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  1. Similar to most positions on the roster, the Falcons had high expectations for their linebackers. Deion Jones established himself as a top-tier linebacker in 2017. Other than Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, there isn’t a better middle linebacker in the league. De’Vondre Campbell made major strides following an inconsistent rookie season. While Duke Riley endured a frustrating rookie season, the coaching staff remained confident in his abilities to become a solid rotational player. Drafting Foye Oluokun and re-signing Kemal Ishamel rounded out an exciting linebacker group. With the defensive line losing Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe, it was expected that the linebackers were going to be challenged more in the running game. Losing a violent versatile lineman like Clayborn and a true run-stuffer in Poe were significant losses. The lack of support up front proved to be too overwhelming for the linebacker group. They still managed to show some flashes in what turned into an infuriating cruel season. Deion Jones The game-changing linebacker suffered a severe foot injury in a second consecutive grueling defeat to the Eagles. For him to miss essentially three months of the season left the defense overmatched across the board. Jones’ instincts, range, and speed gives Dan Quinn’s defense a wide variety of options. They can be more aggressive with Jones’ ability to cover acres of space. How he can match up against running backs and prevent them from picking up easy chunk yards is integral to the Falcons’ scheme. Playing a massive role in limiting Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, and Todd Gurley in three straight games proved Jones’ value as one of the most valuable defensive players in the league. It’s difficult to assess a player’s performance after only playing six games. You must take into account that Jones likely took two games to get back into game shape, especially when he rarely leaves the field and handles the most defensive responsibility on the field. Once the playmaking linebacker got back into the groove, he made his mark during Atlanta’s three-game winning streak. He showed noticeable improvement against the run in taking on blockers. That was arguably the biggest knock on his overall game. If Jones can continue to hold his own at the point of attack, there is no reason why he can’t become the best middle linebacker in the league. De’Vondre Campbell After shining in his second season, it was a strange season for the versatile linebacker. Campbell was pressed into a bigger role with Jones’ absence. He took the reins in communicating with the coaching staff during various stages of the season. Some of the defense’s better performances occurred when Campbell was leading the defense. Their overall improvement didn’t feature many memorable plays from him. He didn’t produce the same amount of difference-making plays he did in 2017. Whether it consists of breaking up a pass on third down or making a big stop against the run, Campbell rarely made notable plays. When Jones returned from injury, Campbell looked more comfortable alongside his running mate. His presence allowed Campbell to blitz more often. With his explosiveness and power, the former fifth round pick is capable of causing havoc as an extra pass rusher. The coaching staff utilized him as much as possible in a blitzing capacity during the last three games. Giving him less man coverage assignments and more opportunities to get after the quarterback would be an effective strategy in getting the most out of Campbell. The coaching staff knows they have a solid linebacker on their hands. How they use him going forward will determine how much of an impact Campbell can truly make in Quinn’s Cover 3 based defense. Foye Oluokun What was considered to be an intriguing flier pick may end up becoming one of the best late-round selections in the Quinn-Dmitiroff era. Oluokun was quickly pressed into action after Jones was sidelined for nearly three months. Instead of being moved down the depth chart after the star middle linebacker returned, the coaching staff continued to give him significant snaps. That is a testament to how well the former sixth round pick performed on a consistent basis. Oluokun emerged as a real physical presence against the run. From not being fazed when taking on blockers to rarely missing tackles in the open field, the Falcons have a real talent on their hands. It wasn’t surprising to see Quinn bring in another speedy prospect be inserted into an ultra-quick linebacker unit. Oluokun also brought much-needed ferocity to an undersized front seven, which solidified his place in the rotation. How the coaching staff uses him moving forward remains to be seen. Whether it’s using him as a strong side linebacker and (or) rotating with Campbell on the weak side, Oluokun could very well develop into a key contributor in 2019. Duke Riley As Oluokun earned the coaching staff’s trust, Riley did everything possible to earn a place on the bench. The once highly touted linebacker has proven to be a major liability on the field. His tackling issues from his rookie season transferred over into 2018. Not being able to take on blockers left him overmatched against the run. Failing to diagnose plays in coverage allowed skill position players to pick up easy yards underneath. Many draft analysts praised Riley for his instincts coming out of LSU. That hasn’t translated to the pros, as he is constantly a step behind on his assignments. It’s difficult to be optimistic about Riley’s outlook. After two seasons of not making any positive impact, the former third round pick is under enormous pressure. The front office will likely bring in more competition to challenge for backup roles and to handle special teams’ duties. If Riley doesn’t make a positive impression in the summer, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the coaching staff give up on him. They can’t afford to keep players that continue to make the same blunders and fail to show improvement. The clock is ticking for Riley following a dismal season. Kemal Ishmael Ishmael wasn’t used as much as he was in previous seasons. Considering all of the injuries and personnel issues surrounding the defense, most would have expected Ishmael to receive more opportunities. The versatile linebacker is one of the most reliable open-field tacklers on the team. Despite being somewhat undersized as a former strong safety, his willingness to throw his body on the line against the run has always been admirable. There is no fear in his game. Ishmael embraces contact at all times, which can’t be said for all linebackers. It’ll be interesting to see how much interest Ishmael attracts in free agency. Most thought he would depart after playing well in 2016. His decision to re-sign with the Falcons was surprising at the time. Not many players with his experience stick with a team that has no plans to use him in a major role. Will Ishmael try his chances elsewhere or reclaim his place as a reliable backup? Based on his limited snaps when the defense was at its worst, the multi-dimensional defender will likely go to a team that can provide more opportunities.
