It took 15 games, but the time has finally arrived: We saw a convincing victory for the Atlanta Falcons, featuring tremendous performances on both sides of the ball. It was largely mistake-free outside of a few near-fatal mistakes at a position which has hampered the team all season. Arthur Smith’s team showed they are still playing hard for their embattled head coach and ready to fight for him in this final stretch of the season.
This is going to be the first review all season that is largely filled with positive plays. That’s how well Atlanta played to keep their playoff hopes alive.
This is the eleventh GIF game review of the season. You can view the previous ones against the Panthers, Lions, Jaguars, Texans, Bucs (away), Titans, Vikings, Cardinals, Saints, and Bucs (home) to get a deeper insight into how the team fared in past games.
Ground Game Gold Standard
Arthur Smith loves using pin-pull designs with Bijan Robinson, especially in the second half when defenses are beginning to fatigue. Mack Hollins and KhaDarel Hodge are two of the best blocking wide receivers on the team. It’s fitting for them to be used here to pin both edge defenders to give Robinson a clear corner to turn. The blocking doesn’t have to be on point for this to translate into an explosive run.
Robinson’s game-breaking speed will leave defenders long gone as he accelerates into the open field. All he needs is space to get into high gear, and he takes off for runs like this 26-yard gain. Jake Matthews does well, as he normally does, in kicking out to close off the cornerback. Besides running counter, this has been arguably the most effective run concept for the Falcons all season. They wouldn’t be able to maximize it without the rookie sensation.
This run is a prime example of why Robinson is such an electrifying player. Not many running backs possess the speed to turn this into a 32-yard gain. Other than Matthews showing terrific hand placement and footwork at the point of attack, the rest of the offensive linemen do just enough rather than totally fulfill their blocking assignment. A slower running back likely gets caught by Grover Stewart. More urgency and a better angle from Julian Blackmon beats Matthew Bergeron on the corner. Chris Lindstrom could have gotten a better connection on the cut block to impede E.J. Speed’s pursuit.
All of those critiques get washed away with Robinson’s vision and acceleration. Instead of bouncing outside, he cuts inside and uses Bergeron’s frame to his advantage. From there, he breaks into the open field, leaving Stewart and Speed on the turf. The Falcons’ running game has regressed this season, but it’s certainly not because of the dynamic rookie. This run encapsulates what they envisioned him doing, turning minimal or decent gains into solid or explosive gains.
The second half has become Tyler Allgeier’s time to shine. His punishing running style perfectly aligns with how the offense wants to wear opposing defenses out. They operate under 21 personnel here, with MyCole Pruitt as the primary tight end and Tucker Fisk lead blocking in I-Formation. The power running thrives when the interior line owns the line of scrimmage.
Drew Dalman seals off Taven Bryan to create a massive crease. Lindstrom gets out into space and disrupts standout linebacker Zaire Franklin from getting to make a stop. Bergeron remains firm in his positioning to give Allgeier the running lane to get to the second level. This type of blocking signifies a confident offensive line in knowing they can overwhelm an opposing front in a variety of ways. While the most productive runs came more on the outside, they did their share of damage inside using power.
The personnel versatility and formation flexibility are some of the primary reasons that make Smith’s offense so fascinating. For all the reliance on tight ends, they opt to use Hollins as the primary blocker at the line of scrimmage. The best blocking wide receiver on the team, with a fullback only playing his fourth game this season, along with a backup right tackle handling significant blocking responsibilities is quite the ask for a play to be executed properly. They performed it to perfection on Allgeier’s longest run of the year.
Hollins pins Kwity Paye, while Fisk’s lead charge essentially forces Kenny Moore to run away from the point of attack. Both defenders made vital contributions to this big run with their respective abysmal efforts. That doesn’t take away from the explosive play, as Dalman and Norton get to the second level and make impressive seal blocks to prevent Allgeier from being touched until he is near the end zone.
The positioning from both linemen is outstanding to turn a productive run into a game-changing touchdown. Bergeron deserves praise for his effort downfield as well. The Falcons are at their best when diversifying run concepts, blocking designs, and personnel groupings within formations. That was on full display in running for 177 yards and averaging nearly six yards per carry.
Play Action Success In 13 Personnel
Smith used three tight ends more than usual in this matchup. While three tight ends can be featured, given Kyle Pitts’ versatility, he would normally line up on the outside alone or inside alongside a receiver, depending on the formation. The coaching staff decided to use him as an in-line tight end on six plays, per Pro Football Focus. That decision resulted in multiple passes going for first downs.
