The main storyline from the Atlanta Falcons’ 29-3 victory against the Carolina Panthers was a defense that forced four interceptions and recorded five sacks, but the offense deserves a lot of credit for Sunday’s outcome.
Carolina’s defense entered Sunday ranked 12th against the pass, allowing 226.8 yards per game, and leading the league with 36 sacks. Although the Panthers did sack Matt Ryan three times, they had no answer for the Falcons’ passing attack.
Looking really sharp throughout the afternoon, especially on his longer passes, Ryan threw for 311 yards with one touchdown, earning a 111.1 quarterback rating. More importantly, Ryan earned his seventh win in his last eight games against the Panthers.
Ryan’s most effective target on Sunday was second-year receiver Calvin Ridley, who caught all eight of the passes thrown his way for 143 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown catch. It was on that touchdown pass to Ridley that Ryan jumped Hall of Famer Warren Moon and moved to No. 10 on the NFL’s all-time passing yards list.
"As his role is growing bigger and bigger over the last month, I thought he's responded," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Ridley.
Their connection began on the first drive of the game when Ryan hit Ridley with a perfect touch pass for a 34-yard gain. That completion moved the Falcons into field goal territory, and Younghoe Koo knocked it in from 38 yards out to give Atlanta an early 3-0 lead. The Falcons would never relinquish that lead.
Despite building a sizeable cushion on the scoreboard, the Falcons remained willing to throw the ball in the second half. Atlanta didn’t chuck it around as often as it did before halftime, but the Falcons were incredibly efficient when they took to the air.
Ryan completed seven of his 11 pass attempts for 96 yards and a touchdown after halftime, and six of those completions went for a first down. The lone completion that didn’t result in a first down was the 6-yard touchdown pass to Ridley. In total, 15 of the Falcons’ 20 first downs against the Panthers came through the air.
While Ridley, who put together the third 100-yard outing of his career, was Atlanta’s leading receiver, the guy opposite him had a pretty good day as well.
Julio Jones finished his afternoon with six catches for 91 yards, including a Willie Mays-esque catch for 48 yards with All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly playing perfect coverage – just not as perfect as Ryan’s impeccable throw.
"When you're having a shot, and you have accuracy on a deep play, those are daggers," Quinn said. "It's like the NBA guy who can step back way behind the three-point line and drain one when you need it. He threw some daggers tonight."
The catch set up the Falcons for their second touchdown of the game, a 2-yard run by rookie Qadree Ollison on the first carry of his career. Ollison’s 2-yard touchdown run was one of the few bright spots for Atlanta’s run game on Sunday, which was missing starting running back Devonta Freeman. Against a Panthers defense ranked 29th against the run coming into the game, the Falcons gained just 54 yards on 26 carries, an average of 2.1 yards per carry.
Maintaining the lead allowed the Falcons to be consistent with the run, however, which played a large role in their effectiveness through the air.
The Falcons accomplished all of that without tight end Austin Hooper, who was tied for the league lead in touchdowns and receptions by a tight end through the first 10 weeks of the season. Hooper missed Sunday’s game due to a knee injury, but backup tight end Jaeden Graham made a pair of nice plays in his absence.
Graham caught two passes for 23 yards, including an 11-yard gain on a third-and-10 in the fourth quarter that led to another Koo field goal. Second-year receiver Russell Gage also made a pair of nice plays, finishing his afternoon with 32 yards as his role on the offense continues to expand.
Atlanta’s victory against New Orleans in Week 10 was undoubtedly impressive, but the Falcons’ pass offense was less so, gaining just 182 yards. That changed in a big way on Sunday against the Panthers, serving as a reminder that this offense can be as dangerous as any in the league when things are clicking.
"We've got special players on the outside," Ryan said. "Guys that can make you pay, and both of our guys - Julio and Calvin - they played extremely well today. (Ridley) had a huge game. It was great to see from him."
With the Falcons’ defense playing like an elite unit for the last eight quarters, Atlanta has become a truly complete team after the bye week.