  2. The speculation about Steve Sarkisian getting the axe this offseason has been ongoing for many weeks now, and that’s if you don’t count all the talk of him getting fired in like the third week of the 2017 season. Marquand Manuel’s impending doom has been a more recent subject, but all the indications we’re receiving here before the final game of the season is that both men are going to be looking for other opportunities soon. The latest report came from Ian Rapoport at, who essentially confirms what we’ve all been thinking about and hearing over the last month. To wit: Coach Dan Quinn is safe, but there will be change. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is seriously at risk, but so is defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel. The Falcons dealt with injuries, especially on the defensive side of the ball but the issues went deeper. While owner Arthur Blank is moving forward with Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff, with a strong belief in both, Quinn should have several new staff members for 2019. Darrell Bevell, who spent some time with Atlanta in the preseason, could be a candidate, but there will be other strong ones. Sark had a shaky start in 2017 but presided over a pretty efbefective offense in 2018, all things considered. If the Falcons can him, he was doomed by his worst efforts—and we all remember too many jet sweeps and 2nd and 10 runs up the middle, to be sure—and Atlanta going slack on offense for five consecutive games to essentially ruin their season. Given that he was a controversial hire when he was added and both Falcons offenses he has run have been disappointing, it’s little surprise he’s likely on the outs and headed back to the college ranks in 2019. The names we’ve seen connected to the Falcons’ vacancy, including Bevell, are not exactly thrilling ones. On defense, Manuel is on the hot seat because of a lack of progress. The 2017 Falcons defense was much better than the 2015 and 2016 versions, certainly, but it still fell short of one of the league’s best units. The fact that the pass rush was non-existent for weeks and key players failed to take a step forward in 2018 will hurt a once-hot head coach prospect a lot, and he’s very likely to be heading out the door as well. There’s been zero talk of who might take over for him, though you could certainly comb through Quinn’s coaching history to find some candidates, especially if Kris Richard might be willing to hop over from Dallas. It’s worth noting, as some of you have, that it’s not a great look for Dan Quinn that he’s had one coordinator hired away (Kyle Shanahan) and has fired three others (Richard Smith, Sark and Manuel) if it comes to this. That’s why I’d expect Quinn to have a relatively short leash going forward, and he and the reportedly safe Thomas Dimitroff front office will have a lot of work to do in a short time to get this football team back on track.
  3. Well, it’s time we finally admit the truth about this franchise. By Cory Woodroof @CoryWoodroof47 Dec 12, 2018, 8:00am EST Leodis McKelvin was right. The Atlanta Falcons are, have been, and for the immediate future, will be front-runners. Go back to 2016 with me, if you will. The Falcons had just lost to the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the team’s few 2016 regular season flops. The game showed what happened when the historic offense met a fierce defensive front. The team was held to 15 points on offense and lost control of the game’s tempo, which sunk the explosive mentality the team thrived on way back when. Post-game, McKelvin uttered the awful truth no one wanted to believe at a time where things were about to break even for Atlanta in the biggest way possible. “I was telling the defense, this is the type of team, they are a front-runner. They are a front-running team,” he told reporters (via ESPN). “If you go out there and make some stops, they eventually are going to be dying down.” The quote, at the time, was great bulletin board material for a team that surely used that moment to jettison to a better place (well, almost). But its the most telling observation about this franchise ever relayed by an opponent, and the defining problem of this team in the post-Michael Vick era. The Falcons are front-runners. They do wilt at immediate adversity. Slow them down, knock them out of the fight. It’s how it’s always been, and 2018 is that in grand amplification. Let’s go back to any big moment in recent team history. Looking Back The 2010 season ended in the divisional round with Aaron Rodgers coming out, guns blazing, to stop the Falcons after they got out to an early 14-7 start to see 35 unanswered points derail a promising campaign. The 2012 season ended with a collapsed lead in the NFC Championship to the 49ers that kept the team from going to its second Super Bowl. The week prior, they did the exact same thing to the Seahawks, but the mighty foot of Matt Bryant saved pain for a week later. In February 2017, well, we won’t go there. Look at the 2013 season, when, after a rash of injuries, the entire half decade of goodwill seemingly evaporated and led to the end of an era with the firing of Mike Smith in 2014. Look at the 2015 season, when the team let a few close games gather moss down the rolling hill to lose six straight. Look at the 2011 season, when the