high level.”
Mohamed Sanu explains confidence
As the defense continues to show signs of improvement, it has taken some pressure off one of the most prolific offenses in the league. That hasn’t stopped them from averaging nearly 30 points per game. Mohamed Sanu credited their offensive flexibility in how they tore apart Washington’s defense. With Steve Sarkisian finding comfort in calling plays at the professional level, there aren’t many things stopping this high-octane offense.
“Of course, we love to have the opportunity to go out there and play ball,” Sanu said. “When you have the talent we have, it makes every Sunday even better. You’d love to play with the guys we have. Everyone is going to make plays in our offense. It’s how we’re built.”
“Execution is everything. We can talk about scheming and all that. In the end, we know that we can be successful against anybody. We will put points on the board and win games by playing up to our standards.”
Almost every skill position player contributed in another tremendous showing. There were moments it seemed like the offense could do whatever they pleased. All their success culminated in something that had been long overdue. A play involving Julio Jones running into the end zone. Although he had to fight his way to get there by stiff-arming Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in highlight-reel fashion, the glorious moment had finally come. The normally laid-back Jones was his usual calm self when describing his first touchdown of the season.
“In that situation, I have to take full advantage of the opportunity,” Jones said. “I couldn’t let one man take me down there. We’ve been looking into running more screens over the past few games. I had to make the most of that moment. It felt great to do it.”
“When I came back, everything about the defense came back pretty quickly,” Neasman said. “It didn’t take long to acclimate at all. I knew they needed me to be ready, so I made sure to be prepared. I’m always locked in. That makes the preparation process enjoyable for me every week. You continue to learn new things and figure out how teams want to attack you. That’s helped me so much in working my way onto the field.”
“This is a great team win,” Jones said. “These are the ones you love the most. As for our record, I never really look at that. Control what you can control. It’s about me going out there and being at my best. I need to be the best teammate I can be for us to be successful every week.”
“It’s all about going week by week,” Sanu said, echoing the sentiment of his close friend. “That’s how we approach it. What we did well and what we need to improve on is what we focus on. That’s what you have to do to perform like we did today. That’s how losing streaks turn into winning streaks.”