Our 2018 Regular Season Preview swings over into the dirty South as the Atlanta Falcons look to finally put behind them the malaise caused by their historical Super Bowl LI collapse two years ago. Granted, Atlanta didn’t necessarily faceplant in 2017, making the Playoffs for the second consecutive season at 10-6 before ultimately flaming out in the NFC Division Round, but you’d find it difficult to recognize this team from the one that torched the NFC in the previous term. Few units have fallen as far as this Offense had simply due to a change in play-calling, but that’s precisely what happened to Matt Ryan & Co., who under Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian lacked the rhythm, chemistry, and explosiveness that had defined them in their run to an NFC Championship under his predecessor. Curiously, Dan Quinn’s solution was to stand pat, for you’d be hard-pressed to find another team in the league that underwent less change than this one. Clearly, the Defensive Maestro feels that continuity is the answer, for if this Offense can regain it’s mojo coupled with a rapidly growing Defense, then Atlanta should absolutely be contending for a Lombardi Trophy. And with that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide whether or not the Falcons can return to the ranks of the NFC Elite, or if their championship window has effectively closed.
Regaining their Mojo
It’s impossible to have a discussion about the Falcons at this point without debating just what the hell went wrong with an Offense that was one of the most prolific in NFL History just two short years ago. After all, the Personnel remained largely intact, while they also managed to avoid any significant injuries that could have derailed their plans. However, there was one change that was far from minor that would end up defining their 2017 campaign, and that was appointing Steve Sarkisian as Offensive Coordinator. Sarkisian, who is no stranger to calling plays, had major shoes to fill in the wake of Kyle Shanahan’s departure to San Francisco, and even with largely the same cast of characters, may have been doomed from the start. So with that said, let’s compare and contrast this Offense under the two respective Coordinators shall we? In 2016 under Shanahan, Atlanta led the NFL in Scoring (33.8 P/G) on 415.8 Total Yards (2nd Overall), including 310.0 Yards through the air (3rd Overall) on 8.2 Net Yards per Attempt (1st Overall), and another 120.5 Yards on the ground (5th Overall) on 4.6 Yards per Carry (5th Overall), while ranking Eleventh Overall in Third Down Efficiency (42.1%) and Ninth in the Red Zone (61.9%), all along committing the fewest Turnovers (11) in the league. A year later with Sarkisian calling the shots, they came crashing back to Earth, averaging 22.1 Points (15th Overall) on 364.8 Total Yards (8th Overall), including 259.1 Passing Yards (8th Overall) on 7.2 Net Yards per Attempt (3rd Overall), along with 115.4 Rushing Yards (13th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (8th Overall), while converting 44.7% of their Third Downs (1st Overall) and scoring a Touchdown on 50.0% of their trips to the Red Zone (23rd Overall), and committing Eighteen Turnovers (9th Overall). By and large, this unit was a Top-10 group throughout the term, though it seems that Sarkisian’s biggest sin was not cultivating an Attack that was anywhere close to that of Shanahan. Both Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff have branded last year’s inconsistencies as under-executing, which there may be some truth to when you take a deeper dive into their struggles; The Falcons led the NFL with a whopping Thirty Dropped Passes, while amassing just eight scoring plays of twenty yards or more, which was a steep decline from the previous year in which they totaled a staggering nineteen, which led the league. If Sarkisian can learn from his mistakes and iron out the wrinkles that arose in terms of balance and flow, then this Offense should take off, for there are very few units that possess such a volume of talent; Julio Jones (88 REC, 1,444 YDS, 3 TD in 2017) remains one of the three best Receivers in the game today, while Mohamed Sanu (67 REC, 703 YDS, 5 TD in 2017) compliments him perfectly, with the addition of Rookie Calvin Ridley likely creating more problems for opposing Secondaries, and the Backfield Tandem of Devonta Freeman (196 CAR, 865 YDS, 7 TD in 2017) and Tevin Coleman (156 CAR, 628 YDS, 5 TD in 2017) is about as versatile and explosive as they come.
$100 Million Questions
Hopefully you noticed that we went through that entire previous segment without mentioning Matt Ryan, though that’s not because he wasn’t responsible for the Offense’s struggles. No, we failed to mention him because we were saving the 2016 MVP for his very own segment. Needless to say, after experiencing the finest season of his career two years ago, Ryan suffered a season-long slump in 2017. So as we did in the previous segment, let’s take a moment to touch upon his insane 2016 Campaign. The Four-Time Pro Bowler posted career-bests in a slew of categories including Completion Percentage (69.9%), Passing Yards (4,944), Yards per Attempt (9.3), Net Yards per Attempt (8.25), Yards per Completion (13.3), Touchdowns (38), Interceptions (7), Passer Rating (117.1), and Quarterback Rating (79.4) under the direction of the aforementioned Shanahan. Apparently there was nowhere to go but down, for Ryan tumbled under Sarkisian’s expertise, completing 64.7% of his Attempts for 4,095 Yards on 7.7 Yards per Attempt, 7.12 Net Yards per Attempt, and 12.0 Yards per Completion, with Twenty Touchdowns and Twelve Interceptions, while posting a Passer Rating of 91.4 and a Quarterback Rating of 68.3. Think about the differences in some of these categories for a moment, folks; the transition from 2016 to 2017 saw Ryan throw nearly half as many Touchdowns (a 47% drop-off), 849 fewer Passing Yards, and increasing his Interception total by 71%. Mind blown. Of course, with the veteran Quarterback signing a new deal between campaigns which saw him become the first player in NFL History to receive $100 Million guaranteed (which is now such old news BTW) only created greater expectations for the 33-Year Old. However, despite such considerable decline he still managed to pilot the Falcons to a 10-Win Season (which included a Road Playoff Victory to boot) for the sixth time since being drafted to be their Franchise Quarterback in 2008, while also becoming the fastest player in league history to reach 40,000 Passing Yards, needing just 151 Games to hit that milestone. There is also a precedent for Ryan to rebound, for hindsight informs us that he wasn’t nearly as prolific in his first year with Shanahan (66.3%, 4,591 YDS, 6.81 NY/A, 21 TD, 16 INT, 69.6 QBR in 2015) before setting the NFC on fire in Year Two, which does bode well for his sophomore season with Sarkisian. Additionally, drafting Ridley, a top-notch route-runner out of Alabama, should serve as a considerable upgrade over the departed Taylor Gabriel (33 REC, 378 YDS, 1 TD in 2017), while signing veteran Lineman Brandon Fusco should stabilize the right side of the Offensive Line, which suffered from poor play at Right Guard throughout the season.
