The Atlanta Falcons handed the Carolina Panthers their first loss of the 2015 season with a 20-13 win on Sunday. The win dramatically changed the narrative for the Falcons 2015 season regardless of how they finish next week against the New Orleans Saints.
The Falcons not only have a chance to finish the season with a winning record by beating the Saints, but their Week 16 win over the Panthers puts their second-half collapse in a completely different light thanks to becoming the first team to take down a Panthers team that had won 18 straight games going back to the final month of the 2014 season.
Perhaps the Panthers were still reeling from 38-35 last-second win over the New York Giants a week ago, where the main talking points seemed to center on the antics of cornerback Josh Norman and wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. during and after the game. Perhaps the 38-0 shutout win over the Falcons two weeks ago made the Panthers overconfident heading into Sunday’s game. Perhaps injuries to key offensive players like running back Jonathan Stewart and wide receiver Ted Ginn slowed down a Panthers offense that had average roughly 36 points per game over their past eight outings prior to Sunday’s 13-point effort.
Regardless of why the Panthers lost, it was clear that they were outplayed on Sunday by a Falcons team desperate to finish the season strongly. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn insisted after the team’s 2-0 start that he wanted to create a team known for their ability to finish, and the team’s performances the past two weeks in wins over the Jaguars and Panthers indicate that they are beginning to earn that reputation.
Yet that didn’t mean that the Falcons were in firm control of the outcome of this game from start to finish. After the Panthers went down the field on an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive to start the game, it looked as if the game was set to go much the same as it did two weeks ago when the Panthers scored on an eight-play, 80-yard drive to start the game.
But unlike the previous outing, the Falcons responded with a scoring drive of their own on Sunday. The Falcons bled over nine minutes off the clock on the ensuing drive, scoring on the opening play of the second quarter. That initial possession showed exactly what the Falcons wanted to do to overcome the Panthers, in shortening the game with long, methodical drives to prevent the explosive Panthers offense from getting back onto the field. The Falcons wound up dominating time of possession, retaining the ball for over 35 minutes in contrast to the 24 minutes and 22 seconds that the Panthers held the ball.
Yet that initial drive could have easily gone another way with the Falcons beginning with a three-and-out thanks to running back Devonta Freeman dropping a third-down pass on a quick screen. But Freeman was bailed out thanks to an unnecessary roughness penalty against Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman, who took offense to wide receiver Roddy White’s attempt to block him low and the two veterans tussled after the whistle. Tillman drew the penalty, gifting the Falcons a first down instead of punting.
Matt Ryan’s Mobility Uncharacteristic in Panthers Win
The Falcons took full advantage, converting all four of their subsequent third-down plays on the drive. None were more exemplary of the Falcons’ renewed vigor than their last one, where quarterback Matt Ryan was able to scramble seven yards for a first down on 3rd-and-2 in the red zone by shaking Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis in the open field with a deft pump fake. Rather than opting to slide, Ryan showed uncharacteristic resolve by taking a hard shot from safety Kurt Coleman and going for the end zone inside the five-yard line. Ryan paid for that decision as he dealt with sore ribs for the rest of the game, clutching them often after taking brutal hits from Panthers defenders, but it did not cripple his determination as Ryan had perhaps his best game of the season.
It’s not that Ryan lacks toughness as any quarterback that has taken the amount of hits he’s taken over the years certainly has a high degree of toughness. But generally in those instances, Ryan will opt for the more cerebral decision, which will protect his body from an unnecessary shot to not hurt his team’s chances of winning later rather than the more intestinal decision that would attempt to score even when the odds were slim.
It wasn’t the only uncharacteristic play from Ryan in the game, as his 70-yard strike to wide receiver Julio Jones late in the third quarter was also a play that has been rarely seen from the quarterback throughout his career. There have been plenty of plays where Ryan has aired it out to Jones, but few have seen him first escape the pocket, direct traffic and heave up a throw 54-yard throw to Jones.
Julio Jones Overcomes Josh Norman For First Time in Career
As usual, Jones did the rest by snatching the ball away from linebacker Luke Kuechly in mid-air and running into the end zone. Like Ryan, Jones had an uncharacteristic day against the Panthers, as he was able to take advantage of Norman on a number of plays for the first time in his career.
Prior to Sunday’s game in four meetings against the Panthers where Norman was primarily responsible with checking Jones dating back to 2012, Jones had been limited to 11 receptions on 24 targets for 102 yards with no touchdowns according to premium website Pro Football Focus. That’s good for a passer rating of 58.0 with Ryan able to complete just 46 percent of his passes and averaging 4.3 yards per attempt when targeting Jones with Norman in coverage.
Bear in mind that against every other Panthers defender in those games, Jones had caught seven of 11 passes for 133 yards. That’s good for a passer rating of 67.6 when Ryan targets him (thanks to an interception thrown to safety Haruki Nakamura in 2012), but a completion percentage of 63.6 and a yards-per-attempt average of 12.1. Clearly it’s simply that Jones doesn’t fare well against the Panthers, but it’s Norman specifically.
The Falcons learned from the Giants’ loss to the Panthers last week by moving Jones into the slot to avoid the matchup against Norman this past week. On his 70-yard score Jones lined up in the slot where Norman, who had shadowed Jones throughout the game, was unlikely to go. Jones didn’t spend a ton of time in the slot on Sunday, with about a quarter of his snaps coming inside. But that was a large increase from the Falcons-Panthers matchup in Week 14 when Jones spent just three snaps inside according to Pro Football Focus. More importantly, the Falcons were able to take advantage of those meaningful snaps inside on Sunday with the 70-yard bomb.
