A 5-0 start for the Falcons in their 2015 campaign had fans and pundits alike proclaiming the Falcons as genuine contenders, following two hugely disappointing seasons. Unfortunately the on-field talent and performance couldn’t match the off-field hype as the Falcons went 3-5 down the stretch for a 8-8 finish.
This time around expectations have been tempered somewhat after last season’s debacle, and yet the on-field performance has arguably been more impressive. The Falcon’s sit with an impressive 6-3 record heading into the depths of November, including a 3 game lead in the NFC South.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect in Atlanta’s success, have been the dominant calibre of teams they’ve competed with and in some cases, beaten. They’ve knocked off, Carolina, Oakland, Tampa Bay (twice), Green Bay and Denver in Mile High! Add to that list a controversial loss in Seattle, after a very, very dubious no-call on a clear pass interference against Julio Jones.
It’s with that man in question, Julio Jones, where the elite strength of the Falcons roster lies. Jones has been outstanding through 9 games, already accumulating 970 receiving yards, including a monster 300 yard outing against the Panthers. Jones’ presence on the field relieves pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan and provides him with an elite downfield threat.
Speaking of Matt Ryan, what a season he is having. Since 2012, questions have circulated, asking, querying, is Matt Ryan a franchise quarterback? Until now the doubters have certainly had cause for concern, but Ryan has been of MVP calibre through 9 games and is the favorite to take out the NFL’s top individual gong.
The diversity that Ryan and offensive co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan are able to implement on offense is a testament to the strengthening of their partnership in their second year together. The implementation of the running backs into their game plans has been a masterstroke. Devonta Freeman carries most of the work in the running game, and Tevin Coleman has been a real revelation in the passing game. Coleman was the difference against the Broncos defense, their linebackers simply couldn’t matchup with the speedy back.
Free agent acquisition Mohamed Sanu has slotted nicely into the number two receiver role, pulling in 37 receptions for 416 yards. After the decline of Roddy White over the past few seasons, the Falcons have been craving a second pass catching option behind Jones. Now, not only do they have Sanu, but they’ve got pass catching depth right down their roster; wide receivers Taylor Gabriel and Justin Hardy, tight ends Jacob Tamme and Levine Toilolo.
A major issue for Falcons in previous seasons has been pass protection, giving Matt Ryan that time he needs in the pocket to find Julio Jones. Free agent acquisition, Alex Mack, from the Cleveland Browns has improved this group enormously. It’s always difficult to assess the role that a single player can have on an offensive line, but no one can deny the positive influence he’s instilled. Still, their conceded sack total is a touch too high at 22, you can’t afford to have the face of your franchise taking that kind of punishment.
Offensively the Falcons are the real deal. The defense has been the issue for the last while, and whilst Dan Quinn’s unit isn’t a world beater, it’s certainly an improved collection. A lack of star power has lead to a lack of big plays in recent years, notably due to the lack of a pass rush. Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn have made efforts recently to amend this issue. With 12 sacks between them, although not an elite unit, they’ve been able to put pressure on opposition quarterbacks in key spots, helping a defense that ranks 29th in points conceded per game.
Everything that we’ve seen from the Falcons this year, including their losses indicates that they’re the real deal. The defense and the pass protection still needs to make some improvements to make a deep push into January, but the good news is this. The offense is truly elite, sitting up there with New England and Pittsburgh and with the comparative lack of elite teams in the NFC, the Falcons are well poised for a shot at a first round bye in the playoffs.