You’ve had some major changes in the coaching staff, changing both coordinators. Can Steve Sarkisian really run this offense?
Well, let’s get the defense out of the way first. Down the stretch last year, Dan Quinn was reportedly calling the plays himself. It really didn’t surprise anyone when they announced the change in the offseason. Marquand Manuel was promoted to take over as the new coordinator. He has been here with Quinn for the last two years and knows this defense as well as anybody. And of course Quinn is still here and is still very much hands on in implementing the scheme, so in truth the defensive side hasn’t seen all that much of a change.
Whether we’ll see a drop on the offense is certainly a fair question, as it would be very hard to repeat last season’s 540 points scored even without a coaching change. Now throw in that Sarkisian is a first time offensive coordinator who hasn’t been in the NFL in any role in many years. Will his play calling be NFL caliber? Bobby Petrino was allegedly an offensive mastermind, and quite frankly a lot of his playbook bordered on absurd.
What’s particularly eyebrow-raising is that Sark isn’t the only rookie on the offensive coaching staff. We have a new QB coach who is also new to the NFL. We lost our running back coach, replacing him with our assistant offensive line coach. We also lost two offensive assistants, and their replacements are brand new to the NFL as well.
So sure, whether all of these new coaches will really be up to the task is a huge question. But we’ve already seen one very good move. Sark made it clear from the outset that he was going to change as little as possible, even keeping the terminology the same so that the returning players didn’t have to start over learning a new system. That has been big, and several of the players have noted it. They’ve been able to focus on improving their game rather than learning new plays and new signals.
And the leadership of Matt Ryan has shown why he deserved the MVP title last season. For the second straight year, he held his own unofficial minicamp in the spring, paying for many of his teammates to go to Florida and practice together for several days. He also flew out to California specifically to get in some extra work with Austin Hooper, who is taking over the starting tight end role in his second season.
Shanahan was well respected around the league and certainly deserved his chance at the head coaching role in San Francisco. But I do have to note that many Falcons fans weren’t all that upset about his departure, and it wasn’t just hard feelings about the Superbowl. He had a large part in creating our offensive line mess in 2015, when the team surprisingly released center Joe Hawley after the final roster cuts, choosing to go with a lineman who had never played center and had never started a game in the NFL. He was allegedly stubborn at times with his play calling that year, and players who didn’t like what they were seeing – most notably Roddy White – quickly landed in his doghouse.
In 2015, his offense didn’t always work. It didn’t necessarily work in Cleveland or in Washington either. We’ve heard the argument that he never had a quarterback like Ryan or a supporting cast like Atlanta’s in his previous stops. But that poses the question of whether he’s really all that necessary. You could argue that last year the collection of talent in Atlanta was so over the top that it was hard for the offense to fail, and Sarkisian is now inheriting that same collection of players. Sark might not necessarily have to be great. He just has to avoid screwing things up.
If nothing else, I would expect Sark to know that when you have a big lead in the second half, run the ball more and take more time before snapping the ball. And if you’re up by eight late in the fourth quarter with the ball in the red zone… run, run, run, kick field goal, win game.
What do you see as the most important improvement the Falcons have made for 2017?
The main thing that everyone needs to understand – and something that the TV pundits are certain to overlook – is that a lot of young players got a lot of valuable experience last year. That’s especially true on defense. Atlanta had the worst defense in the league in 2014 under Mike Nolan. The overhaul is nearly complete now. Only four defensive players from 2014 remain, and two of those have changed positions.
It has been primarily a youth movement. Last season Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell were all immediate starters as rookies with undrafted rookie Brian Poole taking the nickel corner spot. Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett were only in their second seasons, while Ricardo Allen was only in his second season at safety after spending his rookie year on the practice squad as a cornerback.
The Falcons also had several injuries on defense last season, losing three defensive starters to IR in midseason plus two key reserves later on. All of them were veteran players. That meant more playing time down the stretch and in the postseason for younger backups like corner C.J. Goodwin and safety Sharrod Neasman.
I can’t stress that enough. There were times last season when Atlanta’s defense had eight players on the field who were age 24 or younger, and one of the other players was still on his rookie contract. That’s a mind-blowing youth movement that you’d only expect to see from a team in full rebuilding mode, not a division and conference champion. The experience they gained is critical, and they got three extra games in clutch situations against top competition in the postseason. So the youngsters are all much farther along in their learning curves going into 2017, and now they get four of the injured veterans back – including Pro Bowl corner Desmond Trufant.
