With 19 months passed since the Falcons suffered perhaps the most heartbreaking professional sports loss of all-time, Atlanta is set to build on a topsy-turvy past two seasons. For them, a third time will be the charm.
Yielding one of the NFL’s most talented rosters, the Falcons have fallen under the radar as other star-studded NFC franchises such as the Eagles, Rams, Vikings and Saints have hogged preseason hype. Prognosticators overlooking the Falcons will later find out they’ve made a major mistake. The team will return 19 of its 22 starters from last season, therefore putting them in a better position than most teams from the get-go.
After perhaps the best season in franchise history in 2016, the Falcons offense sputtered in 2017 after the switch from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian at offensive coordinator. As Shanahan left for the 49ers head coaching job, he apparently took the offense’s moxie with him, as 2016 NFL MVP Matt Ryan was unable to duplicate his prior success in the new regime.
But with experience (and a fresh season) comes hope for a unit that still has loads of talent. Ryan should have a bounce-back season getting used to Sarkisian’s methods as the team welcomes back most of his weapons in superstar WR1 Julio Jones, WR2 Mohamed Sanu, TE Austin Hooper and RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Like most teams now, the Falcons ran their ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) just over half time in 2017. This year they’ll welcome Alabama WR Calvin Ridley to the fold as the team’s WR3, after selecting him with the 26th overall pick in this year’s draft. The initial thought would be Ridley spending most of his time in the slot, but the most likely outcome is both him and Sanu alternating at the Y and Z (flanker) positions, while Jones remains the team’s primary threat on the outside as the prototypical ‘X’ wideout. With possibly the league’s best group of receivers in the limelight, Hooper may find open lanes down the seam and middle of the field all season. Except a breakout year from third-year tight end.
In addition to ’11’ groupings, expect Sarkisian to implement more ’21’ groupings (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WR) in order to get Freeman and Coleman on the field at the same time. Outside of their rival in New Orleans (Saints with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram) the Freeman-Coleman duo is the league’s best RB pair. While Freeman is more of a physical runner with a quick burst and above-average lateral moves and vision, Coleman is more of a larger scatback-type, and is a major threat in the passing game.
All that comes together behind one of the league’s better offensive lines. Year 2 under Sarkisian will prove to be significantly more memorable last season.
Week 1 Projected offense:
QB — Matt Ryan
RB — Devonta Freeman
WR — Julio Jones
WR — Mohamed Sanu
WR — Calvin Ridley
TE — Austin Hooper
LT — Jake Matthews
LG — Andy Levitre
C — Alex Mack
RG — Brandon Fusco
RT — Ryan Schraeder
Scatback — Tevin Coleman
WR4 — Justin Hardy
FB — Ricky Ortiz
TE2 — Logan Paulsen
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Although no one will confuse this Falcons defense with the Seahawks ‘Legion of Boom’ unit, the architect of that former group has done a swell job building a similarly fast and physical defense of its own in Atlanta.
After two seasons as the Seahawks defensive coordinator (2013-2014), Dan Quinn leveraged his creation on a team that made two consecutive Super Bowls (winning Super Bowl XLVIII), to land his first head coaching job in 2016. The Falcons defense immediately improved as Quinn modeled some positions after his former club. Recently-retired strong safety Kam Chancellor was a force for the ‘LOB,’ terrorizing receivers underneath in the shallow zones of a Cover 3 concept usually suited for linebackers
Quinn uses Keanu Neal similarly in Atlanta in zone-based schemes. Although Neal (6 feet, 211 pounds) isn’t quite Chancellor’s size (6-foot-3, 232 pounds), he’s savvy and packs punch. Quinn also has linebacker Deion Jones in a similar role. The 6-foot, 227-pound linebacker is undersized for the position, but his speed and aggressive mentality have invoked fear over the middle in somewhat similar fashion as the two previously-mentioned players.
Underneath the middle-roaming Neal and Jones is a defensive line ready for a monster season. Two seasons after leading the NFL in sacks (15.5 sacks in 2016), Beasley is primed to get back on track in Year 4, which is commonly viewed a make-or-break year for top-end picks. On the other edge comes new starter Taakarist McKinley. After spending his rookie year as a backup, the 2017 firs- round pick will start opposite Beasley to form a formidable duo.
In the interior, Grady Jarrett has the skills to become a breakout star, similar to the aforementioned Hooper on the offensive side of the ball. Jarrett’s career game is still Super Bowl LI. Despite the Falcons’ heartbreaking loss, Jarrett tied a Super Bowl record with three sacks on Brady. With the Beasley-McKinley duo set to occupy the minds of most offensive lines, the overlooked Jarrett should thrive.
In the backend, Ricardo Allen returns at free safety while CB2 Robert Alford and underrated slot CB Brian Poole help round out a starting secondary that revolves around Desmond Trufant. Not mentioned with the likes of Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Rhodes and Patrick Peterson, Trufant can be likened to Casey Hayward of the Los Angeles Chargers. Trufant and Hayward are top seven or eight cornerbacks in the NFL by any measure, yet are often overlooked. The 2013 first-round pick is a legit CB1 capable of ruining a game for even the brightest quarterbacks and offenses.
Week 1 Projected defense:
EDGE — Vic Beasley Jr.
Interior — Grady Jarrett
Interior — Terrell McClain
EDGE — Takkarist McKinley
LB — Deion Jones
LB — Duke Riley
CB — Desmond Trufant
CB — Robert Alford
Slot CB — Brian Poole
SS — Keanu Neal
FS — Ricardo Allen
Sub Interior Rusher — Jack Crawford
Sub Edge Rusher — Derrick Shelby
Base Defense LB3 — De’Vondre Campbell
CB4 (Dime) — Blidi Wreh-Wilson
CB5 — Isaiah Oliver
Projected record: 12-4 (NFC’s No. 2 seed)
Most are picking the Saints to take the NFC South, but the Falcons have a roster equal to New Orleans (and other NFC powers) in talent. They’ll take the division over the Saints, who will grab a wild card spot with a 10-6 mark. After losing out on the NFC’s top seed due to a Week 15 loss to the Packers in Lambeau Field, the Falcons take care of business a second time around in Green Bay for the NFC Championship Game. In doing so the Falcons become the first home team in Super Bowl history, as the big game will be in Atlanta, Georgia this year. But once again, the Falcons will fall victim to the Patriots, 27-24, as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick take home their sixth and final ring.