2014 Preview: Atlanta Falcons
The 2013 season was one to forget for the Atlanta Falcons. A year that began with promise after an NFC Championship birth in 2012 quickly turned sour as Atlanta stumbled out of the gate, losing four of their first five contests heading into the Bye week. Things didn’t get much better from there as Mike Smith’s team was riddled with injuries, finishing 2013 with a 4-12 record.
There is reason for optimism in Atlanta however: key players will be returning from injury and Matt Ryan will have most of his usual weapons at his disposal for the upcoming season. Can the Falcons rebound after a dismal season and revert to the winning ways they’ve been accustomed to under Coach Smith?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. The Return of Julio Jones
Perhaps the most damaging injury the Falcons had to suffer through last season was that of Julio Jones’ fractured right foot. Jones was enjoying a dynamic season before he went down in Week 5, on pace for an incredible 1,856 receiving yards. There is no question that a healthy Julio is a vital piece of the Falcons’ offense, giving the team a game-breaking weapon that was dearly missed for most of the 2013 season. Atlanta traded five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to move into their spot and take Jones back in 2011, including two first-round selections, but the front office has always believed that he was a player well worth the price paid. Jones’ value was revealed most when he was out of the lineup.
2. Matt Ryan
Its no secret that the player most affected by the loss of Julio Jones was Quarterback Matt Ryan. As mentioned, the duo began the year hot despite the rest of the team’s slow start. With Jones in the lineup, Ryan had a passing grade of +13.8. After Jones was knocked out for the remainder of the season, Ryan compiled a disappointing passing grade of -1.2; truly a tale of two samples. Roddy White’s injuries hindered Ryan’s overall performance as well. That being said, the Falcons’ signal-caller has been great for the team in recent years. In 2013, Ryan had the seventh-best PFF QB Rating of quarterbacks with at least 400 drop-backs (88.36). Ryan also had an Accuracy Percentage of 78.4%, factoring in dropped passes and throwaways, ranking second in the NFL. With healthy starters returning to the lineup, there is certainly reason to believe that Ryan can improve this upcoming season.
3. Upgrade Offensive Line Starters
One factor that really hurt the Falcons in 2013 was the play of the offensive line. Ryan took 44 sacks last season, the highest total of his career. Peter Konz played very poorly as the team’s starting center, earning himself an overall grade of -14.6. Joe Hawley subsequently replaced Konz in Week 11. Lamar Holmes was even worse. His 53 quarterback hurries were good for second most in the NFL behind Bears rookie tackle Jordan Mills, and earned a -33.4 grade at left tackle replacing the injured Sam Baker. It was clear that the Falcons needed to find a number of upgrades along their offensive line, and they did just that. They spent the sixth overall pick on Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews. Matthews figures to be an upgrade over Holmes regardless of which side of the line he ends up on in Year 1. Atlanta also signed former Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah who graded out positively in both the run and pass games last season (+7.9 overall). Not to be overlooked, the Falcons brought in Mike Tice to coach the o-line. Tice will help tutor Matthews and work a healthy Sam Baker back into form. This could be a huge x-factor for the team.
4. Defensive Line Additions
The Falcons didn’t just focus on bolstering the trenches on the offensive side of the ball. They made numerous additions to their defensive line as well. The team will be playing more of a 3-4 defense this season, and as a result brought in some pieces that were deemed as good fits to this scheme. Atlanta had the 31st-ranked run defensive in the league in 2013, so they went out and signed Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson from the Dolphins and Chiefs, respectively. Both signings offer little pass rushing ability, but are stout against the run. Soliai produced a +3.6 run defense grade last season while Jackson was even better, earning a +6.7 grade. Add these additions with the already-solid Jonathan Babineaux and second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman, and the Falcons figure to be better along the defensive line.
