For all the setbacks and abysmal performances, there is one thing you could never take away from the Atlanta Falcons. They’re a talented team, albeit a highly flawed one at the moment. The organization has been applauded for their recent draft classes and development of talent. Prioritizing on speed and versatility provided them the roster flexibility towards becoming a Super Bowl-caliber team. While they’ve obviously lost their lofty status, their roster remains too talented to be floundering alongside the bottom five teams in the league.
Dan Quinn’s squad has shown their capabilities over the past two weeks. With improved run blocking and better play designs, the offense is reverting back to their potent ways. High-percentage throws are being created for Matt Ryan more often, particularly when some form of play action is being used. The most noticeable improvement involves a more-aggressive defense. Deion Jones’ return was bound to lead to some progress. For him to make this much of a difference is a testament to his value as a player. The stellar linebacker has sparked life into an underwhelming front four and vanilla scheme. It’s not the only major change surrounding a much-maligned defense.
A dangerous pass rush may exist in Atlanta
While they weren’t as dominant as last week, the Falcons managed to generate tons of pressure and force multiple turnovers once again. They have produced nine sacks and seven turnovers (two sacks, four turnovers yesterday) over the past two games. It took them until October to reach that total this season. Capitalizing on favorable matchups has certainly played a role in this dramatic surge. Arizona and Carolina are two broken teams waiting for the season to be over. Given how hopeless the Falcons looked in November and early-December, they needed to show something against whoever lined up across from them. The last two weeks have proven franchise defensive cornerstones and valuable assets do exist on the roster.
A combination of observant play calling from Norv Turner and reliance on Christian McCaffrey helped the Panthers employ a conservative game plan early on. Despite Taylor Heinicke playing with tremendous fortitude, his limitations were evident when throwing inside the pocket. They couldn’t afford to put him in many difficult situations. That’s why Turner called a variety of play-action designs to get Heinicke on the move or three-step drops for him to get the ball out quickly to McCaffrey. Once the Falcons went ahead in the second half, they had no other choice than to throw the ball. That’s when the front four caused havoc.
As Heinicke needed to stand tall and make throws downfield, they pounced on him. Grady Jarrett was at the forefront of their success once again. Although the outstanding defensive tackle didn’t technically record a sack, he was either blowing past guards with his signature arm-over move or pushing the pocket. An outrageous roughing the passer call may have kept him without a sack. It didn’t stop him from making his presence felt. There is no denying Jarrett’s status as the second most valuable defensive player on the roster. His weekly consistency is something to admire. Thankfully for his sake, other players made a difference around him.
Takkarist McKinley had another strong performance following weeks of lackluster play. During the defense’s terrific second-half showing, there was constant pressure coming off the edge. That was mostly coming from McKinley’s persistent motor. The charismatic edge rusher was manhandling Marshall Newhouse for the entire half. Whether it was using a pure bull rush or his impressive get off with a rip, there was no stopping him from affecting Heinicke. Along with Bruce Irvin’s timely hustle plays; McKinley made a massive impact with four quarterback hits and a half sack to prevent Carolina from scoring in the second half.
The front four wasn’t solely responsible for all the chaos. In unsurprising fashion, Quinn and Marquand Manuel used a plethora of blitzes to rattle the inexperienced quarterback. Inserting De’Vondre Campbell as the centerpiece for the majority of their blitzes continues to pay off. The versatile linebacker rotates between bursting through the A and B gap. This creates one-on-one matchups across the board. Isaiah Oliver’s game sealing interception is a prime example of how their willingness to blitz more often is translating into more turnovers. A five-man rush creates favorable matchups such as Jarrett against Ryan Kalil. By him dispatching the aging center and McKinley’s explosiveness outside, Heinicke throws up a desperation ball into the waiting arms of Oliver. Interceptions like this shows how valuable blitzing can be when properly utilized.
Dynamic receiving trio shines together
The inability to produce explosive plays was one of the most troubling aspects of the Falcons’ five-game losing streak. For an offense with their personnel to not score more than 20 points in five games is preposterous. Not being able to throw downfield and stretch defenses with one of the best receiving trios in the league left everyone mystified. The pass protection woes played a substantial role in their decline, yet a team with incredible firepower shouldn’t be limited to such an extent.
Ryan was able to regain his productive form in connecting with his three top wide receivers for touchdowns. It was the first time all season that Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu scored in the same game. This is a remarkable statistic, along with Jones scoring his seventh touchdown in the last eight games. A rib injury didn’t stop him from blowing past James Bradberry off the line of scrimmage for the opening score. Who would have thought Steve Sarkisian could devise ways to get him the ball in the red zone?
Ridley’s 75-yard touchdown gave the Falcons a much-needed jolt following a frustrating first half. It did come off a coverage bust from Mike Adams blowing his assignment in Cover 2. Ridley didn’t need to anything extraordinary for the big play to materialize. It does represent how much of a threat he is as an all-around weapon. The huge play should be a confidence booster for the rookie receiver, who has struggled during the second half of the season. Sanu was the last of the trio to get in on the touchdown party. An excellent play design by Sarkisian to go along with Sanu’s smooth patient route created another memorable explosive play. This game should set the blueprint for what this exceptional receiving trio is capable of doing on a consistent basis next season.
Fringe players emerge from a crowded pack
In my preview for this matchup, a section was dedicated to players fighting for their future. These players are either veterans, late-round picks, or were signed earlier in the season. Some of them have played featured roles this season. Others have been presented an opportunity due to the team being eliminated from playoff contention. A few players showed what they could offer in a more extended role.
Brian Hill endured some setbacks during his first game as the second running back. A careless personal foul penalty, where he got over-aggressive with a stiff arm, and unforced fumble still shouldn’t overshadow what he offered as a ball carrier. Hill showed great power, vision, and understanding of blocks in an impressive showing. Capping it off with a 60-yard run will get the coaching staff excited about the prospects of him contributing going forward.
Despite playing in a bigger role since October, Sharrod Neasman knows his future is uncertain at the end of the season. The undrafted free agent was signed a few weeks after Keanu Neal’s season-ending injury. Jordan Richards’ struggles opened up the door for him to play more snaps. He hasn’t looked back in proving to be a dependable tackler and astute safety. From his work in run support to tracking McCaffrey down on underneath passes, Neasman had another strong performance. It wouldn’t be surprising if the coaching staff opted to keep him over Richards as the backup strong safety.
The Falcons have an opportunity to not only finish the season on a high note, but also finish with a winning record in the division. There are also other minor things at stake. Sweeping Tampa Bay for the second consecutive season wouldn’t be nearly as impressive as sweeping Carolina in two out of the last three seasons. It’s still a notable achievement in the always-unpredictable NFC South.
This is the last opportunity for young players to show what they can do going into 2019. It’s a chance for some players to make their case for a roster spot. Those are some things to consider in what will be the Falcons’ first season finale without playoff implications since 2015. Based on their performance level over the last two games, they will be ready to play with the intensity you’d normally expect from a battle-tested team.