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Falcons Return To Winning Ways With Victory Against Cardinals – Week 12 Recap

Falcons owner Arthur Blank Atlanta Falcons via Flickr


The Atlanta Falcons inched one step closer to a playoff spot with a 38-19 week 12 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons moved to 7-4 and have done a good job thus far this season navigating their way through a schedule which was ranked as the toughest in the league when the schedule was announced. The team will be disappointed that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to beat the Seattle Seahawks and stay one game behind them in the race for the NFC South, but their fate is very much in their own hands.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals fell to 4-6 and, sitting 3 games behind the Seahawks, will likely need to win out if they want to force their way into the postseason.


The Falcons once again showed just how difficult it is to contain them on offense when they spread the ball around. Matt Ryan found 8 different receivers and the Cardinals’ defense, which had been ranked first in the league prior to the encounter, struggled to disrupt the Falcons’ rhythm.

Taylor Gabriel, who the Falcons claimed on waivers after he was deemed surplus to requirements by a Cleveland Browns side desperate for playmakers, showed exactly why offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan was so keen to reunite with him. The diminutive speedster reportedly ran a 4.28 second 40 yard dash at his Abilene Christian Pro Day coming out of college and few Cardinals defenders would dispute that claim after he torched them for 75 yards and 2 touchdowns on 4 catches. Both touchdowns came on screen passes and one of Shanahan’s greatest strengths is his ability to exploit matchups and scheme players into space, with Gabriel showing blazing speed and impressive cutting ability.

While none of the wide receivers posted eye-catching totals, it was Mohamed Sanu who lead the way with 8 catches for 65 yards. Sanu has shown the ability to make clutch plays when the pressure is on and looks to be a clear upgrade on the number two wide receiver position from a year ago when Roddy White was struggling to separate and looked out of tune with the offense. Sanu’s versatility was shown when he lined up at quarterback in a wildcat formation, but his true value in the offense comes on third downs and in the red zone when he’s able to use his physicality to beat defensive backs.

The Falcons’ best chance of succeeding will be to continue to develop a stable group of receivers behind Julio Jones, so that the responsibility doesn’t just fall to one person if Jones isn’t finding success. While he’s clearly one of the most dominant players in the league, Jones has shown inconsistent hands a few times this season and is developing an unfortunate habit that is seeing passes that he’s unable to secure bouncing into the air off his hands and allowing easy interceptions for defenders. Jones is the best wide receiver that the Falcons have ever had and makes far more outstanding plays than bad plays, but with the team relying so heavily on its offense he needs to make sure that he’s not turning over possession.

The offensive line proved once again that the front office was wise in investing in it. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder far outplayed his rookie deal after arriving as an undrafted free agent from Valdosta State and has been rewarded with a new contract emphasizing his value to the team. Alex Mack was one of the best signings of free agency and has provided consistency and leadership at center, while Jake Matthews has stepped into the upper echelon of left tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, none of Matthews, Mack or Schraeder allowed a single hurry, hit or sack in 42 pass protection snaps.

Allowing Matt Ryan to have time in the pocket allows him to progress through his reads and second year wide receiver Justin Hardy took full advantage of that on Sunday as Ryan found him on a play action pass that saw the former 4th round pick showcasing his ball skills and athleticism with a huge catch over one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson.

It was another in which the running game never really got going, but Devonta Freeman was able to get the tough yards when needed and the coaching staff will have been delighted to see him and Tevin Coleman get three short yardage touchdowns between them, taking the pressure off Matt Ryan in a section of the field in which the quarterback has historically struggled to convert. While Coleman lacked the explosive plays that he has shown in the past, managing only 13 yards on 10 touches, he didn’t look as if he was being held back by the hamstring injury that had kept him out of previous games.

The one concern for the Falcons moving forward would be how the offensive line protects “Matty Ice”. Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher dialed up pressure on three consecutive plays and Matt Ryan was left to face free rushers.


The defense was dealt a huge blow when it was revealed that Desmond Trufant is going to need season-ending surgery for a torn pectoral muscle. Attention now shifts to 2015’s second round pick Jalen Collins. Collins missed the beginning of the season with a suspension after taking performance-enhancing drugs and, was inactive upon his return.

After only appearing on special teams in his season debut against the San Diego Chargers in week seven, Collins has impressed since being inserted into the defense. He put a big hit on Jameis Winston when the quarterback ran for the end zone against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and gave up very little against the Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receivers, but he was rarely targeted.

Sunday was the first opportunity to really see him in coverage and Dan Quinn will have been thrilled as Collins consistently got the better of Michael Floyd. We knew that he had the athleticism, but he showed a greater understanding of the game and routes than he did in his rookie year. He got a little bit lucky with a ball bouncing off his helmet on one occasion, but he’s still learning the game and the knowledge of when to turn his head will come with experience.

Perhaps the greatest difference in the Falcons’ defense this season is the ability to generate pressure. They have lacked a pass rush in the past, but the emergence of Vic Beasley has sparked the pass rush.. Beasley was unable to add to his 9.5 sacks on the season but he terrorized Carson Palmer throughout the game, with Pro Football Focus crediting him with 2 quarterback hits and 6 hurries. Nobody is going to confuse the Falcons for the elite pass rush of the Denver Broncos, but in 3rd and long situations it’s no longer a case of the opposing quarterback being able to progress through his reads with time.

The concern for head coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith will be the ease with which the Cardinals were able to move the ball on the game’s first drive. Lapses in the Falcons’ zone coverage saw receivers wide open and left the team on the back foot immediately. While David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are always capable of making plays, John Brown and Jermaine Gresham should never be given the space that they were.

Special Teams

Special teams gets its own section for the first time this season in order to give a mention to Matt Wile. The punter signed last week once it became clear that Matt Bosher wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday. In his first NFL game, Wile excelled.  His kickoffs eliminated the possibility of a long return and his punts had enough height and depth that the Cardinals struggled to field punts. Wile was waived on Tuesday due to the return of Bosher, but given the lack of quality punters in the league he definitely performed well enough to earn a chance with another team somewhere down the line.


The Falcons needed this victory. While the team looks far stronger than it did in 2015, the memories of last season’s collapse after a 5-0 start would have returned had they fallen to 6-5. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on a run of form that has thrust them firmly into playoff contention, the Falcons know that they need to continue winning.

Next up on the schedule is another home game with the Kansas City Chiefs visiting. With a run-based offense and a punishing defense, the Chiefs are one of the best teams in the NFL.