Later this week, the Atlanta Falcons will begin training camp and thus end the nearly six-month-long drought in which no professional football games were played.
For these final takeaways of the offseason, I want to repeat what I did at this time last summer by discussing some realistic expectations for this upcoming season.
A year ago, I tried my best to be positive about the Falcons’ chances in 2014 the week prior to training camp, but through hindsight it’s easy to read between the lines and say that I wasn’t optimistic about whether they could field a team that would allow Mike Smith to retain his job as head coach.
At that time, I didn’t necessarily believe that Smith would be fired if the Falcons missed the playoffs because I didn’t believe that 2014 team was ideally constructed to go to the postseason. It didn’t seem fair to me for there to be such an ultimatum placed on Smith, knowing that he was going into the season with the least talented Falcon team he ever had over the past seven years.
This is one of the reasons why I’ve been reluctant to vilify Smith as readily as others have because he was essentially set up to fail. That doesn’t mean that Smith is absolved from blame in terms of the shortcomings of the Falcons’ 2014 team as he certainly played a major role in why the team saw lesser returns on talent acquisition during his tenure, but he wasn’t alone in that. And ultimately it’s not the coach’s job to acquire talent, but I promise this week’s column won’t be another one exposing the truth about Thomas Dimitroff.
Last year, I saw major flaws with the Falcons being entirely too “Julio-centric” offensively. Without a balanced rushing attack and other reliable weapons to throw to in the passing game, the 2014 team was going to live and die based on whether Jones could stay healthy and play at a high level each week.
While there was hope a year ago that the offensive line would make major strides, it seemed like too tall an order to put so much on the plate of rookie Jake Matthews and others to expect a major transformation. After all, that 2014 team was still putting faith in Sam Baker to solidify Matt Ryan’s blindside.
I certainly believe that the 2015 Falcons have made significant strides in the right direction from many of these flaws.
Struggles of White, Limitations of Douglas Held Back Falcons in 2014
While the Falcons still remain predominantly a “Julio-centric” offense, there are glimmers of hope that some other playmakers will be able to step up this year. A year ago, most teams took the strategy of rolling safety help and coverages to try and contain Jones and force the Falcons’ other weapons to beat them.
To use a different sports analogy, it’s basically the same strategy that many NBA teams use against opponents featuring one superstar player and a weak supporting cast. They will make an effort to contain the superstar and force the other four players on the floor to beat them.
That’s essentially what opposing defensive coordinators did to Jones and the Falcons last year, and their supporting cast was not up to snuff. The loss of Tony Gonzalez, decline of Roddy White and total evaporation of the running game were too much to handle.
Despite even all my criticism of him, even I can recognize the fact that the Falcons truly needed Harry Douglas last year. In the 12 games that Douglas played last year, the Falcons sported a 6-6 record. Obviously in the four games he missed, they were 0-4. It’s also worth noting that four of those six losses in which Douglas appeared were decided by one score or less. Basically meaning that when Douglas was on the field, the Falcons were mostly competitive. When he wasn’t, there weren’t. It’s pretty clear that Douglas, not White, was the “Kyrie Irving” to Julio Jones’ “LeBron James.”
But that made the Falcons too reliant on Douglas, and as I said last summer, being too reliant on Douglas was not a good situation. Despite being the team’s de facto No. 2 receiver, Douglas is not the sort of guy a winning team relies upon to deliver on a week-to-week basis.
White should be improved from where he was in 2014, but that’s largely based upon the belief that he can’t get much worse. I doubt he will revert to his pre-2014 form and be the sort of guy that hurts opposing defenses when they devote too much attention to Jones. Instead, it may be the additions of Justin Hardy and Jacob Tamme that take the Falcons are few steps away from being overly reliant on Jones.
Tamme in particular, I believe is being underrated by a great many Falcon fans and observers. That’s not to say that Tamme is some dynamic tight end that few know about, but that he’s simply a guy that can win many of the one-on-one situations that he’ll see given the extra attention being paid to Jones. That was something that last year’s tight end Levine Toilolo and White weren’t capable of doing.
Zone-Blocking and Explosiveness Name of Falcons’ Running Game
However the real key to taking pressure off Jones to carry the offense will be the running game. The move to the zone-blocking scheme will greatly benefit the Falcons on the ground in 2015.
There may be a bit of a misconception about what that running scheme will do in Atlanta. Contrary to what many may believe, new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has had few instances coaching a top rushing attack in the NFL. In seven seasons as an NFL play-caller, Shanahan’s teams have finished in the top 10 in rushing yards only twice, both coming in 2012 and 2013 with the Washington Redskins.