5. Young Talent at Cornerback
The Falcons started two rookies at cornerback in 2013: first-round pick Desmond Trufant and second-round selection Robert Alford. Both players were effective in their first seasons, especially Trufant. The former Washington Husky produced a solid +12.5 grade including a +9.9 grade in his final six games, a solid score for a rookie starter on a poor team. Trufant lead the league with 15 pass break-ups and allowed just 53.4% of balls thrown his way to be completed. These are incredible numbers for a first-year cornerback, and were the prime reason why he was named PFF’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. The team will be hoping that both Trufant and Alford can take even more positives steps forward in their second seasons and be a formidable duo for years to come.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Running-Game Struggles
Atlanta’s running game went through its fair share of struggles in 2013. They ranked dead last in the NFL with a measly 77.9 rushing yards per game. Steven Jackson was particularly ineffective and wore down as the season progressed, earning an overall grade of -1.5 in his final four games. Jackson recently turned 31, so there’s a chance that his poor play last season was the product of his aging body, and not injuries that forced him to miss four games. Third-down back Jacquizz Rodgers has failed to live up to the hype generated early in his career, producing a -0.7 rushing grade in 2013. The team spent a fourth-round draft pick on Devonta Freeman this year and are hoping he can pitch in when called upon.
2. Tight End Situation
Another question mark going into the 2014 season for the Falcons is their tight end corps. Tony Gonzalez retired this offseason, leaving a messy situation in his place. Gonzalez was not the player he once was, but was still an effective weapon in the passing game in 2013 (+7.6 receiving grade, eight touchdowns). The Falcons will try to fill the void with Levine Toilolo and Bear Pascoe, both of which are in-line tight ends and underwhelming pass-catchers. Toilolo is entering only in his second year after being a fourth-round pick in 2013, but only earned a -1.7 overall grade in 198 snaps last season. Ryan threw to his in-line tight ends on a league-low 3.1% of his pass attempts. This means that Atlanta will be utilizing more three-receiver sets in 2014.
3. Lacking Pass-Rush
Atlanta’s defense really struggled to get to the quarterback in 2013. The team was tied for second-to-last in the NFL with only 32 sacks. They also had an NFL-low 19.3 Pass Rush Productivity grade with a four-man rush. The Falcons’ sack leader was Osi Umenyiora, who accumulated 7.5 sacks last season though was impressive as his sack numbers indicate, earning a pass-rushing grade of -3.5. Osi also ranked 30th out of 38 4-3 defensive end qualifiers in Pass Rushing Productivity (7.5). Many expected Atlanta to find a new pass-rushing linebacker, but that never happened. They didn’t even address the position his offseason until they selected Notre Dame’s Prince Shembo in the fourth round. Kroy Biermann returns after missing most of the 2013 season, but could struggle coming off an Achilles injury. The Falcons will also be hoping for a third-year leap from former fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi. Expect the Falcons’ pass-rushing struggles to continue in 2014.
4. The Loss of Sean Weatherspoon
Sticking on the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons’ stop unit suffered a massive blow this offseason when inside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon tore his Achilles in June. Weatherspoon missed extensive time in last season, and his loss will once again be huge in 2014. Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu are currently the projected starters at inside linebacker, and that could mean trouble for Atlanta in 2014. Although Worrilow led the team with 127 tackles, his
-11.4 overall grade ranked him in the Bottom 10 inside linebackers last season among 55 qualifiers. Bartu showed well defending the run in 2013, but was the league’s third-worst 4-3 outside linebacker in pass coverage (-9.6 grade). The fact that the Falcons have very little depth behind their starters makes Weatherspoon’s injury even more disastrous.
5. Offensive Line Depth
Although Atlanta upgraded their starters along the offensive line, their depth is still a huge question mark. Holmes projects as the team’s swing tackle, but his poor play ranked him second worst in the NFL out of PFF’s 76 qualifying tackles. Draft bust Gabe Carimi was brought in as a backup interior lineman to compete with Konz and Harland Gunn for snaps should there be an injury. Regardless of who steps in, the Falcons are in a world of trouble if one of their backups is forced to see extended time in the starting lineup in 2014.