As noted in my takeaways column earlier this week, this was a game that was split distinctly into two halves. The Atlanta Falcons looked very good in the second half on both sides of the ball, but not so much in the first half.
To what should be no surprise, things didn’t really kick into high gear offensively until the team was able to get Julio Jones more actively involved. Trust me, that is going to be a recurring theme this entire season. Jones was dominant in the second half after the Cowboys had done a very good job containing him in the first half.
That was largely due to the fact that the Cowboys did a good job not allowing Jones to get free releases off the line. He was getting pressed and jammed with both Cowboys corners Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr doing a pretty good job getting their hands on him throughout the first half to slow him down. But in the second half the Cowboys went with a lot more off and bail coverages, allowing Jones easy releases into his routes, and neither corner was good enough to stick with him. You can certainly say that the Cowboys’ inability to get stops on the Falcons final half-dozen possessions were really of their own doing because of Jones’ ability to get off the line and create easy separation out of his breaks.
There were also a handful more instances in the second half where the Falcons utilized Jones in the slot, which they fully took advantage of. For example on Jones’ 45-yard touchdown, he sped past slot cornerback Tyler Patmon, who had outside leverage against Jones with safety help over the top. With Patmon’s outside technique and free safety J.J. Wilcox not in a position to break on the inside throw, neither play had much of a chance against Jones’ speed. Here’s the GIF of the play:
Because of how much the offense centered around getting Jones the ball, nobody else really shined in the passing game. Roddy White was held without a catch for the second week in a row, although he did have one reception wiped out by a penalty. Much like last week, there were times where White was open on film but Matt Ryan simply wasn’t looking for him. One notable example was on Jones’ last touchdown.
Leonard Hankerson struggled with a trio of drops. Losing Jacob Tamme early in the game to a concussion put Levine Toilolo in a position as a pass-catcher where he was being asked to run routes that he’s not particularly good at. But Toilolo did a decent job in his contributions as a blocker. While Toilolo is not a good blocker, he’s effective at times even when it doesn’t look very pretty.
Patrick DiMarco really was the standout blocker, leading the way for Devonta Freeman on a number of runs. He did a good job searching and destroying the Cowboys linebackers on several runs. It was reminiscent of what Ovie Mughelli used to do back in the day.
The Falcons offensive line also did a good job clearing lanes with most of their key blocks coming on plays when they were able to get to second level and seal an alley or cutback lane against a linebacker for Freeman.
Freeman was the star of the show, outshining even Jones. In his first start, Freeman was quick, decisive and did a nice job locating some cutback lanes on several runs to get some extra yardage. He was able to scoot out of some negative plays on other runs, able to make a penetrating defender miss and turn what could have been a two-yard loss into a minimal gain. It was one of the best performances by a running back since I began reviewing games back in 2009.
When people envisioned what the new zone-blocking scheme would bring to Atlanta this year, it was probably a performance like this game.
Pass protection was mostly solid, although defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford continuously gave the interior guys trouble with his power. Both pressures allowed by the guards were caused by him.
But I want to point out also on Jones’ 45-yard touchdown that the Falcons did a good job picking up double stunts by the Cowboys, which gave Ryan a clean enough pocket to step into his 19-yard throw. Here’s the GIF of that:
It’s worth pointing out because you can tell that the offensive line is starting to gel when they can handle stunts. Not being able to handle stunts is often a sign of poor cohesion and was a major reason why past Falcons lines struggled.
There was also another instance where I noticed the Falcons being repetitive with their play-calling. On the opening drive of the third quarter when they were backed up on 2nd-and-25 and 3rd-and-25, the team called the same designed drag route to Jones but to opposite sides of the field. Both times, Jones was supposed to run a shallow cross underneath with Levine Toilolo, Roddy White and Terron Ward releasing on “vertical routes” downfield, but were really trying to get in position to block downfield. Both times defensive tackle Nick Hayden batted down Ryan’s pass by getting into the throwing lane.
Much like I noted in last week’s review, one can argue that the second time the play was called it was set up to work better if not for Hayden batting down the pass. Does this mean anything? Not really but I just find it fascinating that Kyle Shanahan is not afraid to call the same play twice in a row.
The Falcons defensive line really struggled to win along the line of scrimmage in the first half, the Cowboys offensive line deserves all the credit in the world. Just like the Falcons blockers for most of the game, they were often able to get to the second level and take out Paul Worrilow.
