This was supposed to be the game of Matt Ryan’s career.
In some ways it was. Ryan did nothing to hurt his candidacy for the Most Valuable Player award. He completed 15-of-28 passes for 267 yards in a 23-16 victory on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. As effective as Ryan was against one of the league’s best defenses, he wasn’t the biggest story of Sunday.
Vic Beasley Jr., who many already had written off as a first-round draft bust in 2015, was the story of the day. Beasley, who moved from defensive end to linebacker this year, had the game of his NFL life.
Beasley, who had 4.0 sacks last season, had 3.5 sacks against the Broncos, and an Atlanta defense that ranked last in the league with 18 sacks last season produced 6.0 sacks total. That made the Atlanta defense the story of the day as they held rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch, making his first career start, and the Denver offense without a touchdown until the final minutes of the game.
That should silence the critics who said Atlanta (4-1) was all about offense. The defense, which had struggled through much of the first four games, and played the best game it has had since coach Dan Quinn arrived last season.
The defense was all over Lynch, who completed 23-of-35 passes for 223 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The Atlanta defense, which had not stopped anyone this season, made Lynch look like a rookie who was making the first start of his career.
The main reason for that was Beasley. He dispelled the myth that he was a bust with his best game, by far, since coming to the NFL. Beasley had drawn heavy criticism from Atlanta fans, but his performance against the Broncos should silence that for at least a while.
For the first time in his career, Beasley showed signs he can become a dominant pass rusher. If that happens, the Falcons suddenly could become a Super Bowl contender. That’s because of the way Atlanta played defense against the Broncos. If they can do that every week, anything is possible for the Falcons.
That’s because they already have a very good offense. Ryan might have the best supporting cast he’s had since being drafted by the Falcons in 2008. He had Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner early in his career. But that trio got old and left Ryan with Julio Jones as his only real weapon the last few years.
These days, however, Ryan has a plethora of offensive weapons. Jones, who had 300 receiving yards last week, was limited to two catches for 29 yards. But the rest of the offense made up for that. The Falcons threw the ball well underneath with running back Tevin Coleman catching four passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons also ran the ball well with Devonta Freeman gaining 88 yards on 23 carries and also scoring a touchdown.
Much has been made about the versatility of the Atlanta offense and that’s justified. The Falcons have shown they can score points with anyone. But they also did that last year, when they started 5-0 but finished with an 8-8 record.
The defense was the weakness of last year’s squad. But if that defense can play like it did Sunday, the Falcons could be one of the league’s most balanced teams. They also could be a Super Bowl team.