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Falcons vs Panthers: Why this offensive performance could be a turning point for Steve Sarkisian

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Looking for reasons to be optimistic?

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

On first glance, the Falcons’ offensive performance against the Panthers appeared to be one of the strongest — if not the strongest — yet against a very good defense. However, we can often get swept up in the emotion of watching our team succeed, so I decided to re-watch the entire game to see if it held up under closer scrutiny.

The good news is this: I actually came away more impressed with what Steve Sarkisian and Matt Ryan did in the game. In fact, what we saw in this game could be the turning point for Sark as a play caller. This offense looked far more like the 2016 version than anything Sarkisian did in 2017, including the trouncing of Green Bay back in Week 2 of the 2017 season.

This was a highly encouraging performance that I hope the team builds on. Here’s what I saw that made me believe we can all be cautiously optimistic going forward.

Sarkisian’s use of motion and play-building

One of my biggest complaints about the play calling in 2017 was that it didn’t utilize motion much and it didn’t build on plays throughout the game. Last night finally executed on both of those concepts.

Pre-snap motion was a huge part of the 2016 offense. It has multiple benefits. It gives the QB an idea of what coverage he’s facing. It can also put an offensive player in a better matchup depending on the coverage you do see. It can also put the defense in a pickle if they’re trying to disguise their coverage. The Falcons used it extensively on Sunday, and it almost always paid off. In fact, I quit counting the number of times they used pre-snap motion, because it was happening on almost every single play.

The play-building concept is simple: show the defense formations early that you use later in the game but for a different purpose. Shanahan was brilliant with this, as he’d often set up a defense to expect a run in a TE-heavy formation then pass out of it later for big gains. Sarkisian didn’t do this effectively in 2017, but he did it several times against the Panthers. This wasn’t perfect, but it was clear he had a much better idea of how to set up the defense to bite on those earlier looks. If Steve Sarkisian can execute on this even better, this is something that could pay off with more of the big, explosive plays we got used to seeing in 2016.

Using guys correctly

This was a big criticism of the 2017 season: Guys were not being used to their strengths. That was clearly not the case on Sunday. Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith were smartly used in the passing game. Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy were used a good bit for their excellent run and pass blocking skills. Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley were used for their tight route running and break away speed, especially on crossers that lets them get away from defenders. Austin Hooper was given one-on-one match-ups with linebackers and targeted specifically in those situations.

Additionally, the offense did not try to force feed Julio throughout the game. They spread the ball around — another staple of the 2016 offense — and took advantage of the matchups they felt they had the advantage with. Perfect example: On the TD pass to Calvin Ridley, they clearly thought Ridley’s route running would win against the rookie CB for the Panthers — and it absolutely did.

Better execution

While this may not seem like something directly attributable to Sark, it absolutely speaks to the confidence and preparedness the offense had going into the game. The entire team cleaned up on the penalties from last week and the overall execution was far tighter. Part of the offensive coordinator’s job is to have his unit prepared and confident in the plan, and it was clear that was the case on Sunday.

Some final random observations

  • Austin Hooper is fantastic at selling his pick plays. He did it several times throughout the game to great effect.
  • Wes Schweitzer had a much better game than I realized. Looked very comfortable at LG.
  • I didn’t have a problem with the wildcat call. If Luke Kuechly is blocked and Sanu hands off, that gains a bunch of yards easily.
  • The play action calls were called at the right time and seemed to be very effective.
  • The Hooper TD was a great design. RB in the flat (for an easy first down) was option two if the CB stayed deep with the TE. Gave Hoop a one-on-one with the LB, which he won easily.

While I don’t want to get too excited, it’s hard to not see the progress Sarkisian made in this game. He absolutely needs to build on this and continue to execute on these same principles. If he does, this Falcons offense could be a Top 10 — and maybe even Top 5 — unit once again.