Ryan, Fal­cons have chal­leng­ing stretch

Ex­ton na­tive looks to keep At­lanta’s of­fense hum­ming

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Paul New­berry

FLOW­ERY BRANCH, GA. >> The At­lanta Fal­cons are fly­ing high, lead­ing the NFL in a bunch of of­fen­sive cat­e­gories. Now comes the real test. Can Matt Ryan & Co. keep it go­ing against not one, but two of the NFL’s top de­fenses?

The Fal­cons (3-1) will be on the West Coast the next two weeks, fac­ing the de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pion Den­ver Bron­cos on Sun­day, fol­lowed by the team that won it all dur­ing the 2013 sea­son, the Seattle Sea­hawks.

Both have made their mark on the de­fen­sive side of the line in re­cent years, and noth­ing much has changed this sea­son.

The Bron­cos and the Sea­hawks rank among the top five in fewest points and yards al­lowed, pro­vid­ing quite a chal­lenge for a team that seems to be click­ing on all cylin­ders.

“We’re lead­ing in a lot of the stats for of­fense,” left tackle Jake Matthews said Wed­nes­day. “It’s time for us to prove it and con­tinue to do it ev­ery week.”

It’s prob­a­bly ask­ing too much for the Fal­cons to keep up this pace. Led by Ryan and re­ceiver Julio Jones, but work­ing pretty much ev­ery­one into the mix, At­lanta has av­er­aged 38 points and 478.8 yards per game over the first quar­ter of

the sea­son.

No one else is even close to those stag­ger­ing num­bers.

The Fal­cons lead in pass­ing yards (354.3) and are sixth in rush­ing yards (124.5), show­ing the kind of balance that coach Dan Quinn knows is so im­por­tant.

“We’re mak­ing good de­ci­sions in both the run game and the pass game,” the sec­ond-year coach said. “That’s what makes go­ing against us so chal­leng­ing.”

Af­ter a sea­son-open­ing loss to Tampa Bay, the Fal­cons ripped off three straight vic­to­ries — scor­ing more than 40 points the last two weeks against New Or­leans and de­fend­ing NFC cham­pion Carolina.

While Jones is hav­ing an­other dy­namic sea­son, high­lighted by his 300-yard show­ing against the Pan­thers, Ryan is work­ing the ball all over the field. Ten other play­ers have at least two catches, and six play­ers be­sides Jones have touch­down re­cep­tions.

“When you spread the ball around, keep every­body in­volved, keep a de­fense off-balance and make sure they’re guard­ing all five el­i­gi­bles,” Ryan said, “it makes it tough on those guys.”

Com­ing off a bit of a dis­ap­point­ing sea­son marked by a se­ries of per­plex­ing turnovers, Ryan is the toprated quar­ter­back in the league. He’s com­pleted 72 per­cent of his passes for an NFL-lead­ing 1,473 yards, and his 11 touch­down passes are tied with Ben Roeth­lis­berger of the Steel­ers. More im­por­tant, Matty Ice has only two in­ter­cep­tions.

Clearly, he’s more com­fort­able in Year 2 with of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kyle Shana­han.

“We’re both fur­ther along at this point than we were last year. There’s no ques­tion about that,” the Ex­ton na­tive said.

“He un­der­stands every­body we have in the build­ing, too. Kyle has done a great job of uti­liz­ing guys’ skill sets, mix­ing and match­ing and putting guys in po­si­tions to suc­ceed. Some­times, that takes time, too.”

With teams fo­cused on the dy­namic pass­ing game, the Fal­cons are able to do plenty of dam­age in the run game, as well. Devonta Free­man has rushed for 322 yards, av­er­ag­ing 5.9 yards per carry while team­ing with Tevin Cole­man (129 yards, four TDs) to pro­vide quite a 1-2 punch.

“They’ve had a lot of ex­plo­sive plays,” Den­ver coach Gary Ku­biak said. “They’ve got a lot of guys mak­ing those plays.”

Cole­man is some­thing of a ques­tion mark be­cause he car­ries the sickle cell trait, which could be ex­ac­er­bated by Den­ver’s high al­ti­tude. The sec­ond-year back in­tends to play but will be closely mon­i­tored.

“Just stay hy­drated and keep on talk­ing to the doc­tors dur­ing the game to see how I feel,” Cole­man said. “I’ve never been there, so I really don’t know how my body is go­ing to re­act to it.”

Free­man said he’s ready to carry the load if Cole­man is lim­ited or can’t play. The Fal­cons don’t have an­other run­ning back on the 53man ros­ter.

“We’re not a one-di­men­sional team,” Free­man said. “That is what’s go­ing to make us so spe­cial.”

JOHN BAZEMORE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

At­lanta Fal­cons quar­ter­back, and Ex­ton na­tive, Matt Ryan threw for over 500 yards last week against Carolina.

RAINIER EHRHARDT — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

At­lanta Fal­cons wide re­ceiver Julio Jones scores last Sun­day against the Carolina Pan­thers.

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