team fell flat at the Meadowlands by only scoring two points. Look at January’s Eagles debacle. Want more examples? Google: “Falcons blow lead regular season.” Sometimes, in large part thanks to Matt Ryan, they can fight their way back for the comeback. But we haven’t seen that much as of late. And it still doesn’t discount the fact that they had to be in that situation to begin with. The team’s problems haven’t changed once since 2008. They can’t handle teams with stout trenches, and the teams with strong run games and even stronger defensive lines always win out against the Birds when the things get close. The Falcons never seem to find success in addressing their own trenches, which have both been decent at the best since the turn of the millennium. The team can’t handle compounding injuries, they can’t handle blown leads, they can’t handle what happens when things go wrong. They have to have everything in place to succeed. It’s never quite broken even in their favor. They’ve gotten close, but not quite. Why is that? Why is it this team can’t get into the tough moments and box out a win? Why can’t this team withstand injuries? Why can’t this team hold a lead? Why does this team spend so much time worrying about rising up? What about staying up when the punches come in bunches? Don’t throw around curses, or “that’s just the way it is,” or more jargon about this or that with the team’s history. This is football, not World of Warcraft. You’re not bound to some ancient hex or manifest destiny. It’s just a game, and anyone can fix anything at any time to win whatever they want to win. The Falcons are front-runners, and it’s time for Dan Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff to fix that. Looking Within Quinn has helped solve some of that problem of the team being accused of being a finesse outfit. He drafted guys like Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Takkarist McKinley and Grady Jarrett to change the mentality. He wanted guys who were fast and physical; we all know that. For the most part, he’s gotten that exact result. But this team never seems to escape this belief that it’s, as Fox Sports’ Nick Wright said after the team lost in Philly in January, “a soft, finesse dome team.” Is it time we all start taking that moniker seriously? Is this just who the Falcons are, at least right now? Are they really just birds of comfort? These old legacy teams like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, Bears, Giants, Broncos, Eagles, Dolphins ... the win-in-the-elements, smack-you-down, mean-machine outfits who can win with two teeth, a busted jaw, and a broken leg. We’ve seen the Falcons play tough in this Quinn era, so that total perception isn’t quite true. But we’ve seen them wilt down the stretch too many times in equal measure, often to these types of teams who keep swinging even when the Falcons seemingly have them pinned. The Falcons saw their greatest weakness send them home from Houston without a trophy. They faded down the stretch in the franchise’s most important moment in the exact way McKelvin said they would. The Patriots got some stops, got a few scores, and whammo, a 28-3 lead disappears like a thief in the night. The Patriots didn’t steal the Super Bowl; the Falcons gave it away. They couldn’t overcome their grandest problem, and it stole the greatest victory a football team can achieve. Looking ahead This team has been a front-runner for as long as I can remember, unable to handle the smallest dose of adversity. The team rebounding after 2017’s Super Bowl fracas to get to the divisional round was an incredible feat, but they had time to plan. Quinn has been wondrous about fixing problems in the offseason and letting the team grow. He’ll most likely do that this spring. But when new problems pop up in-season, the team just doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to withstand them. It happens time after time. The Falcons have to have everything break their way in order to achieve ultimate success. If that doesn’t happen, neither do the Falcons. The rare example of this came in 2016, when the team lost Desmond Trufant to injury, and Jalen Collins stepped up. The team did get the benefit of having Quinn take the plays over in that stretch, which gave them the defensive boost they needed. Collins is gone now, and Quinn hasn’t called the plays since the Super Bowl. But what would’ve happened that year if the team had gotten more banged up? Well, you saw down the stretch. What will the Falcons have to do to fix this? Who knows. It’s not something you can just pinpoint to fix through the draft, or in free agency, or with a coaching change. The entire mentality of the organization has to change, the players you bring in have to have fight in them, the entire team has to have a strong left hook and a nasty counter-punch. No matter the eventual solution, McKelvin called it two years ago. He doesn’t have to stay right, though. If the Falcons want a Super Bowl, they’re going to have to figure out how to be tough and resilient ... no, not in general. When it counts. It’s time for the Falcons to break away from the front-running mentality. It’s time for them to shed the dome-friendly visage. It’s time for them to be 100% tough. It’s time for the Atlanta Falcons to get a backbone. Here’s desperately hoping they find one.