What particular players added in the offseason do you see as having the biggest impact?
Without a doubt, the main “impact” signing is Dontari Poe. The Falcons didn’t keep Paul Soliai after 2015, so they were lacking a true nose tackle last season. Grady Jarrett played that role for much of the year and did respectably well. But Poe is far better at the nose than Jarrett, and Jarrett is far better at three-tech than the other options, who now provide depth. Adding Poe instantly upgraded both positions on the starting defensive line as well as the overall depth.
Free agent defensive lineman Jack Crawford showed in preseason that he can play inside or outside. He replaces Tyson Jackson, who had been signed to play the five-tech DE role in Mike Nolan’s base 3-4 defense. Give Jackson credit for doing everything he possibly could to try to make it work, but he was simply a fish out of water in Atlanta’s new defensive scheme. Crawford appears to be a much better system fit, which makes him a significant upgrade.
Put them together with Beasley, Jarrett, first rounder Takk McKinley, and veterans Courtney Upshaw, Derrick Shelby, Adrian Clayborn and Brooks Reed, and Atlanta has its best defensive front in more than a decade.
What are the main weaknesses that you see in this year’s roster?
The depth is generally pretty good, far better than in 2014 or 2015, but there are still some question marks and thin spots. Injuries have to be a concern. Our backup quarterback is 36-year old Matt Schaub. That’s a huge drop-off if something happens to Matt Ryan. The Falcons also don’t have a true backup for Dontari Poe on the roster if he gets hurt.
Also, the defense is still quite young and inexperienced with rookies Takk McKinley and Duke Riley joining the group. I’m still expecting to see a lot of mistakes in zone coverage and cases where overly aggressive youngsters run themselves out of plays. It will be fun to watch all that speed on defense, but it won’t always be pretty.
Otherwise it’s hard to look at any unit on the team and call it a weakness. The defensive front is improved. Quinn wants speed at linebacker, and all three starters have 40 times under 4.6. We have defensive backs that fit Quinn’s profiles, and the key backups come into this season with a lot more experience than they had a year ago.
And on offense, here’s something scary to think about: over the last two years, Julio Jones has the most total yards from scrimmage of any player in the league. And #2 right behind him? Devonta Freeman. And it’s not just the two of them. Atlanta had ten different players last year with at least 200 yards receiving, 10 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Matt Ryan showed that he can make the passing game work with just about anybody.
Last year’s draft certainly had a huge impact. What players from this year’s class do you expect to see making significant contributions?
I’d say an even more important item is that two more players from last year’s class are stepping up into starting roles this year. They’re filling two of the team’s largest roster needs. Third rounder Austin Hooper moves up to the starting tight end role, while sixth rounder Wes Schweitzer has won the right guard job. Atlanta drafted six players last year. Five of them are now starting – with the sixth on injured reserve, and one of last year’s undrafted rookies is the nickel corner. It’s an amazing draft class, and it’s hilarious to look back at all the bad reviews and grades that it got from the alleged draft experts at the time.
The team also has a lot to show for the 2013, 2014 and 2015 draft classes. They really didn’t have a lot of remaining needs after free agency. With that in mind, the only two players from this year’s draft class who will be pressed into action early are first rounder Takk McKinley and Duke Riley, taken in the third round after Atlanta traded down twelve spots from their second round pick. Riley joins last year’s picks Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell as the trio of starting linebackers. McKinley might not officially be a starter as the team could choose to rotate him out in likely running situations and use him as a pass rush specialist.
The rest of the draft class and undrafted rookie class will have time to develop. Sean Harlow may be the eventual successor to Andy Levitre at left guard. The team likes Eric Saubert’s potential to attack the middle as a tight end, but the small school prospect needs time to learn the offense and adjust to the game at the NFL level. He’ll open the season in the #3 role. Running back Brian Hill also needs time to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, but he won’t llikely be pressed into heavy action too soon as Terron Ward has developed into a solid #3 back ahead of him.
