Where the hell did this come from?
With running back Steven Jackson still on the mend from a hamstring injury sustained on the first drive of Atlanta’s Week 2 win over the St. Louis Rams, this Falcons offense has been more than stagnant at times.
When all-world wide receiver Julio Jones fractured his foot two weeks ago and was placed on injured reserve shortly thereafter, the doom-and-gloom naysayers proclaimed the Falcons one-dimensional with no deep-threat option.
On Friday, wide receiver Roddy White was ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with issues in both ankles and a hamstring injury. That meant the Atlanta couldn't depend on his move-the-chains greatness.
Instead of the sluggish Atlanta offense (most believed Tampa Bay could contain tight end Tony Gonzalez even if it took three players to do so) that was expected in the Georgia Dome Sunday, the Falcons equaled their highest scoring output of the season with a 31-23 win over the Buccaneers. Quarterback Matt Ryan turned relative unknowns into playmakers.
Wide receiver Harry Douglas, who had long been the No. 3 target in Atlanta’s offense, set a career high with 149 yards receiving on seven catches. Wide receiver Darius Johnson, who was promoted from Atlanta’s practice squad this week, caught two passes and running back Jacquizz Rodgers caught two touchdown passes and had eight receptions for 46 yards.
Ryan completed 20 of 26 passes for 273 yards and threw three touchdowns and zero interceptions. His 148.4 quarterback rating was the highest of his six-year career.
Wasn't this Falcons offense supposed to miss White and Jones?
Well, it most definitely did.
Some of the numbers—especially those mentioned previously—show a Falcons team that tweaked some of its issues over the bye week and found a way to get better. Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said after the game, “If you had a Falcons logo on your helmet you were expected to step up and make plays.”
That happened Sunday. But so did a lot of negatives.
As good as Douglas’ game was, Tampa Bay made some effective halftime adjustments to shut him down. After his monster first half, he caught just one pass for nine yards in the second half. It wasn’t until late in the third quarter (1:40 remaining to be exact) that a third wide receiver caught a pass in the game, as noticed by Fox Sports South columnist John Manasso.
The Buccaneers also shut down tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught just two passes Sunday. If the Tampa Bay defense—ranked 16th in the NFL in opposing passing yards entering Sunday’s game—can stifle Gonzalez and make such a powerful halftime adjustment to calm the red-hot Douglas, other teams can, too.
Without White and Jones, after Gonzalez and Douglas, there isn’t much left to strike fear in defenses. Johnson combined with Drew Davis and Brian Robiskie caught just three passes against the Buccaneers for 48 yards. But the current depth chart is all Ryan and the Falcons coaching staff has to work with, and if Sunday is an indicator, Atlanta will fight tooth and nail to continue to improve.
Like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, two other big-name quarterbacks who have done a lot with a little this year, Ryan took steps Sunday to move forward without Jones for the rest of the season and without White for the time being.
But those were just baby steps.
With a 2-4 record and seven NFC teams that aren’t division leaders ahead of the Falcons in the standings, Ryan’s step in the right direction against the Buccaneers feels too little, too late. Teams will continue to find ways to slow Gonzalez and Douglas. And even though positives were aplenty, negatives that could hurt this offense were easily identifiable, too.
Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for 30 yards Sunday and had a miserable two yards per carry average. When Jackson returns from injury, that should surely improve, but not as much as the Falcons need it to.
When Jackson was healthy in Week 1, the Falcons ran for just 88 yards as a team. In six games this season, Atlanta has only eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark once. This offense isn’t built to feature a dominant run game. If the Falcons can’t run effectively, it’s going to get harder for Ryan to exploit defenses with Davis, Johnson and Robiskie at the back end of the receivers depth chart.
There will be improvement, and Sunday was a good sign. But the Falcons are still not ready for, nor on the path to, the playoffs.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.