The Falcons will line up against the Panthers on Sunday with more than one familiar face missing. Austin Hooper and Devonta Freeman are going to be on the shelf, Mohamed Sanu was recently traded, and Ito Smith has been placed on injured reserve. Considering Hooper and Freeman accounted for 7 of Matt Ryan’s 20 completions on Sunday, someone or several someones are going to need to step up.
There are three logical candidates. The first is Calvin Ridley, who has been under-utilized in Dirk Koetter’s offense virtually all year, and who should be looking at more targets against the Panthers. The second is Brian Hill, who is going to soak up most of the snaps at running back on Sunday. And the third is Russell Gage, who is a logical breakout candidate.
Gage’s role in the offense has been growing steadily since Sanu was traded, but he’s mostly been on the receiving end of short throws and leaping sideline tosses from Matt Ryan. Over the last two weeks, he’s had 11 grabs for 81 yards, a number that suggests he’ll continue to have a prominent role.
With Hooper and Freeman out, my hope is that Koetter can find more for him to do than run short routes. Gage’s spectacular leaping ability is evident—even if he doesn’t always need to use it—but he’s improving as a route runner as time goes on and posted a 4.42 40 at LSU’s pro day, if you need to quantify his evident speed in some way. The Falcons need to challenge opposing defenses more through the air, and Julio, Ridley, and Gage all have the necessary tools to make life miserable for opposing secondaries.
With Hooper and Freeman out of the picture for at least one week and the Panthers likely to key in on Julio Jones—they certainly didn’t enjoy being destroyed by him in the past, after all—Gage ought to have his best game yet. If Koetter’s willing to do more with the second year receiver, it might be a hell of a game.