Atlanta Falcons: Striving to recapture past glory?

Like other Atlanta sports teams, the Falcons always seem to be stuck in the 'pretty-good' category, and in the last 2 years, not even that.

Shai Landesman ,

Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan
Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan
Screenshot (Twitter)

Ah the Falcons. The consummate Atlanta sports team. Often reasonably good, hardly ever great, and always stuck in this endless loop of getting just good enough to be disappointed not to win a championship, but with no immediate prospects of getting any better than that.

The Falcons have had their fair share of success since Quarterback Matt Ryan was drafted 3rd overall in 2008. Ryan had a great college career at Boston College, but questions about his arm strength follow him wherever he goes, and he is often the center of the debate over whether arm-strength really matters too much.

Atlanta came very close to making the Super Bowl in 2012, but haven't made the playoffs since. Head coach Mike Smith and a mediocre-to-terrible defense were blamed, and Smith was replaced by Seattle Seahawks defensive mastermind Dan Quinn before last season. Quinn has been trying to reproduce the Seahawks defense in Atlanta - with basically zero success during his first season - and new questions have emerged about Ryan following a decline in performance.

What happened last year: Will appear in any sentence starting with "Excellent starts are often illusory," from now until the end of time:

2015 Atlanta Falcons:

Record after 5 games: 5-0

Record after all of the games: 8-8

Total: 26th

Offense: 23rd

Defense: 22nd

All rankings by DVOA (see "a note about stats")

Things started out peachy in the first season of the Quinn era, with the Falcons winning their first 5 games and QB Ryan looking really good linking up with imperious wide receiver Julio Jones time after time. The defense was still shaky though, and that fact, together with a serious lack of depth on offense, spelled the Falcons' eventual demise.

Everything went quite horribly wrong after the first five games. The Falcons lost 8 of the final 11, with injuries and mistakes ravaging their offense, though Jones kept chugging along to finish with 136 catches for 1,871 yards, both the second most ever. Atlanta had little else to offer on offense though, as #2 receiver Roddy White had simply lost his ability to separate from defenders and no credible receiving threat emerged at tight end. Running Back Devonte Freeman had a nice season, but was somewhat slowed by injuries after a great start.

The defense was classic Falcons. Namely: meh. The pass rush was terrible despite the addition of talented rookie linebacker Vic Beasley (Atlanta finished dead last in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate stat), and the run defense was bad too (though somewhat better than in previous years). The secondary had its moments (mainly granted by star CB Desmond Trufant) but no secondary can hold up for too long when there's no pass rush.

By the end of the season the perception around the Falcons was that they were just awful and no fun to watch. The offense must get its act back together if that is to change.

Quarterback situation: We thought it was good until just a few minutes ago

I like Matt Ryan. I think you can win a Super Bowl with Matt Ryan, if you only had a defense around him. But Matt Ryan was never quite an elite QB. Top ten, maybe, but not elite. He was never the problem though, until the latter part of last year.

Ryan threw for only 21 touchdowns last year, the lowest since his rookie season, and threw 15 interceptions; an uncomfortably low touchdown to interception ratio.

More importantly, he seemed to make terrible decisions at the wrong times. For example here (start at 1:52):

Throwing a pick six like that in the fourth quarter when your team is up 7 is just devastating, and while the defender did a great job of "hiding" behind the line before dropping back into coverage, you just have to see that.

Now "Matty ice" has to prove that his dip in form was just a fluke and not the beginning of a permanent decline.

Style of play: Throw to Jones over and over on offense, wannabe Seahawks on defense

The Falcons with Ryan traditionally run an offense that emphasizes the tight end, which they couldn't really do last year in the absence of anyone good at the position, and long bombs. The over-reliance on Jones hurts them. For this reason Atlanta brought in former Bengal Mohamed Sanu to be its #2 receiver, replacing the departed White. Sanu was mainly the #3 in Cincinnati, but he's talented and crafty, and should blossom into his role. Getting star Center Alex Mack from the Browns should significantly improve the run game. All this adds up to the offense bouncing back.

Quinn wants the defense to play like the Seahawks, but they just don't have the personnel to do it yet. Seattle relies on a stout front seven to stop the run by itself, great edge rushers to create a pass rush without much blitzing, and a simple coverage scheme of dividing the deep-field into 3 and relying on the superior ability of its "legion of boom" secondary player.

It's difficult to see how Atlanta can do the same. The front seven isn't particularly strong, and they're don't have anyone to play the role Earl Thomas does in Seattle, namely the role of patrolling the entire middle of the field and taking everything away from the opposing offense. Not anyone can do that. Corneback Desmond Trufant is really good, but he's just one guy. Florida safety Keanu Neal (named after Keanu Reeves, I kid you not) was drafted in the first round to play the Kam Chancellor role from Seattle, but it remains gravely in doubt over whether he'll be able to do so.

Perhaps Quinn can work some magic and turn the defense into a top-10 unit, but magic it will have to be.

Players to watch who will teach you to love football more:

WR Julio Jones

There's nothing much to say about Jones. In terms of physical measurements and ability, he's the receiver you'd build in a lab. No one looks quite as good as him running through opposing secondaries and catching the ball over defenders as if they were children.

C Alex Mack

Mack isn't flashy, but if you do the right thing every once in a while and take your eyes off the ball to watch the line play, watch Mack in the middle of the line. He's a great run-blocker, regularly moving defenders out of running lanes. You can even say that the interior of the line, so often hidden from view, is the secret world of Alex Mack (had to). He was stuck in the purgatory that is the Cleveland Browns for his whole career; now he's finally out, look for him to have some fun at the expense of opposing defensive linemen.

Conclusion and prediction

It doesn't look too good for the Falcons. In order for them to even make the playoffs, Ryan will have to get back to his former self, the running game will have to take a step forward, and Jones will need to get significant help in the receiving game. So far, all possible, perhaps even likely, eventualities. But the real question mark is the defense.

The Falcons brought in former Dolphin Derrick Shelby - who showed some serious promise last season - to improve their pass rush, and spent 3 out of their top-4 draft picks on defenders, but it remains doubtful it will be enough, at least for this season.

Barring an MVP season from Matt Ryan, the Falcon's defensive deficiencies look sure to condemn the team to mediocrity. Even when Ryan was leading Atlanta to regular playoff appearances, the smart money was never on them to win it all. They were always seen to be missing something, and now they would gladly go back to those times.

Predicted 2016 record: 8-8