The 2008 Houston Texans finished 13th and the 2014 Cleveland Browns finished 17th. In the other three seasons his offenses finished among the bottom eight NFL teams in rushing. So don’t buy into the hype that Shanahan or zone-blocking’s mere presence on their own will lead to success running the football.
But there are still reasons to be optimistic about the Falcons’ rushing attack this season. The most obvious being the fact that the Falcons have new blood at the running back position in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Coupled with Antone Smith, all three of the Falcons’ main tailbacks are at their best running in space. The new blocking scheme will maximize the opportunities that allow them to run in space, which should maximize their potential.
All three players have a tendency to get their yardage in large chunks. While that style of running may not be as reliable on a down-by-down basis, it does lead to a lot more explosive plays that can jumpstart the offense every now and then.
Scheme Change Creates Room for Improvement From Matthews
The new blocking scheme also means several Falcons offensive linemen are also being utilized correctly. I noted last May, that several Falcons blockers were better fits in a zone-blocking scheme. The addition of Chris Chester gives them five starters that are playing in a scheme ideally suited for them, rather than the mixing and matching they did a year ago.
Kudos to the Falcons coaching staff by incorporating more movement and pulling in their blocking last year to better tailor it to their hodgepodge of athletic movers and immobile maulers. Yet this season there is going to be even more cohesion and upside because there is no longer a firm ceiling on how good certain blockers can be given the new scheme.
Jake Matthews is a perfect illustration of this. If he’s going to blossom into the Pro Bowl-talent that he is capable of being, then it’s likely going to come in a zone-blocking scheme. It’s not a coincidence that Matthews was Pro Football Focus‘ lowest-graded offensive tackle as a run-blocker in 2014. He’s never been a player that could create consistent push off the ball that the man-blocking scheme requires. Instead, he’s one that relies on his excellent footwork to get position and wall off defenders, which is exactly what the new scheme will ask of him.
That doesn’t mean that Matthews will turn into a Pro Bowler this year. He’ll likely go through struggles just like every other young offensive lineman, but there is significant room for growth this year and beyond. That is the same across the board for the other Falcons’ starters, which is another reason to be optimistic that things will improve this season.
Again, none of these players are going to carry the 2015 Falcons offense in the same capacity that Jones does. But there are going to be a lot more instances where opposing defensive coordinators are going to double and triple team Jones, forcing others to step up. Now the Falcons have a few more options that can and will do that job.
Defensive Improvements on Horizon for Falcons
Not only is there reason for real optimism involving the Falcons’ offensive growth in 2015 but the same can be said of the defense.
Last year, I was very skeptical of the defense and a big part of that was the lack of a viable pass rush. Essentially the Falcons were going to be forced to rely on turnovers to get the defensive stops that their pass rush was incapable of creating. And I’ve explained before that there’s a positive correlation between generating pass rush and creating interceptions, which basically made the Falcons’ 2014 defense doubly screwed.
The Falcons made investments in their pass rush this offseason that they neglected in years past. Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, O’Brien Schofield and Grady Jarrett should help the front create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year. The latter three are certainly improvements, but none have shown they’re true difference-makers. If any newcomer is going to be that caliber of player, it’s going to Beasley.
Beasley Can’t Carry Good Pass Rush Alone
I don’t think it’s fair to place expectations on Beasley that he’ll have this monster rookie season in the same way that Von Miller, Julius Peppers, Aldon Smith or Jevon Kearse had in recent memory. While the rookie from Clemson is certainly capable, it just doesn’t happen all too often.
Prior to the draft I wrote about two of the main conditions that are often present when a rookie pass-rusher has success right away in the NFL. They included going to a team with an already established lead pass-rusher and/or one that overall was already strong on defense. Neither of those conditions apply to the 2015 Falcons defense.
But even if Beasley has this double-digit sack season that many are predicting this year, it may not mean that the team’s overall pass rush is comparably good. Looking around the league at the teams with the best pass rushes, none are being carried by one player.
But what Beasley can do on his own is take the Falcons out of the cellar as far as the pass rush goes. A Falcons pass rush that is out of the cellar can begin to get those stops in critical situations at the end of halves that were lacking a year ago. The commonality in nearly every single loss the Falcons had in 2014 was how easily they gave up points in the waning minutes and seconds of both the second and fourth quarters. The number of games in which the Falcons defense didn’t allow an opponent to drive the length of the field to put itself in scoring position in those situations can be counted on one hand.
Beasley and the other pass-rushing additions won’t completely reverse that trend but they certainly can reduce the amount of times it happens, perhaps by a handful. That translates to be a handful of games that the Falcons are in a better position to win in the end and we already know that the team is in very capable hands when in close games in the fourth quarter.
