Thanksgiving is in the books and the NFL’s three-quarter pole is here. And the Atlanta Falcons are back.
Just one month ago, Atlanta was clinging to its playoff life. Following a 3-0 start, the reigning NFC champs dropped three straight, including home games to Buffalo and Miami. One reason for concern? Last season’s MVP Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns vs. three interceptions during that stretch.
To be sure, it would have been easy to write the Falcons off.
During the entire Super Bowl era (51 games), only seven times has a team that lost the Super Bowl returned to the big game the following season (three of those being the Buffalo Bills of the 1990s). Plus, Atlanta has endured marquee injuries, most notably to Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant, All-Pro running back Devonta Freeman and All-World receiver Julio Jones, who is nearing 100 percent after battling a leg issue for much of the season.
However, since falling to 3-3 – and then to 4-4 – the Dirty Birds have ripped off three consecutive wins.
What changed and, more important, is it sustainable?
The answer: yes.
And the “why” is the reason the Falcons have become my Super Bowl favorite.
Few people have been more instrumental to the turnaround than first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Play-callers talk all the time about rhythm. About feel. Sarkisian has both right now, and the results have been staggering.
During the three-game winning streak, the Falcons’ offense has averaged 29.3 points per game, with Ryan absolutely dealing. The 32-year-old quarterback has thrown for seven touchdowns and just one interception, while posting a 110.5 passer rating and a Total QBR of 88.8, which trails only the surging Case Keenum. For the season, the Falcons are third in yards gained per possession (36.7), as well as fifth in both points per possession (2.24) and three-and-out percentage (29.5 percent). Those are sensational numbers.
The recent success of Atlanta’s offense begs the question: Why did it take half a season for Sarkisian to infuse his magical touch? It’s a fair question given how dynamic the offense was last year while operating under Kyle Shanahan.
And yet, when general manager Thomas Dimitroff hired Sarkisian, he knew there would be a learning curve. For starters, Sark had never coached professionally since he started his career in 2000. Maybe more significant is the fact that he inherited this offense. He had to learn his personnel – what they can do and more important, what they can’t do. And, just like the players have to learn the complex terminology of an offense, so too did Sarkisian.
The previous two games, when the offense scored 34 points both in Seattle and at home versus Tampa Bay, are evidence that his confidence level as a play-caller is booming.
Committed to the ground game, Sarkisian called 27 designed runs during each game. While it wasn’t always successful – particularly against the Seahawks – it helped control tempo and eventually paved the way for Ryan to go play-action, where few quarterbacks in the league are more effective.
Don’t forget about the trick play and the deception of an offense, both staples of Shanahan and perhaps now of Sarkisian. Moreover, there is a delicate balance that needs to be struck with Atlanta’s personnel. Why take the ball out of the hands of Ryan, Coleman and Jones?
We see all the time coordinators getting too cute, trying to outsmart the opposition when keeping things simple is the best option. Sarkisian has found that balance, deploying a series of trick and gadget plays to perfection while also leaning on his superstars.
Most recently, wide receiver Muhammad Sanu hit Jones over the top for a sensational 51-yard touchdown against the Bucs. In the Seattle game, Ryan and the entire offense went play-action while flooding the right side of the field, only to have tight end Levine Toilolo sneak out the backside on a wheel route for a gorgeous 25-yard touchdown pass. It was deception at its finest.
As things stand, the Falcons are 7-4, in third place of the rugged NFC South, behind New Orleans and Carolina. They occupy the sixth and final playoff spot and given the fact that they’ve beaten the four teams directly beneath them in the conference standings – Seattle (7-4), Detroit (6-5), Green Bay (5-6), and Dallas (5-6) – a wild-card berth appears to be a formality.
However, if we know anything about Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn, it’s that a wild card is the last thing on their mind right now. Not only do they want much more, but the Falcons, better than anyone, know not to take the foot off the gas.
Last season’s infamous Super Bowl collapse will aid Atlanta’s quest to capture the franchise’s first world championship.
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Follow Jordan Schultz on Twitter @Schultz_Report
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