The Falcons’ margin for error this season remains slim, but there are encouraging aspects of this team that they can build upon after the bye week as they fight to stay in playoff contention.
There’s no doubt that if Atlanta is to make a run at the postseason for the third straight season it will need to clean up some of the inconsistencies it showed over the first seven games. However, those inconsistencies have, at times, overshadowed some pretty big positives that will form the foundation for any type of playoff push in the coming weeks.
With some time to reflect on the first half of the 2018 season, it’s time to illuminate some of the things that have gone right for the Falcons.
1. No more worrying about the red-zone offense
Let’s start with what may have been the biggest reason for hand-wringing among the fan base heading into the season, and especially after Week 1: The red-zone offense.
Following their 1-for-5 performance in the red zone against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Falcons’ offense has been on a tear inside of the 20-yard line. Atlanta has converted 15 of its 18 attempts since Week 1, which equates to a success rate of 83 percent. The Seattle Seahawks have the NFL’s best red-zone offense thus far, converting 73 percent of their trips to the red zone. The Falcons are currently ranked No. 6 in that category with a 69.6-percent success rate, but they’re well above that mark after Week 1.
For all of the complaining about Julio Jones’ lack of targets in the red zone and his zero touchdowns thus far, he’s a big reason why Atlanta is having success in that area of the field. If the NFL had a way of tracking assists near the goal line, he’d have a lot of them.
The attention he commands from opposing defenses opens up space for other players, and the Falcons have done a good job of attacking that space. The play below is a good example of this.
Cincinnati’s safety is shaded over top of Jones to provide support, and he’s too far out of position to get over and help cover Logan Paulsen once the Falcons’ tight end beat his man.
Sarkisian’s second-year knowledge of his players and how to use them has paid off in the red zone this season, and the Falcons have done a much better job of executing the plays when they are available.
2. Calvin Ridley has become a real weapon
One such player who has performed well in the red zone is rookie receiver Calvin Ridley. His precise route-running and balance make Ridley especially effective in tight spaces near the goal line, but he’s also developed into a player who can be a major asset anywhere on the field.
Ridley has 27 catches for 392 yards and six touchdowns so far, which are tied for the second-most in the NFL and just one behind Tyreek Hill’s seven touchdown catches.
With players like Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the Falcons didn’t need Ridley to become a staple of this offense right away as a rookie, but he has. His physical ability, combined with his advanced feel for the game, has made Ridley a player defenses have to pay attention to.
We will probably be seeing a few more plays like these during the second half of the season:
3. Grady Jarrett continues to play at a high level
While the Falcons’ defense is missing many of its big-name players, they still have Grady Jarrett. The fourth-year defensive tackle led the way for Atlanta’s defense in the win against the Giants, recording two sacks and five tackles.
His stats aren’t eye-popping this season, but watch Jarrett play week in and week out and it becomes clear that he impacts a lot of plays, even if he doesn’t end up making the tackle.
On the play below, Jarrett split the Bengals’ double team, preventing running back Mark Walton from getting downhill on the edge when he wanted to. This gave the Falcons’ defense enough time to beat Walton to the edge and make the tackle. Jarrett also got held slightly on the play.
Takk McKinley is another defensive lineman who deserves a shout-out for his performance over the first half of the season. His 5.5 sacks are tied for 11th-most in the NFL, and he’s been better against the run so far this year.
4. Damontae Kazee has risen to the occasion
In the preseason it became clear Damontae Kazee was a promising player entering his second year. The Falcons likely weren’t anticipating putting him in a starting role as early as Week 2, but he’s been an effective replacement for Ricardo Allen.
Kazee can’t yet match what Allen brings to the game mentally, but he’s been a good player on Sunday’s. One of the most reliable tacklers on the Falcons’ defense, Kazee can be both a safety blanket as the last man a runner has to beat and an enforcer who makes plays behind the line of scrimmage like he did against Saquon Barkley.
Combine that tackling ability with his nose for the football in the air, and Kazee has been a big bright spot for the secondary when the Falcons really needed him to be.
5. Matt Ryan is again playing like an MVP candidate
Let’s end on the biggest reason for optimism, Matt Ryan. The NFL’s 2016 MVP is playing like one again in 2018.
Ryan currently leads all NFL quarterbacks with 2,335 passing yards, and his two interceptions are the third-fewest in the league. Ryan has completed 71.1 percent of his passes this season, the third-best mark among quarterbacks, and his 114.2 quarterback rating is also third-best among current starting quarterbacks.
In short, Ryan is playing as well as he ever has right now. And in a league that has become ever more defined by offenses and scoring, having a red-hot quarterback who is playing as well as any in the league is something the Falcons can certainly work with.