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Ra’Shede Hageman is finally playing up to his potential when the Falcons need it most

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Atlanta’s defensive tackle has the tools to be a force in the trenches, but he’s struggled to put forth a consistent effort, until now.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In the preseason I picked Ra'Shede Hageman to be the Falcons' breakout player this year. Well, with just a cursory look at his stats and his film I think we can all touch and agree that that ... didn't happen.

Which isn't to say that Hageman didn't improve at all. He was definitely a little more consistent, especially with his effort, so he did take a step forward this season. It’s just that it was an itty bitty, teeny tiny, baby step forward on the field.

Off the field he took a step backward as Hageman was a surprise inactive in Week 1 possibly because, as we would come to find out soon after, he had been charged with domestic violence back in March of last year. He was also inactive in Weeks 8, 9, and 12, and when I went back to double check he didn't appear to be listed on the injury report on any of those weeks. I think its safe to say that that Hageman, who came into the league with a lot of question marks to begin with, has not yet come close to justifying his selection near the top of the second round by the Falcons.

To be clear though, if you actually did read my breakout player column on Hageman, you probably noticed that I framed it more like "if he was ever going to come close to realizing his potential, then it needed to be this season." It wasn't that I was totally convinced that he would breakout, but rather I felt like if he didn't do it this season, then it would be highly likely that the Falcons would be looking to move on from him. There's only so long you can wait for a "project" guy to finally pan out before you have to cut bait and try to find someone else who can get the job done. I felt like Hageman had to know this too, and thus, he would more than likely be more motivated than ever before, which then might transfer into a big season.

Nope. No dice.

While Hageman has certainly come a long way when it comes to his hustling, something that I admit I wasn't sure he would ever change when I watched his college tape, his technique still hovers somewhere between "shitty" and "somewhat adequate" on most plays. The guy is 6'6 and listed at 318 pounds (but probably actually heavier than that), and he’s pretty damned athletic for a guy that size.

He was a tight end in college before switching to defense, which would normally translate into him being a handful to block, but Hageman still plays off balance far too often, and he still hasn't gotten the memo about needing to flip your hips toward the quarterback if you want to be a productive pass rusher.

If he could fix just those two things, playing with his feet more coordinated, and turning his hips toward the quarterback when he pass rushes, Hageman would probably be destroying people week in and week out. Because he still hasn't fixed stuff like that, you might see him flash and make a dominant play every other game or so, but you rarely see him dominating a whole game.

But man, oh man, those flashes, whew.

Every once in awhile you will be watching film and ... BAM! Hageman will obliterate a guy out of nowhere, and you're like “where the fuck was this the rest of the game?!”

Or you might see him actually use some of that considerable athletic ability to make his blocker look silly, and you're like “this dude could be a double-digit sack guy if he just did this every time.”

Yes, those plays are too few and far between, but that he makes them at all gives a glimpse into what he could be if he was just if he just applied himself a little better.

Like Smokey.

Just look at some of the plays Hageman made on Sunday in the Falcons' win over the Packers. I thought he did a good job of setting the tempo on the very first offensive play of the game for Green Bay.

He was lined up as a shaded nose tackle on the left side of Packers center Corey Linsley. On the snap Hageman beat Linsley's attempt at a reach block on a zone running play and knocked Linsley into the backfield to force Ty Montgomery to cut back almost immediately after he took the handoff.

In a nod to how much Hageman has improved his hustle, he wasn't content with just doing a good job initially in taking on the block; he wanted to get in on the play. That's not something he always did in his first two seasons in the league. Hageman escaped off Linsley's block to the opposite A gap, ran to the football, and managed to get a hit on Montgomery before he was brought to the ground.

Then, of course, there was the outstanding play Hageman made to get a sack in the second quarter. He was head up as a zero nose, and on the snap of the football he flat foot ran Linsley over on the way to the quarterback. Like, when I watched it live it looked like Hageman had broken Linsley for a second. That was as good of a pancake as you will ever see on a football field and then Hageman finished the play by diving and swiping Aaron Rodgers’ ankle to get him on the ground for an 11-yard loss.

Can you imagine if the guy played like that every single play?

Remember when Hageman tackled Christine Michael for a loss of 2 yards in the third quarter? That appeared to be a read-option play where Rodgers was reading an unblocked Hageman to decide whether to hand off the football. Not only was Hageman able to do a good job of breaking down in space, he was also able to gather himself enough to change direction and get to Michael before he could turn upfield. If Hageman could just play with that kind of balance on a consistent basis he wouldn't be even be fair.

Last but not least, Hageman notched another tackle for a loss, this time on fullback Aaron Ripkowski down near the goal line in the fourth quarter. Hageman was back at a shaded nose tackle position on the left between the guard and center and just flew into the backfield on the snap to engulf Ripkowski before he could even get started.

The Packers had backup rookie tackle Jason Springs in at right guard on that play, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Hageman still looked damned explosive getting off the ball. That was impressive no matter who was doing the blocking.

If Hageman could consistently duplicate the kind of play and production he had on Sunday against the Packers, he might eventually be considered one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Unfortunately that just hasn't been the case so far in his career.

Regardless, I name guys Hoss based on just how they played that particular week. This past Sunday Hageman did have the kind breakout performance I thought he might have for a full season. It just so happens that it also helped the team that drafted him near the top of the second round get to the Super Bowl, nbd.

Maybe he will continue that kind of strong play in Houston.

Maybe he won't.

But for this week Ra'Shede Hageman, in an admittedly small pool of candidates, had the most deserving Hoss of the Week performance.