  4. Allen Strk@Allen_Strk 8-10 minutes At this time nearly one month ago, Dan Quinn endured his lowest point as an NFL head coach. An abysmal second half showing against Pittsburgh left his team at 1-4. In a matter of one month, the general conversation about the Falcons went from having Super Bowl aspirations to challenging for a top five pick. Quinn reiterated that his team is far better than their record indicated following the loss to Pittsburgh. Despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the league and an abundance of playmakers, it didn’t essentially matter in the end. A decimated defense left the Falcons hopeless when their high-powered offense couldn’t score more than 30 points. The fanbase’s feelings of hopelessness have turned into hopefulness over the past month. With the defense showing signs of fortitude, Quinn’s assessment is proving to be accurate. After two slightly uneven wins over the Buccaneers and Giants, the Falcons put together their most complete performance of the season. They handled a Washington team brimming with confidence on both sides of the ball. From dominating in the trenches to picking them apart with a variety of timely big plays, it was as good as a team performance you’ll see from what most would consider an unbalanced team. Regaining their balance offensively played an integral part in their first definitive win of the season. It’s been no secret that the Falcons’ running game has been largely disappointing this season. Besides their explosion against Carolina and solid showing against Cincinnati, they have failed to run the ball effectively in every other game. Some of their shortcomings fall on the regression of two of their best offensive linemen. Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder haven’t been playing at a top-tier level like they did in the previous two seasons. The other part falls on Steve Sarkisian’s insistence of calling stretch and toss plays. When you’re struggling to create holes on a weekly basis in the run game and the play calling becomes predictable, alterations need to be made to open up lanes for your explosive running back tandem. Trying to revive a fading running game was going to be extremely difficult against a Washington defense that held Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley to a combined 71 yards on 28 carries. With Ben Garland making his first start of the season, there was no telling what could possibly happen. A whopping 154 yards off 24 carries showcased the Falcons’ offense capabilities. When this group is locked in and handling their assignments, defenses will begin to crumble like Washington’s defense did in the second half. Sarkisian did a terrific job of mixing in more counter runs to stretch an aggressive defense. It became apparent that Washington’s edge rushers and linebackers lacked gap integrity. They were primarily focused on blowing up runs. To exploit their over-aggressiveness, Sarkisian used more misdirection around the edges off both sides and numerous double teams to wreck the middle. Jake Matthews and Wes Schweitzer were outstanding in making combination blocks to create enormous holes. They played a crucial role in limiting Alabama’s finest interior tackle duo in Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. With neither player failing to make an impact, the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith will look back on this game fondly with all the acres of space they had to get loose in the open field. According to ESPN’s John Keim, the Falcons averaged 4.96 yards before contact on its runs. There are some offenses that will struggle to average nearly five yards per carry in any game this season. For them to do it before contact was even made is extraordinary. Schraeder spoke to me following Sunday’s game about how they emphasized running the ball more effectively. With extra movement drills and more preparation time for the offensive line, Washington’s front seven was left searching for answers. The same can apply to D.J. Swearinger as well, who will be on Smith’s highlight reel for years to come. The rookie running back continues to validate himself as a legitimate playmaker with his tremendous patience and vision. His style complements Coleman well in forming one of the more unlikely dynamic duos. Staying committed to a languishing running game wasn’t the only challenge for Sarkisian. Keeping Matt Ryan upright presented another daunting challenge against Washington’s dangerous pass rush. A combination of two of last year’s anchors (Mack, Schraeder) getting back to their best and Garland stepping up at right guard is their best hope in trying to maintain some solidity on the offensive line. For all the belief Sarkisian had with this group, he knew a more calculated approach would tear apart a defense heavily reliant on their pass rush. By using more three and five step drops to get the ball out quicker, Ryan put together another productive performance to continue his stellar season. What made their aerial assault even more impressive involved how much they stretched the field. Although the game plan was slightly more conservative, it didn’t stop Ryan from finding his array of playmakers across the field. Coleman had his most productive game of the season as a receiver. As shallow crosses and outstanding downfield blocking flustered Washington’s defense, Ryan found Coleman for two easy access touchdowns. The offensive line still did their share in the passing game. On 40-drop backs, Ryan was only sacked twice and hit four times. When asked to get downfield on a screen, they made key blocks in helping produce two touchdowns off screens. It was a gutsy performance from the entire offensive line. To convert on 10 of 13 third downs is a testament to how everyone was in sync. Most of those conversions came from passes that were largely uncontested. That’s how much the offense was flourishing against one of the better defenses in the league. Ryan was able to find open receivers with relative ease. If they weren’t creating separation, Sarkisian would use a good dosage of rub route concepts. Look no further than Calvin Ridley’s touchdown, who ran behind Mohamed Sanu and found a clear angle towards the middle of the field. Allowing a receiver with breakaway speed to accelerate into the open field without a defensive back affecting his route will usually lead to big plays. Washington paid the consequences in what was another jaw-dropping moment from the hotshot rookie. Undervalued players continue to stake their claim in Quinn’s defensive rotation It’s nearly impossible to evaluate the defense’s shutdown performance. They faced a team without two of their most explosive playmakers (Chris Thompson, Jamison Crowder) and lost almost every starter on their offensive line due to injury. That’s not a good recipe for any quarterback, let alone Alex Smith. His inability to take risks certainly makes things easier for a defense still looking to find an identity. There were still some standout performers. Jack Crawford continues to be a force on the interior. Moving him inside after being primarily used as an edge defender in Dallas will go down as one of Quinn’s more wiser decisions. It’s helped him produce three sacks during Atlanta’s three-game winning streak. Foye Oluokun and Sharrod Neasman continue to earn more playing time, which is proving to be a pleasantly surprising upgrade. Both players are willing tacklers who don’t blow many coverage assignments. Based on the increase in snaps, the coaching staff is clearly behind them. How they progress will be fascinating in trying to keep things afloat in anticipation for the return of Deion Jones. Looking Ahead There was genuine concern that the Falcons wouldn’t have much to play for in November. Following their third consecutive victory, they’re putting themselves in a position to play in January. There is still plenty of work to do, as Quinn will be the first one to tell you. Every player I spoke to on Sunday talked about the importance of taking it week by week. Focusing on the task at hand instead of visualizing what the team could look like in three weeks has greatly benefitted them. It’s what helped them turn what was becoming a cruel lost season into what could become a wildly encouraging season. Quinn has instilled this mindset within the entire organization. That’s why as compelling as the Thanksgiving showdown in New Orleans looks at the moment, the only thing the Falcons have their eyes on is beating Cleveland.
