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How Atlanta became the place for Mohamed Sanu

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Following three productive seasons with the Falcons, Mohamed Sanu reflects on his past success as one of the league’s most unique wide receivers.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When Mohamed Sanu hit free agency in 2016, there were several teams interested in signing him. New England, Carolina, and Oakland were rumored as the main contenders. The Falcons entered the market in dire need of a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver. Roddy White could no longer play at a high level, while Leonard Hankerson struggled with injuries and drops. Thomas Dimitroff was bound to make some high-profile signings following a disappointing end to the 2015 season. Signing Alex Mack was the first step in making a statement. Sanu was the next step towards solidifying the offense.

Sanu decided to sign with Atlanta on March 10th, 2016. It was time for the ultra-talented wide receiver to take on a new challenge, as Cincinnati never quite got the best out of him. With a talented quarterback and offensive coordinator in Atlanta, Sanu knew this was the place for him to elevate his career. It was also the place he imagined being in for a long time.

“I felt it was the right place for me,” Sanu said. “Everything aligned with what I wanted to do. Everything they told me I envisioned myself doing in my career. I also love the culture in Atlanta. It really is a wonderful place.”

Sanu was the first major wide receiver to be signed during Matt Ryan’s tenure. Although Devin Hester did end up making an impact as a wide receiver, he was largely added to continue being the greatest returner in NFL history. Sanu was added to complement Julio Jones. The Falcons needed a player who could take some pressure off Jones and help solve their red zone woes. Despite not being a full-time wide receiver, Hester’s experience with the Falcons does hold merit. He was vocal about how much Ryan wanted to get him involved within the offense. After being essentially neglected by Jay Cutler, Hester appreciated Ryan’s willingness to build a rapport with him. Sanu shared similar positive thoughts about the former MVP.

“We clicked right away,” Sanu said. “Matt has a tremendous work ethic. He takes a real workmanlike approach to everything he does. It didn’t take long for me to realize how efficient he is. He is really efficient at everything he does as a quarterback and as a leader. I’ve always been a fast learner, which helped the process of us getting on the same page. Matt definitely helped make it a smooth transition. It didn’t take long for us to hit the ground running on the field.”

Sanu played a key role in the Falcons’ historic 2016 season. Once Ryan got on the same page with Kyle Shanahan, they built a near-unstoppable unit with Sanu as one of the primary weapons. Most opposing defenses were torched when going up against them. The Falcons’ offense validated themselves as one of the most dominant units from the past decade. Sanu doesn’t recall a specific time when he realized they have something special. He was too busy enjoying every day from that season.

“I remember that special feeling going to work every day,” Sanu stated. “From going to practice to being in meetings, it was great seeing how efficient everyone was. Everyone was executing at an extremely high level. We were scoring at will every week. We were making plays whenever we wanted to. Everything we were doing was being done at will. Whatever the game plan was, we went out and did it at the highest level. There wasn’t any particular moment that stands out. It was just beating the so-called best teams in the league that made everyone believe nobody can stop us. We all knew we were meant to be great.”

The Falcons offense was always bound to take a step back, especially with Shanahan leaving to become San Francisco’s new head coach. Not many people expected them to struggle as much as they did in 2017. It was a rollercoaster season filled with notable highs and demoralizing lows. Sanu remained as productive as ever in Steve Sarkisian’s offense. The versatile wide receiver ended up making one of the biggest plays of the season. With the Falcons clinging to a six-point lead against the Rams in the fourth quarter on wild card weekend, Sarkisian called a designed screen for Sanu. A risky play call on second and 13 ended up working perfectly. The execution couldn’t have been better on what became a 53-yard gain. It’s a play Sanu will never forget.

“That was definitely one of my favorite moments,” Sanu said. “It was a critical situation in the game. Obviously, this wasn’t just any game. Our season was on the line. I remember getting the ball and seeing a clear opening. Once I saw it, I took off running as fast as I could at that moment. Even though my body was hurting, I wasn’t worried about anything except getting into the end zone. I was glad to put us in a position to score. I was glad we won our third playoff game in two years. I was just so glad we got out of there with the win ‘cause that field was so brutal (laughs).”

