When Dan Quinn decided to give full play calling duties to Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris, most people didn’t think much of it. It’s hard to think much of what a 1-7 team is doing.
This was a team expecting to be in the playoff picture. This was a team filled of talent on both sides of the ball. Instead of playing exciting football and winning games, they looked lifeless and dysfunctional at every level. A few changes within the coaching staff certainly couldn’t make up for the number of players underachieving and overall lack of discipline. Yet while those changes aren’t the sole reason behind the Falcons’ resurgence, it’s played an integral role in their recent success.
The Falcons have gone 4-2 since the bye week. Other than being soundly defeated by Tampa Bay, they have either played well or exceeded expectations. To beat two of arguably the NFC’s best teams on the road is remarkable, especially when considering where the Falcons were two months ago. They couldn’t force opposing teams to punt, let alone force turnovers and produce sacks.
Beating New Orleans was something completely unforeseen. To beat San Francisco without Calvin Ridley and Desmond Trufant is something that nobody could have imagined. After being lambasted for months, Quinn is starting to get vindication as a head coach after multiple incredible upset wins.
Franchise players at the forefront
While plenty of attention will be directed towards the coaching staff and younger players, the Falcons’ best players elevated their games respectively to pull off this spectacular victory. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Grady Jarrett were outstanding yesterday. All three stars made numerous big plays to help the Falcons overcome a few setbacks and horrendous officiating. Even when things don’t go their way, they showed great resiliency in fighting back.
That was evident from watching Jarrett explode into the backfield on the next play following an inexcusable roughing the passer penalty was called against him. Ryan’s ability to lead two touchdown-scoring drives in the fourth quarter showed their fortitude as well. For all their contributions, Jones was the player that made this upset possible.
The superstar wide receiver was essentially a one-man army. With Austin Hooper largely contained, Jones had to be more than just a focal point. He had to carry the passing attack. On Ryan’s 39 pass attempts, Jones was targeted 20 times. Turning 20 targets into 13 catches for 134 yards and a game-winning touchdown against the best defense in the league is one way of doing it all. Jones terrorized the 49ers’ secondary in almost every way imaginable.
Whether it was from running shallow crosses or more vertical based routes, this was Jones’ most impressive performance of the season. Losing Ridley is a massive blow for an offense that doesn’t have much experience at the wide receiver position. Jones took the initiative of carrying the offense and wasn’t going to be denied of getting his well-deserved touchdown.
It’s been one of the more strenuous seasons for Ryan, yet he is still playing at a high level coping with limited resources and questionable play calling. His pocket awareness was outstanding against San Francisco’s ferocious pass rush. Although the offensive line did manage to play well, they began to crumble a bit in the second half. That didn’t stop Ryan from making the necessary reads to find Jones, Hooper, or Russell Gage. The Falcons went seven for 13 on third down against the second-best third down defense in the league. Ryan was excellent at escaping pressure when needed, along with remaining composed in the pocket to help sustain drives.
Jimmy Garoppolo, meanwhile, looked skittish in the pocket for the majority of the game. The number of times he felt inside pressure left a lasting effect on him. That pressure came from primarily Jarrett, who overwhelms guards and centers with his burst and ferocity. He also made his usual impact in the run game from splitting between double teams to destroying Ben Garland with swim moves. There aren’t many defensive tackles who can play consistently at a high level.
What makes Jarrett more special is his knack for delivering in the biggest games. He was the catalyst of the Falcons’ assault on Drew Brees last month in their stunning win. While they “technically” only sacked Garoppolo once, the continuous pressure affected his ability to make throws downfield. Jarrett is an exceptional talent who only keeps getting better.
Defense steps up and overcomes big personnel losses
There was plenty of concern going into this matchup based on what Kyle Shanahan was going to do. The offensive mastermind had just out-dueled Sean Payton in a shootout on the road. For the Falcons to lose Trufant before the game was rough. To lose Takkarist McKinley in the first quarter made a daunting matchup worse. After allowing a ridiculous 21-play drive, it seemed like Shanahan was ready to concoct another masterful game plan.
That never materialized as the offense completely stagnated during large portions of the game. Unless George Kittle had the ball in his hands, they couldn’t generate many explosive plays.
Several players on the defense made vital contributions. Vic Beasley continues to make an impact with a sack, tackle for loss, and multiple nice plays against the run. The embattled edge rusher is finding ways to be active, particularly on defending outside runs. De’Vondre Campbell is another player who has made strides following a dismal start to the season. His forced fumble and recovery proved to be a massive moment, as San Francisco was in Atlanta territory.
Both players have fallen short of expectations over the past two seasons. Many people question why Quinn remained so loyal to Beasley and Campbell, but games like this justified his commitment to them. Both players played pivotal roles in halting the 49ers.
With Beasley replacing McKinley and Campbell playing better, they needed someone to step up in the secondary to replace Trufant. Blidi Wreh-Wilson ended up having one of the best games of his career. His tight coverage and swift breaks on the ball gave the Falcons much-needed support on the back end.
Although Wreh-Wilson could have intercepted Garoppolo twice, his three pass breakups prevented San Francisco from either scoring in the red zone or converting on third down. The once-forgotten cornerback has proven to be a valuable utility option. They needed his contributions to keep Garoppolo from getting the easy access throws he is accustomed to receiving in Shanahan’s offense.
It was considered a foregone conclusion that Quinn would be fired at the end of the season. When you come out on the winning end of matchups against offensive gurus like Payton and Shanahan, there is reason to reconsider and reevaluate everything. It also goes beyond the two amazing victories. Since the bye week, it’s clear Quinn has made coaching and personnel adjustments. Admitting to his mistake of taking over defensive play calling duties was needed. Although it would have been obviously better to do it October than November, Quinn showed he isn’t the stubborn coach that tends to be portrayed when evaluating him.
Quinn has been criticized for his inability to make adjustments. His bland, outdated Cover 3 scheme was constantly being ridiculed. The missed tackles, careless penalties, and blown coverage assignments were being placed on him. Since the bye week, they’ve done a very good job at addressing each issue. Running more delayed blitzes with Deion Jones and coverage disguises with Damontae Kazee gives the defense more unpredictability. The organization of the defense has greatly improved, along with the open field tackling on the back end.
When teams go on their bye week, they have the time to assess everything about themselves. It’s their responsibility to address their flaws and evolve as a team. The Falcons have done exactly that. It’s been especially proven against two great teams.
These wins show Quinn is still able to not only elevate talent, but also devise a game plan and beat the best coaches in the business. That’s why it’s no longer a foregone conclusion Quinn will be fired at the end of the season. The six-game resurgence will give the organization plenty to think about going into the new year.
On paper, an upcoming matchup against Jacksonville couldn’t be less interesting. Given the current situation surrounding the team, there is absolutely some intrigue going into the final two games. Quinn is making a legitimate case to retain his status as head coach. Beating New Orleans and San Francisco will give Arthur Blank something to seriously consider. How the team has responded following the bye week can’t be overlooked. Neither can the 1-7 start to the season, where they didn’t look like they belonged on the field with some of their opponents.
There will be plenty of discussion about Quinn’s future over the two weeks. The fact that it’s become a conversation is a testament to how well the Falcons have played since November. They are playing with more discipline, organization, and tenacity. To see players remain fully committed to Quinn during what has been the lowest point of his head coaching career shows how unified the locker room is. Another win next week will only strengthen Quinn’s case of defying the odds to keep his job.