This Year's Atlanta Falcons Are Finally Built to Last in Wide-Open NFC

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This Year's Atlanta Falcons Are Finally Built to Last in Wide-Open NFC
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The idea that the Atlanta Falcons will fade down the stretch is so last year.

Unlike the 2015 roster, this year's squad has showed a different level of resilience once adversity surfaces. Just look at Atlanta's performance over its past two games for proof.

In Dan Quinn's first season as the Falcons head coach, Atlanta opened the season 6-1including a 5-0 startonly to lose six straight games from Nov. 1 to Dec. 13. By the time the team recovered, the playoffs were out of reach.

The Falcons are now 7-4 and alone atop the NFC South standings after Sunday's 38-19 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The victory came after the team's embarrassing 24-15 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles before its bye week.

Once a team starts to lose, a negative attitude can permeate throughout a locker room and the culture begins to change. A shroud of doubt becomes difficult to overcome when losses pile up. The Falcons struggled to find out who they were last season, and it showed in their approach.

Atlanta is the polar opposite this fall, and three main differences have emerged between Quinn's campaigns.

   

Positively Mental

Coaches often discuss how mental toughness can affect a player's game.

Can someone respond after a mistake, or will he let it eat him alive? The same can be said about teams and losses.

The 2015 campaign snowballed on the Falcons. One loss led to another, which led to another, and so on and so forth.

Atlanta's longest losing streak this fall is only two games. The team has consistently found a way to respond when the season could have taken a U-turn.

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

"The answer is it's a different outfit," Quinn said in early October, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter. "It's a different group. We are mentally tougher than what we were. And we have a real ability to reset right after we get back to that process so that's what's different from last year to this year."

Clearly, the concerns lingered since Quinn had to answer questions about a potential free fall only five weeks into the season after starting 4-1.

Much to Quinn's dismay, the Falcons lost their next two contests to the Seattle Seahawks and the San Diego Chargers. There's no shame in losing to the Seahawks in Seattle, but the Chargers' overtime victory once again raised suspicions of an imminent collapse.

However, general manager Thomas Dimitroff told everyone in June what type of team this would be, per the Talk of Fame Sports Network's Derek Burns:

I think we have a really interesting nucleus. I like our talent, I like our speed, I like our athleticism. We are becoming more and more adept as the months go on understanding the systems that have been brought into Atlanta. We're a run-and-hit 4-3 defense that obviously Dan Quinn knows inside out ...

I really believe there's some high energy on this team that's going to help us a lot. And I think an extra year under our belt in this system, on the offensive side under Kyle Shanahan and on the defense is going to help us a great deal.

The Falcons could have gone into a tailspin after getting down 32-26 late in the fourth quarter to the Green Bay Packers and lost their third straight contest. Instead, quarterback Matt Ryan rallied his team and threw a 11-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu with 31 remaining seconds to secure a victory.

Dimitroff made two poignant preseason points. First, the team gained confidence going into its second season under the current coaching staff, and it approached the campaign with a renewed energy. Those have been obvious.

But the general manager's first point aides in the team's confidence. This is a talented squad that added pieces on both sides. As a result, the offense and defense are playing above last year's standards.

   

Offensive Ingenuity

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan unveiled his newest offensive wrinkle in Sunday's contest. The speedy Taylor Gabriel caught four passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came courtesy of screen passes.

Gabriel adds yet another dimension to one of the league's most explosive offenses. His ability to create after the catch due to his blazing speed is something the Falcons lacked a year ago, when aging veteran Roddy White still played opposite all-world wide receiver Julio Jones.

In 2015, the Falcons' all-time leading receiver had already lost a step or two and was nearing retirement. Justin Hardy never lived up to expectations. And running back Devonta Freeman served as Atlanta's second-best option in the passing attack.

