The Atlanta Falcons are a trendy sleeper Super Bowl team this offseason. Last year the team were hampered by injuries to key players, particularly on defence, whilst this offseason has seen the rehiring of former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter after his firing from Tampa Bay’s head coach position.
A return to form for the defence?
Last season the Falcons were without the franchise’s two leading tacklers from the prior two campaigns: safety Keanu Neal and speedy linebacker Deion Jones. Neal was ruled out for the year after tearing his ACL in the opener against the Eagles. A day after the hard-hitting safety was placed on injured reserve, Jones joined his teammate on the trainer’s table only returning for the last five games of the regular season.
Whilst Neal’s replacement, Damontae Kazee stepped up in his second year (first as a full-time starter) with seven interceptions, the loss of two foundation pieces of Dan Quinn’s defence can be seen as having hit the unit hard. The Dirty Birds defence dropped to 5th worst in the league in yards allowed per game, down from 9th best in the league in 2017.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff clearly sees the decline in defensive production as related to the injury bug last year, choosing to focus overwhelmingly on offence during free agency and the draft this offseason.
The most notable addition to the defence is free agent Allen Bailey, who surprisingly went unsigned until 22nd July despite recording six sacks and four fumble recoveries from the defensive tackle position for the Chiefs last year. Other than that, Dimitroff focused on retaining defensive end Adrian Clayborn and disruptive interior D-lineman Grady Jarrett. In the draft, Atlanta waited until the fourth and fifth rounds before selecting reinforcements.
Jarrett will be helped by the addition of Bailey, and the two could form a disruptive interior tandem. That might help return defensive end, Vic Beasley Jr to his 2016 season form where he collected 15.5 sacks. However, I would see that season as an aberration in comparison to the rest of his time in the league where he has failed to notch more than 5 takedowns in a single season. It may be more likely that Takkarist McKinley continues his record of increased sack production every year that he has been in the league.
Nonetheless, under the guidance of Quinn, who will now call the defensive plays in addition to his duties as head coach, this unit should be much more effective next year.
The offence: back to the future?
Former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian bore much of the brunt for the Falcons down year, despite the offence ranking 4th in the league in passing yards/game and 6th in total yards/game. I suspect this was because the offence failed to live up to the heady expectations created by Kyle Shanahan’s time calling plays on the sideline.
The franchise has turned back to former coordinator Dirk Koetter who will have familiarity with Matt Ryan from the two’s time together during Mike Smith’s tenure as head coach. Koetter has shown he can lead a potent passing attack both during his time in Atlanta, but also with the Buccaneers who ranked 1st in the league in pass yards/game last season.
Koetter will have elite receiver and match up nightmare Julio Jones to work with as well as his fellow Alabama alumni Calvin Ridley. Ridley should build on a promising rookie year (10 TDS and 821 yds) and make up a fearsome trio of wideouts (who all had above 800 receiving yds last season) with Mohamed Sanu who may feature more in the slot. Together they must be amongst the top starting wideouts in the league.
However, the run game has clearly been a key area of focus for the Falcons this year. Dimitroff focused on the offensive line in the first round of the draft selecting guard Chris Lindstrom and then trading back into the first for tackle Kaleb McCary. In addition, the franchise added guards James Carpenter (Jets) and Jamon Brown (Giants) in free agency.
The team is clearly hoping to improve on its 27th ranked running game with the return of Devonta Freeman and these additions up front. But both Freeman’s 1,000 yd plus seasons came under Kyle Shanahan who is noted for how his scheme allows running backs to thrive. Freeman also won’t have Tevin Coleman to spell him, but needs to prove he can take the load off Matt Ryan.
In Tampa, the running game was nondescript, averaging under 100 yards/game. The question is whether that is down to Koetter’s scheme or the personnel.
After a fairly low-key offseason, Atlanta is clearly hoping a few tweaks to the roster will get them back to the Super Bowl. However, the NFC South promises to be even more challenging than last season. Carolina’s offence should improve with the maturation of some rookies as well as Cam Newton being in the second season of Norv Turner’s offense. The Bucs can’t be as bad as they have been under Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles, whilst the Saints are still amongst the league’s key candidates to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, the talent on Atlanta’s roster should enable them to get into the postseason.
Likelihood of making the playoffs: highly probable