Steve Sarkisian will never be Kyle Shananan, but it’s days like these when he reminds us he’s not Elmer Fudd. The man who replaced Shanahan as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator had another in a series of underwhelming showings in the opener at Philadelphia. Ten days later, Sark was a veritable shark. Almost every play he called Sunday had, ahem, bite.
The Falcons stacked 442 yards against a Carolina defense that's supposed to be stout. Matters got close at the end, but even had the Panthers' D.J. Moore held the pass that smacked off his hands in the end zone at 0:00 – DeVondre Campbell and Robert Alford executed a double-team but somehow neglected to play the ball – it would've been hard to see the visitors leaving with an overtime victory. The Falcons were thoroughly the better side. This 31-24 victory marked a get-well day.
Wonder of wonders, they scored touchdowns in all their excursions inside the Carolina 20. Coming off 1-for-5 in Philly, they went 4-for-4. They started slowly, settling for a field goal on their first possession and punting on the next. Then they got going: Touchdown, touchdown, long interception when Matt Ryan’s arm was hit as he delivered, touchdown, punt, touchdown. After trailing 10-3, they led 24-10 and then 31-17.
This being the NFL, you figured the game would tighten toward its end. Duke Riley’s missed tackle – Riley is playing more snaps due to the absence of Deion Jones, the Falcons’ best defender – allowed Moore to run for the 51-yard touchdown that made things interesting. Tevin Coleman was stopped on third-and-1 at the two-minute warning, and for a moment you thought of accusing Sarkisian for Getting Too Conservative. Then you recall what happened when Shanahan didn’t run the ball with a 25-point lead, and the notion passed.
Big-picture-wise, Sarkisian called a splendid game. He sought to slow Carolina’s prized front seven by running wide, which didn’t yield immediate dividends. But, as Dan Quinn, Sarkisian’s boss, said afterward: “You have to stay with it. You have to keep pounding. We knew there were going to be some 1’s and zero’s (meaning short or non-gains).”
The flanking action inexorably wore the Panthers to a frazzle. With Devonta Freeman sidelined with a knee knock, Coleman set a career-best with 107 yards rushing. Ito Smith, suddenly the No. 2 back, gained 46. Ryan scored two rushing touchdowns for the first time as a pro. Against the team that lives to Keep Pounding, the Falcons pounded harder – 170 rushing yards to Carolina’s 121.
And when the Falcons got around to slinging it, as they invariably do, they were deft at that, too. Ryan completed 23 of 28 passes for 272 yards. The rookie Calvin Ridley caught his first four NFL passes, a touchdown among them. (“We were determined to get him involved,” Quinn said.) Indeed, the game’s signature drive was a Ryan mini-classic – seven plays to go 85 yards in 1:13, the touchdown pass to Austin Hooper putting them ahead 17-10 with 28 seconds left in the half.
Five different Falcons, none being Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu, caught passes on that possession – Ridley Coleman, Hooper, Marvin Hall, Smith and Hooper again. “It was huge,” Ryan said of the drive. “Anytime you get points right before the half, your chances of winning go way up. I thought Sark did a great job of calling plays.”
Quinn again: “I was pleased to see we had balance in our run game and the play-action that goes with it.”
Ryan on the red-zone instant upgrade: “Our execution was better. … When we got our chances, we nailed them.”
In the main, the Falcons were excellent on a day when they needed to be. The exception was second-year safety Damontae Kazee, fast becoming the NFL's dirtiest player. After a preseason that saw him flagged twice for targeting and render Jacksonville receiver Marqise Lee out for the season with a low hit, he was ejected Sunday for initiating helmet-to-helmet contact with Cam Newton, who'd gone into a slide. There's a chance Kazee will face a suspension, and the Falcons, who are without Keanu Neal, are running low on safeties.
Quinn on Kazee: “We’ve got work to do in that area. His effort is so on point that I know we can get the technique right.”
Apart from Kazee’s bit of craziness – you’ve doubtless seen the play, and you know there’s no defending it – the Falcons we saw Sunday were the Falcons we expected to see before they went to Philadelphia and gagged again. Said Quinn: “We were (ticked) as a team we didn’t perform the way we can.”
Now they have. As Ryan said, “One of the things you learn in this league is that they all count one.” His team is 1-1, with two more home games upcoming, and the offensive coordinator often portrayed – in this space and others – as substandard just had himself a nice day. There’s hope for this crew yet.
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