On what was a special day for the franchise, the Falcons managed to deliver one of their best performances of the season. Facing a dysfunctional Carolina team gave them an excellent opportunity to end their three-game home stand on a high note. With Roddy White being honored for his exceptional career, they didn’t let one of the true all-time greats down.
Getting Julio Jones and Austin Hooper back from injury was a major boost for the offense. What the team ultimately needed was significant improvement within the trenches. They received that on both sides of the ball.
The much-maligned offensive line only allowed one sack and six hits on 35 passes. The lone sack came on a freak accident when Matt Ryan tripped on Wes Schweitzer’s foot on a play action design. They gave Ryan the time he needed to make his progressions and attack an anemic secondary. While giving Ryan ample protection, they opened massive running lanes for Devonta Freeman to have his best game of the season. It was the type of performance they desperately needed following two dreadful performances. The same can be said about the defensive line, which failed to record a single hit on Jameis Winston or Drew Brees. They set the tone in another convincing win over their division rivals.
Owning the trenches
There aren’t many games the Falcons can claim they dominated in the trenches over the past two seasons. This is one of the rare occasions where they pushed around and bullied their opponents. Dan Quinn had to make adjustments following the debacle against New Orleans. For Matt Ryan to take nine sacks is inexcusable, especially for a team that dedicated their entire off-season towards improving up front.
The return of Chris Lindstrom couldn’t have come at a better time. By finally having him back on the field and giving Matt Gono a long-deserved opportunity, the offense actually found some stability at the most problematic positional area on the roster. Both Lindstrom and Gono held up well in pass protection. They also made key blocks in the running game.
Given how much Carolina has struggled defending the run, there was a clear emphasis on running the ball more often. Freeman was able to find daylight for majority of the game. The injury-riddled running back showed agility and elusiveness at the second level to pick up extra yardage. To get space at the second level hasn’t happened often this season for him. With more running plays attacking Carolina’s undisciplined front, they were able to pick up consistent yardage on the ground behind Freeman’s legs. Brian Hill eventually started reaping the benefits in the second half. Dirk Koetter made a slight shift from his preferred power run concepts. Running more tosses and outside runs proved to be highly effective in exploiting Carolina’s vulnerable defense.
On the other side of the ball, they attacked Carolina’s main weakness on the offensive line. The lack of stability and consistency at the tackle position has doomed them all season. It was apparent in the first matchup when Takkarist McKinley and Adrian Clayborn eviscerated their collection of tackles. McKinley caused havoc once again with his first multi-sack game of the season. Instead of Clayborn, Vic Beasley was able to get after Kyle Allen with two strip sacks. He showcased his tremendous athleticism on his first sack to get around the edge. It was the trademark explosiveness that had analysts gushing over his memorable 2016 season. Considering Grady Jarrett didn’t have a major impact as a pass rusher, it was vital for both pass rushers to win their individual matchups. They managed to do so in emphatic fashion.
Quinn’s long rotation of defensive linemen did their part. Allen Bailey, Tyeler Davison, and Jack Crawford all showed flashes rushing from the inside. The decision to use Bailey more as an interior pass rusher has made a noticeable difference.
From using his long arms to catching guards by surprise with his explosiveness, the versatile defensive lineman can disrupt opposing fronts. His presence allows the coaching staff to get more creative with their pass rushing alignments as well. In an off-season filled with disappointing signings, the front office made a shrewd decision to bring in Bailey. There will be plenty of personnel changes across the defense going into next season, but Bailey should be a key rotational piece in their rebuilding project.
Key role players taking on bigger roles
Damontae Kazee and Foye Oluokun were bright spots on an otherwise dreadful Falcons’ defense last season. Although the defense isn’t exactly much better than it was last season, they have managed to elevate their play in recent games. Both players were crucial in yesterday’s victory. Kazee never looked comfortable as the primary slot corner.
Despite playing cornerback in college, the play-making defensive back found his niche at free safety. It allows him to use his instincts and ball-hawking abilities across the field. While Kazee has endured some setbacks by blowing coverage assignments in key moments, his impressive range makes up for those mistakes. Both of his interceptions showed off his ability to cover acres of space and make the opposing team pay for their costly mistakes.
Oluokun has been somewhat of an afterthought this season. He didn’t see the field much in the first two months of the year. With De’Vondre Campbell struggling mightily, the coaching staff had no choice but to give him more opportunities. Considering how well he played last season, it shouldn’t have taken another player’s poor performances to get him on the field.
Oluokun is an instinctive, athletic linebacker who can take on blocks and make open-field tackles consistently. His ability to read the game makes him a useful asset. How he read Carolina’s double reverse to prevent D.J. Moore from breaking open a big run is the type of play you want to see from a young linebacker. Oluokun is another player that deserves an extended look going into the final three games of the season.
Personnel changes on the offensive line
Rotating between Lindstrom and Gono at right guard was one of the biggest highlights in yesterday’s victory. Both players showed plenty of promise during the preseason. After enduring horrendous guard play for most of the season, there was a refreshing change of performance at the position. Lindstrom made blocks at the second level that James Carpenter and Jamon Brown simply weren’t making. Gono’s ability to create movement on combination blocks made a difference in the run game. There is a chance both players could start next week.
Wes Schweitzer suffered a shoulder injury. Considering Schweitzer’s limited upside, there isn’t much reason to start him going forward. Carpenter and Brown have both been extremely disappointing. That leaves Lindstrom and Gono as the ideal guards moving forward.
The front office will get an extensive look if Gono can make the transition from tackle to guard. They will also get to assess what will hopefully be the right side of their offensive line for at least the next three years in Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. The personnel changes have been long overdue on the offensive line. Coming to terms with bad signings can be difficult for front offices. At some point, it needs to be recognized. Moving forward with promising youth over underwhelming veterans is the only way to operate at this stage of the season.
There are technically no big games left when your team is out of playoff contention. There can still be some anticipation when facing one of the best teams in the league. Considering the history between the coaching staffs, there should be genuine excitement going into Atlanta’s trip to San Francisco. It will be the first time they’ll be seeing Kyle Shanahan since their historic 2016-2017 season.
Shanahan has built a legitimate powerhouse. After getting the better of Sean Payton in New Orleans, momentum couldn’t be more real in San Francisco. Quinn will be aware of the challenge that awaits him. He should also be aware of some of Shanahan’s tendencies. With Raheem Morris being on the Super Bowl coaching staff, they will have two coaches who worked alongside Shanahan. The 49ers are a superior team talent wise. It’s going to be difficult to keep pace with a genuine Super Bowl contender. How the Falcons handle themselves from a coaching standpoint will be the most fascinating aspect of this matchup.