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Atlanta's success reminds Washington of what it doesn't have

Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire

ATLANTA -- You can't tell the story of the Atlanta Falcons' surprising 5-0 start without explaining what quarterback Matt Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have meant to each other. There's a long list of teams that wish they had a true franchise quarterback and a top-notch playcaller like the Falcons, who reminded the Washington Redskins what they're missing in rallying Sunday for a 25-19 victory in overtime.

Against one of Shanahan's former teams, the Falcons again showed the rest of the league what they have on offense -- starting with that crucial combination.

"Kyle is just a great, great coordinator," said Falcons starting right guard Chris Chester, who played under Shanahan in Washington. "He has such a great feel for the game. He just senses when you want to attack, when you want to run inside, run outside, run a screen or take a [deep] shot ... and not all coordinators have that feel for it.

"Matt is just a tremendous professional. He's a pro's pro. His talent, work ethic and knowledge -- you can't ask for anything more in a quarterback. And then with their relationship, it really is a credit to both of them, just the way they both approach it ... to help us do everything we want to do. It really works."

The results speak for themselves.

The Ryan-Shanahan partnership has helped Dan Quinn become the first Falcons rookie head coach to go undefeated through five games. And although the Falcons play in the NFC South, they can also lay claim to being atop the NFC East: Atlanta completed the season sweep of the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Redskins.

Deservedly, Quinn gets credit for instilling a fight-to-the-final-second mindset in a team that went 10-22 combined the past two seasons -- "Dan talks all the time about, regardless of the situation, you have to go out there and compete," Ryan said -- and the Falcons displayed their mettle on a day when they often were out of sync offensively. But it's Shanahan and Ryan who have teamed to provide a great foundation on offense.

Even with superstar wide receiver Julio Jones clearly slowed because of a hamstring injury, which obviously adversely affected Ryan in his shakiest outing of the season, the Falcons amassed 418 total net yards against an improved Washington defense. Jones -- who set an NFL record with 34 receptions through the first three games of a season -- was shut out in the first half against the Redskins and finished with only five catches for 67 yards.

Ryan had no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 254-yard performance. That's not what the Falcons have come to expect from a signal-caller who had the fifth-highest Total QBR entering Week 5, "but Matt is such a smart player and such a competitor, you know you can count on him [late] no matter what happened before [in a game]," Shanahan said. "You have that confidence because he has done it so many times."

That's the truth. In fact, since Ryan entered the league in 2008, he is the NFL's active leader with 30 game-winning drives.

He's the best QB Shanahan has worked with. For two seasons, Shanahan tutored Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, who used to be Robert Griffin III's backup. Their roles reversed now, Cousins praised Shanahan last week for helping him develop, and Cousins impressed his mentor by quickly moving the Redskins into position for Dustin Hopkins' tying 52-yard field goal as time expired. On the first possession of overtime, however, Cousins showed how far he still has to go: Cornerback Robert Alford intercepted his pass and returned it 59 yards for the winning score.

Atlanta's defense was outstanding. Washington, which topped the league in rushing going into the game, gained only 51 yards on 24 rushes (a 2.1-yard average). Conversely, the Falcons' success running was a big part of the story.

The Falcons gained 176 yards with a 5.5-yard average. The diminutive, powerful Devonta Freeman (he's listed at 5-8, 206 pounds) is perfect for the one-cut, stretch-zone scheme Shanahan learned from his father, Mike, and brought to Atlanta. Ryan's accuracy and Freeman's ability to extend plays with his hard running style -- picture a pinball game -- set up the play-action passing Shanahan loves.

"With Matt, Kyle can run his entire arsenal," said wideout Nick Williams, another player Shanahan brought with him from Washington. "Matt controls so much by making different calls at the line. He can make all the throws and he can make all the run checks. It opens up everything Kyle wants to do because he has Matt.

"And for Matt, Kyle is great at getting guys in the right situations and the right matchups. Kyle puts together such a good run-pass mix. But the best thing he does is that it's really hard to predict what he'll do. He takes Julio and moves him around. He uses the running backs out of the backfield so well. He's doing a hell of a job."

In Washington, Shanahan was in star form, too.

Don't forget: Shanahan designed a scheme that helped Griffin become the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Since Shanahan was pushed out of the nation's capital (Griffin wanted him gone -- badly), Griffin's career has gone in the wrong direction. Just don't try to get Shanahan going on that topic.

"I'm just focused on what we're doing here," Shanahan said. "Matt is such a great guy to work with, he can do so many things, so I want to do whatever I can to help him."

Without a doubt, Shanahan has played his part masterfully. So has Ryan. On Sunday, the two were a telling reminder of what Washington lacks.