The Atlanta Falcons are the toast of the league as its sole remaining unbeaten team.
At 8-0, not only are the Falcons flying high (pun intended), but because of many missteps from their NFC South counterparts,Atlanta enjoys a four-game lead over its closest competitor, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Falcons’ record and division lead is extremely healthy. But how healthy is this team as a whole? Here are some notable aspects surrounding the team thus far, as the Falcons look ahead at eight more games.
An Elite NFL Quarterback
Matt Ryan has taken a gigantic step forward in his maturation process. He’s on pace to throw the ball almost 600 times this season and toss for 4,720 yards, which would shatter the franchise record he set last year. Most impressive, however, is his increased accuracy.
Ryan’s never finished with higher than a 62.5 percent completion percentage in his four previous seasons. This year he’s completing 68.9 percent of his passes. That improved accuracy, along with the Falcons much more efficient game plan and scheme provided by new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, has pushed Ryan to new levels.
Never has Ryan thrown 17 touchdowns by the midway point in the season. And never has Ryan’s name been mentioned in MVP conversations.
Ryan ranks third in the NFL in quarterback rating (103.0), fourth in touchdowns (17), third in completion percentage (68.9) and ninth in yards.
A New Style of Running Back
Michael Turner may be on the wrong side of 30, but he’s still churning out yardage. His carries have been reduced in an effort to keep him fresh for the season and give second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers more touches, but Turner’s not ready to be sent out to pasture yet.
With an average of four yards per carry, Turner has 517 yards rushing through eight games. He’s carried the ball 29 fewer times in 2012 than last year, which has taken away 116 yards from his stat sheet. Give him those 116 yards and he’s still a top 10 running back.
But Turner may never get those extra carries back because of the emergence of Rodgers, who’s producing in every facet of the game.
Rodgers has 137 yards on 42 carries, ranks fourth on the team in receiving yards with 190 and is the primary kick-return specialist. Where he’s fantastically shined is in Atlanta’s new screen game.
With Turner’s carries down and Koetter taking this offense more vertical, the Falcons needed a way to gain yards underneath or in short-yardage scenarios. Rodgers’ powerful, yet elusive running style makes him a perfect fit. In fact, as Rodgers matures and his role expands, he could turn into the league’s next Darren Sproles.
And that would fit into Atlanta’s scheme perfectly.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez leads the way with 50 catches while Roddy White (47) and Julio Jones (40) make up one of the best trio of targets a quarterback could hope for.
The fantastic thing about having these three available to Koetter and Ryan in game-planning is that no defense has been able to find a way to shut all of them down at once. When you try and take out one or two, the third goes off for double-digit catches in a game or 100-plus receiving yards.
And when Gonzalez, White or Jones aren’t an option, Ryan has several other targets to choose from.
Seven different Falcons have caught touchdown passes and five have receptions of 25 yards or more. This is an explosive and extremely dangerous group of receivers.