The Atlanta Falcons have finally reached their bye week for the 2016 season, so it’s time to take a look at the current leaders of the NFC’s NASCAR division.
The franchise is now in its second season under Dan Quinn’s coaching staff. The organization basically hit the reset button in 2015, shedding no fewer than 17 of its previously drafted players over the course of the year while installing new offensive and defensive schemes. The roster turnover continued as the team headed into the 2016 season, with long time Falcons Roddy White and William Moore among the casualties.
The team is still a work in progress, but the rebuild is clearly paying dividends as this year’s team is now 6-4 heading into the bye. Their combined 14-12 record in 2015-2016 is a big step up from the 10-22 that they compiled in the final two seasons under Mike Smith.
OFFENSIVE LINE HAS BEEN SOLID
One noteworthy difference in this year’s team has been the performance of the offensive line. After injuries had hurt the front line in 2013 and 2014, Atlanta inflicted its own wounds for 2015 by suddenly releasing center Joe Hawley at the start of the regular season. Instead, the Falcons turned to prospect Mike Person, who had never started an NFL game and wasn’t even a center. With guard Jon Asamoah lost to a possible career-ending preseason injury, the team also added left guard Andy Levitre in a trade at the roster cut deadline and added three other backups off the waiver wire or as midseason free agent signings. The starting five had not taken a single preseason snap as a group and were learning a new offense.
For 2016, the Falcons added Alex Mack at center via free agency, while the other four starters all have a full season of working together in Kyle Shanahan’s outside zone scheme. It has made a huge difference. The line hasn’t necessarily been spectacular, but they have certainly been solid.
Looking to the rest of the season, aging veteran Chris Chester may be wearing down. The outside zone scheme is physically demanding, and Chester (age 33) is the oldest starter on Atlanta’s roster. The bye week should help, but Atlanta would do well to give him some rest and consider having backup G/C Ben Garland or swing tackle Tom Compton play a few series at guard to give Chester some extra rest. And looking to 2017 and beyond, Atlanta drafted guard Wes Schweitzer in the sixth round of this year’s draft. He hasn’t played during the regular season (as the backup center, Garland is the active interior backup), but he performed well in preseason and is clearly being groomed for a future starting role.
DEFENSE WILL HAVE ITS GROWING PAINS
Former coordinator Mike Nolan had joined Mike Smith’s coaching staff for the 2012 season, but Atlanta didn’t start reshaping the defense roster for Nolan until 2013. In the following two years, the team churned through the defensive side of the roster, but it proved to be a complete disaster. Atlanta had the league’s worst defense in 2014. Adding to the roster woes, many of the players acquired specifically for Nolan weren’t good fits for new coach Dan Quinn and defensive coordinator Richard Smith. And so the defensive roster has been churned yet again, this time with a bit more success.
One consequence is that the Falcons are now playing with an almost absurd amount of youth. To put it in perspective, Atlanta had ten players who played 40 or more defensive snaps in their Week 10 game against the Eagles. Eight of those ten players were age 24 or younger.
Draft picks Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have all been starters, joining second-year players Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett. Undrafted rookie Brian Poole stepped in as the team’s nickel corner after second-year player Akeem King suffered a preseason injury and went on IR. Ricardo Allen spent his 2014 rookie year on the practice squad as a cornerback, then became the team’s starting free safety last year. Second year cornerback Jalen Collins is working his way back into action after losing the first month of the season to suspension. Even “veteran” corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are still on their rookie contracts.
But with that much youth and inexperience on the field at the same time, there will certainly be mistakes. The coaching staff knows it will take a while for the youngsters to develop, and they’re fine with that. Quinn’s mantra is “fast and physical”. He wants the defensive players to be able to use their skills and just play rather than getting bogged down in complicated reads. There have been plenty of miscues in zone coverage, issues with lane assignments and containment, et cetera. That’s the price you pay for a youth movement.