  5. After a much-needed bye week, the Atlanta Falcons begin a two-game road stretch in Washington. It’s also the start of a tricky second half of the season featuring six away games in nine weeks. Although they have fared better on the road under Dan Quinn, there are going to be lingering questions about how this team can handle playing in other environments. Will a shattered yet slowly recovering defense start to show genuine improvement? Can the offensive line show more solidity following two horrific showings on the road? These are some of the more prevalent questions surrounding the Falcons. Facing the NFC’s most overachieving team should give a fair indication on where Quinn’s squad is headed. Not many teams are capable of smashing their opponents in the mouth on both sides of the ball, while succeeding without being reliant on explosive plays through the air. As ugly as it may look, the Redskins have found their identity. Preventing them from imposing their will and exploiting the limitations of their personnel is how the Falcons can earn their most impressive win of the season. Facing a relentless pass rush The biggest reason behind Washington’s success consists of having one of the deepest defensive lines in the league. What makes their rise even more impressive is how they built this formidable group. It all comes from the draft starting with franchise mainstay Ryan Kerrigan. His power and instincts gives them a true presence off the edge. Targeting Alabama’s finest interior talent in the past two drafts was a wise strategy by selecting Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. To draft both players showed the front office’s intentions in wanting to shed their defense’s reputation of being soft. It’s one thing to nail each first round pick. Hitting on first round picks gives you a foundation up front. Adding talent in the later rounds is what turns a talented defensive line into a potentially terrifying defensive line. That is what the Redskins exactly did in drafting Matt Ioannidis and Ryan Anderson. Both players have developed into key contributors. Ioannidis’ transformation from being a hard-working fun-loving player into their current sack leader is another indicator of how well they drafted. It runs so deep that Preston Smith hasn’t even been mentioned yet. Under Jim Tomsula’s guidance, they’re more than capable of wrecking offensive lines and taking over games. After being on the receiving end of multiple one-sided beatings in the trenches on the road, this is a worrying matchup for the Falcons. They have struggled to keep Matt Ryan clean for the majority of the season. Their pass protection woes skyrocket when playing on the road. Per ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, Ryan has been sacked 10 times and hit 27 times in two games. Losing another starter in Brandon Fusco only creates more concern about the under-performing offensive line. If the offense is going to thrive in difficult games on the road, it starts with giving Ryan enough time in the pocket. Adding different schematic looks to limit the Redskins’ pass rush would be another step in the right direction to compensate for the loss of both starting guards and relieve some pressure off Ryan. Prospering off play action To counter their ferocious front four, Steve Sarkisian should continue utilizing play action as much as possible. It was at the forefront of their success against the Giants. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ryan completed 13 of 14 pass attempts for 189 yards off play action. It was also used on his lone touchdown pass to Marvin Hall on a wonderfully designed play. By adding some RPO elements to his game plan, Sarkisian has helped Ryan get back to playing at an elite level. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell compared his last five games with his best five-game stretch from his 2016 MVP season. It’s scary how his recent stat totals are better in every major category. Who would have thought Ryan is actually a terrific quarterback rather than being a product of Kyle Shanahan’s system? From gaining a strong rapport with Austin Hooper and Calvin Ridley to throwing with better anticipation this season, the eternally under-appreciated quarterback hasn’t looked fazed in having to lead the offense to 30 or more points per game. It all begins with using play action to create misdirection and manipulate defenses with their variety of playmakers. They have ran the fourth most play action plays per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. Only the Rams are currently more productive at an astounding 12.2 yards per pass attempt. Washington’s secondary is prone to being over-aggressive. With their overall back seven being average at best, teams have found plenty of success stretching the field. Applying more max protections and bunch formations, to go along with running several different types of play action designs, should help them in wearing down Tomsula’s high-powered defensive line. Finding clarity at linebacker and strong safety Following a slew of injuries, the coaching staff was forced into taking drastic measures in trying to repair a once-promising defense. They couldn’t continue playing overwhelmed young players as full-time starters, regardless of their draft status or how they were acquired. Allowing over 30 points in three consecutive games was the breaking point. It was time to commit to the “next man up” approach in trying to find solutions across a decimated group. Duke Riley and Jordan Richards weren’t good enough to handle such demanding roles. Their disappointing play forced the coaching staff into giving more snaps to players signed off the street. Adding Bruce Carter and (re-signing) Sharrod Neasman gave them slightly more stability at what were becoming hugely problematic areas. Carter’s athleticism and experience eased some pressure off promising rookie Foye Oluokun. On the backend, Neasman’s experience and hard-hitting ability makes him a better fit alongside Damontae Kazee. It will be interesting to see if they stick with playing several different players at two crucial positions. Quinn is known for having multiple set alignments on the defensive line. For him to implement a rotational system at other positions seems risky, given how important chemistry and communication are on the back end. Washington’s quietly efficient offense can exploit mismatches in the short and intermediate areas of the field. At some point, the coaching staff will need to decide which young players or recent signings can hold their own playing 40 to 45 snaps a game. They can’t afford to wait until Deion Jones makes his long-awaited return to make these decisive decisions. Continued improvement in the tackling department One of the more pleasant surprises about the Falcons’ win over the Giants was how well they tackled. