The Atlanta Falcons defeated the undefeated Denver Broncos on Sunday in an impressive 23-16 win, pushing their 2016 record to 4-1 with a fourth consecutive victory.
While many gave effusive praise to a Falcons defense that didn’t allow a Broncos touchdown until the final three minutes of the game, it was truly the Falcons offense that is deserving of much of the credit for the win.
That’s because the offense actually overcame a massive challenge by facing what many (outside the state of Minnesota) consider to be the league’s best defense on the road in Denver, proving for the fourth week in the row that the Matt Ryan-led Falcons offense is legitimate.
While the stat sheet points to a far less impressive offensive performance for the Falcons against the Broncos than had been the case in previous wins over the Oakland Raiders, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, it cannot be understated how difficult a matchup the Broncos presented this week.
Yet Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan found ways to exploit them, with a big part of their game plan attacking what few weaknesses they could find on the Broncos defense.
The chief one was the ability of running back Tevin Coleman to create a mismatch in the passing game by splitting out wide and utilizing his speed against slower Broncos linebackers.
All three of the Falcons biggest gains from scrimmage yesterday were passes to Coleman, who carved up the Broncos for 48, 31 and 49 yards at various, critical points throughout the win.
Coleman’s first big play came on the team’s opening drive after the Falcons converted their first third down of the game. That third down conversion on a nine-yard throw to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu would also mark their last conversion until the end of the third quarter, with the Broncos defense able to thwart them on their next seven tries.
But the Falcons wouldn’t need to be efficient on third downs because of the ability of Coleman to exploit big plays on earlier downs. His 48-yard catch and run came on a pick play in which he ran a crossing pattern and got a helpful “nudge” from tight end Austin Hooper, giving him the necessary room to separate from Broncos linebacker Todd Davis.
Davis is in the midst of his first year starting for the Broncos defense after three years as a reserve and special-teams performer. He’s replacing departed free agent Danny Trevathan, a name that Falcons fans know all too well given the team’s offseason flirtation with the speedy, coverage maven.
The Broncos had been successfully able to navigate the departure of Trevathan through four games this season with Davis taking over in the middle, but that came to an end yesterday on the fourth play from scrimmage for the Falcons. Coleman sped past Davis and then broke a tackle from oncoming safety T.J. Ward to sprint downfield to help set up the Falcons’ opening touchdown.
I’ve been a big proponent of how important big plays are to offensive success in various columns over the years, and it’s especially important going against high-caliber defenses like the Broncos.
It’s hard to engineer long offensive drives against such defenses, largely because of the inability of opposing offenses to successfully string together multiple third-down conversions as the Falcons found out on Sunday, converting just two of a dozen tries. Even an average NFL defense is only going to allow a conversion rate of roughly 40 percent, meaning that an offense only faces statistically favorable odds to convert on third down on only its first two opportunities on any given drive.
I’ve shown evidence in the past that indicated that historically the Falcons were over four times as likely to score a touchdown on drives that included a play of 20 or more yards versus ones that did not. That stat proved accurate with Coleman’s 48-yard play putting them in the red zone and the Falcons successfully punching it in on a one-yard run from Devonta Freeman on fourth down several plays later.
That gave the Falcons a 7-0 lead to start the game, putting their ever-improving defense in a much more favorable position against green rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch on subsequent drives.
Shanahan and the Falcons continued their attack by leaning on their ground game to move the ball against the Broncos throughout the remainder of the first half with seven of their next 12 designed runs to either Coleman or Freeman being successful.
That exploited a second defensive weakness of the Broncos, who headed into the week with the league’s 22nd-ranked run defense in terms of yards allowed. In order to keep the lid on a formidable Broncos pass rush helmed by outside linebacker Von Miller, the Falcons needed to be able to run the ball to get Miller and other Broncos defenders playing on their heels. They were able to successfully accomplish that early in the game and it led to two more field goals for the Falcons to push their lead to 13-3 by halftime.
