NFC South: Falcons flying high?
I start my look at the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons, purely because my other half brought me back a Falcons cap from her trip to Atlanta for a conference (sorry Atlanta, overall she was not impressed with the city). It’s a nice cap and she liked the logo as well as their kit. Last season, the Gents were hot for Atlanta, I suspect we will be again this year. And they started off so well, going 5-0 until it all went a bit downhill and they finished the season 8-8. Memorably Dan Quinn managed to hand the Carolina Panther their only defeat of the season. Now the draft has happend and free agency has pretty well finished, I take a look at a team that still promises much.
SPOILER ALERT: I now love the Falcons, so on board with them this year.
Where were the problems that lead to that 8-8? It’s not the Falcons offensive line that was really the problem, they only allowed 30 sacks from 614 attempts and deservedly featured in our top ten o-lines, especially when looking at run plays, or screen passes working with Freeman, though that was more in the first 8 games. The addition of Alex Mack should help and hopefully reduce the number of sacks but also relieve the pressure off Matty Ice who seems to prefer working under center for plays that work, but has a lovely shovel pass. Mack is a top class center and must just have become disillusioned in Cleveland without a top QB to work with, Matt Ryan is that QB and I think they could work well together.
The second half of the season they struggled to convert good field position into points, only scoring 2 rushing TD (compared to 11 in the first 8 games) and 10 passing TD over the last 8 games (11 in the first 8 games). And that was the main problem, they could not convert good field position into touch downs. This was exemplified by the drop off in rushing touchdowns scored, most of them in September and October, none in November and two in December. The drop off was quite marked. They ran Tevin Coleman in a similar way that they ran Devonta Freeman in his rookie season, both were used sparingly (Coleman: 392yds from 87 attempts, 4.5 yds per att, 1TD, 3Fumbles; Freeman: 65att 248yds from 65 attempts, 3.8yds/att, 1TD, 1Fum). For me Freeman is the better back, he has shown is versatility in the same way Forte, Lynch and Bell all can double up receiving in different plays, totaling the third most receptions behind Jones and Tamme. Both Coleman (6′, 210lbs) and Freeman (5’8”, 206lbs) are similar (Freeman slightly stockier I think), though probably not quite in a thunder and lightening type package. Freeman is not afraid to get physical, dropping his shoulder and bouncing would be tacklers away. Coleman looks to keep would be tacklers at bay by staving them off and running around them. Also I think Coleman isn’t as good a receiver, but may be the better route runner, possibly a bit quicker. However, they are similar enough and Falcons have shown enough dedication to the run game that they will get equal splits, and won’t run either one into the ground. 2015 could have been the developing ground for a push in catching up with a more spread type offense. It’s not that we will see a drop in productivity, I think we will see Freeman take fewer carries (less than the 18 per game he averaged last season) but will be the dominant back.
I know I have not mentioned Julio Jones. They still have him. He was the rock last season, 1871 yards off 136 receptions from 204 targets, 8 touchdowns (actually probably where one of the concerns is that Matt couldn’t always connect to Julio but should have more chance this season), nine 100+yds games. He is great, he will be great this year (as long as he is not out injured).
I think releasing Roddy White was part of the process of refreshing parts of the team. Sanu is a good no.2 hybrid kind of player, he offers something for a few trick plays and will bring to the Falcons the versatility he provided for the Bengals. Expect Sanu to throw a few passes, to the likes of DiMarco, Freeman or Tamme or even the new TE Austin Hooper who they picked up in the 3rd round of the draft this year. (I don’t think it will be a long one to Julio). Hooper is a good pick, he is big, surprisingly fast and a good route runner. He looks to be a good pass catcher, with a good reach and pretty good hands and he looks for the mismatch. This year he may be a work in progress, his size suggests he might be a good blocker, but Tamme is probably the better blocker (though Tamme did make that amazing catch last season so is pretty handy in the pass game).
The defence for my money improved through last season and Allen did a good job, the cornerbacks most notably Trufant did a fine job at times, though I understand why they picked up Keanu Neal. Neal is great addition who I think will be a great balance with Allen. Neal’s speed makes him perfect as a safety/cornerback hybrid, and that is combined with his size, at 211lbs he is the largest safety on the roster. He converts power into speed and speed into power, truly powering through tackles and shows great ability to read an offensive play, looks comfortable in zone and man to man coverage. He goes into tackles hard and will be a match up against the ever increasing size in running backs. He is quick with his hands so will help increase the number of interceptions (Falcons Tied 10th with interceptions last season) and certainly improve the rate in interrupting passes (they tied 24th for pass deflections). Overall though the Falcons were 14th for points allowed last season, Neal looks like someone who will help them keep scores lower.
Importantly they have been looking to address the league low of 19 sacks. They need Vic Beasley to step up this season, but it would also explain why they signed Derrick Shelby from the Dolphins as well as picking up Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell in the draft.
Dan Quinn will be hoping to have a limited injury season. They got out to a flying start last season and hopefully have the weapons now to finish games. They have a run game, Coleman showed enough in a few games as the leading rusher to really offer something different and hopefully protect them from suffering if either Freeman or Coleman go down injured. I mean the possibilities are quite something, running a 21 personnel with both Freeman and Coleman on the field, Tamme and his reach there as well kind of gives Matt Ryan the option of playing with four potential receivers, as well as the dual run threat of Freeman and Coleman, though I fancy Freeman more as the blocker there. And that makes me excited. This is a far more balanced threat offensively than in 2015 and excitingly so. They have enough of the same pieces last year that got them off to that blistering start but this time they have a bit more experience at running back, fielding no rookies, they have Sanu for something a bit different and they have Devin Hester, to get them the sneaky punt return TD.
Defensively, I am still bit concerned on the pass rush, but love the Neal pick and importantly they have depth.
Overall whilst reading up on the Falcons and trying to distill the information into something that vaguely made sense, I could only see positives. The NFC South is certainly a tougher division this year, I think the Falcons are heading to the post-season, no 8-8 this year.
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