Matt Ryan, Falcons' receivers still have an explosive future

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- Fans were making their way back to their seats after hitting the hot dog lines when Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hit streaking wide receiver Calvin Ridley for a 75-yard touchdown.

The Falcons' first play of the second half against the Carolina Panthers -- a play that took all of nine seconds -- emphasized how quickly the Falcons' offense can strike when hitting on all cylinders. Sure, it helped that the Panthers blew the coverage, but Ryan made the right throw off play-action while stumbling, and Ridley finished the go-route with the catch-and-run score in a game the Falcons won 24-10 on Sunday.

If only it could have been that easy throughout the entire 2018 season.

Sunday's game didn't mean much in the big picture, with the 6-9 Falcons already eliminated from playoff contention. But seeing the offense click at a high level and hit on explosive plays was something to build upon heading toward the offseason.

"We just need to be consistent and get to the point where we're doing that every game, so we can have this high-powered offense showcased every Sunday, or Monday, or Thursday," said Ridley, who tied a franchise rookie record with his ninth touchdown reception. "We need to play like we're capable of."

Ryan's connection with Ridley marked the second 75-yard touchdown hookup between the two this season (the first came in a Week 3 loss to New Orleans). Ryan also hit Mohamed Sanu with a 44-yard touchdown strike Sunday, finding the reliable Sanu in stride.

Oh yeah, and let's not forget about that Julio Jones guy. The six-time Pro Bowler entered the game questionable with hip and rib injuries, yet he showed no signs of being hobbled during a 1-yard touchdown reception. Jones ran from one side of the end zone to the other in order to create separation. And the end result was his seventh touchdown in the past eight games. He started the season with no touchdowns through his first seven games.

"His toughness is second to none," Ryan said of Jones. "He plays through a lot of different things at a lot of different times. He probably ran about 40 yards on that [touchdown] play."

Both Ryan and coach Dan Quinn emphasized afterward how much the running game helped set up those big plays off play-action. The Falcons had 194 rushing yards on the day, led by Brian Hill's 115 yards, which included an explosive 60-yard run.

The Falcons know they have a reliable franchise quarterback in Ryan, and the weapons around him make the future look that much more promising. General manager Thomas Dimitroff already said the team plans to renegotiate Jones' contract after the season, and Jones already is signed through 2020. Sanu, who probably doesn't get enough credit for being a reliable third-down target, excellent blocker and Wildcat double threat, also is signed through 2020. Ridley is just completing the first year of his four-year rookie deal that includes a fifth-year option. And tight end Austin Hooper, a Pro Bowl alternate after a breakout season, is signed through next season and sure to be re-signed at some point. Hooper had a 32-yard reception against the Panthers, yet another explosive play on the day.

Ryan has thrown touchdown passes to eight different receivers for a total of 33 TDs this season.

"It is great to have a bunch of different guys that are capable of making plays at any time in a game," Ryan said. "We are at our best when everybody is involved and we are running the football and we [have] play-action pass off it, getting everybody involved. I thought we did a nice job of that today. Everybody created explosive plays.

"It makes it difficult to defend when you have to account for a lot of different people."

That doesn't mean the Falcons have all of their offensive issues resolved -- by any stretch. An NFL Network report has already surfaced about the team preparing to part ways with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. If that report is accurate, then the Falcons will have to find an experienced coordinator capable of taking the offense to a new level with so many dangerous pieces.

The Falcons also have to shore up the offensive line, particularly the interior at the guard spots next to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. And the benching of right tackle Ryan Schraeder probably means that spot needs to be addressed this offseason, too.

The likely return of two-time Pro Bowler Devonta Freeman from groin surgery only should make the offense that much more explosive, unless the Falcons have other plans on how to address the running back situation. The thought of a Freeman-Tevin Coleman duo like they had during their Super Bowl run sounds appealing, but probably not financially feasible for the Falcons.

However it all unfolds, the Falcons know they have quite a core with Ryan, Jones, Sanu, Ridley and Hooper. They have one more game next week at Tampa Bay to show off that talented group.

They were feared coming into this season. Sunday provided a glimpse of why opponents should be on high alert again in 2019.