Coming into 2017, expectations had never been higher for the Atlanta Falcons.
They just came off of a Super Bowl loss that you might have heard something about — a blown lead of some sorts, but shook it off with a 3-0 start. Then the struggles returned.
The offense looked stagnant under the team’s new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian. Julio Jones wasn’t getting much action, losses to the Bills and Dolphins at home made frustrations grow, and a Super Bowl rematch shellacking against the Patriots brought that panic to a boil. The struggles left fans wishing for Kyle Shanahan back.
However, the Falcons have cooled off that boil the past couple of weeks. They beat the Seahawks on Monday night in Week 11 on the road, and handled the Buccaneers 34-20 this past Sunday. While they’ve shown flashes of 2016 in their offense, there’s still that sense of a game never being over in the air. That’s typical Falcons, and fine.
But if they’re able to go on a stretch just as they did this time last season, we could be in for another impressive run by Atlanta.
They showed flashes of their 2016 offense on Sunday
The Falcons have been seeking that 2016 form all season. Even though they started the season 3-0, they didn’t look like the team that went to the Super Bowl. On Sunday, they had glimpses of that for a second consecutive week without running back Devonta Freeman.
Matt Ryan finished the game against the Bucs completing 26 of his 35 passes for 317 yards and a touchdown. Tevin Coleman held his own in Freeman’s absence with 19 carries for 97 yards and two touchdowns. That’s not surprising for Coleman, who is a good running back with or without Freeman — but it was part of a complete offensive showing for Atlanta.
The offense flowed to the point where you could tell ahead of time whether they were going to find the end zone on a particular drive. That’s not something you could necessarily say with confidence prior to Sunday’s game.
The offense even pulled a trick out of the book, where Mohamed Sanu tossed a perfect 51-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones.
And speaking of Jones...
He finally had a breakout game
If you follow even just a handful of Falcons fans on Twitter, you’ll know this was the biggest revelation of today’s game.
Prior to Sunday’s game against Tampa, Jones’ only 100-yard game came in Week 9 against the Panthers. In that game, he had six receptions for 118 yards. His only receiving touchdown of the season came against the Patriots, when he embarrassed Super Bowl Hero Malcolm Butler in garbage time.
On Sunday, the Julio Jones we got used to seeing dominate last season appeared, and it was like a breath of fresh air. Not only was he putting up numbers, but he was making the opposition look stupid, like he typically does:
He finished the game with 12 receptions, 253 yards, and two touchdowns — all season highs.
Nobody should expect Jones to do that every game, but it’s nice to at least see that the 2017 Falcons are capable of a game like this. The concern around a lack of action for him couldn’t have been greater, and he responded when the Falcons needed to build some momentum.
They still put a scare into fans with a close finish
It can never be easy — Falcons fans know this:
Being a #Falcons fan is like riding a roller coaster with a terrible safety record.— The Falcoholic (@TheFalcoholic) September 27, 2015
That ride can be fun, but it can also collapse on you in tragic fashion. It’s been done for decades, and at an all-time high on Feb. 5, 2017. So when the Falcons were up 27-6, it was nice, but it wouldn’t be a complete game without some type of hesitation.
The Buccaneers would score two consecutive touchdowns to make it a 27-20 game, but Tevin Coleman scored the punctuation mark touchdown with just under two minutes to go to seal it.
Should this be a cause for concern for Falcons fans? Not really, only because they still haven’t caught fire yet. When the Falcons went on that amazing stretch towards the end of last season, they played well enough to where they put teams away early, and were able to keep them at a distance.
When they started their win streak in Week 14, all but one of their wins came by at least 17, with three coming by at least 23 points.
Point being: the Falcons look better right now, but could take another leap.
Steve Sarkisian is still the offensive coordinator
With the hope that things can improve, there should also be reservations. Steve Sarkisian is still the team’s offensive coordinator, and has a rap sheet of having underwhelming offenses with great talent.
The majority of Sarkisian’s work has come in the college ranks, outside of his current job with the Falcons and in 2004 as the Raiders’ quarterbacks coach. In college, beyond having an offense equipped with Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and LenDale White, he proved incapable of developing quarterbacks like John David Booty and Mark Sanchez.
As a tactician, Sarkisian’s never been all that tricky. His formula’s been close to the same everywhere he’s been: Find a good quarterback, find a featured running back (or two or three), and ride them really hard in a system that uses tempo to keep defenses out of balance. In college, he had lots of great QB-RB tandems: Leinart and Bush at USC, Jake Locker and Chris Polk at Washington, and later Cody Kessler and Javorius Allen at USC.
That’s basically what he’s got in Atlanta, but the NFL is a different beast than college. He can’t hope that Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and Julio Jones are just going to go out there like it’s Thanksgiving and light up the neighbors.
The offense has shown improvement, and that’s good. After the glaring concerns that the Falcons had during the middle of the season, a pair of wins in which the offense has shown life is a great sign.
But that’s not anything to take to the bank — we’re still talking about the Falcons here, after all. The talent is there, but it has yet to be seen that Sarkisian can squeeze every last bit out of that talent.
So what should be the takeaway from the past two games? Perhaps just that they’ve shown life going into a pair of home games against the Vikings, and then the Saints on a quick Thursday night turnaround. Only after those two games will we know where the Falcons are truly at as the regular season winds down.