The first completion comes from a hard play fake that creates space for Pitts in the intermediate area. It’s nicely designed and well-timed to get the Falcons out of rough field position. Although Taylor Heinicke’s throw is behind his primary target, Pitts shows why he is still one of the most talented tight ends in the league. He cooly adjusts and takes the hit in stride for the 19-yard gain.
The other notable play from using 13 personnel resulted in another 19-yard gain. On Heinicke’s 23 completions, 14 of those passes came from within five yards of the line of scrimmage. It was a highly conservative game plan for a quarterback making his first start since Week 10. Using play action from heavy sets is one way to get the ball moving downfield without taking huge risks.
A hard fake to Cordarrelle Patterson with Pitts running a wheel route commanding the attention of multiple defenders opens up space for London. He sits on the route, hitting the soft part of the zone coverage. It was important to give Heinicke high-percentage looks, given the instability at quarterback and how disjointed the passing game has been. The coaching staff did well in not putting too much on his plate and utilizing play action as much as they could to produce a healthy, balanced attack.
Kyle Pitts: The Vertical Threat
For the second time in three games, a pass play design involving Pitts stretching the opposing defense translates into a touchdown. While the play isn’t overly complex, it’s encouraging to see the benefits of using the dynamic tight end on deeper routes. The touchdown is even more gratifying, considering London is lined up alongside him. Running high-low with them has translated into explosive plays in the past. With London running an out route and commanding underneath attention, the corner does open up for Pitts.
This touchdown does capitalize on poor positioning on the back end from playing Cover 1, as Moore is playing inside leverage and expects Rodney Thomas to provide more help on the outside. Thomas is late breaking to the ball, while Moore doesn’t flip his hips to close down Pitts on the deep corner. Sometimes, the pure intent of testing defenses deep can result in explosive plays rather than having to use deception or your top deep threat on the roster. Ask questions of the opposing secondary, and they may not have the answer to prevent you from scoring a touchdown.
A Standard Dangerous Taylor Heinicke Performance
As good as his pocket movement is while under pressure, Heinicke’s tendency to put the ball in dangerous areas can often overshadow it. Indianapolis runs a nice stunt to not only affect Lindstrom and Norton but also disrupt Robinson’s route out of the backfield. It creates some chaos that the gunslinging quarterback manages to maneuver out of nicely. His footwork is sharp in getting back into a solid stance after evading the initial pressure.
The way he assumes Robinson is there on the checkdown without seeing Speed has to be frustrating, given how experienced Heinicke is. He doesn’t look up after stepping back up in the pocket and nearly throws an interception. This is one of those situations where taking a sack would have been the best option, as nobody can find an opening versus the Colts’ zone coverage.
Heinicke became too comfortable throwing inside the numbers in the intermediate area. It led to the Colts linebackers and safeties driving on the ball, nearly resulting in multiple interceptions. This is in a two-minute situation, where the offense aims to get into field goal range. The veteran quarterback gets too fixated on trying to get quick yards on first down and doesn’t read the coverage. Gus Bradley’s defense is lined up playing Cover 2, ready to pounce on underneath throws in the middle of the field.
If Heinicke goes through his progressions, he can hit Pitts in the flat for a decent gain and save time on the clock in the process. Instead, he tries to thread the needle to Smith and somehow avoids getting picked off by Franklin. Although this was a rare game without any turnovers, the Falcons did their share of nearly committing that weekly excruciating mistake.
Continued Missed Opportunities in the Red Zone
This is where Ridder’s anticipation would have been useful. As much as he struggles to read coverages and process the field, his quick release and ability to get the ball into tight windows would have been valuable in this scenario. I came away from this play feeling like he could have connected with Jonnu Smith for a touchdown. Heinicke doesn’t get the ball out as quickly as Ridder. As frustrating as the lack of spacing is at times, the route concept creates space for Smith.
As much as this play can be dissected, the reason this isn’t a touchdown ultimately falls on Robinson. There is no denying Heinicke is late in going through his progressions. He should identify the rookie running back sooner below Patterson. For all that, Robinson does have to be stronger at the catch point and play with better awareness. On too many occasions this season, his lack of field awareness in the passing game has cost the Falcons.
