It was an ugly start for the Atlanta Falcons in their Week Three road win over the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys ran roughshod over the Falcons to start the game, scoring touchdowns on four of their first six possessions in the first half.
But things took a major turn after that point in the second half. The Falcons showed resiliency by battling back from a 14-point deficit to score 25 unanswered points in the final 31 minutes of the game to pull out the 39-28 victory.
The Cowboys dominated the line of scrimmage in the first half of the game, rushing for 131 yards on 16 carries. That first-half total nearly matched the combined 160 yards the team gave up in their two previous games in 2015.
In the past, I’ve talked about how misleading yards per carry can be when evaluating run production given that it tends to skew stats in favor of long runs rather than being a true measure of what a team produces every time they run the ball. Case in point, the Cowboys gained 85 yards on their first three runs of the game, but thereafter had 46 yards on 13 carries in the first half, an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Yet the overall total of 8.2 yards per carry in the first half would lead one to believe that the Cowboys were able to consistently gain huge chunks of yardage.
Nonetheless, the Cowboys were still successful on 75 percent of their first-half runs, which is twice as good as the norm. There may have been other examples since then, but that level of dominance in the trenches immediately reminded me of how much the Falcons got pushed around by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game back in 2012.
After a slow start in the first quarter, the 49ers proceeded to have a rushing success rate of 61 percent until their final possession of that game. Back then the 49ers could run the ball at will against a soft Falcons front and there was the strong feeling of déjà vu on Sunday against the Cowboys.
While the Cowboys offensive line is nothing to scoff at, their initial dominance in the game was still surprising. I expected the Cowboys to have success moving the ball on the ground, but not nearly the amount they managed through the first two quarters of Sunday’s game.
But Falcons head coach Dan Quinn got his front to step up because in the second half of the ball game, the Cowboys rushed for minus-four yards on five carries with a success rate of zero percent.
Initial Rushing Success Gave Cowboys Easy Lead
The key to the game was the Falcons stuffing the run to get the Cowboys into some uncomfortable situations with backup quarterback Brandon Weeden. The first half was far too easy for Weeden, who completed all but one of his 14 pass attempts for 164 yards.
Weeden’s lone incompletion was the one time in the first two quarters where he looked uncomfortable, where interior pressure from nose tackle Paul Soliai flushed him out of the pocket to his left. With linebacker Nate Stupar closing in on him, Weeden lofted a pass up to Jason Witten that sailed over the tight end’s head into the waiting arms of Falcons safety William Moore for an interception.
Outside that one play, the Cowboys were able to execute their gameplan in the first half exactly as they drew it up. They wanted to control the line of scrimmage, run the ball effectively and allow Weeden to get into some manageable situations. Despite having 30 offensive plays in the first half, the Cowboys only faced two third downs, meaning they were able to consistently move the chains on first and second downs.
Weeden was able to find open targets over the middle of the Falcons defense, an area of weakness I pointed out in my preview where the Cowboys were likely to have a number of matchups in their favor. All 14 of Weeden’s first-half pass attempts went to either a running back, tight end or slot receiver with Lance Dunbar, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley being exactly the three Cowboys players I previously highlighted as presented matchup problems for the Falcons linebackers, safeties and nickel cornerback.
Falcons Defense Stepped Up in Second Half
But everything changed in the second half of the game when the Falcons front was able to step up their game and get some much-needed stops on first down, putting the Cowboys offense behind schedule. Then windows to his receivers that Weeden was able to find in the first half began to be slammed shut. Linebacker Justin Durant made a number of stops against Dunbar on underneath throws and when he wasn’t in position to make those plays, it was others like Ricardo Allen and Desmond Trufant stepping up to make the stops.
When writing my preview, I barely even mentioned the Cowboys outside wide receivers in Terrance Williams and Devin Street because I knew they would not be able to win against the likes of Trufant and Robert Alford. They were predictably non-factors in the game and once the Falcons defense no longer had to worry about the Cowboys running game, their passing attack became much easier to stop with everything being funneled to the middle on underneath throws.
With mounting pressure and being put into more situations where he had to make throws rather than simple checkdowns, Weeden missed a couple of critical throws including a notable seam pass to Jason Witten on a second down late in the third quarter. What the Falcons defense did in the second half was exactly what they wanted to do in the first but failed to accomplished.
But the Falcons showed notable resiliency, something that has been regularly seen this season under Quinn. Things may not go their way initially, but they manage to respond to that adversity and finish strong. The Falcons have outscored their opponents 34-7 in the fourth quarter through three games this year, echoing the words that Quinn told ESPN earlier this week:
“We just want to be known as a team that can finish.”
