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We have now passed the halfway point of the 2016 NFL season and one of the better games of the season so far came in Week 8, as the Atlanta Falcons beat the visiting Green Bay Packers 33-32 at the Georgia Dome.
After the Packers went up 32-26 with just under 4 minutes left, we saw an impressively orchestrated drive from the Falcons’ first-ranked offense. But what really stood out on this drive was the performance of newly acquired wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
A former Cincinnati Bengal, Sanu has been somewhat of a maligned player during his NFL career. Having been awarded a five-year, $32.5 million contract with $14 million fully guaranteed and a $7 million signing bonus, per overthecap.com, in the offseason only brought on the opinion that Sanu would never be worth that kind of money.
Brought in to be the number 2 wide receiver behind Julio Jones, Sanu’s first seven games had been quiet affairs and he hadn’t yet lived up to the contract awarded to him.
However in a clutch situation such as the one in Week 8, Sanu came through in what was a breakout game for him, finishing with nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown.
The game-winning drive started with 3:58 left on the clock in the 4th quarter and first down at the Falcons’ 25 yard line. The Falcons are lined up with 11 personnel in an empty backfield with running back Devonta Freeman (#24) lined up wide right and Sanu (#12) lined up in the slot alongside Taylor Gabriel (#18).
As the ball is snapped, Gabriel runs a simple vertical route and Sanu runs a crossing pattern across the middle of the field, finding a favorable matchup against Packers linebacker Joe Thomas. With no one else in the middle of the field this is an easy reception for Sanu, bringing up a 2nd and 1.
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Fast forward a little on this drive to the 2:37 mark and it’s now 3rd and 2 at the Packers 45-yard line. Again Sanu is lined up next to Julio Jones, this time to the right of the formation. Jones runs a dig route and Sanu runs an out route.
But it’s what Sanu does as he sees the ball coming his way which is impressive here. Not only does he keep his eyes firmly on the ball, but his body control is such that he is already looking to get upfield and work for a few extra yards before being forced out of bounds.
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This next play is a great example of what we’ll call ‘’the Julio Jones effect’’. Again the Falcons are lined up with 11 personnel and it’s 1st and 10 at the Packers’ 33-yard line. Sanu comes across in motion to the left of the formation and again runs an out route.
But watch as Julio Jones, who is lined up to the left of the formation, runs a go route and a Packers cornerback, safety and linebacker all go with him, leaving Sanu wide open to make the catch and fight for extra yards at the end of the play.
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A few plays later there is 36 seconds left in the game and the Falcons face a 1st and 10 deep in Packers territory on the 11-yard line. Once again Sanu and Jones are bunched up together to the left of the formation. On the snap both receivers head straight to the end zone.
The coverage is one to watch here, with the Packers lined up with two safeties up on the 1-yard line. Jones receives coverage by the cornerback and a safety. On the far side of the field, tight end Austin Hooper (#81) runs an out route and is covered by the second safety, leaving Sanu to blow past inside linebacker Jake Ryan (#47) and make a great catch for the game-winning touchdown.
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On this drive Sanu was targeted six times, hauling in five of those targets for 50 yards and the touchdown. He was clearly given the opportunity to come up big and he delivered in this game. Having a lot of attention taken away from him by the mere presence of Julio Jones was a big factor here and should not be ignored, but Sanu took full advantage of the opportunities given to him.
This game was huge for Sanu and the way it ended will help him moving forward. It will also increase the trust that quarterback Matt Ryan should now have in him.
Week 9 was another solid outing for Sanu as he caught five passes for 74 yards and a 14.8 yards-per-reception, his highest since Week 1 against the Buccaneers, in a 43-28 win against Tampa Bay on Thursday Night Football.
Here it’s 3rd and 6 at the Tampa Bay 22-yard line with 7:08 left in the third quarter. Sanu is lined up in the slot and comes in motion across the formation from right to left, facing man coverage. As the play begins Sanu demonstrates patience and timing when breaking into his slant route across the middle of the field, beating man coverage and then breaking a tackle to gain 20 yards on the play.
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While some may not be convinced that Sanu is a solid number 2 wide receiver at this point, the last 2 weeks have shown us that he could be considered just that at seasons end and beyond, however consistency is key for Sanu heading into the business end of this season. He is currently on pace for a career high in catches (65) and touchdowns (6) and will need to have a strong showing in the second half of the season if the Falcons are to continue to fight for a playoff berth.
Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinTwell78. Check out his work here, including on how the Detroit Lions will fare without Megatron, the elite Minnesota Vikings’ linebacker corps, the potential for a breakout season from the Chicago Bears’ Eddie Goldman, and how the return of Jordy Nelson helps the Packers.
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All film courtesy of NFL Game Pass