Staying in the southern region of the country, our 2019 NFL Preview travels to the NFC South, where the Atlanta Falcons look for a way to return to the Playoffs after last year’s disappointing 7-9 finish. After experiencing the heartbreak of losing Super Bowl LI, Atlanta hasn’t quite been the same, with that dreaded Super Bowl Hangover lasting far longer than anyone could have imagined. As a result, Dan Quinn has decided to make some major changes to his outfit, particularly on the coaching front, where he’ll be assuming the duties of Defensive Coordinator himself. However, are these alterations enough to make the necessary progress in the always-competitive NFC South? Can Matt Ryan reclaim his MVP form from 2016, leading the Offense to the lofty heights that it once experienced? With Quinn now calling the shots on Defense, will the young Falcons bounce back from an injury-riddled 2018? Let’s take a look, shall we?
Getting his Hands Dirty
Just about the only real positive thing to come out of the campaign following the Falcons’ epic Super Bowl LI collapse, was the inspiring play of their young Defense. Indeed, Dan Quin must have been proud of a unit that finished the season ranked Eighth Overall in Points Allowed (19.7 P/G), Ninth Overall in Total Defense (318.4 Y/G), Ninth Overall in Run Defense (104.1 Y/G), and Fifth Overall in Red Zone Defense (45.8%). With all but one Starter under the age of thirty, this unit was expected to make a major leap forward in 2018. However, that didn’t come to pass, as Atlanta took a significant step back in this department, ranking Twenty-Fifth in Points Allowed (26.4 P/G), Twenty-Eighth in Total Defense (384.5 Y/G), Twenty-Seventh against the Pass (259.6 Y/G), and Twenty-Fifth against the Run (124.9 Y/G), while going belly-up on Third Down where they ranked Thirty-First (48.7%), and in the Red Zone where they placed Twenty-Eighth (70.4%). Injuries played a huge role in their decline, with virtually their entire Secondary succumbing to season-ending injury, while many of their high-profile contributors, most notably Edge-Rusher, Vic Beasley (20 TKL, 7 TFL, 8 QH, 5.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 TD, 3 PD), regressed. Following the conclusion of the season, Quinn promptly relieved Defensive Coordinator, Marquand Manuel, of his duties, and in a move that surprised absolutely nobody, assumed the role himself. Of course, the 48-Year Old rose to prominence as the Seattle Seahawks’ Defensive Coordinator from 2013 to 2014, in which the vaunted Legion of Boom appeared in back-to-back Super Bowls, winning the former before narrowly falling in the latter. With a familiar face returning to make some very necessary tweaks on the offensive side of the football (which we’ll get into shortly), he no doubt feels comfortable in getting his hands dirty once more. While his preferred Seattle Cover 3 scheme may seem antiquated to a degree, it’s still effective with the proper personnel to utilize it, with Quinn and General Manager, Thomas Dimitroff, hoping that a return to health will be all that’s necessary to instigate some progress. They should benefit greatly from the presence of hard-hitting Safety, Keau Neal, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the Season Opener, along with disruptive Defensive Tackle, Grady Jarrett (52 TKL, 8 TFL, 16 QBH, 6.0 SK, 3 FF), who was resigned to a four-year $68 Million Contract including $42.5 Million in total guarantees. The unheralded Lineman had certainly earned his raise following three seasons of Thirteen Sacks, Twenty-Seven Tackles for Loss, and Thirty-Eight Quarterback Hits making him one of the most sought-after players in Free Agency.
Welcome Back Koetter
The other half of the Super Bowl Hangover equation for the Falcons has been the Offense, which back in 2016 under former Offensive Coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, was one of the most prolific in league history. That season, Atlanta averaged a whopping 33.8 Points per Game on 430.5 Total Yards, but since that point have struggled to come close to those levels. Granted, Shanahan is one of the best in the business, and following him was always going to be difficult, but few could have imagined the struggles that this unit would endure under his successor, Steve Sarkisian over the past two seasons; piling up yardage wasn’t an issue, with the unit ranking Eighth (374.5 Y/G) and Sixth (407.6 Y/G) Overall in that time, but all of those yards didn’t translate into the volume of points expected, finishing Fifteenth (22.1 P/G) and Tenth (25.9 P/G) respectively. Furthermore, the play of Franchise Quarterback, Matt Ryan (69.4%, 4,924 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 35 TD, 7 INT, 70.6 QBR), simply didn’t appear to be the same under the beleaguered Offensive Coordinator, particularly in the Red Zone, where the Falcons oftentimes lost their momentum; Atlanta ranked Twenty-Third (50.0%) and then Eleventh (64.0%) in Red Zone Efficiency over the last two seasons. Needless to say, with the club missing the Playoffs for the first since 2015, Sarkisian was relieved of his duties, which coupled with his own ousting in Tampa Bay, opened the door for the return of Dirk Koetter, who had previously served as the team’s Offensive Coordinator from 2012 to 2014. One of the more respected offensive minds in the league, the 60-Year Old will be charged with making the requisite tweaks to get this group scoring touchdowns in bunches once again, with his prior relationship with Ryan likely a big reason for his return. During his previous stint with the franchise, Koetter led the Falcons’ attack to a pair of Top-10 finishes in Total Yards, while achieving that feat on three separate occasions during his tenure with the Buccaneers, recently ranking Third Overall in 2018.