Finish indeed did the Falcons this week and every week so far this season. But the Falcons defense can’t take full credit for the win over the Cowboys, as the offense finally got itself into gear midway through the second quarter and scored on five of their final six possessions.
Freeman and DiMarco Reminiscent of Turner and Mughelli
Not much different than their Cowboys counterparts, once the Falcons were able to get their running game going their offense proved to be more than a matchup for the opposing defense.
Devonta Freeman finished the game with 141 yards on 30 carries, the latter of which is important to note because the Falcons haven’t had a single running back tote the ball 30 times in a game since Michael Turner did it against the New Orleans Saints in the third game of the 2010 season. Freeman also scored three rushing touchdowns against the Cowboys, a feat that also was last accomplished by Turner back in 2010, except against the Carolina Panthers in Week 14.
Freeman finished the game with a success rate of 57 percent, consistently able to churn out good yardage on first downs. Freeman had a success rate of 50 percent on first downs, again harkening back to the heyday of Turner when the Falcons could control the line of scrimmage with their powerful runner and put themselves into manageable third downs where their receivers could easily win.
But Freeman wasn’t doing it solely on his own as his blocking was excellent throughout the game. If there were any fears about the Falcons offensive line not being able to gel quickly, those fears should now be abated. All five blockers looked solid for the most part, but the team really got a boost from fullback Patrick DiMarco.
DiMarco was nailing Cowboys linebackers throughout the day and much like Freeman reminding of Turner from back in the day, DiMarco seemed to be channeling the spirit of Ovie Mughelli at the fullback position.
The Falcons needed their running game to step up against Dallas largely because of the inability of the rest of the offense to function when Julio Jones is not being Julio Jones.
Jones Continues to Put on a One-Man Show
Jones had his third consecutive dominant performance, finishing the game with 12 catches for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns, putting his season totals at 34 catches for 440 yards and four scores. That is putting him on pace to catch 181 passes for 2,347 yards and 21 touchdowns this season. The single-season records in those respective categories are 143 catches, 1,964 yards and 23 touchdowns.
It’s extremely unlikely that pace will continue, but it’s very clear that Jones is having a monster season through three games. Unfortunately, the rest of the Falcons passing game has been fairly ho-hum.
When targeting Jones, quarterback Matt Ryan has completed 74 percent of his passes and is averaging 9.6 yards per pass attempt for a ridiculous passer rating of 132.5. When targeting any other receiver, those figures drop to 61 percent, 7.2 yards per attempt with a rating of 76.3.
Roddy White was held to zero catches for the second consecutive game and Leonard Hankerson dropped two passes. Tight end Jacob Tamme exited the game in the second quarter with a concussion, which is certainly going to put his playing status for next week’s game against the Houston Texans in jeopardy.
While Jones was able to dominate the second half of the game against the Cowboys, he can’t do everything on his own. The fact is that his dominance should be opening up more opportunities for other receivers, but it’s been very clear that Ryan is hardly looking at his other options. All but 16 of Ryan’s 153 passing yards in the second half against Dallas were contributed by Jones.
On one hand, it’s difficult to blame Ryan given how spectacular Jones has been. But the Falcons’ other receivers still should be able to contribute a little more than they have. We saw flashes of Hankerson and Tamme making plays against the New York Giants last week and White certainly contributed against the Eagles in Week One, so it’s not all bad.
Running Game Might be Offense’s Best Second Option
So perhaps it was Freeman’s rushing that was playing second fiddle to Jones this week, but this is going to have to be something to monitor as the season wears on. Because with a 3-0 start, aspirations begin to turn more towards January. Depending on the figures you look at, teams that start the season with three wins make the playoffs between 70 and 76 percent of the time. Against playoff-caliber defenses come January, Jones may not be able to wreak as much havoc as he’s done through the first three games.
But that concern is still a long ways off and until then the Falcons can be proud of the fact that when someone has needed to step up to make the offense less one-dimensional, someone has each and every week so far this season. This past week it was Freeman and there’s really no telling who it will be next week.
The hope will be that the team can continue to get the same level of offensive balance between Jones and the running game they saw in Dallas for the remainder of the year. If so, that will become a much more reliable “second fiddle” to Jones each and every week on offense.
It should also open up greater opportunities for the other receivers to contribute off play-action passing. That’s where White shined in the season-opener and perhaps that may be the only reliable method of making him and others weekly contributors in the passing game.
But regardless, Freeman and Jones play in Dallas along with the second-half efforts of the defense show that this Falcons team is capable of practicing what Quinn is preaching in their combined abilities to finish games out on top. They may not be pretty from the get-go, but a win is nonetheless a beautiful thing.