The Falcons were able to dial up Coleman in the passing game again in the second half to increase that lead thanks to a turnover made by the defense on an ill-advised deep pass by Lynch that was picked off by Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen.
With the short field, the Falcons found themselves quickly behind the eight ball thanks to an offensive pass interference penalty against tight end Levine Toilolo an another attempted pick play, this time to wide receiver Aldrick Robinson. Toilolo clearly could learn some tips from Hooper on how to better sell it when trying to make it look like he’s running a route downfield when he’s actually blocking.
Two plays later, Coleman was split out wide again and this time was matched up against Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. Coleman zoomed right past the veteran linebacker and Ryan hit him on a perfectly thrown 31-yard touchdown pass. Ward once again couldn’t make the tackle with Coleman’s burst being too much for the hard-hitting safety to close on the play.
That pushed Atlanta’s lead to 20-3 midway through the third quarter and the game was essentially over at that point with an inept Broncos offense unable to find a way to successfully respond.
Coleman capped off his day with a 49-yard play in the fourth quarter coming on the heels of a Broncos field goal to cut the lead to 20-6 after Sanu had been stripped by Ward on a previous possession, giving the Broncos a favorable short field.
At that point with about 11 minutes remaining in the game and up two scores, the Falcons could have opted to try and milk more clock with their ground attack. But Shanahan instead opted to go for the jugular by dialing up a go route to Coleman, who sped past Davis easily for a 49-yard play before Ward was able to push him out of bounds at the Broncos’ 26-yard line.
The Falcons only managed to score three points on that drive thanks largely to a catch by Sanu at the goal line being challenged and reversed, keeping the Falcons from only their third third-down conversion of the game.
But that play call by Shanahan to dial up Coleman was indicative of exactly why the Falcons were successful against one of the league’s premier defenses on Sunday. The Falcons play-caller could have easily concluded that given the shoddy play of the Broncos offense, milking clock was an acceptable endeavor up until that point. After all the Falcons had successfully gained 91 yards on 23 designed runs and their win probability was about 99 percent at that point in the game.
But instead Shanahan opted to try and extend the Falcons lead, going back to his most proven option for a big play in Coleman. Shanahan opted for nothing fancy on the play call, simply asking Coleman to utilize his far superior speed on a go route to fly past Davis for the big gain.
Shanahan likely knew that the Falcons couldn’t exploit too many weaknesses in the Broncos defense on Sunday but found one in that matchup with Coleman. After an earth-shattering 300-yard performance last week against the Panthers, wide receiver Julio Jones was largely kept in check by the Broncos defense.
Jones finished with just two catches for 29 yards and was held without a catch on three targets in the first half. The Broncos secondary had given up a league-low six pass plays of 20 or more yards so far this year and with Pro Bowl cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris shadowing Jones throughout the game, they were unlikely to allow a repeat performance.
Given that stout Broncos secondary the Falcons were also less likely to be able to rely on their play-action passing game to generate those big plays, thus it was important that they were able to find the mismatch created by Coleman against the Broncos linebackers.
It adds a new wrinkle to the Falcons offense that is already well furrowed. Not only can the Falcons utilize their running game and the play-action passing game built off it to generate big plays alongside Jones’ singular ability to overwhelm most secondaries, but now Coleman has proven he’s more than capable of creating his own various forms of nightmares against slow-footed linebackers.
It means that defeating the Falcons offense will take a monumental defensive effort moving forward, one that not even the vaunted Broncos defense were capable of generating. A defense that is built to stop the Falcons is one that can not only stop the run, cover Jones and pressure the quarterback, but also now needs to be capable of putting a speedy linebacker or safety on an island against Coleman when he splits out wide and not get beat. The number of defenses capable of achieving this feat may in fact be non-existent. The closest candidate will be the Seattle Seahawks defense the Falcons will face next week.
