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Posted at 02:50 PM ET, 12/22/2011

Matt Ryan, Falcons may have found offensive identity just in time to face Saints on Monday night


Matt Ryan is finally getting a change to spread his wings in Atlanta’s no-huddle offense. (Kevin C. Cox - Getty Images)
Watching the Atlanta Falcons in 2011 has been the equivalent of stumbling upon a movie late at night while flipping through your television channels.

At one point you heard the movie was supposed to be good but you never saw it because you had your doubts. On a whole it’s disappointing. It’s choppy and it leaves a lot to be desired. One minute it’s decent, the next you’re confused by the lack of creativity and focus. There are several moments when you think about turning it off because you know you’ll be left unsatisfied when it’s all said and done.

But you don’t because there are enough quality pieces to make you believe that at some point, it’ll all come together in the end. So you wait.

We’re about to find out a lot about the 2011 Falcons. They travel to New Orleans on Monday night to take on a Saints team that has been unbeatable at home this year (both literally and figuratively).

The Saints are 6-0 at the Superdome, are averaging nearly 40 points a game offensively and are holding opponents to 18 ppg defensively. Considering they’ve already beaten the Falcons in Atlanta earlier this year, what makes anyone think the Saints will lose at home in primetime against their biggest rivals?

But the Falcons have looked like a completely different team over the past six quarters. Ever since they trailed 23-7 at halftime to the Panthers in Carolina two weeks ago, they’ve played perfect football. Granted, offenses more dysfunctional than the Falcons’ have scored on Carolina and Jacksonville (whom Atlanta thumped 41-14 last Thursday) this year. But look close enough and you’ll see a Falcons team transitioning into something everyone expected it would become when it drafted Julio Jones back in April.

For the past three and a half years, Mike Smith and his coaching staff have played things ultra conservatively. The offense revolved around Michael Turner and the ground game because offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is most comfortable calling a “smashmouth” style of offense. There hasn’t been a need for Smith and his coaching staff to rock the boat seeing as how they’re 42-20 since 2008.


The Falcons will have their hands full trying to stop big-play tight end Jimmy Graham. (Charlie Neibergall - Associated Press)
But the Falcons are also 0-2 under Smith in the playoffs because they’ve been unwilling or unable to adapt. Until now, that is.

Unless forced to, Smith and Mularkey have been hesitant to run the no-huddle offense on a full-time basis, which is a crime when you consider how successful Matt Ryan has been calling the shots at the line of scrimmage. But over the past few weeks, the Falcons have almost exclusively gone with the no-huddle attack and now they may have found their true identity offensively.

Ryan has seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his last two games as the Falcons have mostly gone no-huddle. He’s getting the ball out of his hands quickly, which has kept his sack total down, and Mularkey has finally made adjustments to his route designs to get his receivers moving forward instead of back to the ball. For years the Atlanta wideouts have failed to generate yards after catch because they’re constantly stopping and sitting on routes in Mularkey’s scheme. But now we’re starting to see Jones and Roddy White make more plays downfield because Mularkey is finally getting them in space.

Mularkey is also doing a better job of mixing up his personnel. For years the plan has been to hand the ball off to Turner 25-plus times a game and hope to eek out enough points in the end to win. But now he’s starting to get guys like Harry Douglas and Jacquizz Rodgers more involved, which will only help the Falcons’ cause. One of the reasons why the Saints have been so successful is because Sean Payton uses his full complement of weapons.

Which leads us back to the Falcons’ opponent on Monday night. The Saints aren’t the Panthers or Jaguars. Even though Atlanta’s defense has been the strength of the team this season, Drew Brees and Co. will score. It can’t be overstated that the Falcons have largely been a disappointment this year mostly because of their inconsistency on offense, so if Ryan sputters than so too will Atlanta.

But hang tight because we’re about to find out whether or not this flick will be worth sticking around for in the end.

By Anthony Stalter  |  02:50 PM ET, 12/22/2011

Tags:  Anthony Stalter

 
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