Hill might even land on the practice squad once he’s medically cleared from an ankle injury he suffered in preseason. The team kept its third running back on the practice squad for about half the season last year. It wouldn’t be too great a surprise to see them do the same with the fourth running back this year in order to free up a roster spot if they need one elsewhere.
One other name to watch is undrafted rookie free agent Jermaine Grace. He will likely be limited to special teams duty for the near future as he gets in more practice time after missing the entire 2016 college season. But he’s another speedster who has shown solid progress throughout training camp and preseason.
The Falcons went 0-4 in the preseason, with the offense looking bad against Arizona in the third game. Is this cause for concern?
I really don’t think so. The preseason does matter, but you have to look at who is playing well and who messes up rather than the final score. The perfect preseason game is one where the starters dominate, the second units aren’t perfect but at least hold their own, and the later units get blown out and lose the game. That way you’re confident in your starters, the coaches get game film to see exactly what to work on with the second unit, and the scrubs make it easy to pick 37 guys to release.
In the first two games, Atlanta’s starting offense played one series in each game and scored touchdowns while the true first unit defense forced three-and-outs while shutting out their opponents. it’s true that Matt Ryan’s timing was a bit off in the third game, but he was throwing to Julio, Taylor Gabriel and even Levine Toilolo for the first time this preseason. They’ve already had an extra two weeks of practice since then to keep working on their timing together. I’m sure they’ll be fine.
Even in that game, the first unit defense gave up no points and only allowed 17 yards in two series. Arizona scored their first touchdown when Carson Palmer beat an undrafted rookie cornerback just hoping to make the practice squad on a deep pass. At that point the Falcons were already mixing in some third and even fourth stringers on defense, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they gave up 17 points in a quarter to the Cardinals starters and second unit.
The 0-4 record sounds bad, and a few media pundits had a field day with Atlanta giving up leads in those first two games. But the starters and the other guys who made the roster were outstanding. So forget the final scores. Atlanta had a fantastic preseason. The rest of the NFC South should be far more concerned about it than Falcons fans.
Will this Falcons team really be able to get past the Superbowl loss? How will they respond when another team starts mounting a comeback?
Outside of Shanahan’s unfortunate choices in play calling, the big reason for the epic collapse was that the defense was just plain gassed.
But here’s something else that hasn’t had much national attention: that wasn’t the first time it happened to the Falcons last season. They also ended up losing 33-30 to the Chargers in overtime after leading 27-10, and a 38-13 lead in the third quarter against the Saints ended up as a 38-32 squeaker that came down to a final on-sides kick attempt.
So I’d say it was even more of a physical thing than a psychological one. The defense simply gave out and couldn’t stop anyone, while the opposing defense was able to get rest and step up their game. Chip Kelly’s fast-fast-fast approach really doesn’t work at the NFL level for that exact reason, and Shanahan often moved almost as quickly as Kelly’s teams.
Sark really can make a difference simply by being aware of the need to give the defense more of a chance to rest. If nothing else, snap the ball with five seconds on the play clock rather than twenty.
But the continuing youth movement on defense should also make a difference. Atlanta had several defensive players last year that were 32, 35 and 36 years old, plus a few more who weren’t overwhelmingly athletic. This year, Brooks Reed at age 30 is the oldest player on the entire defense, and the incoming players are faster and more athletic than the players that they replaced.
It’s clear that you’re optimistic about this season. Other than winning the Superbowl this time, do you have any other particular expectations for the Falcons in 2017?
I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Falcons fans sometimes called “the curse”. Until 2009, the franchise had never had consecutive winning seasons. Going back to the team’s horrid 1974 draft, any fleeting moment of success was always followed by injuries or bad trades or bad drafts that set the team at least two steps back. But they made the postseason in 2008, had a winning record in 2009, finished as the top seed in the NFC in 2010 and 2012, and made the playoffs as a wild card team in between in 2011.
So they finally ended “the curse” with five consecutive winning seasons under Mike Smith, but there’s a related milestone that the Falcons need to check off the list this year. They have the chance to win consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history. There were huge expectations after 2012, but some bad personnel moves and developmental failures led to two losing seasons and the change in the coaching staff. They finally got it all clicking again last year. So now is their chance to avoid having another setback become a whole new version of “the curse”.
It always comes down to the divisional games, but if the Falcons can stay relatively healthy this season, they certainly have the personnel to do it.