One of the things the Atlanta Falcons have done the best in the past couple seasons, last season in particular, has been scoring on their first possession. They accomplished that in a major way against the Chiefs today.
On the first possession in the game, the Falcons took the ball right down the field and scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. The route was a fade where Jones beat the defensive back, the corner never turned his head to look for the ball, and Jones need simply turn his head and locate the ball for an easy touchdown pass.
The possession wasn’t much more difficult. Starting with some quality running from Michael Turner, the Falcons used play-action and regular drop-back passing to complete short passes on third downs, as well as deep routes for larger gains. When the possession goes twelve plays for 80 yards and ends in a touchdown pass, I’d say it was a successful drive. Matt Ryan was 6/8 for 68 yards on the drive.
The offense really had no difficulty moving the ball throughout the game. Once on the cusp of the red zone the Falcons were held short of a first down and were forced to kick a field goal. Another time they were stopped on a third and goal with a sack of Matt Ryan, and kicked a field goal. More on that red-zone situation later.
Defensively, things were really rough early. The Chiefs were able to run the ball really effectively both between the tackles and to the outside. It seemed like Peyton Hillis could always run well between the tackles, and Jamaal Charles was able to do tremendous things both between the tackles, and when bouncing runs to the outside. The Falcons had one devil of a time playing contain on him early. When Charles is allowed to run roughshod over a defense for both solid gains and first downs, that really really opens up the offense for play-action passing. Early in the game, that is exactly what the Chiefs did.
The epitome of this was a 22-yard TD pass from Matt Cassel to Kevin Boss early in the second quarter. Although it wasn’t a true play-action pass, the Falcons were forced to respect the run to the extent where they were left a little suspect in the passing game. Sean Weatherspoon was the man assigned to cover Kevin Boss, and he got burned for the touchdown.
Because of the effective running, the Falcons defensive line was unable to really generate much pass rush. Matt Cassel had eons to sit back and throw the ball early, something that no team can really defend. Make no mistake, the Chiefs have really good weapons, and Cassel found them. At halftime, Kansas City was 5/6 on third downs, and several of those conversions were from Dexter McCluster lined up both wide and in the slot. He was consistently open right at the sticks for third downs, situations where the Falcons struggled last year as well.
Then a funny thing happened for the Falcons; they began to stuff the run, force the Chiefs into third-and-long situations, and actually prevent conversions. On that third and long in the third quarter, John Abraham came in as strip-sacked Matt Cassel. Sean Weatherspoon ran over it, and it was eventually recovered by Stephen Nicholas to the Kansas City 7-yard line. On the very next play, Matt Ryan found Tony Gonzalez in the endzone for a touchdown. Needless to say, TG dunked the ball over the field-goal crossbar in celebration.
After that, the route was on. The Falcons picked Matt Cassel off twice, once by Stephen Nicholas and once by William Moore, and created a field goal on each ensuing possession. Early in the third Matt Ryan ran for a touchdown (the Falcons third, before the TD pass to Tony Gonzalez), adding to this scoring summary.
I’d like to address the offensive line for a moment. The first thing to note is that NT Anthony Toribio was out with an injury which impacted the big defensive line. Secondly, and more importantly, Kansas City pass-rusher Tamba Hali was out for the game with a suspension from the NFL. They certainly missed his pass-rush ability which gave Matt Ryan and the Falcons plenty of time to complete passes down the field without having to rush. You can use the preceding as a disclaimer.
That being said, the Falcons generally protected Ryan very well. I can only remember Ryan getting his three times. Unfortunately, one of those was a sack. The good news is only one of those was a sack. In the red-zone on a 1st&goal from the three yard line, Ryan was sacked for a loss of seven. Linebacker Justin Houston was matched up with right tackle Tyson Clabo. He faked outside, and Jacquizz Rodgers who was supposed to chip him and expected him to go to the outside, also went outside. That’s when Houston swept back to the inside, beat Clabo, and got the sack on Ryan. If Clabo stays inside, makes him go all the way around, and Rodgers chips Houston, it’s not a sack, and its possible the Falcons add another touchdown to their tally rather than just a field goal. No guarantees, but its something to look at.
I’m not sure that Sam Baker was really matched up with anyone, but he looked really fantastic blocking 3-4 defensive ends, and didn’t give up any pressure. I didn’t hear his name called so much as once today, which is a good thing for offensive linemen. Also, Todd McClure held NT Dontari Poe in check for most of the day. There was one time where Poe beat McClure and got into the backfield for a tackle-for-loss, but other than that he had a very quiet day. In short, the offensive line played very well.
I can’t say enough about the play of Matt Ryan today. He looked sharp and in command. Despite the loud setting, he consistently got the team in good plays and out of bad ones. He made plays happen, especially on the fade to Julio Jones and when he scrambled for a 5-yard touchdown run. Ryan’s ability to see the field and hit his receivers was excellent.
Julio Jones was the most obvious receiver of the day with his 6 catches for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was productive in space getting first downs as well. But he also had help from the rest of the receiving corps as well.
Roddy White was a first-down machine. Over the middle, on the outside, in the screen game, White was consistently good at converting third downs. What sticks in mind was a sideline throw from Ryan on play-action where he not only caught the ball, but had the presence of mind to drag both feet in bounds to complete the reception. Big play.
Harry Douglas only has 3 catches for 32 yards, but he was a good outlet on those catches. Nobody else was open, and he was able to use his open-field ability to gain positive yardage. Jacquizz Rodgers did the same out of the backfield and also once when split wide. He was also outstanding running between the tackles, something that will add increased value to him as the season progresses.
But Tony Gonzalez was still highlight making with a touchdown catch in his homecoming, as well as four other receptions totaling 53 yards.
What can be gleaned from this game? The Falcons took advantage of a less than 100% defense, but Ryan & Co. still looked very good. I don’t see many games where the Falcons get absolutely stuffed offensively. They will put up points.
The key is that we had an less-than productive pass-rush. We got a 20-17 lead, the Chiefs realized we were going to score a bunch, and saw the need to pass more. When that happened we were able to get more pressure on him, but it still wasn’t a tremendous amount of pressure. Key turnovers made the difference in the game, not overall solid defense. We need to improve our pass-rush if we are to win big this year and in years to come.
I also caution about the offensive line. They had a very good showing today, but they will face much more potent pass-rushes this season. I think they can be very good this season, but there is also a big chance they give up a lot of pressure against teams with really elite defensive ends/outside linebackers. They deserve adulation today, but need to continue to work hard form here on out.
Keep your eyes here for more analysis on this game soon. There is a multitude of things to break down, and I’ll cover all of it.