Needing just a yard to stretch the lead and create breathing space, the Falcons turned to their big bruiser: Matt Ryan.
OK, maybe the 6-foot-4-inch, 217-pound Ryan isn't going to win a street fight with a defensive lineman, but picking up 1 yard shouldn't be too much to ask, provided there's adequate blocking up front. So Ryan hurried to the line of scrimmage without a huddle, took the snap from center Alex Mack, put his head down, then drove himself into the end zone behind the backsides of Mack, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Ryan Schraeder.
Although Ryan had to plead a little before the officials finally ruled it a touchdown, he executed the quarterback sneak to perfection.
"When they work," Ryan said of sneaks, "they're great."
For Ryan, the quarterback sneak has been an asset through the first four games. He's 2-for-2 with the touchdown against the Panthers and a first down against the Cincinnati Bengals last week on a third-and-1 from his own 30. The latter conversion helped set up Ryan's 11-yard touchdown pass to rookie Calvin Ridley.
Ryan, who completed just two quarterback sneaks in 16 games last season -- both successful -- has fared well with the play throughout his career. Since 2009, Ryan has the eighth-highest success rate on quarterback sneaks (minimum 10 sneaks) at 88 percent. He's attempted 26 quarterback sneaks over that time period, sixth most of all quarterbacks. His sneaks total ranks right behind NFC South rival Drew Brees, who has 28 (89.3 percent) including a sneak/dive in overtime this season to defeat Ryan and the Falcons 43-37.
"I think you kind of pick and choose your moments," Brees said. "When you feel like there's an opportunity, you jump on it."
The most famous quarterback sneak in pro football history occurred in the "Ice Bowl" when a sneak by Green Bay's Bart Starr gave the Packers a 21-17 triumph against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1967 NFL Championship Game. The modern-day king of quarterback sneaks is New England's Tom Brady. He's attempted 72 since 2009, although his success rate isn't necessarily off the charts at 77.8 percent. The more attempts, the more opportunities to get stuffed.
Brady, 41, brushed off any toll the play has had on his body throughout the years.
"I would have retired a long time ago if I worried about my body in compromising positions," Brady said. "I think it's just part of the sport. I think it's good blocking is what I think it is. I think it's good blocking, good coaches scheming things up and finding ways for me to kind of squirt through there and wiggle my body when we need it.
"If they take it away, it gives us other opportunities. So, I think that's part of it. Offensive football is making them defend every blade of grass, and if they're covering you deep, you throw it short. If they're letting you sneak it, you sneak it. ... You just keep mixing it up, and it's about execution. So whether it's a sneak, whether it's a run-play or post-pattern, it's good execution. That's what matters."
A coaching perspective
Bruce Arians called Brady "maybe the best ever" when it comes to quarterback sneaks, and Arians has seen his share of them.
Last the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Arians worked with an array of quarterbacks during his time as an NFL head coach, offensive coordinator, and position coach. He had Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and Carson Palmer in Arizona, just to name a few.
"What was my philosophy on quarterback sneaks? It strictly depended on the quarterback," Arians said. "Some guys can run them; some can't. Carson was great at it, and Peyton was not that good. Andrew Luck was great at it because he's big and strong, like as a fullback. Tim Couch was good at it. And Ben, he's so big and strong."
Roethlisberger enters Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game against the visiting Falcons with a 94.7 percent conversion rate on quarterback sneaks since 2009 (19 attempts), second behind only Minnesota's Kirk Cousins 100 percent (14 attempts). Arians was Roethlisberger's offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2011.
"A lot of his were audibles," Arians explained of Roethlisberger. "We may have a fourth down and if it looked good, run a sneak. So I just allowed for him to go for it on fourth down a few times if he had the perfect look. And I think he was perfect with them."
Roethlisberger was 12 of 13 running sneaks with Arians as his coordinator. Arians noted how Roethlisberger didn't have to utilize the sneak as much during his early years because the Steelers had a pretty good short-yardage back named Jerome Bettis.
Regarding the entire execution of the play, Arians said don't neglect the importance of one particular player -- outside of the quarterback.
"You better have a center who has a low center of gravity who can move the nose guard or that one-gap player," Arians said. "The quarterback, if there's a shade on the center and a three-technique on the guard, he's going to try and go into that hole. So that center can't get knocked back. He's got to be able to snap the ball and get off low, or else everything's going to get stood up."
The Falcons have such a player in the perennial Pro Bowler Mack, although Mack admitted the sneak is a much tougher play than most folks might think.
"If the defense is really ready for it, it's a big challenge because you're just trying to push the pile," Mack said. "You're not trying to get many yards, and it's simple, but it's tough if they're ready and they can just dive at the legs and get lower. It really cuts you off and makes it difficult. That's why you have to keep moving, keep driving."
The injury factor
Matt Schaub has a good reason not to be a proponent of the quarterback sneak.
The former Falcons backup quarterback revisited what happened to him during the 2011 season when he was the starter in Houston. The Texans were 7-3 and on the road against Tampa Bay when Schaub suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury while attempting a quarterback sneak -- from his own end zone.
"The only time I'm not really in favor of the sneak is coming off your own goal line when you're backed up," Schaub said with sarcasm. "Someone fell on the back of my leg, right before the half with like 40 seconds left.
"I understood the call. [Gary Kubiak] actually called timeout prior to it and said, 'Hey, let's go sneak. I don't want to get a safety.' And I was like, 'All right. That's fine.' It was just one of those fluke things."
Naturally, quarterbacks expose themselves to hits whenever they run with the ball. That doesn't necessarily mean coaches always shy away from sneaks because of injury concerns.
Asked about his philosophy when it comes to Cam Newton running the sneaks and putting him at risk, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, "Always a time and place for them. And all depends on who you're playing."
Not every defensive line is built like the Jaguars, Rams and Eagles.
When asked if he ever had a concern about putting his quarterbacks at risk with the sneak, Arians said, "Yeah. Always. It's just a matter of getting in there and getting down; getting the first down and not getting stuck up in the air when people can hit you in the head.
"It's a little bit different now with the new rules, though. Years gone by, that was a free shot on the quarterback, going straight to the head. Now, they can't hit you in the head."
Arians believes the number of quarterback sneak attempts will increase moving forward.
"I do think so because in those short-yardage situations, the linebackers and second-tier players have to be cautious of hitting the quarterbacks in the head, and the quarterback's head is down already," Arians said. "So, yeah, I could see an increase."
First-year Colts coach Frank Reich, formerly the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, said Carson Wentz is the best at the quarterback sneak that he's worked with throughout his coaching career. Reich didn't appear to have much concern about putting Wentz at risk with the sneak during his time working with him. In 31 games, Wentz has attempted 13 quarterback sneaks, converting 12.
"Actually, he's the first quarterback I was with that we did a bunch of quarterback sneaks with," Reich said. "Not every quarterback has that kind of instinct and feel. Obviously, he played behind a good offensive line. He is a big, strong guy, and he's fearless, not afraid to take it on up in there."
Perhaps Newton or Wentz will some day replace Brady as the new king of the quarterback sneak.
-- ESPN's Mike Reiss and Mike Wells contributed to this story.