For what was a relatively mundane game of football, the Falcons managed to impose their will and dictate the pace of the game. It was expected that they would come out strong against a team in complete disarray. With Jacksonville struggling on the field and enduring drama off it, this was one of the more favorable matchups Dan Quinn could ask for. A few careless turnovers and uncharacteristic drops from the Falcons kept the game somewhat competitive. Ultimately, the more inspired team with better roster talent prevailed convincingly.
There is no telling what Quinn’s future is, especially after yesterday’s most recent report. What remains evident is that the players are clearly fully behind him. The defense continues to make strides, particularly in the secondary. Although Matt Ryan made some poor decisions, the offense has been more efficient in recent weeks. The return of Chris Lindstrom is proving to be a bigger difference maker than most anticipated.
No matter what the situation is, a three-game winning streak is encouraging. To have two of your Pro Bowlers playing at an elite level without any playoff stakes is another testament to how much respect Quinn commands in the locker room.
Stars being stars
For the second consecutive game, the Falcons’ franchise cornerstones had exceptional performances. Julio Jones has been a man on a mission since returning from a shoulder injury. The superstar wide receiver caught ten passes for 166 yards on 15 targets. If it wasn’t for two rare drops, he may have hit the 200-yard mark. Dirk Koetter has moved him around across formations more often since Mohamed Sanu was traded. That’s created more mismatches for them to exploit. Whether it’s on shallow crosses or more vertical routes, Jacksonville had no answer for Jones. A.J. Bouye didn’t appear to be up to the task of trying to contain him. Jones’ monster game led him to becoming the fastest receiver ever to gain 12,000 receiving yards. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the best wide receiver in football continues to break records.
On the other side of the ball, Grady Jarrett continues to establish himself as one of the best defensive tackles in the league. A well-deserved Pro Bowl nod solidified his place amongst the public audience. After years of being praised by analysts and former players, the former fifth round pick is garnering national attention for his outstanding play. Jarrett produced one sack, one tackle for a loss, two hits, and drew multiple holding penalties. There aren’t many guards who can handle his timing, burst, and violent hand usage. His swim move remains as lethal as ever as well. Regardless of what’s at stake, you can always count on Jarrett to bring it on every snap with his relentless motor.
There were other notable performances from players who have either quietly played well all season or starting to get back to their best. Deion Jones isn’t making the same amount of big plays he made in 2017. What the stellar inside linebacker is doing better comes from defending the run. His ability to take on blockers more effectively has made a noticeable difference. Between gliding past linemen trying to block him at the second level or playing with better positioning, Jones is far more productive against the run compared to past seasons. His tackling has greatly improved, which was needed as Jones wasn’t always consistent in that facet of his game. Everyone knows how quick and instinctive he is across the field. What he’s done to make a greater impact against the run is vital as one of the main defensive leaders.
Despite not playing much in the second half, Devonta Freeman showed flashes of his old self. It may have been from the much-improved blocking up front. It may have been from being a focal point in the passing game. What can’t be disputed is how reinvigorated Freeman looked. Koetter wanted to isolate him against Jacksonville’s overmatched linebackers. That worked for the entire first half, as they couldn’t hang with the dynamic running back. It’s been tough for Freeman to find space at times this season.
When he has room to maneuver, he still possesses the explosiveness and shiftiness to produce big plays. The coaching staff is also aware that they can’t be too overly reliant on him. Balancing his carries with Brian Hill, who had his best game of the season proved to be a recipe for success. While he may not have the jaw-dropping elusiveness he had in 2016-2017, Freeman can still be productive in a featured multi-dimensional role.
Heavily criticized players continue to shine
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Falcons’ second-half surge has been from certain players playing significantly better than they did in the first two months of the season. Vic Beasley, De’Vondre Campbell, and Isaiah Oliver were the most frequent names mentioned when assessing Quinn’s dreadful defense. All three players entered the season with major pressure on them.
These were players that Quinn instilled complete faith in. They didn’t look like starting-caliber players during their 1-7 start. Beasley was as anonymous as any pass rusher could be. Campbell’s lack of awareness, poor positioning, and inability to disengage from blocks drew major criticism. The same critiques can be applied to Oliver, who failed to understand zone coverage responsibilities and provide run support.
All three players have performed much better since the bye week. Beasley produced another sack, which makes it six-and-half sacks in his last seven games. When coming off the edge, he looks more confident. There appears to be more of a pass-rushing plan than solely depending on his physical traits to beat opposing tackles. Campbell is playing more astutely as well. There haven’t been many coverage breakdowns in recent weeks across the short and intermediate parts of the field. He also made a key stop on third down when blowing up a gap to prevent Leonard Fournette from getting a first down.
While both players may not be in the Falcons’ long-term plans as upcoming free agents, Oliver is playing himself into their long-term outlook. He’s certainly played better in past games than yesterday’s slightly unbalanced game. How the second-year corner is making strides comes from mentally processing the game better, using his long arms more effectively, and channeling his aggressiveness when playing press coverage. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his future as a long-term starter. Since playing extremely well against Seattle, he has taken significant steps forward in his development.
There aren’t any strong indications where Arthur Blank is leaning going into the final week of the season. What also needs to be kept in mind is that next week’s game won’t have any bearing on the final decision to keep or fire Quinn. Blank should know where the team is headed before Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay. If two seasons of being out of the playoff race by December is unacceptable, he will know Quinn isn’t the man for the job. If he believes they’ve made significant progress since the bye week and only need slight tweaks on the roster, Quinn should remain in charge.
There is no denying Quinn has established a special bond with the players. He created belief within the city that a championship-caliber team can be built. What hurts Quinn’s chances of staying are games like today. Games without any stakes in front of half-empty crowds. Beating Jacksonville does little towards his chances of staying on as head coach. It shows how much they’ve disappointed and wasted away another season. Although Quinn’s track record as a winning coach can’t be ignored, the inability to evolve and be more decisive may be his undoing. Two years is a long time in general, let alone how the NFL operates. Two years without intense football in December is brutal, let alone playoff football in January.
Major changes are going to be required to be made in Atlanta. Those changes may very well include Quinn.