Every week I pick the five players or units that made the difference in the game, and changed the outcome of the contest. Here are the five players that made all the difference in the world:
William Moore & Thomas DeCoud- the safety tandem: This will be their first season beginning the year together in the secondary, and they showed up in the first week, but nothing like this game against the Broncos. Both safeties had interceptions, so let’s give props to DeCoud, but Moore was by far the most productive player on in the Falcons secondary, and surprisingly that was saying something. Moore had the interception, deflected a couple more passes, and hit Demaryius Thomas on what looked like a sure touchdown catch, and jarred the ball loose creating an incomplete pass. He was also a force in the run game, stuffing several runs, and being an overall really productive defensive player.
Linebackers Stephen Nicholas & Sean Weatherspoon: This pair of linebackers were all over the place, and did it all on the night. Both were exceptional when rushing the passer, dropping into coverage, and playing the run. Nicholas forced a fumble, and Weatherspoon was credited with the recovery on that play. Neither of those two linebackers needed to come off the field on any ‘nickel’ defensive plays, and it really benefited the Falcons as they were able to play the run and the pass equally well. Outstanding performance from those two linebackers.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan: He’s not a player, but his fingerprints were all over the defense. He allowed the defense to move around freely before the snap as long as they dropped into their landmarks in time to play the run/pass. Early in the game, the Falcons never gave Peyton Manning a good read on what they were going to do defensively in the pre-snap read, and he tried to make throws against coverage that he really wasn’t sure about. Yeah, by halfway through the third quarter the Falcons were forced to get a little vanilla on defense, but the damage was done, and thirteen points were scored by they Falcons off of turnovers. Consider the mission accomplished today by Nolan against Peyton Manning.
Wide Receiver Roddy White: Early in the game Matt Ryan went looking for Julio Jones, and Jones dropped some crucial passes. Shockingly, the same went for Tony Gonzalez early, as he also dropped a couple passes. When all else failed, Ryan went to old reliable, the player he has the most history and chemistry with, and that player is Roddy White. White was consistently open, moved the chains, got explosive gains in through the air, and didn’t drop a pass. He also was able to keep both feet inbounds on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ryan that really turned the tide in the game. Without the productive connection between White and Ryan, this win would not have been possible.
Quarterback Matt Ryan: Sure, Ryan wasn’t dazzling in the win. However, two things are apparent from this game. One, the Falcons won the game. Two, Ryan may not have looked spectacular, but he still posted a passer rating of 101.5. Ryan made all the plays he needed to, checked the Falcons into productive plays that gained positive yardage, and made big plays in the passing game when he needed to. Was he spectacular? No. But was this the type of grinding, consistent performance that we can expect from Ryan even against the very good defenses that can take the Falcons to the playoffs and beyond? Absolutely yes. Ryan may be low on this list, but he was still a major performer in the game, and was crucial to the Falcons win.
Special Bonus- Falcons offensive line: For the second weed in a row, I have to list the Falcons offensive line as a unit who truly earned their wings against the Broncos. They weren’t elite, and didn’t afford Ryan eons to pass from the pocket, but they did give him just enough to get the job done and a little more. The Denver Broncos boast two Pro-Bowl level pass rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, and while Miller did register a sack, it was the only one the Falcons surrendered, and they did a terrific job of protecting Ryan and run blocking. Hats off to Tyson Clabo, and especially Sam Baker, who has been nothing short of fantastic so far this season.