With wide receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel added to the roster behind All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, the Falcons’ receivers group ranks second in the NFL in receiving yards per game, with 324.7, and has become one of the more reliable position groups on the team — but that doesn’t change the player’s desire to improve.
Over the bye week, coach Dan Quinn challenged the players as to how each could improve personally and in their position groups for the rest of the season.
“It’s a huge challenge to see how good we can get, and that’s what we’ve challenged the team with,” Quinn said. “The areas you can improve upon not just for the players, but for the coaches, too, with our planning, our teaching, and our drilling of the information.”
A starter in each of the Falcons’ 10 games, Sanu has 430 receiving yards on 39 receptions and three touchdowns and is on track to break his single-season personal best for receptions, 56 catches (for 790 yards) in 2014 with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sanu and the receivers, have their minds set on making the most of the opportunities they’re given on the field.
“We just said we just have to improve on executing day in and day out,” Sanu said. “Always work on the little details and let the big things take care of themselves.”
In his first year as a Falcon, Sanu is on track for 90 receptions for 688 receiving yards — more than former Falcons receiver Roddy White, who finished last season with 506 receiving yards — and ranks second on the Falcons’ roster in catches and receiving yards, behind only Jones.
In addition to Sanu, who signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract as a free agent in March, the Falcons claimed Gabriel off waivers from the Cleveland Browns in September. Gabriel has proved to be a more productive receiver than former Falcons receiver Leonard Hankerson, who finished 2015 with 327 receiving yards, fifth most on the team.
“As a group I would say that going into the game plan being on every detail in every aspect of the game plan I feel like we can all lock into that,” Gabriel said.
Although Jones is the primary target on the field, Gabriel sees himself and the other receivers as options when defenses double-team Jones.
“(We bring) the different element and a different threat,” Gabriel said. “If you want to double Julio, who’s going to be guarding us? Then we get man-to-man and I feel and we take advantage of that — me, Sanu, to (Justin) Hardy, to (Aldrick) Robinson, to (Eric) Weems to everyone that’s out there. Just take advantage of the one-on-one matchups, and if they want to keep doubling Julio, I feel like we keep taking advantage of that.”
Gabriel has caught for 303 receiving yards on 17 receptions and two touchdowns this season with the biggest play of his season and career coming from a 76-yard touchdown against the Eagles on Nov. 13. Gabriel is on track to end the season with 485 receiving yards.
The Falcons had 255 receiving yards against the Eagles, 135 of which belonged to Jones. Sanu caught both receptions from quarterback Matt Ryan against the Eagles for a season-low of 14 yards.
Sanu credits the Eagles defensive line for making big plays while keeping the Falcons below their season average of 332.4 passing yards per game entering the game.
“We just didn’t get anything going I don’t feel like,” Sanu said. “I felt like we weren’t in a rhythm, and we just couldn’t get going in the right direction.”
As the Falcons prepare to play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Sanu couldn’t be more excited about his matchup with the Cardinals defense, which allows 190 receiving yards allowed per game, the lowest receiving yardage allowed in the league.
“I just see that they’re very fast, they’re physical, they’re up in your face,” Sanu said. “As a competitor, it’s the defense you like to play against.”