The very first game after the conclusion of the Dan Quinn era in Atlanta was a four quarter jewel. A 40-23 victory over the Minnesota Vikings saw the team play with surprising energy and showed a team that appeared to have a chip on their shoulder. The credit for that should go to interim head coach Raheem Morris, who reportedly lit a fire under the team during practice on last week. Now at 1-5 on the season, the Falcons will next turn their sights on another NFC North team, the Detroit Lions. But before then, let’s highlight a few takeaways from their week six win.
A very crisp passing game
The ‘Matt Ryan is the blame’ contingent probably took a leave of absence this week. Ryan’s 371-yard, four touchdown performance against the Vikings saw Ryan connect with nine different receivers. It probably benefitted greatly from the return of stud receiver Julio Jones, who registered 137 yards and two touchdowns on the day. Here is a snapshot of Ryan’s efficient day based on passing zones within a defense courtesy of NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats:
There will be up and down weeks, but this is indicative of what Ryan can do with a healthy supporting cast, and he’s got cupcake matchups coming up.
It only took one play for the young but inconsistent Falcons defense to make an impact. Fifth-year linebacker Deion Jones intercepted Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on the very first play of the game, and that takeaway set the tone for the entire afternoon for the Falcons on both sides of the ball. The Falcons defense generated three turnovers in the first half which was converted into 17 points by the offense.
Safety Keanu Neal was aggressive at times while rookie corner A.J. Terrell played his best game of the season. By game’s end, the defense held Minnesota to 365 total yards, only 32 rushing yards, and 3-of-10 on third downs. Upon the firing of Dan Quinn after their week five loss, Morris was noted to get into the players during practice this past week and place accountability on a lot of veterans on the team. Maybe that act of coaching by Morris did the trick, because the defense played with an attitude that was unseen all season long.
Felt good seeing a familiar face
I touched on it a little bit earlier but having Julio Jones on the field and relatively healthy was a much needed boost. While Ryan has developed plenty of chemistry with receiver Calvin Ridley, you can tell that Ryan was a lot more comfortable on Sunday because of Jones being available. There are a number of weapons in the Falcons offense but it was obvious over the course of the past few weeks that Jones is the difference between an electric offense and one that can be good in spurts.
The performance by Jones was obviously his best of the season and was his first multi-touchdown game since the week 15 upset of the 49ers last season. The second of Jones’ two touchdowns showed a simple element that only a veteran quarterback and receiver can have: Chemistry. The chemistry of Jones and Ryan provided a backbreaking play that ultimately sealed the Falcons first win.
Russell Gage’s growth
The stat line says an afternoon of just four receptions for 65 yards. But half of Russell Gage’s production on Sunday came on what many call the “money down.” If you dive deeper in Gage’s numbers this season, he has quietly built a reputation as a reliable weapon on third downs, even while sharing the field with Jones and Ridley.
Looking at his splits, Gage has received his most targets (17), most receptions (12), yards (147), and yards per catch (12.3) all on third downs this season. Ten of his 12 third down receptions this season have resulted in first downs. Coming out of LSU in the 2018 NFL Draft as a sixth rounder, Gage was about as raw of a receiver as sushi being sold out of a van on the side of the road. Yet, sharing the field with his fellow stellar receivers has brought along plenty of growth in his game, and it has been enough growth for a veteran quarterback like Ryan to look his way on important downs and distance.
It was nice to see him bounce back from a couple of quiet week. Given that he’s a capable blocker, too, his role in this offense isn’t going to diminish.