2015 Atlanta Falcons Outlook: New Look Defense
2014 Record: 6-10. The Falcons suffered what may be a Hard Knocks jinx, or more like an uninspired play reality. The team could never recover from a putrid 2-6 start, and long-maligned head coach Mike Smith was fired at season’s end.
Key Losses: RBs Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, WR Harry Douglas, a 2016 5th round pick (for pumping in fake crowd noise), DT Corey Peters, OLB Sean Witherspoon
Key additions: New head coach Dan Quinn, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Leonard Hankerson, G Chris Chester, LB Vic Beasley (1st round of draft), CB Jalen Collins (2nd round of draft), RB Tevin Coleman (3rd round of draft)
1) How many of Matt Ryan’s weapons will actually be useful?
There’s Julio Jones who is coming off 1,593 receiving yards and at age 26 is entering his prime. Then there’s everyone else. 33-year old Roddy White has regressed over the past two seasons and is no longer a threat all over the field as the injured have piled on. Hankerson is a potentially interesting addition but lost most of last season to a knee injury. In parting ways with Jackson and Rodgers, the Falcons thinned out their running back corps leaving 2nd year back Devonta Freeman to battle rookie Tevin Coleman for the starting gig. Freeman may have the edge because of his pass catching abilities though Coleman is a better fit for Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme and based on college, can handle a heavy workload. Both have promise but neither is exactly knocking on the door of Top 10 status yet.
Tight end remains an issue as one of the very pedestrian options – Jacob Tamme, Tony Moeaki, Mickey Shuler or Levine Toilolo – will have to be a starter by default. Perhaps the real question here is what would it take to get Tony Gonzalez to unretire.
2) Will the offensive line improve?
Atlanta’s depleted line flat out couldn’t run block in 2014. The Falcons averaged 93.4 rushing yards a game and were 24th in total rushing.
Jake Matthews – named the worst starting offensive tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus – needs to show marked improvement over a rookie season that was hampered by injuries. Speaking of injuries, center Joe Hawley should provide a big boost after returning from an ACL tear that wiped away most of last season. Conversely, to replace retiring left guard Justin Blalock, the Falcons signed veteran Chris Chester, who isn’t much of an upgrade.
Much of the success of this group will be boil down to how well they adjust to Shanahan’s schematics, which are relatively complex.
3) Is Dan Quinn head coaching material?
A first-time head coach is oftentimes a blank easel of excitement, though lines can be drawn in rather quickly.
Quinn is no retread and he wasn’t a backup option – Atlanta wanted him bad and just needed the technicality of Seattle playing in the Super Bowl before they could formally introduce him. By all accounts, Quinn is the right kind of fiery motivator. He’s also modern, as evidenced by his social media game like this recent tweet on Tupac.
There is no doubt Quinn plans to build a defensive juggernaut in Atlanta. The Falcons used their first two picks in the draft on defensive players despite a ton of needs on the other side of the ball.
Quinn’s ability as a game manager (timeout utilization, challenges, etc.) is still to be determined but he has to be an upgrade from Mike Smith.
Key Games: Week 1 vs. Eagles (Monday Night Football and a real test for the somewhat revamped defense). Week 6 at New Orleans.
Projected Record: 8-8. Matt Ryan is not the issue; in fact, he is grossly underrated. But the lack of offensive depth is a legitimate concern. Beasley should provide the Falcons with their first pass rush since the days of John Abraham, and the defense as a whole should experience a boost. Atlanta benefits from a very easy schedule and a division without a clear juggernaut but they don’t have the across-the-board talent to be contemplated as a playoff team.