OAKLAND -- The Atlanta Falcons finally found something that works in the red zone: If all else fails, just throw a pass that deflects off one player high in the air and is caught by another for a touchdown.
Maybe that wasn't exactly how offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan drew it up, but wide receiver Justin Hardy's 8-yard touchdown off a deflected Matt Ryan pass that bounced off the hands of running back Tevin Coleman proved to be a crucial score in the Falcons' 35-28 road win Sunday over the Oakland Raiders.
Red zone ineffectiveness was one of the biggest issues the Falcons needed to clean up going into the season. It lingered in a 31-24 season-opening loss the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as the Falcons went 1-4 in the red zone.
Then a major breakthrough occurred Sunday, but only after another rocky start. The Falcons began 0-3 on touchdowns in the red zone, including Raiders cornerback David Amerson's interception of Ryan on a poorly thrown ball to Jacob Tamme. The other two trips resulted in field goals of 21 and 20 yards by Matt Bryant.
The Falcons didn't implode, however. They found their offensive rhythm using the no-huddle and getting the tight ends more involved than usual. The first red zone breakthrough was Ryan's 14-yard touchdown pass to Tamme down the middle. A two-point conversion on Ryan's keeper followed, and the Falcons started to gather steam.
The Hardy score was his first career touchdown. Coleman followed with a 13-yard touchdown run in the red zone that proved to be the deciding score.
It was far from a perfect day for the Falcons. Those early red zone woes will be dissected back and forth. Penalties again became an issue, including a 12-men-on-the-field call on Dashon Goldson during special teams that allowed the Raiders to keep the ball and score a touchdown. Plus, cornerback Robert Alford was whistled for a pass interference that set up another Raiders touchdown.
Regardless, the offense showed signs of progress by compiling 528 yards and punching it in the end zone when it needed to most. Ryan completed 26 of 34 passes for 396 yards with three touchdowns. He spread the ball around to nine receivers. And Julio Jones was his usual self, catching five passes for 106 yards with a touchdown.
If the Falcons can build off the momentum, maybe their Week 3 game against the rival New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football will mark their first NFC South win of the season.