ATLANTA HAS DISCOVERED A PASS RUSH
On the plus side, many of the changes to the defensive front seven were made with the intent of increasing pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Some of the “instant grade” articles after this year’s draft were harsh on Atlanta because the team did not select a pass rush specialist in the first round. But they did that last year, taking Vic Beasley with a top ten pick. The TV pundits called him a disappointment, but it should be noted that Beasley played his entire rookie season with a torn labrum – and still managed 4 sacks. The Falcons had also added Adrian Clayborn in free agency in 2015, using him in a variety of roles.
This year, the added speed at strong safety and in the linebacker group was meant to take away easy outlet passes, forcing QBs to hold the ball longer. The Falcons had lacked coverage skills at linebacker for years, allowing opposing QBs to make the easy dumpoff pass at the first hint of pressure. Atlanta also added veteran pass rush specialist Dwight Freeney as a late pickup, having him mentor the youngsters in addition to providing a spark on defense himself in limited snaps. Having Beasley and linebacker Brooks Reed healthy certainly helps, as does having a year of experience for Beasley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Zeroing in on the correct role for Clayborn has also made a difference.
The duo of Beasley and Clayborn head into the bye week with a combined 14 sacks. Clayborn is also among the league leaders in QB pressures. The team as a whole already has more sacks after ten games than they did in the 2015 season.
FALCONS HAVE REBUILT THE WR CORPS
One area where GM Thomas Dimitroff had fallen short throughout the Mike Smith regime was in the depth at wide receiver. Ironically, the Falcons had brought in Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator in 2012. Koetter was known for wanting to play a “four vertical” offensive attack, but the team did not draft a single wide receiver during Koetter’s three years with the team. It was the first time in franchise history that Atlanta had gone three consecutive drafts without taking a single wideout, and the Falcons had drafted only three receivers total during Mike Smith’s seven years as head coach. The result was that when Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan came aboard, the group was old and lacked depth. Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester were all north of age 30, while Eric Weems (also 30) and Drew Davis were primarily special teams players.
Two years in, Quinn and Shanahan have a very different WR corps. Julio Jones is joined by Mohamed Sanu, speedster Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson and 2015 draft pick Justin Hardy. Additionally, the team has Nick Williams currently on the practice squad along with prospect J.D. McKissic. Seventh round draft pick Devin Fuller went on IR at the end of preseason, but may be able to return if needed. Gabriel, Robinson and Williams had all played under Shanahan in other organizations. They weren’t wanted by their former teams, but they are providing quality depth for Atlanta. Gabriel, who will be eligible for restricted free agency this offseason, appears to be taking hold of the #3 role.
Weems has remained on the roster, though purely in a special teams role. This is the final year of his contract, and he’s not likely to be back in 2017. That poses an interesting question of whether the team may make a change in the kickoff and punt return roles, getting an early look at someone who may take over those duties next season.
Last year’s offense did have weapons, but at times it seemed that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan didn’t want to use all the toys in the toy box, designing offensive game plans based solely on Matt Ryan to Julio Jones. That has been the case again in a few games this season – against Philadelphia, Julio was targeted more than everyone else combined. That’s never a healthy approach. But more often than not, the team has spread the ball around very well, making use of the many wideouts available in addition to the running backs, tight ends, and fullback Patrick DiMarco.
DEPTH IS A MAJOR CONCERN
Outside of WR, a lack of depth is a concern for virtually every other group on the roster. Atlanta played the first half of the season with only two running backs on the entire roster. That came back to bite them when Tevin Coleman was injured in the first half in a game against the Chargers, leaving Devonta Freeman as the only running back for the rest of the game. Immediately afterwards, the team called up Terron Ward from the practice squad and signed free agent Stevan Ridley.
While Jalen Collins was suspended, Atlanta had only four cornerbacks on the roster. Undrafted rookie free agent Brian Poole was forced into the nickel role, and the only backup was C.J. Goodwin, a practice squad wide receiver who converted to cornerback. The team has also gone the entire season with just three offensive tackles. Backup C/G Mike Person was released in the move to add RB depth, so the roster currently features only eight total offensive linemen.
The defense is still well stocked in spite of losing Sean Weatherspoon and defensive end Derrick Shelby in consecutive weeks. But the defense won’t be able to sustain too many more losses. Desmond Trufant was out for the recent game against the Eagles, and his absence was noticeable.
