A look at the Atlanta Falcons

With the Buccaneers, Panthers and Saints covered, it’s time to square away the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta have been a team that could challenge the Bengals for being the consistently most disappointing team of the last 5 years. But things are changing in Atlanta. Could they finally have that toughness they’ve so desperately been shouting about over the last few years? Could they take advantage of a weak division? Is Matt Ryan as good as I think he is?

Let’s look at the Falcons.

Last Year in Atlanta

Whatever happened in Atlanta, it was never going to be as disappointing as 2013, where the team completely undervalued the importance of both an offensive and defensive line. In 2014 they were a changed team, with Mike Smith preaching toughness like his job depended on it, which as it turned out, it did.

The offensive line saw some big additions, including 1st round pick Jake Matthews and ex- Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah. Luck however wasn’t on their side with no less than 5 offensive linemen being on IR by the end of the season, forcing Jake Matthews to take up the role of left tackle immediately, rather than easing into the position. the Falcons o-line injuries were so deep that during a game against the Vikings, tight end Levine Toilolo had to take snaps at right tackle, as there was simply no one else to fill in. The line can be partially to blame for what happened in the run game for the Falcons, but not entirely. The Falcons ranked 24th for rushing, with a great back in Steven Jackson, suffering an obvious decline after 8 punishing years in St Louis. Antone Smith proved to be something of a surprise however, but more on him later.

Matt Ryan however performed admirably, despite a constantly collapsing pocket, making full use of Hester, Jones, White and Douglas. Ryan has proved to be a model of consistency, proving that he can perform in any conditions.

The defence struggled too. The changes made on the line, simply weren’t enough and the team was ranked dead last in terms of yards allowed. Not a good look for a supposed tougher defence. There were some standout players in the secondary however, with Trufant leading the charge. But even the exceptional talents of this emerging corner, weren’t enough to keep the coaching staff in a job and a complete change seemed to be on the horizon.

So What’s Changed

At least in terms of coaching, quite a bit and with it a potential change in ethos. With Smith preaching toughness to his team last year, it seems he might have been replaced by the one guy who could instil this, in ex-Seahawks defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, who gets his first shot at being a head coach. Richard Smith, ex line-backers coach with the Broncos, gets his chance to run the whole defence, after doing stellar work with the likes of Von Miller and Brandon Marshall. The biggest coup for this team, for me comes with the hiring of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who has consistently managed to get the best out of both QBs and running backs, the latter being a unit that resembles both the Washington and Cleveland backfield, both of which he had good success with. The thought of Shanahan being given a QB with as much potential as Matt Ryan is an exciting prospect that could be what catapults him into a head coaching role.

In free agency the Falcons focused heavily on depth at a number of positions, something that saw them come unstuck the last couple of years. Levine Toilolo was disappointing last year. Now with Tony Moeaki and Jacob Tamme, he could have some competition if we don’t see a massive improvement this season. With Harry Douglas moving to Tennessee to take on a potential starring role, the Falcons were quick to replace him in the no. 3/4 spot with the highly underrated Leonard Hankerson, someone that has worked with Shanahan in the past. Despite being a clear weakness last year however, the Falcons didn’t add a great deal to the offensive line, but more on that later.

Unsurprisingly with Dan Quinn now in charge, the defence received a massive overhaul, bringing in Adrian Clayborn and O’Brien Schofield to the line, adding some potential starting talent to the front, which at the least adds some serious depth to a heavily neglected position. At line-backer, the Falcons made the tough decision to let Sean Weatherspoon walk. They did however bring in Brooks Reed and Justin Durant, both have serious starting potential.

It was in the draft that the Falcons weaved some serious magic. With their 1st pick they added Vic Beasley, who should see reps at both defensive end in 4/3 as well as a little time in the 3/4 “LEO” position. The Falcons in my opinion picked up the steal of the draft, taking Grady Jarrett in the 5th, a player who had a 2nd/3rd round projection. Jarrett’s drop to the 5th might have been upsetting if not for the fact that he’d been dealing with a bigger issue in his house setting fire during the draft party. On the field Jarrett adds that much needed toughness to the middle and although he will predominantly be a backup behind Hageman, he could definitely be a long term solution for the Falcons at tackle. Jalen Collins was a corner who was considered a 1st round talent but dropped to the Falcons in the 2nd, thanks in large part to several failed drugs tests. Collins if successful could come on the opposite side to Trufant and push Alford to nickel, creating a formidable cornerback grouping. Finally on offence in the 3rd round the Falcons picked up running back Tevin Coleman, who will challenge Devonta Freeman for the starting job. All in all a great haul for this team.

What to Look Out For

On paper this team is loaded with talent, of which there are no groups more loaded than the receivers. I can bang on about my belief that Julio Jones could be the top receiver in the league, but you already know that. Where it gets interesting however is in the depth of this unit. At 33 (34 in November) there is no doubt that Roddy White’s best days are behind him, but as a number 2 option he has been consistently effective. The only question mark is over his health, something that the team will have to monitor closely. If White is healthy than the team has a choice of slot weapons in rookie Justin Hardy or free agent acquisition Leonard Hankerson, who could kick out to the outside if White struggles. the only issue however is that Hankerson’s injury history is a little spotty himself, but there is no doubt he’s impressed so far whilst training with the Falcons. Rounding out this unit are Devin Hester and Eric Weems, who are 2 special teamers that come on for gadget plays. Both will be important in gaining yards from misdirection if the line can’t keep it together.