This year's setup is quite different. Gabriel showed how different against Arizona when he took a simple screen pass 35 yards to the end zone, which the NFL relayed on Twitter:

Three months ago, the diminutive target wasn't on Atlanta's roster. The Cleveland Browns released him during the final wave of preseason cuts, and the Falcons claimed him.

"I knew this was possible from just the work that I put in," Gabriel said after the game, per Ledbetter. "But at the same time, Kyle [Shanahan] and the whole offensive staff believe in throwing me the ball in the clutch situations. I'm just glad that I came out on top, scoring a touchdown."

Atlanta's social media team reminded the Browns of their mistake during Gabriel's breakout performance:

The former undrafted free agent has now caught 13 passes for 271 yards and four touchdowns over his last four games.

Gabriel isn't the only key piece Atlanta added this season. Two big free-agent acquisitions have paid dividends, too.

Center Alex Mack is a rock in the middle of the offensive line and takes play-calling responsibilities off Ryan's shoulders, while Sanu is second on the team with 47 receptions for 495 yards and three touchdowns.

Rookie tight end Austin Hooper is a threat down the seam with an average of 15.1 yards per catch. And second-year running back Tevin Coleman is also a bigger part of the scheme, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield.

The offense is better, but the Falcons already excelled on that end. The defense proved to be a work in progress.

   

Pressure-Packed Defense

In the NFL, there are two ways to slow opposing offenses: Either get after the quarterback and make his life a living hell for 60 minutes or have a secondary so talented, it shuts down opposing passing attacks.

Everything else falls within a deluge of mediocrity for a league geared toward offensive production.

The Falcons have improved in certain areas during Quinn's second season. The former defensive coordinator now has this unit playing with grit and determination. The Cardinals managed 332 yards on Sunday, with only 58 on the ground.

"That was good and part of it was because the offense was scoring really good and that made them one-dimensional," linebacker Philip Wheeler said. "They had to pass the ball, and we had to get after them as far as rushing the passer."

Over recent years, the organization's biggest sore spot continued to be its pass rush. Atlanta finished among the bottom five in sacks during each of the last four seasons. Last year, the team ranked dead last with only 19 sacks.

Through 11 games this season, the Falcons already have 24 sacks.

John Bazemore/Associated Press/Associated Press
The Atlanta Falcons' Vic Beasley attempts to tackle Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer.

Vic Beasley, Dwight Freeney and Brooks Reed are getting after the quarterback. Reed registered a half-sack Sunday, while Beasley and Freeney managed a combined three quarterback hits, according to ESPN.com.

Beasley entered this weekend's contest tied for second in the league with 9.5 sacks. His improvement after being last year's eighth overall pick has created a ripple effect throughout Atlanta's defensive front.

The unit is also getting spectacular contributions from multiple rookies.

This year's first-round pick, safety Keanu Neal, has been the presence the Falcons lacked along the back line. He's a consistent performer as the team's leading tackler. Undrafted free agent Brian Poole is in the conversation as the league's best rookie cornerback. Linebacker Deion Jones is second on the team in tackles and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. And fellow linebacker De'Vondre Campbell has excelled in coverage.

The Falcons needed an infusion of talent on defense. The group might be statistically worse than a year ago, but there are far more playmakers flying to the football on a down-by-down basis.

Ryan and Co. can fill the stat sheet, but the defense needs to seal the deal as the franchise prepares for its playoff push.

   

Looking Ahead

Even with a new approach, more offensive weapons and an improving defense, the path that lies ahead for the Falcons isn't easy.

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The Kansas City Chiefs remain one of the AFC's best teams, followed by the Los Angeles Rams and their normally stingy defense. A meeting with the San Francisco 49ers is sandwiched between those contests and two division games against the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints close out the regular season.

Those last two weeks could be vitally important if the Falcons don't find a way to pull away in the NFC South, as the Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still within striking distance.

However, these aren't the same old Falcons. They're better than a year ago, and they're prepared to be counted among the NFC's best.

   

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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