This is another moment where the offense leaves points on the field because they lack attention to detail. Robinson has more significant negative plays than high-impact positive plays as a receiver. The way he develops as a pass-catcher beyond the standard checkdowns will determine if he can truly reach his peak as the most prolific multi-dimensional player in the league.
Ferocious Front Seven Takeover Against the Run
When the Falcons selected Zach Harrison in the third round, it didn’t take long to recognize how much he fit Ryan Nielsen’s vision as an edge defender in his scheme. New Orleans had several big defensive ends that overwhelmed offensive tackles with power and length. At six foot six and weighing 272 pounds, Harrison possesses the physical attributes to make his mark under Nielsen. He was considered raw coming out of college, which made his rookie year a work in progress during the first three months of the season. The progress has been fully recognized over the last four games.
The former Buckeye is using his hands better and playing with greater leverage. Look at the pad level to get an excellent push on Blake Freeland. He extended and then disengaged nicely to stop Jonathan Taylor from gaining any yards. This play not only set the tone for a tremendous defensive display, but also proved to be Harrison’s best game of the season. Calais Campbell told me after the Falcons’ win over the Jets about how Harrison’s confidence is growing. It’s safe to say the six-time Pro Bowler was right in his assessment of the rookie defensive lineman’s development.
Kaden Elliss has been on a scorching streak of making multiple highlight reel run stops a week. It’s evident his confidence level is high right now. The anticipation and intelligence that he plays with, particularly against the run, is remarkable. He starts the play mirroring Kylen Granson’s slide route, which is a route that has become one of the primary components behind the Colts’ high offensive efficiency. They constantly catch defenses off balance with it.
Granson is only used in motion on this occasion, as Gardner Minshew hands it off to Taylor. Elliss doesn’t get phased by the pre-snap movement and glides into the gap for a tackle for a loss. His burst is so quick that not even Quenton Nelson is able to pick him up. Elliss leads the team with ten tackles for a loss on the season. His play recognition, aggressiveness, power, agility, and finishing ability are the biggest reasons behind his success. He continues to elevate his game as one of the true defensive leaders on the team.
The entire defensive front shined in a game where the biggest centerpiece, David Onyemata, didn’t make his usual sizable impact. It was everyone around him who shined, including Lorenzo Carter. They run a well-timed stunt, with Carter bursting inside to catch Bernhard Raimann off guard. That penetration, along with Elliss closing in on the open lane, forces Taylor to cut inside on third and short. As he has done time and time again all season, Nate Landman is perfectly positioned to help finish off the fantastic all-around effort.
The young linebacker consistently positions himself to make stops by virtue of how wisely he reads the game. It’s rare to see him take a bad angle or be over-aggressive. He continues to be one of the primary reasons behind teams struggling to establish the run and convert in short-yardage situations against this defensive unit. Landman had one of his best games of the season by making numerous stops.
On another third down, the Falcons reigned supreme with their stout front. Bud Dupree has become more disciplined over the years by having to play with contain against RPOs. The valuable years of experience prove beneficial here, as he goes horizontal instead of vertical, being unblocked at the snap. There’s no wasted movement from him. His stance is on point as Granson attempts to land a trap block to spring open Trey Sermon. Before Dupree impressively evades him, Elliss uses an excellent swim move over Nelson to obtain immediate leverage splitting between the B-gap. That penetration forces him to run into the waiting arms of Dupree, who swipes past Granson like nothing.
A clear hands-to-the-face penalty doesn’t prevent Landman from getting in on the stop as well. This is beautiful all-around team football with three no-nonsense players who dominated the Colts’ front with power, technique, and intelligence. To see composure from edge defenders and linebackers who can win at the point of attack is amongst the most refreshing aspects of what this revamped defense has produced this season.
Relentless Pressure Mixed With Creativity
Due to the limited linebacker depth, there haven’t been as many opportunities for Elliss to rush the passer as anticipated when he signed with the Falcons. He showed against the Colts that he can be a force to be reckoned with when called upon to create pressure. The sheer power to create this interior twist with a full rip move and collapse the pocket in the process is remarkable. He rushes with a legitimate plan and technique to open space up for teammates and drive toward the quarterback.
Onyemata seemed to have the best chance to sack Minshew here. Elliss’ power and determination earned him the well-deserved sack by overwhelming Nelson. The coverage is terrific as well in staying well-organized against the Colts, using mesh to scheme up space to give Minshew a high-percentage look. There’s nowhere for him to go as Elliss finishes the play off with authority.