Ye this is why we learned for more about the Falcons offense yesterday against the Broncos than we did about a defense that was able to successfully thwart an inexperienced quarterback playing behind an overwhelmed offensive line under a coaching staff that was slow to make adjustments.
While the performance of the Falcons defense was certainly commendable, such a combination of factors is also rare. The Falcons probably won’t get a similar set of circumstances until they face the Los Angeles Rams in Week 14, assuming that top draft pick Jared Goff is starting by that point. Every other opponent the rest of the season is unlikely to check more than one of those aforementioned boxes.
The Falcons offense’s early lead helped put the Falcons defensive line in a position where they could pin their ears back and get after him Lynch, which they did to great success. Vic Beasley had a breakout performance with 3.5 sacks, going to work against backup right tackle Ty Sambrailo for much of the game.
Sambrailo was making his third start of the year as a replacement for injured starter Donald Stephenson and was often the victim on many of the Falcons’ six sacks, their best single-game performance since a nine-sack effort against the Minnesota Vikings in 2005.
The Broncos eventually pulled Sambrailo at the start of the fourth quarter on the heels of Sanu’s fumble, moving right guard Michael Schofield out to his former position on the edge. Schofield faired slightly better but it was far too late a move as Lynch had already been sacked three times and was due to face additional heat from other Falcons pass-rushers in Adrian Clayborn, Dwight Freeney, Grady Jarrett and Derrick Shelby for the remainder of the game.
At no point throughout the game did the Broncos attempt to chip Beasley or the other Falcons pass-rushers to try and slow them down. It was perplexing given how effective chipping had been thus far this season for previous Falcons opponents in slowing down Beasley’s speed off the edge. That tendency to get easily knocked off his rush just by the mere presence of a running back coming out of the backfield was one of the causes for the consternation surrounding Beasley earlier this year.
It’s unlikely that future opponents will be as willing to let an overmatched reserve right tackle get stuck on an island against an improving Beasley moving forward.
Also it is unlikely that future opponents will prove as inept as the Broncos in terms of dialing up big plays. No defense had given up more pass plays of 20 or more yards than the Falcons (18) through the first month of the season.
Perhaps the Broncos figured they could simply show up and even a rookie making his first NFL start would be able to carve up the Falcons defense for huge chunks of yards. But the Broncos finished the game with only one such big play, a 26-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders off play action at the outset of the third quarter.
The Broncos used surprisingly little play-action passing against an untested Falcons linebacker corps that was often utilizing a pseudo-dime sub-package instead of their normal nickel. Strong-side linebacker Philip Wheeler and reserve strong safety Kemal Ishmael served as the team’s de facto linebackers whenever the team faced passing downs with five other defensive backs on the field. On that big play to Sanders, he got behind both defenders and danced his way for a 26-yard gain.
Yet the Broncos oddly made very little use of such misdirection plays or other ones designed to take advantage of Lynch’s athleticism with movement on bootlegs and rollouts despite early indications on Sunday that Falcons defenders were struggling to tackle him in the open field.
One can’t put all the blame on the Broncos coaching staff as Lynch missed a number of easy throws early that could have extended drives and/or potentially put points on the board. But it was clear that the Broncos coaching staff didn’t have a defined plan on how to utilize Lynch and put him in favorable situations, probably hoping that the Falcons defense would simply prove bad and give them ample exploitable opportunities.
Fortunately that didn’t prove to be the case, and that’s likely where the Falcons defense deserves much of its praise. It did exactly what it needed to do by not having any obvious breakdowns that the Broncos could easily take advantage of. In comparison to previous week’s defensive efforts, that is without a doubt an improvement on that side of the ball for the team.
However future 2016 opponents probably won’t be as accommodating for the Falcons defense with general ineptitude. But nonetheless, if the Falcons offense continues to click as successfully as it did against the Broncos yesterday, then it’s not going to matter all that much.