Worrilow had a rough game, although if I’m being honest I don’t think he was that much worse than Justin Durant in the first half. Durant was out of position on several plays, but turned things around in the second half with a lot of individual plays to get back into the positive on his earnings. He was able to make some nice open-field tackles because the Falcons were able to anticipate the checkdowns and cheat up when Brandon Weeden simply dumped it off to Lance Dunbar.
Dunbar really gave both Worrilow and Durant troubles in the first half, since his speed outran their angles. Because the Falcons were anticipating the throws to Dunbar in the second, it gave them the necessary time to cover the ground necessary to make the stops.
But the two linebackers weren’t alone as the Falcons had several missed tackles in the first two quarters. Ricardo Allen missed a bunch, unable to close on ballcarriers. This was a game that exposed some of his limitations, which is that he doesn’t have the sort of speed, range and size to be great in this scheme.
Robert Alford has low earnings because of three negative plays, although he locked down his side of the field in coverage against Devin Street and did his job well outside those three plays. Desmond Trufant did much the same for his side of the field against Terrance Williams. Phillip Adams struggled early against Cole Beasley but improved as the game wore on.
The Falcons didn’t create a ton of pressure thanks once again to a very good Cowboys offensive line, but did get enough towards the end of the game. I would like to highlight Vic Beasley’s sack, where he was able to utilize his speed to get by Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith, who arguably has the best feet in the NFL. I also wanted to show this play because you can also see Jonathan Babineaux get some pressure on a stunt against Doug Free, something I pointed out in my preview that the Cowboys were susceptible to. Just taking a moment to pat myself on the back!
Beasley’s speed on the sack signals his potential as a pass-rusher. If he can get around Smith, then there’s very few offensive tackles that he shouldn’t be able to get around.
But for the most part Beasley was fairly quiet and outside one or two plays, Smith controlled him. I thought Grady Jarrett was the far more impressive rookie Falcons defensive lineman. Jarrett didn’t get a ton of reps, but seemingly was able to beat whoever was blocking him whenever he did get on the field.
I liked seeing Ra’Shede Hageman’s strength overpower La’el Collins at times. The only knock on Hageman is that he’s very good at pushing a guy off the ball to collapse the pocket, but isn’t very good at disengaging from his block to actually make the play. He really doesn’t have any pass-rush moves at this point and just relies on getting his hands inside, trying to walk the blocker backwards. He’s definitely a disruptor, but I’m still skeptical of the oft-opined expectations that Hageman will be a difference-maker as a pass-rusher in the future. The situational role he has right now very much suits him and it may very well be that he’ll never get significantly better to the degree that requires that role expanding in the future. If so, then that’s fine.
On special teams, Robenson Therezie supplanted Phillip Adams both as a gunner on punt coverage and at the inside position on the kickoff team. Therezie did respectable on punts, although he got replaced by Dezmen Southward one time when he was subbing for Allen at free safety on regular defense. I’m not sure Therezie is going to be permanent fixture as he looked a bit hesitant and unable to avoid blockers on kickoffs. Thankfully, all but one of Matt Bosher’s kicks were returnable.
Southward definitely did better this week in his one opportunity since his speed is still an asset allowing him to get downfield, but he had a chance to make the tackle and couldn’t, but it did slow Dunbar down enough to allow Collins to make the play.
Advanced Stats from Week 3:
Poor Throws (3): Ryan
Drops (3): Hankerson
Key Blocks (12): DiMarco (3), Chester (2.5), Schraeder (2), Toilolo (2), Levitre (1), Matthews (1), Person (0.5)
Missed Blocks (6): Chester, Hankerson, Levitre, Matthews, Schraeder, White
Sacks Allowed (1): Chester
Pressures Allowed (2): Chester, Levitre
Hurries Allowed (4): Schraeder (2), Matthews (1), Ward (1)
Tackles For Loss (5): Schofield (1.5), Clayborn (1), Soliai (1), Stupar (1), Babineaux (0.5)
QB Sacks (1): Beasley
QB Pressures (1): Soliai
QB Hits (1): Stupar
QB Hurries (6): Babineaux (3), Adams (1), Beasley (1), Clayborn (1), Schofield (1)
Passes Defended (1): Trufant
Blown Coverages (1): Trufant
Missed Tackles (9): Allen (3), Worrilow (3), Alford (1), Durant (1), Moore (1)
Key Blocked (9): Worrilow (4), Alford (1), Clayborn (1), Durant (1), Hageman (1) Moore (1)
Stops (6): Durant (4), Jackson (1), Jarrett (0.5), Moore (0.5)