At this time nearly one month ago, Dan Quinn endured his lowest point as an NFL head coach. An abysmal second half showing against Pittsburgh left his team at 1-4. In a matter of one month, the general conversation about the Falcons went from having Super Bowl aspirations to challenging for a top five pick. Quinn reiterated that his team is far better than their record indicated following the loss to Pittsburgh. Despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the league and an abundance of playmakers, it didn’t essentially matter in the end. A decimated defense left the Falcons hopeless when their high-powered offense couldn’t score more than 30 points.
The fanbase’s feelings of hopelessness have turned into hopefulness over the past month. With the defense showing signs of fortitude, Quinn’s assessment is proving to be accurate. After two slightly uneven wins over the Buccaneers and Giants, the Falcons put together their most complete performance of the season. They handled a Washington team brimming with confidence on both sides of the ball. From dominating in the trenches to picking them apart with a variety of timely big plays, it was as good as a team performance you’ll see from what most would consider an unbalanced team. Regaining their balance offensively played an integral part in their first definitive win of the season.
The return of an efficient ground game
It’s been no secret that the Falcons’ running game has been largely disappointing this season. Besides their explosion against Carolina and solid showing against Cincinnati, they have failed to run the ball effectively in every other game. Some of their shortcomings fall on the regression of two of their best offensive linemen.
Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder haven’t been playing at a top-tier level like they did in the previous two seasons. The other part falls on Steve Sarkisian’s insistence of calling stretch and toss plays. When you’re struggling to create holes on a weekly basis in the run game and the play calling becomes predictable, alterations need to be made to open up lanes for your explosive running back tandem.
Trying to revive a fading running game was going to be extremely difficult against a Washington defense that held Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley to a combined 71 yards on 28 carries. With Ben Garland making his first start of the season, there was no telling what could possibly happen. A whopping 154 yards off 24 carries showcased the Falcons’ offense capabilities. When this group is locked in and handling their assignments, defenses will begin to crumble like Washington’s defense did in the second half.
Sarkisian did a terrific job of mixing in more counter runs to stretch an aggressive defense. It became apparent that Washington’s edge rushers and linebackers lacked gap integrity. They were primarily focused on blowing up runs. To exploit their over-aggressiveness, Sarkisian used more misdirection around the edges off both sides and numerous double teams to wreck the middle. Jake Matthews and Wes Schweitzer were outstanding in making combination blocks to create enormous holes. They played a crucial role in limiting Alabama’s finest interior tackle duo in Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. With neither player failing to make an impact, the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage.
Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith will look back on this game fondly with all the acres of space they had to get loose in the open field. According to ESPN’s John Keim, the Falcons averaged 4.96 yards before contact on its runs. There are some offenses that will struggle to average nearly five yards per carry in any game this season. For them to do it before contact was even made is extraordinary.
Schraeder spoke to me following Sunday’s game about how they emphasized running the ball more effectively. With extra movement drills and more preparation time for the offensive line, Washington’s front seven was left searching for answers. The same can apply to D.J. Swearinger as well, who will be on Smith’s highlight reel for years to come. The rookie running back continues to validate himself as a legitimate playmaker with his tremendous patience and vision. His style complements Coleman well in forming one of the more unlikely dynamic duos.
Excellent play calling topped off by precise execution
Staying committed to a languishing running game wasn’t the only challenge for Sarkisian. Keeping Matt Ryan upright presented another daunting challenge against Washington’s dangerous pass rush. A combination of two of last year’s anchors (Mack, Schraeder) getting back to their best and Garland stepping up at right guard is their best hope in trying to maintain some solidity on the offensive line. For all the belief Sarkisian had with this group, he knew a more calculated approach would tear apart a defense heavily reliant on their pass rush.
By using more three and five step drops to get the ball out quicker, Ryan put together another productive performance to continue his stellar season. What made their aerial assault even more impressive involved how much they stretched the field. Although the game plan was slightly more conservative, it didn’t stop Ryan from finding his array of playmakers across the field. Coleman had his most productive game of the season as a receiver. As shallow crosses and outstanding downfield blocking flustered Washington’s defense, Ryan found Coleman for two easy access touchdowns.
The offensive line still did their share in the passing game. On 40-drop backs, Ryan was only sacked twice and hit four times. When asked to get downfield on a screen, they made key blocks in helping produce two touchdowns off screens. It was a gutsy performance from the entire offensive line. To convert on 10 of 13 third downs is a testament to how everyone was in sync. Most of those conversions came from passes that were largely uncontested. That’s how much the offense was flourishing against one of the better defenses in the league.
Ryan was able to find open receivers with relative ease. If they weren’t creating separation, Sarkisian would use a good dosage of rub route concepts. Look no further than Calvin Ridley’s touchdown, who ran behind Mohamed Sanu and found a clear angle towards the middle of the field. Allowing a receiver with breakaway speed to accelerate into the open field without a defensive back affecting his route will usually lead to big plays. Washington paid the consequences in what was another jaw-dropping moment from the hotshot rookie.
Undervalued players continue to stake their claim in Quinn’s defensive rotation
It’s nearly impossible to evaluate the defense’s shutdown performance. They faced a team without two of their most explosive playmakers (Chris Thompson, Jamison Crowder) and lost almost every starter on their offensive line due to injury. That’s not a good recipe for any quarterback, let alone Alex Smith. His inability to take risks certainly makes things easier for a defense still looking to find an identity.
There were still some standout performers. Jack Crawford continues to be a force on the interior. Moving him inside after being primarily used as an edge defender in Dallas will go down as one of Quinn’s more wiser decisions. It’s helped him produce three sacks during Atlanta’s three-game winning streak.
Foye Oluokun and Sharrod Neasman continue to earn more playing time, which is proving to be a pleasantly surprising upgrade. Both players are willing tacklers who don’t blow many coverage assignments. Based on the increase in snaps, the coaching staff is clearly behind them. How they progress will be fascinating in trying to keep things afloat in anticipation for the return of Deion Jones.
There was genuine concern that the Falcons wouldn’t have much to play for in November. Following their third consecutive victory, they’re putting themselves in a position to play in January. There is still plenty of work to do, as Quinn will be the first one to tell you. Every player I spoke to on Sunday talked about the importance of taking it week by week. Focusing on the task at hand instead of visualizing what the team could look like in three weeks has greatly benefitted them.
It’s what helped them turn what was becoming a cruel lost season into what could become a wildly encouraging season. Quinn has instilled this mindset within the entire organization. That’s why as compelling as the Thanksgiving showdown in New Orleans looks at the moment, the only thing the Falcons have their eyes on is beating Cleveland.