Season Outlook 2020: Atlanta Falcons
2019 was a tale of two seasons for the Atlanta Falcons. Through the first eight games, the Falcons had a 1–7 record and ranked near the bottom in almost every defensive category. Then, coach Dan Quinn decided to make changes on the coaching staff. He gave up play calling duties, and switched defensive coordinators. The change led to Atlanta being a completely different team during the second half of the season. The Falcons had a 6–2 record over the final eight games. A stretch which saw them finish with a 7–9 record, and even included victories over the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers. The last eight games of 2019 should give Atlanta reason for optimism this season. If they want to be truly competitive however, there’s things the team must fix.
First being the defense. Even with the drastic change during the back half of last season, Atlanta’s defense finished in the bottom half of total yards allowed per game (13th most), passing yards allowed per game (11th most), and points allowed per game (10th most). The Falcons also had the second-fewest amount of sacks last year.
Atlanta knew the defense was still an issue, and decided to upgrade the unit this offseason. The team signed pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. in free agency. Fowler Jr. is coming off a career year in which he had 11.5 sacks. His presence on the defensive line should instantly give Atlanta’s defense a boost. The Falcons also used four of their six draft picks on defensive players, including their first round pick, which they used to select Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell.
The Falcons should also get a boost on the defensive side of the ball just through returning players. The past two seasons, Atlanta’s defense has been ravaged with injuries to key players such as Deion Jones and Keanu Neal. The unit being fully healthy, along with the momentum of the second half of last season, and the additions of Fowler Jr. and Terrell, should allow Atlanta’s defense to surprise some people this season.
Defense wasn’t the only problem for the Falcons last season however.
Many people think of Atlanta’s offense as a powerhouse, and for the most part they’re right. The team finished last season with the fifth-most total yards per game, and the third-most passing yards per game. That is mainly due to the superstar duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Neither of those players are the solution for the Falcons’ issue on offense though. Last season, Atlanta finished with the third-fewest rushing yards per game. This was due in large part to two factors. First, running back Devonta Freeman may have lost a step, as he finished with just 656 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games last year. Second, Atlanta’s offensive line was ranked 24th in terms of run blocking according to Football Outsiders. The mix of the two proved to be disastrous for the team last season.
This season however, Atlanta is hoping the solution is Todd Gurley, who joined the team during free agency. While Gurley may not be the same player he was in 2017/2018, he still has some years left in him. In a down season last year, Gurley still managed to have 857 rushing yards, and 14 total touchdowns in 15 games behind an offensive line which finished ranked lower than Atlanta’s according to Pro Football Focus. While the Falcons’ o-line still isn’t great, key players like Alex Mack and Jake Matthews remain. A leap from 2019 first round selections Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary would also pay dividends for Atlanta’s offensive line this season. Even without a leap from the o-line, Gurley is an improvement over Freeman. His addition should improve a weak rushing attack, along with opening up the passing game for the truly dangerous aspect of Atlanta’s team.
The Falcons’ passing attack has been the only thing keeping them competitive in games. Matt Ryan is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Julio Jones is the best receiver in football. Atlanta also has receiver Calvin Ridley who has proven he can play throughout his first two seasons. While the team lost breakout tight end Austin Hooper in free agency, they looked to fill the void by trading for former first round tight end Hayden Hurst. Hurst hasn’t quite come into his own since being drafted, in large part to the depth of the position on Baltimore’s roster. Hurst will be the number one tight end in Atlanta, allowing him to show the reason why he was a first round selection.
So what does all this mean for the Falcons this season?
The improvements in the ground game and on defense should only magnify the explosiveness of the passing game. Gurley’s addition will only improve the play action aspect. Fowler Jr. and Terrell’s additions will only help lessen the load for the offense, along with keeping the team in more games. The last time the Falcons had a top ten scoring defense, they made the playoffs (2017). Is Atlanta on that same path this season? I believe so. Despite being in a tough division, the addition of a seventh playoff team affords the Falcons a better chance at the playoffs. They have too much talent, and can’t afford to waste it any longer. Atlanta should make a return to the playoffs this season.