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Falcons show ‘resilience’ in turnaround with a finishing pick-six against the Buccaneers

Goober Pyle

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Falcons defense was about to take the field for overtime when linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich made a declaration.

“Let’s go get a pick-six and walk it out right now,” he told his players.

Those words proved prophetic. On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston dropped back to throw and targeted Cameron Brate underneath. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones was able to read the play the whole way. He saw Brate run an arrow route and proceeded to read Winston’s eyes. That gave Jones every indication where Winston was going with the football.

And as Ulbrich instructed, Jones jumped the play, picked off the pass and returned it for the game-winning touchdown as the Falcons defeated the Buccaneers 28-22.

“We finally got our defensive score this year,” Jones said. “We finished on top with the ball. We won, finished it off the way we wanted to.”

The Falcons, who began the season 1-7, finished 7-9, second in the NFC South and on a four-game winning streak. The final play seemed fitting compared with the way the season began. In the opener against the Minnesota Vikings, Matt Ryan took a sack on the first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, the Vikings blocked Matt Bosher’s punt. That seemingly set the tone for a disastrous eight-game stretch.

After Atlanta’s bye week, a turnaround ensued, especially on defense. The Falcons had two interceptions in the first eight games but tallied 10 during the latter half of the year. By coming away with two picks Sunday — Ricardo Allen had the other interception — the Falcons forced Winston into the distinction of being the only quarterback in league history to throw for 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single season.

Jones said the defense was aware of this unfortunate statistic for Winston before kickoff.

“We kind of had it in mind,” Jones said. “We just wanted to play and hopefully make it happen. We did, so it’s great.”

The postgame locker room was jubilant since the Falcons ended with a victory and on a hot streak. But, of course, the sting of how the season started hasn’t gone away. Allen described the final game as “bittersweet” since it took the team half a season to play up to its potential.

Even so, many players came away proud of being able to overcome the slow start with a much better showing.

“Obviously, you want to be playing in the postseason,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “But for us to be where we were at 1-7, with the group of guys we have to finish 6-2, that shows a lot of resilience from our team, our coaching staff and our organization.”

Now, it’s a matter of figuring out how to replicate the kind of football displayed during the final eight games at the start of the 2020 season. With owner Arthur Blank needing to announce that the jobs of head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were safe, there should be plenty of pressure for this team to start much better in 2020 than it did in 2019.

On defense, the Falcons will move ahead with Raheem Morris as their defensive coordinator, thanks to how he turned around the secondary after moving to coach that position at midseason. On offense, Quinn said Friday that he is inclined to keep coordinator Dirk Koetter. As the defense improved during the second half of the season, the offense didn’t produce at the rate it should have given the personnel and the investments made on the offensive line.

While the Falcons rank fifth in the NFL at 379.7 yards per game, they ranked 13th with 23.8 points per game. The passing attack produced big numbers at times, and the run game managed an average of 85.1 rushing yards per game.

With Ryan, Julio Jones, Jake Matthews and Devonta Freeman playing under sizable contracts, there was no reason for the run game to be as stagnant as it sometimes was. When the offense is reviewed during the offseason, changes must be made to ensure better consistency. The adjustments must include figuring out a way to better protect Ryan. He took a career-high 48 sacks in 15 games played, and the Buccaneers got to him six times Sunday. His previous high was 44 sacks in 2013.

For most of Sunday’s game, the offense stalled out when it neared the red zone. Younghoe Koo was asked to attempt five field goals. Unlike Tampa Bay’s Matt Gay, who was booed by the home fans after his third miss, Koo made each of his tries. For the year, the Falcons ranked 20th in red-zone touchdown scoring, converting 56.4 percent of the time.

But while the offense couldn’t finish many drives, it started fast with perhaps its best play call all year.

On the Falcons’ first possession, they drove to the Bucs’ 35-yard line and went with a play designed specifically for this week. All year long, Ty Sambrailo has entered games as a tackle-eligible tight end. But when Atlanta and Tampa Bay played the first time, the Falcons coaches noticed that the Bucs defense didn’t honor Sambrailo as a receiving option. Based on those tendencies, the coaches installed a play this week that saw Sambrailo run a seam route. If Tampa Bay stayed true to its tendency, Sambrailo was going to be wide open.

Sure enough, no one accounted for Sambrailo, and he had no one remotely close to him.

“We knew they were going to be in man,” Sambrailo said. “It was a run-pass option. If they would have covered me, we would have run the ball. If they covered me and not Luke (Stocker), we would have thrown to Luke.”

The Falcons went through the play four times during the week and ran it against the defense twice. Both times, Sambrailo caught the ball. Even so, not every teammate was sold that the play could actually work.

“We actually said it wasn’t going to work,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “But, hey, they proved us completely wrong. That was a great play. Ty made a great play. And I think the catch wasn’t impressive; it was the run after the catch to me. He definitely surprised me.”

Ryan maintained more faith that the play would work out.

“We had a good key for what they might do in that situation,” Ryan said. “They did exactly what we expected. It was impressive. Ty looked impressive in practice, though. It made me feel a lot better when I saw it in practice, when I saw him catch the ball. He’s pretty athletic. It shook out just the way it did in practice the other day.”

Sambrailo last played tight end during his freshman year of high school, which also saw him fill in at quarterback after his team’s starter was injured. Since that season, he has been in the trenches. This marked his first-ever touchdown reception.

According to Elias Sports, Sambrailo’s 35-yard touchdown is the longest for an offensive player listed at 300 pounds or more in NFL history. It’s also the longest touchdown reception for an offensive lineman since 1950.

“That’s special. That’s really cool,” Sambrailo said. “We talked about running it, but I didn’t know what kind of distance they were expecting me to run.”



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