Redskins could have problems with Falcons' O, but can move on their D

ASHBURN, Va. -- Three things I learned about the Atlanta Falcons after watching some games and talking to Washington Redskins players and coaches:

Devonta Freeman can play. The Falcons have enough weapons on offense with quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones. But they have another in Freeman, their second-year running back. The last two weeks, Freeman has provided energy for the offense -- not to mention a lot of yards. He’s gained a combined 342 yards from scrimmage the last two weeks. But here’s the thing: That’s more than he had gained in his previous 11 games combined. Freeman had never surpassed 100 total yards of offense until two weeks ago. However, there will be more such days. Freeman can run with violence, but he will also bounce runs to the outside. The quick cuts make him difficult in the open field and on screens. He’s caught 10 passes for 133 yards the past two weeks combined. Freeman has pressed the hole well the past two games. The Falcons will use the same run plays you saw in Washington under Kyle Shanahan: inside zone tosses (on occasion), outside zone. Freeman hits narrow creases fast, which makes him difficult to contain. Also, the Falcons will use Jones as a decoy to help Freeman. They’ll sometimes use him in a bubble action to get defenders moving out of a gap, then hit them with Freeman. Or, in one red zone play, they aligned Freeman as a fullback and Jones as a tailback. They sent Jones to the left, taking two defenders away from the middle and ran Freeman up the middle for a touchdown.

Matt Ryan is a good fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Ryan is not perfect and has his flaws. He misses low to receivers quite a bit and throws with a lower release. That’s partly why he’s had seven passes batted down at the line of scrimmage (third most in the NFL), according to ESPN Stats & Information. So defenders must make sure to get their hands up (hello, Jason Hatcher). But Ryan is an excellent quarterback having a good year. He’s averaging 8.4 yards per pass attempt (career average: 7.2). It helps that they move Jones around so much to create mismatches and a little confusion -- and better matchups for others. Ryan has only attempted eight passes of 20 yards or more (putting him on pace for a career-low, by far, in this area). But he’s completed seven of those throws in part because receivers are open, sometimes just by talent (Jones) and other times by design. He also trusts Jones quite a bit and, against the Giants for example, made some throws that a quarterback wouldn’t make if not for Jones’ presence. Ryan is on pace to tie his career-high for play-action pass attempts in a season (104); he’s averaging a career-best 11.0 yards per attempt. But that only accounts for 6.5 throws per game; what helps the offense is that he does not need play-action to be effective. Also, he will use every part of the field, but he’s been most successful throwing outside the numbers to the right side.

You need to be patient against their defense. Coach Dan Quinn is using a lot of what Seattle does, which makes sense given that’s where he had been the defensive coordinator. The Falcons do not give up a lot of big plays in the passing game and force teams to drive methodically down the field. But what that means is the underneath throws are often available and it’s a good way to move the ball against them. (The Falcons have allowed 61 catches to tight ends and backs, second most in the NFL.) That means quarterback Kirk Cousins needs to be patient because when you force the ball against this defense, they can make you pay with turnovers. However, if the underneath stuff starts hurting them, look for a deep shot or two. The Falcons won’t always play with an eighth defender in the box, but they will be closer to the line than usual. Rookie linebacker Vic Beasley often just plays in the nickel; his speed is impressive. Beasley will occasionally play on the left side (127 of his 140 snaps have come on the right, according to ESPN Stats & Information). He has just two sacks, but can be tough on stunts up the middle, especially when starting several yards outside the tackle as he’ll sometimes do. Linebacker Kroy Biermann plays the run well. And linemen Jonathan Babineaux, Paul Soliai and Adrian Clayborn are effective, especially playing with power. Corner Desmond Trufant will play up on receivers and reacts well when the ball is in the air. It’s a beatable defense if you don’t turn the ball over.