Winning in the trenches on passing downs using pure power and nothing else hasn’t been effective for most of the season. The lack of speed and bend off the edge has put the Falcons at a disadvantage when rushing four. Given their personnel limitations, it has to be appreciated that they continue to play hard and try to overwhelm opposing lines. That persistence paid off against Indianapolis’ offensive line. LaCale London generated significant push with his hand usage, nearly putting Will Fries in Minshew’s lap.
Forcing the veteran quarterback to drop deeper to get into a more comfortable position allowed Campbell to pounce off the edge. For the former All-Pro to be able to bend like that at 37 years old is remarkable. He uses a powerful rip move to get around the edge and earn a pivotal sack to put the Colts in third and long. London and Campbell both had standout games, particularly against the run. For them to combine on an unlikely sack showed how physically imposing the defensive line can be.
Minshew was completely rattled in the second half. When a quarterback is in a fragile state where he isn’t trusting what he is seeing, it’s on the defensive coordinator to raise the aggression level and put the finishing touches on a superb performance. They crowd the line of scrimmage once again but add a slick wrinkle to their pressure design. Elliss and Landman end up staying firm in a position to pick up the tight ends, chipping the edge rushers. That allows two safeties to be used as rushers, as Richie Grant is coming off the edge, and DeMarcco Hellams is blitzing from the same side. Nielsen has been using more three safety looks over the last two months, which makes it understandable why both players are on the field on third down.
The way he uses two of his safeties on a schemed-up pressure, including one in an edge-rushing position, is tremendously well done. Grant ends up pulling off a clean swim move to produce the sack, while Dupree times his jump perfectly to evade the chip block and get Minshew’s mind racing as soon as the ball is snapped. Out of all the six sacks, this one was most memorable for its brilliant design, personnel usage, and overall execution. Nielsen trusted his secondary and got ultra-aggressive when the time was right.
Third and Fourth Down Power
One of the most effective methods New Orleans used to destroy opposing offenses was using three-man defensive line fronts with both linebackers lined up near the line of scrimmage. This alignment creates unpredictability thanks to not knowing where the schemed up pressure is going to come from, which linebacker or linebackers will be dropping into coverage, or if this is an all-out five-man pressure. The Saints did this frequently during their time as one of the top defenses in the league from 2018 to 2022. It gave Matt Ryan fits in his ability to call protections and read coverages, knowing he would have to operate quickly, knowing pressure could be coming from somewhere he can’t recognize before the snap.
Quarterbacks tend to panic when the line of scrimmage is crowded and spread out. Minshew bails almost immediately once he identifies Landman picking up Will Mallory on the clutch. He leaves the pocket and crashes in between Ebiketie and Campbell. Both edge rushers get solid push here as Dupree’s get off, and bull rush gave Freeland fits for the entire game. This was an excellent way to turn creating pre-snap confusion into a third down sack execution.
On fourth downs this year, the defense has played more man than zone. They shifted towards zone looks to counter Shane Steichen’s plethora of sharp play calls in scheming players open and maximizing what is a limited skill position group. Instead of getting stuck into rub route concepts or being dragged out of position by pre-snap motion, they were prepared to sit in certain areas and force Minshew to throw with pinpoint accuracy and assured with his decision-making.
Nielsen wasn’t going to allow easy completions beyond ten yards, especially with his relentless simulated pressures and blitzes. Using Elliss inside was a great call, as he caught Nelson off guard with a blistering spin move. That pressure gets Minshew dropping deeper to go along with Dupree winning off the edge with power. There is an initial opening with D.J. Montgomery on an in-breaking route, but that opportunity is eventually closed down, leading to a big fourth down stop.
Another One for the Jessie Bates Highlight Reel
You know things are clicking defensively when frequent pressure makes a quarterback start to get desperate in the pocket and make costly decisions. The relentless creative pressures from Nielsen deliver once again by using an overload on the strong side. Minshew runs up into the pocket, dropping his eyes, and forces a throw without properly reading the coverage.
The hope that Mallory’s deep over route would push Bates to close in and free up a one-on-one matchup with Alec Pierce against A.J. Terrell didn’t come to fruition. Bates stayed composed and put himself in a prime position to add to his All-Pro resume. Nielsen doesn’t use three deep zone coverage often, but it proved to be effective in putting an exclamation point on an outstanding defensive showing.