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Saquon Barkley was going to tear them apart. A matchup featuring one of the most elusive running backs in the league against one of the worst tackling teams in the league usually ends in a predictable manner. Quinn’s defense flipped the script by showing tremendous composure and discipline in preventing Barkley from getting into the open field. By pressing him to the outside, they used the sidelines as an extra defender to nullify any potential big play opportunity. For all of the coaching staff’s game planning, the defense needed to elevate their game. Season best performances from Riley and Brian Poole were required in earning a vital win. They must continue to overcome their previous tackling woes in order for the defense to keep offenses under 30 points. Washington’s unlikely duo of Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson presents a fascinating challenge. Peterson has received 50 carries over the last two games. How a 33-year-old running back, who was signed in August, can still be effective with such a hefty workload is extraordinary. Jay Gruden will continue to ride the ageless wonder, especially against undersized fronts. Thompson’s playmaking ability after the catch could also cause fits for a defense that normally struggles to contain receiving backs. Between his shiftiness and Peterson’s power, they will wear defenses down if Washington is playing with a lead. The Falcons can’t afford to get sloppy against this unique running back tandem.
  6. Sorry I missed posting the gif review of the Steelers game (not really, though), but after Michael came through, we were without power for several days. It's always more fun to post these after a W...
  7. Dan Quinn has instilled several new beliefs during his time in Atlanta. To build off his “fast and physical” motto from 2015, he built a defense that personifies what was being regularly preached. In establishing a “brotherhood” during the 2016 season, the fiery head coach focused (and still focuses) on selecting high-character prospects ensures alongside GM Thomas Dimitroff that contract issues are promptly resolved. Although there weren’t any notable catchphrases from last season, Quinn’s influence became truly evident. The Falcons are one of the most efficient and well-organized teams in the league, and in recent years, one of the best. Despite enduring multiple major setbacks during the season, they battled through adversity and made the playoffs. Managing to win ten games wasn’t enough for the young, yet already battle-tested squad. They ended up soundly defeating the NFL darling Rams in Los Angeles on the road. It was a statement win that reminded critics about the loads of talent across their roster. For the first time since Michael Vick’s electrifying performance on a frigid winter night in Green Bay back in 2003, the Falcons won a playoff game on the road. One of the NFL’s more frustrating franchises has been stabilized under Quinn’s vision. Everyone is fully behind most of his management and personnel decisions. The one caveat in Quinn’s tenure at the moment consists of his choice to replace Kyle Shanahan. Moving on to Sarkisian It was always going to be a tall order for Steve Sarkisian to devise an offense reminiscent of Shanahan’s brilliance. With every key player returning and only one change on the offensive line, there was still plenty of reason to have high expectations following 2016’s historical season. The positive outlook eventually wore off by October. From not scoring in the second half and blowing a 17-point lead against Miami to only scoring seven points in the Super Bowl rematch against (statistically at the time) the worst defense in the league, Sarkisian quickly became the most despised man in Atlanta. Underwhelming results against the best teams overshadowed a few positive three-game stretches. None were more significant than the Falcons’ inability to gain nine yards in four plays against Philadelphia to finish their season on a major down note. There is simply too much talent to only average 21 points per game. Not averaging between 24 to 27 points a game should be viewed as unacceptable for a team of this caliber. Adding Calvin Ridley and Brandon Fusco should provide instant solutions to the few problem areas within the offense last season. It’s now on Sarkisian to get it right for the Falcons to outlast the NFC’s jam packed crowd of championship-caliber teams. Lack of consistency and identity What makes the Falcons’ offense enormous decline startling was how it didn’t transpire from the beginning. They started out the season with three wins, which included two 30-point games against Green Bay and Detroit. Devonta Freeman was heavily featured, touching the ball more than 20 times in both games. With Freeman at the forefront of their running game and combining various play action designs to give Ryan more high-percentage throws, Sarkisian looked comfortable calling the shots. That quickly changed when October came around. Losing three out of four games to teams in the AFC East is never a good sign, especially when failing to reach the 20-point mark in all of those defeats. Injuries to Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Ryan Schraeder certainly affected them. Not having both starting wide receivers at full strength and right tackle for a period of time will disrupt your rhythm. What it shouldn’t affect is other playmakers from producing, as they began to be sorely misused. Freeman didn’t receive more than 12 carries for two months following the loss to Buffalo. Tevin Coleman was rarely being used in a creative manner as a receiver. The same applies to Taylor Gabriel, who was primarily reduced to bubble screens and jet sweeps. All of the magic created from 2016 quickly vanished. It became apparent that Sarkisian didn’t have a clear vision. Attempting to take fragments from Shanahan’s philosophy and adding his own nuances wasn’t materializing into a reliable system. Even during their successful playoff push, the Falcons failed to score more than 24 points in any of their