Since Steve Sarkisian arrived in Atlanta, there have been incessant questions about the Falcons’ offense not being able to come close to matching their 2016 form. Losing a play caller as special as Kyle Shanahan was always going to create a difficult adjustment period. Nobody anticipated that it would take an entire season for the offense to find their footing.
The long periods of being disjointed, predictable, and one-dimensional were evident in 2017. Although one game doesn’t determine a team’s outlook, it can cultivate how a team operates moving forward. That’s how the Falcons should be approaching their next game following yesterday’s excellent win.
What they did against a very good Carolina defense should be universally praised. For the first time under Sarkisian, they played a near-flawless game. There were moments of a cohesive offense playing at a high-level in wins over Green Bay, Dallas, and Seattle. For all their success, none of those victories showed them truly imposing their will. This was the first game under Sarkisian, where they dictated the pace of the game against a high-caliber opponent. It was a stunning performance between using creative variations of play action, attacking Carolina on the outside, and giving Matt Ryan more than enough time in the pocket to make sharp throws.
Responding from adversity
Excluding the injury crisis surrounding the team, there were two major questions going into the home opener. How would Ryan fare after one of the worst performances of his career? The same question applied to Sarkisian, who was nationally ridiculed for his play calling in the red zone and overall personnel usage. Both were at the forefront of another Falcons’ loss in Philadelphia. Finding any sort of rhythm against Carolina was vital, especially with the defense enduring the loss of two players that essentially shape their identify as a unit. They both made the necessary adjustments to pick apart one of the better defenses in the league.
Ryan erased doubts about his arm strength and accuracy with a terrific showing. The former MVP looked dialed in from the first snap. With the threat of Ron Rivera preparing a cocktail of blitzes, he made quicker decisions and threw precise passes. To only throw five incompletions following such a disastrous performance in Philadelphia is extremely impressive. He got into a rhythm with the likes of Calvin Ridley and Austin Hooper being more involved. That allowed him to exploit Carolina’s heavy zone scheme, particularly when using play action. Ryan looked as comfortable as ever moving from side to side. When he had to use his feet past the line of scrimmage, the perennially under-appreciated athletic quarterback showed what he is made of by leaping into the end zone.
On the other side of the Falcons’ conundrum, Sarkisian called one of his finest games as an offensive coordinator. There were a greater sense of directness and ruthlessness that had been lacking. Instead of getting overly fancy or being too reliant on Julio Jones, he focused on targeting mismatches and playing at a higher tempo. Sarkisian made it a point of emphasis to get Ridley more involved earlier in the week. That was on full display by spreading him out wide and giving him space to operate against Carolina’s overmatched corners. Ridley showcased his outstanding footwork and route-running ability during the entire game. Accelerating past Donte Jackson on a wicked slant for his first career touchdown set the tone for the offense’s rebound game.
From using Ridley on slants and shallow crosses to sticking with outside-zone based runs, Sarkisian orchestrated a highly efficient attack. The offense doesn’t normally struggle putting together drives. Converting on third down (fifth-best in the league last year) and picking up quick yardage wasn’t challenging for them. It was when they got into the red zone, where pure chaos ensued. That wasn’t the case in yesterday’s four-for-four master class. Using a hi-lo concept created space for Hooper to take the inside release and score on a corner route.
When lining up near the goal line, Sarkisian didn’t waste time and called a sneak for Ryan to squeeze his way into the end zone. Carolina’s front seven is one of the top units in the league. Trying to outmuscle them using long drawn-out plays wasn’t going to be effective. They needed to work in a quick, decisive manner after failing to do so against Philadelphia. The beleaguered offensive coordinator finally found the right ingredients in a well-balanced game plan to help the offense play up to their capabilities.
Winning up front
During the Falcons’ last two defeats in Philadelphia, there was one reoccurring theme that got lost in the shuffle. The offensive line was overwhelmed for the majority of both games. They couldn’t create many holes in the running game or keep the pocket clean for Ryan to survey the field. Andy Levitre and Alex Mack couldn’t individually or collectively contain Fletcher Cox. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan Schraeder allowed a staggering nine pressures after only surrendering 20 in total last season. Not being able to hold your own in the trenches will not only affect your quarterback, but also affect the offensive coordinator’s thought process when dialing up plays.
Carolina’s front four isn’t nearly as good as Philadelphia’s ridiculously deep group. They still possess a solid nucleus led by Kawann Short and Mario Addison. Per ESPN on 28 drop backs, Ryan wasn’t sacked once and only hit twice. Schraeder bounced back nicely, particularly in the running game. Brandon Fusco is proving to be a steady right guard, which is something the Falcons have lacked for years. They were at the forefront of opening numerous running lanes for Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith to make defenders miss at the second level.
The offensive line made a major statement against one of the NFL’s legitimate stout front sevens. After Luke Kuechly made multiple stops in the first quarter, they started locating him to give the running backs space to maneuver into the open field. Wes Schweitzer played admirably well in replacing Andy Levtire. Alongside Jake Matthews, they made some quality combination blocks to spring Smith free to the second level, where he made Carolina suffer with his tremendous footwork and shiftiness. By making the necessary blocks up front and getting timely contributions from Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy, the running game played a significant part in the offense’s 2016-esque performance.
What should have been a convincing victory became too close for comfort in the end. Although the offense should have ended the game better, it would be foolish to overlook some of the defensive breakdowns. They failed to generate pressure with a four-man rush during long portions of the game. As Cam Newton started getting into a groove, they struggled to get near him. Grady Jarrett could only do so much as the lone interior threat. Vic Beasley was kept quiet once again, while Takkarist McKinley only showed up in flashes. To not create more pressure against predominantly a second-string unit must be worrying for Dan Quinn.
Replacing Jones and Neal is going to be as difficult as most imagined. Duke Riley missed multiple tackles and struggled to diagnose runs. The coaching staff will have to live with some mistakes, as they hope his talent eventually breaks through. It’s difficult to feel confident about his chances of playing a key role in containing Alvin Kamara next week. The same applies to Damontae Kazee, who may spend further time on the sidelines. His despicable hit on Cam Newton warranted an ejection. Considering how much time coaches put into tackling, it’s a terrible look for the rising safety. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him receive a one-game suspension.
The NFC South fun continues next week, as New Orleans comes to town to reignite the best rivalry in football. Both teams haven’t started out the season as well as they expected. Losing to Tampa Bay and barley beating Cleveland isn’t something Sean Payton envisioned two weeks ago. One of the most complete teams in football last season have looked vulnerable defensively. That should bode well for an offense that didn’t miss a beat without Devonta Freeman.
If they can average between 24 to 31 points per week, the loss of Jones and Neal will slightly diminish. That is obviously easier said than done. At least it has been proven against a division rival known for their defensive fortitude.