Sanu has always been praised for his unique skillset and playmaking ability. What tends to be overlooked is how good he is as an overall wide receiver. That was evident during his time in Cincinnati. Since joining the Falcons in 2016, Sanu has proven he is more than simply a playmaker capable of making highlight-reel plays. Between his outstanding route-running ability to his knack for making contested catches at a consistent rate, Sanu has established himself as a dependable difference maker in Atlanta. The former Bengal credits his work ethic as the main reason behind his success.

“I’ve always been very detail-oriented with how I work,” Sanu stated. “You have to be precise in how you want to get things done. It’s how you want it to look and feel as a route-runner. With constant practice and endless reps, you start to see results. It’s how you fine-tune it, along with how much you want it as a player. That’s how I look at it.”

There are plenty of reasons why Sanu loves Atlanta. From how the organization operates to the city as a whole, he knows he made the right decision signing with the Falcons. He also loves how close the wide receivers and tight ends are with each other. In a recent interview with Bleacher Report’s Adam Lefkoe, Austin Hooper talked about how awesome the wide receiver-tight end room is. Sanu feels the exact same way and praised assistant head coach-wide receivers coach Raheem Morris for making it such a great environment to be in.

“We always enjoy being around each other,” Sanu said. “We always have great guys in our room. We bounce ideas off each other and try to help each other grow as players. That comes with working extremely hard and constantly watching film. It’s a real fun environment to be in. Knowing your teammates have your back is a great feeling. That’s when you know you can go out there and battle together. To also work with someone like Raheem makes it even better. Raheem is a great coach. I love working with him.”

After running only two plays out of the wildcat in 2016, the Falcons used it much more often in 2017 and 2018. That allowed Sanu to go back to his quarterback roots. He excelled as a triple-option quarterback at South Brunswick High School. His past success gives offensive coordinators more flexibility with their weekly game plan. Unlike Shanahan, Sarkisian opted to use the formation in crucial situations. Sanu enjoys having added responsibility within the offense. He also understands the importance of not getting overly fancy when running plays out of the 12-Gauge formation.

“Man, it’s such a high percentage play,” Sanu said laughing. “I know what to do in that situation. I know not to do nothing more, nothing less during that moment. We know how the play is designed, and it’s my responsibility to execute it. It’s all about getting that one yard or two yards depending on the situation. That’s when we mostly run plays out of that formation.”

If he doesn’t run the ball, Sanu has no problem dropping back and throwing a picture-perfect ball downfield. His resume speaks for itself as one of the most efficient passers in NFL history. What makes Sanu’s success even more remarkable is that he doesn’t do any particular drills to keep his arm fresh. He knows he can make an absurd throw like he did against Tampa Bay in 2017 at any time.

“It’s just natural,” Sanu said. “I don’t have to do anything specific during the season. My ability to throw is God-given. I can see why people ask because you don’t see many wide receivers able to throw accurately downfield. There’s nothing really to it though. I just know I’m capable of making a big-time play with my arm.”

It will be interesting to see how creative Dirk Koetter will be. He is going to be Sanu’s third offensive coordinator in the last four years. Koetter did an excellent job at bringing the best out of Hester in 2014. When it comes to using a unique talent like Sanu, the former Bucs head coach knows he can be more imaginative. The possibilities are endless with the amount of offensive firepower in Atlanta.

“I’ve talked to Dirk quite a bit so far,” Sanu said. “He’s a great offensive coordinator. You look at his background and see what he’s done. You could tell he’s very smart. I know how well respected he is from talking to Matt. I’m excited to work with him. With the talent we have, I’m really looking forward to seeing where we could go with him.”

Expectations remain high in Atlanta. Despite coming off a disappointing season, the entire organization knows they must get back to the playoffs. That’s the only thing on Sanu’s list of goals going into the season. The veteran wide receiver knows what the Falcons are capable of accomplishing. To play in five playoff games in your first two seasons with a team makes you hungry for more success. At this point, the only left for Sanu is to become a Super Bowl champion.

“Winning the Super Bowl is always my main personal goal,” Sanu said. “Of course, I want to do my job at the highest level. I want to play to the best of my ability and contribute as much as possible. There aren’t any stats I focus on, especially at this point of my career. It’s all about winning the Super Bowl. That’s why I’m here in Atlanta.”