Atlanta's backfield tag-team of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 296 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Falcons to a 45-32 shootout victory over the New Orleans Saints on Monday night. Here's what we learned:
- Matt Ryan is flourishing in his second season under play-caller Kyle Shanahan, leading the league in yards per attempt (9.4) and passer rating (119.0), while ranking near the top in completion percentage and first-down efficiency. Although ESPN analyst Jon Gruden attributed the dramatic improvement to mechanical tweaks and Ryan's mastery of the offense, it's hard to ignore the influx of speed and playmaking ability with a healthy Tevin Coleman and the new wideout trio of Mohamed Sanu, Aldrick Robinson and Taylor Gabriel complementing All-Pro Julio Jones.
Whereas Ryan spent the second half of last season desperately auditioning understudies for a fading Roddy White, he now has a surfeit of weapons at his disposal. It's telling that the Falcons scored 45 points on a night in which Jones contributed just one catch and Sanu lasted less than two quarters before leaving with a shoulder injury. It's fair to note that Ryan has yet to face a stiff defensive test with the superpower trio of Carolina, Denver and Seattle on the horizon over the next three weeks. Still, this offense has all of the signs of a high-octane unit -- barring a major injury to Jones, the engine that makes Ryan's aerial attack go.
- The 2015 Saints defense produced the worst metrics Football Outsiders has recorded going back to the start of the 21st century. Minus a half-dozen starters from the projected opening-day lineup, they had no chance of containing Ryan's offensive attack. Among the options to choose as emblematic of New Orleans' undermanned defense: undrafted rookie cornerback Ken Crawley trying in vain to hang with Julio Jones on an end-zone fade and former Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd collapsing into a heap on separate sharp cuts from Devonta Freeman.
- Much to the bane of fantasy footballers, the Freeman-Coleman committee attack isn't going away. Nor should it. Between Coleman's game-breaking speed to the edge and Freeman's uncanny agility in tight spaces, Shanahan can keep defenses guessing in pick-your-poison fashion. Atlanta's committee is poised to overtake the 2015 Tampa Bay duo of Doug Martin and Charles Sims as the most effective complementary tandem in the league. If David Johnson has represented a tier of his own in September with Adrian Peterson injured and Le'Veon Bell suspended, Freeman isn't far behind. His performance the past two weeks has been All-Pro caliber.
- Even with No. 2 receiver Willie Snead sidelined and star cornerback Desmond Trufant rendering No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooksa non-factor (two catches, 13 yards), Drew Brees' offense won the battle in first downs (32-26), total yards (474-442) and time of possession (33-27). Brees might have deserved a better fate, but he missed several throws and authored a game-sealing miscue. A fourth quarter pick-six by rookie linebacker Deion Jones snapped the fourth-longest streak without an interception (305 passes) in NFL history. Brees was nearly picked again two possessions later on a spectacular diving effort by cornerback Robert Alford, ultimately overturned on a replay review.
- In a promising sign for Brees, he finally showed a decent rapport with big-ticket free-agent pickup Coby Fleener. The former Colts tight end gashed the Falcons defense down the seam, hauling in seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown after suffering a series of misconnections and dropped passes in his first two games with Brees.
- New Orleans' defense isn't the only one hemorrhaging yards and points. Atlanta has surrendered 12 touchdowns this season, all on drives of 75 or more yards. This is nothing new. Atlanta's defense has lacked backbone for the majority of the past decade.
- Credit Ravens coach John Harbaugh for the Saints' pickup of kicker Wil Lutz, who drilled a 57-yard field goal -- with plenty of room to spare. Per the ESPN broadcast crew, Harbaugh alerted Saints coach Sean Payton that he wouldn't carry Lutz on Baltimore's final roster. Payton promptly imported the undrafted Georgia State rookie for a workout that he described as the best he had ever seen as far as leg talent as well as composure. It's nice to have friends in high places.