Lesson learned: The Falcons (and Sarkisian) ran the ball at the end!
With 8:30 remaining in Houston, the Atlanta Falcons led 28-12 and faced third-and-1 at their 36-yard line. Kyle Shanahan called a pass. Devonta Freeman missed the blitzing Dont’a Hightower, who divested Matt Ryan from the ball. If you’re looking for the single most egregious moment in the greatest collapse in Super Bowl history, there it is.
With 4:54 remaining in Sunday night’s game against Green Bay, the Falcons led 34-23 and faced third-and-1 at their 36. Steve Sarkisian called a run, and not just any run. He had his MVP quarterback station himself as a wide receiver. Mohamed Sanu, once a college quarterback but now almost exclusively a wideout, took a direct snap from the Wildcat formation. Sanu handed the ball to Freeman, who gained eight yards up the gut.
Granted, it would have taken a lot for the Falcons not to win Sunday night. They’d led 31-7 and 34-10. But they’d led the Super Bowl by even more — citing the most famous partial score in NFL annals: 28-3 — and contrived not to win. But after taking that 25-point lead with 8-1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Falcons ran the ball four times, which still beggars belief. Here, however, is what the Falcons did against Green Bay:
On their first possession after assuming a 24-point lead, their first four plays were runs. Only after they crossed midfield did Sarkisian order a pass. This series would end in Matt Bryant’s 51-yard field goal. The Falcons held the ball for 5:14.
On their next possession, their lead having been reduced to 18 points, they ran four times before throwing an incompletion. They punted after holding the ball for 3:07.
On their next possession, the lead down to 11, six of their nine snaps were runs, the Sanu Wildcat moment included. Two of the three passes came after they’d been penalized for false starts (first Austin Hooper, then Andy Levitre) and needed more than 10 yards for a first down. They wound up punting after keeping the ball for 4:49 and leaving Aaron Rodgers with 62 seconds to override an 11-point lead. He couldn’t.
This was game management at something approaching its best. It was game management of the sort unseen on Feb. 5. No, the Packers’ defense isn’t as stout as the Patriots’, but still: In his first big test as offensive coordinator, Sarkisian put aside his ego — pass plays mean bigger offensive numbers, and coordinators live by their numbers — and doubled down on prudence.
After assuming a 24-point lead, the Falcons ran it 14 times against eight passes (plus one sack). If that didn’t placate those fans who always see running plays as nothing burgers, there could be no arguing with the result. The Falcons won by double digits and showed that, from the loss that can never be banished from this franchise’s careening history, they’d at least learned something.
Full disclosure: When I heard the Falcons’ latest slogan — All Gas, No Brakes — I cringed even more than when I hear any of their slogans. This one seemed oblivious to recent infamy. Dan Quinn’s mantra of Staying Aggressive ultimately denied his team a Lombardi Trophy. But, after Sunday night, I’m much relieved. Apparently No Brakes doesn’t mean No Brains.
The belief here is that Sarkisian’s offense will never hit the heights that Shanahan’s did (until, alas, it didn’t). But the Falcons needed to score in bunches last year because their defense was nothing special until Quinn took hold of it late in the season. This defense is capable of holding up its end and even winning the occasional game. This team shouldn’t need 40 points to feel safe.
Sarkisian called a nice game in helping the Falcons assume that 24-point lead. What he did afterward was even better. Color me impressed.