last five games. A garbage time touchdown pass to Coleman on Christmas Eve in New Orleans saved the offense from being held without a touchdown in two crucial games against the Saints and Vikings. There is always going to be an adjustment period for a new coordinator. For the Falcons to not build on the momentum from November and find new ways to underwhelm in December (and eventually in January) was the most alarming part of Sarkisian’s first season in Atlanta. When you thought the embattled offensive coordinator turned the corner, he quickly reverted back to his baffling simplistic play calls. Instead of devising a game plan to exploit the opposing defense’s main weaknesses, he normally focused on getting playmakers involved with quick-passes and relying on predictable stretch runs. Most productive offenses thrive off being aggressive and unpredictable using a variety of play action and misdirection plays. When the Falcons’ offense managed to click during multiple three-game stretches, Sarkisian showed those qualities. Glimpses of hope For all of Sarkisian’s coaching transgressions, he did have some wonderful moments in 2017. As previously mentioned, Sarkisian’s reliance on Freeman was crucial in winning the first three games of the season. Putting the ball in the hands of one of the NFL’s most crafty multidimensional weapons is usually a wise decision. It was the commitment towards using Freeman on the ground and in the air that made the offense so effective. Although things unraveled in October and Freeman suffered his second concussion in four months shortly afterwards, Sarkisian managed to cope without the star running back. A massive three-game winning streak in November showcased what the former USC head coach is capable of. After scoring 27 points in a statement win over Dallas, the Falcons scored 34 points in beating Seattle and Tampa Bay. Each performance showcased something different within Sarkisian’s approach. He started targeting an opposing defense’s biggest flaw and leaning on star players. Using play action numerous times against a Sean Lee less Dallas’ defense was a brilliant move on his part. Although it wasn’t quite on the level of what Adrian Clayborn did to Chaz Green, the constant usage of play action helped them abuse an inexperienced group of linebackers and safeties. In what was arguably the Falcons’ most impressive regular season performance, Sarkisian designed more inventive quick-passing plays to help Ryan cope with Seattle’s relentless pressure. It was an astute decision to counter Seattle, who was struggling to adjust without Richard Sherman. When a big play was needed, Sarkisian dug up one of Shanahan’s signature plays. The classic tight end throwback worked to perfection for Ryan in finding a wide-open Levine Toilolo for a 25-yard-touchdown. Those kind of well timed, misdirection plays were sorely lacking during the Falcons’ sluggish offensive showings. Sarkisian used it to exploit an overwhelmed secondary, which transferred over to the following week against Tampa Bay. The only real difference was getting Jones the ball as much as possible to capitalize on Mike Smith’s soft zone coverage alignments. That ruthless game plan also included the most efficient quarterback in NFL history throwing a touchdown to his partner in crime from the wildcat. Sarkisian’s finest bit of work came at an opportune time. After losing unsung hero Andy Levitre for the season, it left the Falcons light on the interior line. The timing couldn’t have been worse heading into a playoff game against the most feared defensive tackle in the league. To survive Aaron Donald’s rampage, Sarkisian implemented a more fast-paced game plan with quick passes and stretch runs. What made the strategy eventually successful was the utilization of more no-huddle to wear down Los Angeles’ ultra-aggressive front seven. The quicker pace proved to be extremely beneficial. They finished the Rams off with a well-executed screen to Mohamed Sanu for 52 yards and a clever fake end around to get Jones enough space to score in the red zone. Sarkisian outclassed Wade Phillips in a playoff game. Who could have ever imagined typing that? Pressure on Sark It seems rather fitting the Falcons start the season where it all ended eight months ago. The discussion circulated around Sarkisian’s questionable decisions following their loss to Philadelphia. How can someone call a designed shovel pass for Terron Ward in that situation? What is the thought process behind splitting Derrick Coleman out wide with the season on the line? Those were the main questions being asked following a mind-boggling four play sequence. Sarkisian has another opportunity to make his case as the Falcons’ long-term play caller. Quinn remains confident that he can make the necessary adjustments to restore what should be one of the most feared offensive attacks in the league. Achieving that will mean improving in the red zone, where the Falcons finished 23rd in conversion rate last season. Designing plays to give Austin Hooper better opportunities would certainly help them. There is no reason why the exciting young talent shouldn’t be scoring at least five to seven touchdowns a season. Reuniting with Ridley provides some comfort in an offense lacking a true explosive threat opposite Jones. How Sarkisian utilizes him in different formations will be fascinating to watch on a weekly basis. The same can be said for Tevin Coleman, which the Falcons will look to get the most out of in what likely will be his final season with the team. Sarkisian must look to get him more on the outside or in the slot. Big plays are bound to happen when Coleman lines up there. There are some concerns on the Falcons’ roster. Replacing Clayborn and Dontari Poe could be more difficult than Quinn anticipated. The offensive line’s interior starters aren’t necessarily a sure thing. Levitre is coming off a season-ending injury at 32 years old; while Fusco is known for having issues in pass protection. Both lines have a tendency of getting outplayed in big games. Despite those issues, the majority of concern will be placed on Sarkisian. He has a long way to go in following the footsteps of Ryan’s previous coordinators in Mike Mularkey, Dirk Koetter, and Shanahan. A much-improved second season will save him from being the first offensive coordinator fired during Ryan’s career, and could make him potentially the first Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator in Falcons’ history.