Moore’s Healthy Return Headlines Upgrades in Falcons’ Back Seven
The play of the Falcons linebackers will be another area of improvement this year. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of linebackers that were collectively worse than the Falcons were a year ago. Thus it’s no coincidence that the Falcons struck quickly in free agency to address that position group by signing Justin Durant and Brooks Reed.
Losing linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was a huge blow a year ago, but then losing safety William Moore on top of that sunk the Falcons defense. Getting a healthy Moore back should also be a huge boost to the defense since it’s probably not a coincidence that in games where he played the majority of defensive snaps, the Falcons sported a 4-1 record in 2014.
There’s leadership, energy and a certain swagger that Moore brings to the field that was sorely missing for most of 2014 that the team hopes to regain this season. If Durant can fill the void that Weatherspoon left and Reed has an effect comparable to a pre-Achilles-tear Kroy Biermann from 2012, then the Falcons’ linebacker corps is no longer a major liability. If cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford show continued development as well, then the Falcons will see a significant boost to their back seven coupled with the aforementioned one expected from the front.
Defensive Improvements Should Help Offense
All these improvements won’t suddenly make the 2015 Falcons defense into one of the league’s premier units but it does mean that they should be in a better position to retain leads against their opponents this year. If that happens, that means that the running game that Shanahan hopes to exploit will be given more opportunities to impact the game.
2014 Playing From Behind
|Team||Tot. Off. Plays||Plays down 4+ pts||Pct. Behind||Behind Rnk||Pass||Run||Run Pct. when behind||Run Rnk|
The above graph shows that the Falcons finished last season ranked 24th in terms of offensive plays ran when they were down by four or more points in a game, meaning they spent a lot of their 2014 season behind on the scoreboard. The above graph also shows they were fairly pass-heavy in those situations with the 23rd most number of run plays executed. That’s one of the reasons why despite a improvements in the running game and a solid year from Steven Jackson, it didn’t have a dramatically positive effect on the team overall.
Comparatively, the Shanahan-led Browns were one of the most run-centric teams even in situations where they were down by more than a touchdown. That’s largely because of the lack of faith that coaching staff had in Brian Hoyer to win with his arm. That won’t be the case in Atlanta since Shanahan will now be coordinating Matt Ryan, who is by far the best quarterback he’s ever had the opportunity to work with.
Stopping Jones Led to Opponents Success in 2014
The Falcons will still lean on Ryan’s arm in situations where they get behind, but under Shanahan there’s every reason to believe they’ll be more balanced. This creates a domino effect, with better defensive play leading to more opportunities to run on offense. More opportunities to run means less pressure on Jones to carry the offense and thus the entire team benefits.
That’s important because last year’s team was never really in a position where they could effectively take pressure off Jones. Based on Pro Football Focus’ grades, the 2014 Falcons sported a 6-2 record in games where Jones received a positive overall grade. In games where that wasn’t the case, last year’s team was 0-7. They also of course lost the one game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that Jones did not play in.
The average score of those eight games where Jones received a positive grade was 32-23. The average score of the seven that Jones did not play well was 15-29. Even including the Steelers game only changes it to 16-29. Those scores clearly show that last year, the Falcons’ opponents had a very simple game plan: contain Jones and beating the Falcons came relatively easy.
Falcons’ opponents in 2015 won’t necessarily tear up those game plans, as the same rule generally applies. But there will be more instances this upcoming season where that strategy doesn’t work because several of the Falcons’ new additions will be able to make the necessary plays to make a legitimate difference.
That difference may not just be a one-or-two-win improvement from last year’s record, but instead four or five wins if the Falcons get the necessary breaks. They’ll certainly need those breaks such as being healthy because the reality still remains that this team is a couple of injuries away from being back in the cellar.
Injuries Always a Deal-breaker
Losing Ryan or Jones for an extended period would put the team dead in the water. Their offensive line, linebacker and secondary depth isn’t very proven. While the Falcons added to their roster this offseason, most of the team’s veteran additions are complementary players like Tamme, Clayborn and Reed that won’t be able to pick up all the slack from already established playmakers. The same can be said of the rookie draft class, which features a number of players that could be impact players in their own right in the future, but probably won’t pay such dividends immediately.
So I do have to preface my previous positivity and optimism by saying that a few too many injuries and the 2015 Falcons won’t see all the improvement I’ve spoken about. They’ll certainly be a much more competitive team than they were a year ago, but it may not translate into a significant increase in wins.
But perhaps there’s some hope that despite the disclaimer, the law of averages suggests that the Falcons probably won’t have as dire a bout with the injury bug in 2015 as they’ve had the past two seasons.
Last year at this time, I was trying my best at faking optimism because I know people dislike reading long-worded columns focusing on the negative. But this year, I can say that the optimism I feel heading into training camp and eventually the regular season is legit.