When he was hired to be their Head Coach back in 2015, Dan Quinn arrived in Atlanta with the primary objective of not just improving a Defense that had hit rock-bottom after years of bend-but-don’t-break performances, but to build a unit in the same vein as the one that in no uncertain circumstances earned him the job in the first place. From 2013 to 2014, Quinn coordinated the Seattle Seahawks’ dominant Defense that propelled them to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, ranking atop the league by a wide margin in a plethora of categories. However, the one that he would be meeting at his next stop was in shambles; in 2014, the Falcons allowed 26.1 Points (27th Overall) on a league-worst 398.3 Total Yards (32nd Overall), including 297.4 Yards against the Pass (32nd Overall) on 6.9 Net Yards per Attempt (32nd Overall), and another 118.4 Yards versus the Run (21st Overall) on 4.2 yards per Carry (16th Overall), while permitting a 46.8% Conversion Rate on Third Down (32nd Overall), despite forcing Twenty-Eight Turnovers (6th Overall). Needless to say, there was plenty of work to be done. Fortunately, after three years of excellent drafting and development, this Defense has slowly become a strength for a team that has relied almost exclusively on offensive fireworks from week to week. In many respects, Atlanta’s Defense was the reason they managed to return to the Playoffs, overcoming the inconsistencies of their comrades on the opposite side of the football, which is a credit to Quinn and his Staff. In 2017, they yielded just 19.7 Points (8th Overall) on 318.4 Total Yards (9th Overall), including 214.3 Yards against the Pass (12th Overall) on 5.8 Net Yards per Attempt (10th Overall), and another 104.1 Yards versus the Run (9th Overall) on 4.1 Yards per Carry (19th Overall), despite forcing just Sixteen Turnovers (27th Overall). Young, athletic, fast, and physical, there is plenty of reason to believe that this group will be even better in 2018. Atlanta doesn’t blitz often, but still managed to generate Thirty-Nine Sacks last year (14th Overall), a figure that should only increase with former NFL Sack Leader Vic Beasley (29 TKL, 5.0 SK, 2 2 PD, 1 FF in 2017) moving back to traditional Defensive End after performing in a hybrid role for the majority of the term, when he wasn’t slowed by injuries. Linebackers Deion Jones (138 TKL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 10 PD in 2017) and De’Vondrae Campbell (92 TKL, 2.0 SK, 4 PD, 1 FF in 2017) are excellent in coverage, with the latter proving adept at rushing the passer, while Keanu Neal (113 TKL, 1 INT, 6 PD, 3 FF, 2 FR in 2017) hits like a mac truck at Safety. If Desmond Trufant (39 TKL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 12 PD, 3 FR, 1 TD in 2017) regains his pre-injury form of 2016 and Second Round Pick Isaiah Oliver continues to play like he has in the Preseason, then the Falcons will field a fine tandem of Cornerbacks as well.
2018 Outlook: 11-5 (Playoffs)
As magical as 2016 was for the Falcons (even with that Super Bowl collapse), the 2017 campaign was nothing short of disappointing despite successfully returning to the Playoffs. Though they teased us with glimpses of the explosive, supercharged Offense that obliterated the competition in the NFC, they too often appeared to be out of synch under the playcalling of new Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Now, it would be a bit egregious to place all of the blame at the feet of the veteran strategist, for reigning MVP Matt Ryan also regressed considerably despite having largely the same supporting cast that he had the year before. So after a very quiet Offseason that saw little turnover, where do the Falcons go from here? Well, given the scant volume of change, and the aforementioned Quinn and Dimitroff’s continued support of Sarkisian and the numerous playmakers on Offense, our take is that these issues that plagued this team last season are entirely correctable, and in all honesty very likely to be solved. Granted, we’re not predicting that they’ll reach the outrageous heights that they did with Kyle Shanahan calling the shots, but we do expect them to exhibit far cleaner execution of Sarkisian’s Offense. Atlanta has drafted and developed extremely well on both sides of the football, and with a blossoming young Defense that finally appears to be on par with Ryan, Jones, and Co. the Falcons will pose no shortage of problems for their competition in the NFC. While the schedule is difficult early on, it lightens up significantly in Mid-October, which could lend towards these guys building a good deal of momentum down the stretch. Predicting a trip to Super Bowl LIII may be a bit farther than we’re willing to go with this outfit, but if the Offense returns to form and the Defense continues to grow then there’s no reason that they can’t compete for the Lombardi Trophy. Come on Sark…. don’t @#$% this up again…