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Sarah Woodall: Although banged up, Atlanta Falcons still poised for success in 2018
Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan looks to the fans celebrating after scoring the game winning touchdown on a quarterback keeper during the fourth quarter of a game, Sunday, Sept 16, 2018, in Atlanta. - photo by AP photo

We all thought the same thing too — there’s no denying it. A double dose of the injury bug and offensive dismay sent Atlanta Falcons fans in a tailspin during a season-opening loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

NFL analysts and talking heads ridiculed Matt Ryan’s sporadic performance, not to mention offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s inability to draw up a winning formula from inside the red zone. Let’s face it, Atlanta’s offense looked sloppy.

And when it was announced Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal (IR) and pro-bowl linebacker Deion Jones (out 8-10 weeks) went down at the same time last week, most were already mashing the panic button. Guard Andy Levitre was the next victim this week, as he was lost for the season with a triceps injury. And let’s not forget star running back Devonta Freeman, who since his early exit in the opener has been day-to-day with a knee ailment.

But as Ryan, wideout Julio Jones and I’m sure head coach Dan Quinn put it many times: the season is long and there’s plenty of football left. The Falcons (1-1) should be fine. As a matter of fact, given their breakout performance in Week 2, the future still looks bright.

Here were just a few indications of why I feel the Falcons can still thrive moving forward:

'NEXT MAN UP' TAKEN TO HEART

Yes, it’s painfully unfortunate for a team to lose arguably two Top-5 defensive playmakers at their respective positions in the same week. Defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said last week there was just no way to sugar coat it. Those losses were “two devastating blows” to a defensive unit that finished top-10 in multiple categories last season. 

However, there’s still hope for one of them to return. Jones (foot surgery) can still come back in eight weeks at the earliest, so that’s something. On another encouraging note, the Falcons saw many answer the call Sunday — against a division rival no less.

Safety Ricardo Allen filled the shoes of the sharp-minded Neal by cementing himself as the next quarterback of the defense for Atlanta. As pointed out by Falcons commentator Dave Archer, Allen showed his ability to juggle multiple tasks while playing in the unfamiliar box-safety spot — lining guys up in the right places, reading the offense and directing fellow safety Jordan Richards — a recent free-agent signing that was thrown into the fire after starting safety Domontae Kazee was ejected in the first quarter. 

Allen hauled in a big interception while nearly snatching another one-handed in coverage. He made a strong case for being the next big leader for this unit.

Kazee faces a hefty fine in the near future, but most likely will not be suspended after his ill-timed helmet-to-helmet hit on Cam Newton on Sunday. His breakout pre-season is an indication he will be a viable threat at safety for Atlanta.

Here’s to hoping that the latest injury report reveals the ailments of DE Takk McKinley (groin) and Derrick Shelby (groin) are only minor.

Another was Wes Schweitzer — to my surprise. Once a major letdown, it can be argued that Schweitzer had his best performance of his NFL career by far after stepping in at left guard for Levitre, who was lost for the year with a triceps injury. To my memory, I only saw his name tagged to one penalty against Carolina, and he helped keep quarterback Ryan upright the entire game.

 OFFENSIVE REVIVAL

No exaggeration, the Falcons’ offense clicked on all cylinders against the Panthers in Week 2. Let’s start by saying an offense can do wonders when your quarterback is not staring down the barrel of a pass rush and has a decent pocket to throw in. Ryan completed passes to eight different receivers — including touchdown strikes to rookie wideout Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper — and ran it in himself for two rushing scores as Atlanta was a perfect 4 for 4 in the red zone. 

The Falcons’ establishing dominance at the line of scrimmage was huge in this matchup. The run game was phenomenal. Tevin Coleman — in place of Freeman — became the first running back in more than a season (22 games) to rush for over 100 yards against a stout Carolina front four. Rookie Ito Smith — aside from nearly fumbling the ball away on one carry — was hard to bring down between the tackles with some bruising runs. 

And Sarkisian — what can I say — probably called his best game as the Falcons OC and made this offense a mirror of the record-breaking 2016 squad. What impressed me the most about Sarkisian was his ability create mismatches, isolate certain Atlanta weapons in man coverage and most importantly, bring balance to this attack. On top of that, you saw a lot of 3rd-and-short situations, giving Atlanta more flexibility in the plays they wanted to run.

It was just a positive to see Ryan freely choose who to throw to instead of force-feeding the ball to start wideout Jones. This game really showed that despite being paper thin in terms of defensive depth, the Falcons have one of the deepest receiving corps in the league with sure No. 2 Mohamed Sanu, Ridley, Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall and Hooper among others to catch passes from Ryan.  

Now, there’s still room for improvement on Ryan’s deep ball, as he and Jones have yet to get their timing right on those plays, but I feel it’s coming sooner rather than later.

As long as the Falcons can consistently have this type of success on offense and stay healthy, there’s no reason to think that they can’t weather a long storm on defense until Deion Jones returns.

BACK TO RESILIENCY

The Falcons showed something that will not only keep them afloat this season, but possibly carry them toward yet another successful season: Resiliency. Instead of burying its head in the sand after the loss to Philly, Atlanta simply took full advantage of the mini-bye following the primetime game on Thursday night to regroup and rebound with a Week 2 win over NFC South foe Carolina at home Sunday. To an extent, they looked like the same squad that has made the playoffs the last two seasons.

The Panthers (1-1) did enter Week 2 banged up as well, but the Falcons showed a refusal to let up against a former MVP in Newton and a talented defense headlined by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Even against Philly — despite all the infractions, mishaps on offense and injuries — the Falcons still put themselves in position to win in a hostile road environment against the reigning Super Bowl champs. Quinn still appears to have this team mentally tough, and through their weekly preparation, equipped to roll with the punches in most game situations. 

Now it’s on to Week 3, where Atlanta welcomes in heated NFC South rival New Orleans (1-1), which essentially escaped with a win over Cleveland in New Orleans this past Sunday. Make no mistake, the Falcons resiliency should go on full display once again this Sunday against the Saints, who regardless of their record always seems to make this a nailbiter to the very end.

There still lies a big opportunity for the Falcons in this home division game. The Saints are already showing signs of dismay on defense, falling to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Tampa Bay Bucs, 48-40, in their opener and have let up 856 yards through the first two weeks.

There’s no need to jump ship just yet Falcons fans.

Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at swoodall@gainesvilletimes.com or @Woodall8sarah on Twitter.

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