CHARLOTTE, NC -- It wasn't perfect. It wasn't even complete. But in the Falcons 29-21 win in Charlotte over the Panthers, it was enough. The Falcons took advantage of the moments Carolina gave them, but they also continued to take steps in the right direction.
Arthur Smith was particularly pleased with the play of those along the line of scrimmage on Sunday. Between the offensive line's contributions in the run game and the defensive line's work in stopping the run, the line of scrimmage was secure.
The same couldn't be said of the play of these units last Sunday against Tampa Bay, but they showed up with a determination to be better in Week 14 against another divisional opponent. This whole idea of stepping up after being brought down is something that has almost become a moniker of Smith's team. They keep sticking around. The line of scrimmage didn't perform well against Tampa Bay. They flipped the script against Carolina.
"It's not perfect, and there are things that we have to clean up," Smith said, "but that's our job."
Smith said he saw a certain physicality come to life in Carolina, and perhaps it's a physicality the Falcons have missed at times this season. When asked if that's what he wants these units to be known for - their physicality - Smith said very simply: "Absolutely."
Truly, that was all that needed to be said.
"What you saw out there is guys making a commitment to shut the run down, but I thought we were very physical on both lines of scrimmage," Smith said. "I thought we played pretty decent complimentary football. We were able to run the ball, too... If we're going to be a physical team and win in December we have to run the ball, and I thought we did that today."
Let's start with the offensive line. When asked what the difference in the run game has been the last three weeks, running back Mike Davis said he has to point to the improvements the offensive line has made in creating holes for the running backs. The Falcons ran for 128 yards on Sunday. This was the third game in a row the Falcons have ran for more than 100 yards in a game.
"The line moved," Smith said. "We saw that line of scrimmage move."
Sometimes it takes time for concepts to take hold and a unit to completely understand what is being asked of them. Matt Ryan said you can see this specific development happening in real time within this offensive line. He said it's pretty obvious that "confidence is building" with the group.
Now, let's discuss the defensive line.
Mykal Walker said this defensive front "took it personally." And by "it" he means the need to stop the run. Against Carolina back in Week 8, the Panthers ran for over 200 yards. Coming into the game, defensive coordinator Dean Pees said when you play a team twice, they're going to attack in the same way that worked the first time, "to see if you fixed it."
On Sunday, that previous production from the divisional opponents last meeting was cut in half. The Panthers only ran for 91 yards on Sunday.
The Falcons won the turnover battle, too. Walker had a 66-yard pick-six. AJ Terrell accounted for his second pick on the season. Grady Jarrett recovered a fumble. And though the Falcons only had one sack, the pressure on Cam Newton and PJ Walker was there throughout all four quarters. The differences between Atlanta's defensive stats from last week to this week are stark when compared with one another.
And something that was a noticeable difference from one week to the next was also the fact that the Falcons capitalized on opportunities that they didn't before. Meanwhile, Carolina didn't. And that was the difference in the game.
Though Ryan said there were still plenty of moments in which the Falcons missed opportunities, they were fewer and farther between than they've seen them be up unto this point. Though the Falcons didn't score after Terrell's interception, they did after Jarrett's fumble recovery. They also put up three after Dante Fowler sacked Newton for a loss of 10 on fourth down in the fourth quarter.
They stayed on schedule with the run, bleeding the clock out to ultimately win the game. They applied pressure when it mattered most. At the end of the day, the Falcons still have areas in which they know they can play better, but simply trending in the right direction at this point in time in this organizational overhaul? That's good news for the Falcons.
"I still think there is more consistency (out there) for us," Ryan concluded. "... I still think that our best football is ahead."
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