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Impressive second half surge ends a frustrating Falcons’ season on a positive note

A dismal first half was quickly revived thanks to a plethora of outstanding performances from the usual suspects.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are some sporting terms that many consider to be outdated. It’s either because the sport has evolved or people are simply not buying into the message anymore. Playing for pride is one of the more popular debated terms. Should it matter if a team plays for pride? Do fans remain invested after seeing their favorite team fall short when the stakes were high? Those are some of the collective arguments about “playing for pride” being a nonsensical phrase.

For all the critiques, there are plenty of positives about the aspect of playing for pride. It builds character and unity during difficult times, along with regaining some self-belief that your team can win games. Nobody wants to be in this position. It’s a position where certain coaches and players can’t change their future with the damage already being done. What can be changed is how the overall team views important traits of the organization as a whole. Winning three consecutive games to finish the season may have done that for the Falcons. How they managed to do it makes their recent success more commendable following a comeback win over the Buccaneers.

Franchise cornerstones deliver

When falling behind 17 points on the road, everyone faces severe pressure, particularly the star players. They must elevate their game to get their team out of a bad situation. To get outplayed by a division rival on both sides of the ball for an entire half is always going to cause panic. A team such as the Falcons, who have been criticized on multiple occasions for their lack of intensity, needed to show something after what was developing into another lifeless performance. Thanks to their core of star players, they managed to recover and outscore the Buccaneers by a score of 27 to 15 in the second half.

Matt Ryan continued his strong play with a near-flawless performance. Other than an off-balance throw that ended in a sloppy interception, the franchise quarterback was terrific in leading a furious comeback. It wasn’t surprising to see him connect with Julio Jones on several big plays. Jones averages nearly 120 yards per game against Tampa Bay. What was more impressive was how Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper downfield on multiple plays. There was a two-play sequence where he threw picture-perfect passes to Sanu and Hooper. The throw to Sanu went for 32 yards on third and 17, while Hooper failed to maintain possession for what would have been a tremendous touchdown pass. Ryan’s terrific ball placement and decision making was vital in them scoring on six of their final seven drives.

Not highlighting Jones’ gutsy showing would be criminal. The stellar wide receiver had been dealing with multiple injuries over the past two weeks. For him to keep playing as if the team was battling for a playoff spot is remarkable. When it seemed like he was shaken up, Jones got up and went back into attack mode. After scoring his eighth touchdown in nine games before halftime, the 2018 NFL receiving yards king took over in the second half. No play was more impressive than him roasting Ryan Smith on a clever out-and-up down the sideline for a 37-yard catch. Everyone knows about Jones’ unselfish attitude and incredible work ethic. They also know about his willingness to do whatever it takes to put the Falcons in the best position to win. From catching passes over the middle to supplying crushing blocks in the run game, it was one of the finest games of his remarkable season.

On the defensive side of the ball, Grady Jarrett continued to solidify himself as one of the premier defensive tackles in the league. The bulldozing lineman had another strong all-around performance. While the majority of the defense underperformed, Jarrett was causing havoc all across the line of scrimmage. Jameis Winston didn’t face much pressure during the game. When he was under duress, it was because of Jarrett’s absurd first step and wicked swim move. Tampa Bay felt his presence in the run game as well. On third and one, Jarrett exploded into the backfield to smother Jacquizz Rodgers for a two-yard loss. It’s those types of plays that make Jarrett such a valuable asset. Re-signing him to a long-term deal must be one of the front office’s biggest priorities, if not the biggest priority in 2019.

Steve Sarkisian’s likely final game ends with a bang

With rumors circulating about his departure, Sarkisian didn’t want to go out on a whimper. It seemed like that was going to transpire following five scoreless drives. As soon as the Falcons had to get more aggressive, everything began to click for the enigmatic offense. Sarkisian started dialing up more stack formations to scheme open players, and give Ryan more high-percentage looks. It’s normally not difficult to do that against the Buccaneers. A bit more effort was required for them to find their rhythm against one of the worst defenses in the league.

Sarkisian did an excellent job of mixing in a variety of screens to get Tampa Bay’s defense disorganized. Utilizing Sanu as the main player on screens proved to be beneficial in producing quick chunk plays. It wasn’t the only way Sanu made his mark on the game. Facing a third-and-goal at the five, they needed to get into the end zone. It was the 14th play on what had been a rollercoaster drive. Sarkisian decided to go for it all by calling one of the most unique trick plays in football today. The classic “Philly Special” worked to perfection, as Calvin Ridley took the handoff and tossed the ball to Sanu on an end around to find Ryan all alone for a beautiful touchdown.

That play will go down as one of the best moments of the season. To see a versatile player like Sanu be used in a creative manner, and Ryan to be on the receiving end of a fantastic play will forever be remembered. It shows Sarkisian’s willingness to be more open and fearless. Although the embattled offensive coordinator has frustrating tendencies such as running on second and long, he did show improvement as a play caller. It probably wasn’t enough to justify him maintaining his place as the offensive coordinator. There are still enough encouraging signs for him to have a future in the NFL.

Unexpected personnel usage

One of the most surprising parts about the game was Dan Quinn preferring to play mostly veterans. After starting to incorporate younger players into the rotation, he opted to stick with mostly familiar names. Ryan Schraeder returned to start at right tackle, as Ty Sambrailo moved to left guard in replacing Wes Schweitzer. Instead of giving Matt Gono some reps, they decided to start a player who is likely going to be released in a few months. The same applies at cornerback with Robert Alford playing for the majority of the game. Not giving Isaiah Oliver more opportunities was very surprising given the circumstances.

Alford and Schraeder aren’t likely going to be involved in the team’s long-term plans. Did Quinn want to show respect to both veterans for everything they did for the franchise? Playing them for most of the game didn’t seem otherwise logical. Giving Jeremy Langford more carries than Brian Hill was another perplexing decision. Hill showed promise in his first game as a feature back against Carolina. How he received fewer carries than a 27-year-old back that has a career average of 3.5 yards per carry doesn’t make much sense. The final game of the season for teams out of contention is designed to give younger players an extensive look. That clearly wasn’t on Quinn’s agenda.

Looking Ahead

After playing like the worst team in the league from mid-November to mid-December, the Falcons regained some credibility to finish the season with three straight wins. Some will harp on them missing out on drafting in the top ten. There is no denying what a top ten pick can do for your team. It’s also not earth shattering if you lose out on the opportunity. Based on the front office’s success in recent drafts, they should be trusted to select another game-changing talent.

How the Falcons move forward with their coaching staff is the first step in what will be a busy off-season. Quinn understands another losing season could lead to major repercussions. This is a team that was starting to establish themselves as one of the NFC’s top contenders. To not be playing in January is difficult for them to digest, even with the ridiculous amount of injuries. How they get back to where they belong starts with finding suitable coordinators and rebuilding inside the trenches. Those are some of the biggest objectives that must be met by the start of next season.