The running backs are an under the radar group that have potential, with help from Shanahan to be a breakout unit. From reports it seems Devonta Freeman is favoured for the starting job over rookie Tevin Coleman, largely thanks to his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Last year Freeman caught 30 passes from 34 targets, great stats that gave him an 88% catch percentage. However from handoffs, he was only given the ball 65 times, not really enough to assess just how good he’s going to be. Coleman is the rookie with potential, who will almost certainly get his shot if Freeman isn’t up to the challenge. The forgotten piece of this unit though is Antone Smith. Smith fills in perfectly as a change of pace back and was responsible for some of the Falcons more outstanding moments last year, breaking off a brace of runs of at least 35 yards for touchdowns, all from just 23 attempts. Smith also clocked up some serious yards in the pass game gaining 17.7 yards per attempt. Smith will be 30 in September and is coming off the back of an injury, but if he’s used right, he could be a difference maker to this team.

I can’t finish a section on difference making members of the Atlanta offence without mentioning Matty ‘ice’. Matt Ryan in my opinion is one of, if not the most underrated QB in the league. Anyone watching the NFL top 100 will have seen the stat that no one has completed more passes in their 1st 7 years of their career than Ryan… that’s of all time. Ryan has thrown for over 4000 yards every year since 2010. That’s with countless injuries to wide receivers, offensive linemen and poor play from the Falcons running backs. Ryan has been consistently excellent, yet being on the Falcons, rarely gets the credit he deserves. If Matty ‘ice’ is to get the credit that in my opinion, he deserves, it will require the team to up their game around him, oh and a playoff win wouldn’t hurt.

I’ve already mentioned the defence’s improvements in this piece and on paper at least they seem to have improved immensely. Reed, Beasley and Garrett have the potential to turn around the front 7. Beasley’s ability to line up on both the right and left side of the line as well as drop in at ‘LEO’ when lined up in 3-4, is huge. If he can live up to his potential. Biermann has been up and down for the Falcons, proving to be disappointing in 2014 whilst recovering from an Achilles injury, leaving him with a less than stellar 4.5 sacks. This year if he doesn’t up his game, he could slide down the depth chart, maybe giving O’Brien Schofield a shot at starting on the line. The secondary is the strongest it’s looked in a while for Atlanta. Trufant is a player we’ve discussed in depth on the Gents pod as someone that has the potential to be considered amongst the truly great cornerbacks. This year he’s teamed up with Dan Quinn, who obviously had a great relationship with his secondary in Seattle, meaning this could be potentially his breakout season. Trufant could be a player that we’ll be hearing a lot about this season. As for the other corners, Alford has been solid and if Collins struggles in his rookie year, they have Phillip Adams to pick up the slack. At safety William Moore should slot into the Chancellor role quite nicely and maybe see it as a springboard to return to a pro bowl. Despite these improvements, there are some definite question marks…

Potential Issues

Whilst the strong safety position seems like a lock, there are some definite question marks at free safety. For starters it seems like a battle between 3 players, of which none really standout. Charles Godfrey has been decent at safety, but not exceptional, whilst Ricardo Allen failed to impress after being drafted last year at corner, with a hope that a change in position might see him step up into a starting role. Kemal Ishmael is the last piece of this trio, but despite being a decent back up, the starting role might be a little out of reach for him. If I had to guess I’d say that Godfrey has the upper hand, but none of them will be Earl Thomas.

The biggest issue the team has however is similar to that of nearly every team in the NFC South. The offensive line. There is little chance that the team will suffer the 5 season ending injuries they had last year on the line, but the release of Sam Baker and Justin Blalock means they are missing 2 players that had been mainstays of the line. Admittedly, they had little to offer to the team after a number of injuries, but the fact that they did little to replace them after last year’s issue with the line was depth is a little scary. Jake Matthews struggled last year at left tackle, with the belief that a constantly changing line was to blame. But what if he’s simply not up to the task? I mean, I think he probably is, but there is a chance he might not be. At which point the line falls apart. Joe Hawley suffered an early season ending injury last year, which is a concern. But the biggest issue is that Hawley wasn’t the exceptional center that the team desperately need. Who knows though, maybe a change in scheme could be just what he needs. There are a few plus points however. Chris Chester has been a reliable piece of the Washington offence and should slot perfectly into Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. Jon Asamoah was a great player for the Chiefs and in the right scheme could be excellent, especially in the right line up, which the team hopefully has. The fact is though that the line need to stay healthy or the team could fall apart. They simply don’t have the depth to cover for any injuries.

General Thoughts

I like this Falcons team quite a bit, but not without concerns. What Dan Quinn took on was a team with some immeasurable talent in some areas, but a serious lack of depth in others. Now he’s had a chance to make his mark on the team there is still some serious holes. The o-line still isn’t anywhere near deep enough, which comes from a new head coach that didn’t experience 1st hand just what a big problem it was last year. The deficits at safety is something of a surprise however, after seeing what he was working with in Seattle.

Despite some glaring weaknesses, I do think this is the top team in the NFC South and they could very well make the play offs. I just think a playoff win is out of reach this year. Next year however this could be a pretty darn good team.