Starting tight end Jacob Tamme had season-ending surgery this week. His loss may impact the offense for the rest of the season, as he was by far the best receiver among the TE group. His 22 receptions on the season matched the combined total of Atlanta’s other three tight ends. Third round rookie Austin Hooper has looked promising, but he has also had two drops to go with his 15 receptions.
Assuming that Tevin Coleman and Desmond Trufant can return to action following the bye, the Falcons are healthy enough for the final stretch. But outside of the WR group, they don’t have the depth to withstand many more injuries. The lack of depth is the main concern that may end up costing this team a chance at the postseason.
DIVISIONAL GAMES ARE CRITICAL
After Atlanta started the 2015 season at 5-0 only to finish 8-8, much of the national media was quick to dismiss this year’s start as a fluke, considering it almost a given that the Falcons will crash and burn down the stretch like last year’s team. One thing to consider is that a fluke in the scheduling helped Atlanta’s 5-0 start last year. The Falcons played all four games against NFC East opponents in those first five weeks of the season – and those games included a gift from the Giants and the Cowboys’ first game after Tony Romo’s injury. The softness in the early schedule created the illusion that the Falcons were more than a rebuilding team.
This year’s scheduling had some different quirks. Based on last year’s records, the Falcons faced the most difficult strength of schedule in the NFL this season. Of course, that too is an illusion – this year and every year. Except for two games, each team’s schedule is the same as that of the other teams within their division. It really comes down to those divisional games. Do well within your division, and the rest will usually take care of itself. The only reason why Atlanta’s strength of schedule for this year was mathematically more difficult than Carolina’s is that Atlanta has two games against those 15-1 Panthers while Carolina’s schedule showed those same two games as being against the 8-8 Falcons. It’s the same head-to-head game for both teams.
While the strength of schedule numbers are overrated, there are other aspects of scheduling that can benefit a team or stack the deck against them. Those are things like the timing of cross-country road trips, games with short preparation weeks, the timing of the bye week and the timing of opponents bye weeks. As an example, suppose that Miami and Green Bay are to play a regular season game in some random year. The odds on that game would be quite different if it fell in week two in Miami after Packers opened their season on Monday Night as opposed to a late December game in Green Bay with the Packers having played the Thursday night game the prior week.
With that in mind, Atlanta’s schedule this year had a seven week stretch consisting of a west coast trip, a road trip for a “big event” game (10th anniversary of Superdome reopening), a short prep week against one defending conference champion, a road game against the other defending conference champion, and then three straight games against teams with extra prep time (two Thursday night games and one bye). The Falcons went 5-2 during that stretch, and the only two losses were an overtime loss and the controversial game in Seattle.
So while the timing of the schedule helped make the 2015 Falcons appear far stronger than they actually were early in the season, the 2016 team might actually be stronger than their 6-4 record would imply. But the NFC South title is still going to come down to the divisional games. This is where Atlanta truly fell flat last year. In spite of handing Carolina their only loss of the season, the Falcons went 1-5 in divisional games in 2015. This year’s team dropped the opener at home against the Buccaneers but has won all three divisional games since then, including the rematch in Tampa.
The coaching staff opted to have the players rest during the bye week rather than hold practices. While extra reps would benefit the youngsters, the time off is probably even more important. It has been sixteen consecutive weeks of work since the start of training camp, while the young players have been accustomed to 12-game college schedules. The break is also huge for aging veterans such as starting guard Chris Chester, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and defensive end Dwight Freeney.
Atlanta hopes to have Desmond Trufant and Tevin Coleman back after the break. Coleman has been a dual threat for the offense, with six touchdowns scored in his seven games played. His return will help offset the loss of Jacob Tamme.
The travel aspect of the schedule gets much easier as there are only two road games remaining, and only one of those is a west coast trip. But the divisional games will still decide the NFC South, as Tampa and New Orleans have both games against each other coming in the final four weeks while the Falcons end the season with games against the Panthers and Saints.