Maximizing Many Talents
Of course, Koetter will ALSO be charged with maximizing the weapons around his Quarterback, which are rather substantial. One of the most prolific Receivers in the league over the past five years, it stands to reason that the wily Playcaller can get even more out of one Julio Jones (113 REC, 1,677 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 8 TD). Since 2014, the six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro has amassed a total of 524 Receptions for a staggering 7,994 Yards on 15.3 Yards per Reception, and Thirty-One Touchdowns, averaging 1,598.8 Yards per Season alongside 103.8 Yards per Game, which both lead the NFL over that particular span. However, you would think that given all of the production, that he would in fact score more Touchdowns, which is a conundrum that Koetter’s predecessor was often criticized for over the past two seasons in which Jones accounted for just eleven scores. In fact, the 30-Year Old has only broken the 10-Touchdown Threshold once, which has driven many a fan, particularly that of the fantasy realm, insane of late. For a player that is coming to the end of a five-year, $71.2 Million Contract, and has recently been vocal about initiating talks towards an Extension, the best way to ensure that happens will be by getting into the End Zone. Part of the problem is that there are plenty of other weapons to make use of, particularly with the league’s reigning Receiving Champion drawing so much attention. Calvin Ridley (64 REC, 821 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 10 TD) hauled in a team-high Ten Touchdowns as a Rookie last season, while veteran Receiver, Mohamed Sanu (66 REC, 838 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 4 TD) is a reliable target in the intermediate areas of the field. Perhaps better protection of Ryan will lead to more scoring opportunities for Jones; the veteran Quarterback was hit more frequently than he has been in years, taking Forty-Two Sacks for a Percentage of 6.5%, the highest of his career. So is it any wonder that Dimitroff spent his first two Draft Picks this past Spring on Offensive Lineman? Chris Lindstrom (No. 14 Overall), who played a variety of positions along the interior of the Offensive Line at Boston College should be an immediate Starter at one of the Guard spots, while Kaleb McGary (No. 31st Overall) was intended to slide into Right Tackle, but has been sidelined due to a Cardiac Ablation Procedure, and is expected to miss the following six to eight weeks.
2019 Forecast: 9-7
Branded by some as a dark horse candidate to advance to Super Bowl LIII, the Atlanta Falcons proved to be anything but, floundering to a 7-9 record and missing the Playoffs for the first time since 2015. In their case it appeared that Super Bowl Hangovers really can last for more than one season, which has prompted Dan Quinn to make a number of changes in order to get his team back on track. Though their struggles on Defense in 2018 had much more to do with the fact that they were decimated with injuries, taking control of playcalling duties on that side of the football doesn’t seem to be a bad idea at all given his stellar history as a Defensive Coordinator. Furthermore, bringing Dirk Koetter back to helm the Offense was a coup, plain and simple, if only for the fact that the fan base had been calling for the incumbent, Steve Sarkisian’s, head for two years. Given his prior history with both Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, coupled with his recent success calling the shots for Tampa Bay’s explosive attack, look for the veteran mastermind to maximize the talents of the Pro-Bowl duo. However, while the Falcons look much better on paper, and if they prove to stay healthy on Defense, then that notion should extend to the product on the field, the real issue is their competition in the NFC South, which at the moment looks downright hellish. Both the Panthers and Buccaneers figure to be improved, while the Saints remain one of the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. Though their schedule overall appears to be manageable, those six meetings within the Division will be of the utmost importance. We expect Atlanta to be better in 2019, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we expect them to become a true contender once again.