Yet Jones’ biggest catch against Norman came much later, when he nabbed a 30-yard grab on a deep in route to start a fourth-quarter drive. It was the first time that Jones was able to beat Norman for a big play in his career, as none of his 12 career catches against him in five previous meetings went for more than 14 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones finished with five catches for 80 yards on six targets when Norman covered him on Sunday.
Falcons Big Plays Still Derailed by Turnovers
That 30-yard play likely signaled that the Falcons would score on that drive as the numbers I posted last week show that the Falcons chances of scoring more than triple on drives that include a play of 20 or more yards.
Yet the Falcons did not score on that drive, thanks to a high snap on the part of center Mike Person that sailed through Ryan’s hands. Norman redeemed himself with a fumble recovery, and as has been the case too often this year the Falcons turned the ball over after generating a big play. While the Falcons have been successful at avoiding turnovers on big-play drives in recent weeks, there was a five-game stretch between Weeks Seven and Twelve where the Falcons had at least one turnover in each game on a drive that included a play of 20 or more yards. Those six big-play drives over that five-game span should have resulted in at least four scores based off the season-long scoring rate of 67 percent on such drives. Those scores could have easily resulted in three more wins, since that many of the team’s four losses in that five-week span came by a field goal or less.
So when Person’s bad snap sailed over the head of Ryan with 9:36 left on the game clock and the Falcons up 14-10, it seemed like the team was on the verge of blowing another winnable game. However the Falcons defense stepped up as it had done all Sunday to get a much-needed stop.
Norman’s fumble recovery gifted the Panthers great field position at the Falcons 36-yard line. But defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman knifed through the line and blew up running back Fozzy Whittaker on second down for a two-yard loss. Then rookie defensive end Vic Beasley was able to create pressure against Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers to force an errant throw by quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen couldn’t reel in the necessary third-down conversion. The Panthers settled for a 47-yard field goal, unable to retake the lead.
Hageman and Beasley Two of Falcons Young Breakout Linemen
Sunday offered breakout performances for both young Falcons defensive linemen. Hageman made a couple of splash plays including the aforementioned run stuff. It’s not that Hageman hasn’t made plays before, but it had seemed a long time since he had generated any eye-popping plays in 2015. Especially in comparison to his last performance against the Panthers, where any performance on the field was overshadowed when he got into a sideline scuffle with defensive line coach Bryan Cox, letting his emotions and frustration get the better of him.
Like Hageman, Beasley too was able to overcome some adversity this week thanks to the revelation that he’s been dealing with a torn labrum in his right shoulder all year long. Beasley finished the game with a sack and a few pressures, taking advantage of Remmers on multiple occasions. His most notable instance came on the final offensive drive of the Panthers, where Beasley stripped Newton, forcing a fumble and effectively sealing the win for the Falcons.
That play showed that Beasley has made himself at home in recent weeks rushing from the left side of the defensive line. Over the first eight games of the year, only 20 percent of Beasley’s 205 pass-rushing snaps came from the left side according to Pro Football Focus. Since Week Nine, it’s been 94 percent of his 134 pass-rushing snaps.
Beasley may be settling into a similar role as Seattle Seahawks edge-rusher Cliff Avril, who has spent the bulk of his career racking up sacks from the left side. Avril rushed from the left side about 88 percent of the time over his two years working under Quinn in 2013 and 2014. It was Avril that I compared Beasley to in my initial scouting report, then also taking note of Avril’s propensity to rush from the left side against slower-footed right tackles.
That may become a more permanent role for Beasley in the years to come as he shares many traits with Avril. They both are players that lack ideal power and size and aren’t known as adept run defenders, but thrive as pass-rushers due to excellent first-step quickness and speed off the edge.
Falcons Win Might Prevent Organizational Turnover in 2016
With the effort on both sides of the ball, the Falcons’ win over the Panthers is a huge confidence booster for the team heading into 2016. Even though their 2015 playoff chances are over thanks to a Sunday night win of the Minnesota Vikings, the Falcons still have a lot to look forward to in subsequent years of the Quinn Era.
After avenging a 38-point shutout, one of the worst losses the team had suffered in over a decade, the organization should feel much more confident that the team is capable of playing at a much higher level moving forward. Also instead of questions abounding about which team executive or assistant coach could be out of a job at the end of the year, there’s palpable reasons why owner Arthur Blank won’t be compelled to find a scapegoat for the team’s second-half slide and instead stay the course under Quinn’s guidance, knowing that the first-year head coach is capable of getting results with the current staff and management.
While this won’t completely eliminate the possibility that there is turnover in the front office or coaching staff after the season, and certainly won’t prevent the turbulent roster turnover in the offseason, it does at least allay concerns over whether the team is headed in the right direction under Quinn.
On Sunday against the Panthers, the Falcons looked like the team that began the 2015 season 5-0. Similarly few of those wins came from sheer dominance of their opponent, but the team making the necessary plays it had in order to win the game in the end.
Perhaps there will be a day in the near future where defenders like Beasley and Hageman are playing at a Pro Bowl level. And should they be joined by several other top-level players, then it’s certainly possible that the tables could turn and the Falcons could be on the right side of a lopsided win against the Panthers. Hopefully Sunday’s upset is the first step down the path to such a reality.