Over the first eight games of the season, the Falcons’ offense misfired under first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
“Just moving forward, everybody was just staying the course,” All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones said. “We didn’t point any fingers. We got down here and there with the run game, passing game and things like that.”
The Falcons’ offense started to click and has led the way during a three-game winning streak. The unit, averaging 27.6 points, has helped the Falcons post victories over Dallas (27-7), Seattle (34-31) and Tampa Bay (34-20).
The Falcons (7-4) will face a stiff test against the Minnesota Vikings (9-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in an NFC showdown with major playoff implications.
“When things aren’t going exactly the way you want, you can start trying to search and look too far,” Sarkisian said after practice Thursday. “Trying to do too much different.”
But the Falcons stayed with their core offensive plan. They added some more practice periods for third down and red-zone situations.
They just basically kept rubbing more polish on the offense and using some good old-fashioned elbow grease.
“I don’t think that we’ve done anything drastically different,” Sarkisian said. “We’ve made a few different emphasis here and there in practice, third down and red area, being most notably.
“Guys are making plays.”
Last week against the Bucs, it was All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones who turned in a monster game.
Against Seattle, it was role players such as wide receiver Justin Hardy and tight end Levine Toilolo, who came up with key plays.
In the Dallas win, wide receiver Taylor Gabriel was dynamic while Hardy and tight end Austin Hooper caught touchdown passes.
The offensive revival was simple for Jones.
“Everybody owning up to their job and just doing their job correctly,” Jones said. “The offensive line did a great job for us last week. That’s why we were able to go out there and be explosive.”
Sarkisian enjoyed watching Jones’ turn in his mega-game against the Bucs that landed him the NFC’s offensive player of the week award.
“I had as much fun as everybody did,” Sarkisan said. “Calling plays and knowing that he had a great shot to make another play. It was another thing to somewhat witness it, too. He’s a special player. A special athlete.”
The Falcons have climbed to the top of the NFL in third-down conversions after going 11-of-14 against Seattle. The offense has converted on 65.9 percent its third downs during the winning streak.
“One of the emphasis that we made … is that we are really trying to win first down,” Sarksian said. “Not that we are not taking shots, pushing the ball downfield and all of that, but we are really trying to stay ahead of the chains.
“That’s winning on first and second downs. It’s a lot easier to call plays on third-and-3, third-and-4, third-and-5 than it is on third-and-9, third-and-10 and third-and-11.”
Sarkisian may have his full stable of running backs against the Vikings. Devonta Freeman returned to practice Wednesday after he was released from the league’s concussion protocol.
Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Terron Ward should be available against the Vikings.
“We missed him dearly,” Sarkisian said. “We thought we played pretty well the last few weeks without him. We missed him, too. He’s such an asset as we all now.”
With Freeman out, Coleman took over at running back.
Coleman rushed 20 times for 83 yards and a touchdown against Dallas, 20 times for 43 yards and touchdown against Seattle and 19 times for 97 yards and two touchdowns against Tampa Bay.
Freeman had a solid start to the season, but had tailed off in weeks before suffering the concussion.
Through the first four games, Freeman had 70 carries for 285 yards and five touchdowns. Since the bye in Week 5, he has 46 carries for 230 yards and no touchdowns. For the season, he has rushed for 515 yards on 116 carries.
In the 20-17 loss to the Panthers on Nov. 5, Freeman had 11 carries for 46 yards. He left the Dallas game on the offense’s second play of the game.
Coleman has rushed 122 times for 539 yards and five touchdowns.
“There is no real secret on how we are going to integrate him,” Sarkisian said. “We are going to run our offense and do the things that he does really well.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan looks forward to getting Freeman back.
“It adds a lot of depth at that running back position,” Ryan said. “I thought Terron did a great job of stepping up in Devonta’s absence. To be able to use all three of those guys and keeping them fresh, is a good thing for us.”
Ryan believes the offense can continue to improve.
“It’s always a work in progress, and we’ve been better the last couple of weeks,” Ryan said. “I think we’ve been better in the red area, but we still (must) continue to work at it.”
After a few hot weeks, the Falcons rank No. 1 in third-down conversions at 48.09 percent on the season.
“In order to stay at a level that you want to stay at, it requires a lot of work,” Ryan said. “It still has to be a main focal point for us. Even when we watched the film from the game the other day, there were still opportunities where we could have made a play to two more on third downs.
“Until you’re operating at the highest level, we’ll continue to try and get there.”