  8. I've copied and pasted the whole article, but give Allen some click love if you can. Good writer.... When you are considered to be one of the most terrifying players in the league, coaches will lose sleep in attempting to figure out ways to prevent you from dominating games. It may consist of using constant double teams against a disruptive interior tackle or chips from the outside to stop an explosive edge rusher. There are certain positions that command extra attention, and wide receiver is one of the top positions on the list of concerns for coordinators. Julio Jones can attest to that. Jones is the epitome of a game-changer. There isn’t a route he can’t run with his blazing speed and terrific footwork. There isn’t a cornerback capable of locking him up for an entire game. The list is endless when reviewing his credentials. Jones has been playing at an elite level since 2012. Other than fracturing his foot in 2013, there haven’t been any other setbacks during his remarkable career. One may possibly be creeping up after an odd 2017 season. Red zone problems The superstar wide receiver didn’t show any signs of declining last season. As a matter of fact, his reception and yardage total actually increased. For all the justifiable criticism directed towards Steve Sarkisian, Jones caught five more passes and gained 35 more yards in his offense compared to Kyle Shanahan’s legendary 2016 offense (playing one extra full game helps). That said, judging his performance strictly off statistics would be foolish. It’s evident that Jones didn’t produce as many big plays as everyone normally expects. Look no further than what transpired in the red zone during the entire season. Nobody should be surprised that Jones ranked in the top fifteen for most red zone targets. Why wouldn’t a quarterback look for their number one receiver during every scoring opportunity? Jones ended up being targeted 19 times, which is the same amount as DeAndre Hopkins. The human highlight-reel from Houston managed to turn 19 targets into seven touchdowns. This is an impressive conversion rate, especially when considering Hopkins played the majority of the season with an array of backup quarterbacks. As for Jones, he scored one measly garbage-time touchdown from 19 targets. Jones had to essentially toss Malcolm Butler aside like a ragdoll when catching Matt Ryan’s underthrown fade. Besides saving the Falcons from being shut out in the Super Bowl rematch, Jones failed to score another red zone touchdown in the regular season. Catching only five passes in total raised major questions across the league. Did Jones suffer from playing in an offense with an overwhelmed offensive coordinator or is he simply ineffective in narrow areas? While Jones can struggle making contested catches, it would be preposterous to put the low touchdown total predominantly on him. Excluding his injury-shortened 2013 season, Jones scored six or more touchdowns in every season prior to 2017. That includes scoring eight touchdowns in his rookie year, which is even more impressive considering Mike Mularkey was the offensive coordinator. Receiving double teams and tight press coverage isn’t anything new to the five-time Pro Bowler. It’s part of the game for top-tier wide receivers to handle. Defensive coordinators will do everything possible to make other skill position players beat them rather than risk getting torched by the primary threat. It puts Jones in a difficult position, where he is essentially forced into creating openings for his teammates. That also requires the help of his offensive coordinator. Despite Sarkisian’s struggles, there were moments of brilliance showcasing what Jones can do without the ball in the red zone to help the Falcons prevail in some massive games. Red zone satisfaction The Falcons’ red zone issues started long before Sarkisian arrived. In Shanahan’s first season, they finished 18th in red zone conversion rate. A combination of Roddy White’s rapid decline, Leonard Hankerson failing to develop, and Jacob Tamme struggling to win in traffic made passing in the red zone extremely difficult. That is why the front office made it a priority to sign a true complement to Jones. A big, physical wide receiver like Mohamed Sanu was exactly what they needed. Adding Sanu to the offense took some pressure off Jones. His presence gives Ryan a genuine outlet in all of areas of the field, but particularly in the red zone. Sanu knows how to use his body against cornerbacks to go along with his excellent hands. On third down, Sarkisian decides to use Jones and Sanu together with the dual threat lined up in the slot. That is where Sanu does his finest work. With Jones expecting to be covered by multiple defenders, what better way to throw off Seattle’s defense than by using a rub route concept? Jones uses his body effectively to force Jeremy Lane into taking a more difficult angle. With Earl Thomas fully expecting Jones to get the ball, he accelerates to where Jones is intending to go. That leaves Sanu with space to do what he does best. Attack the ball and come down with an impressive catch. Ryan throws a beauty up there for him to come down with a stunning one-handed snag. Using your best receiver to create enough space for your second best (and most physical) receiver to score in the red zone is how successful offenses operate. This moment proved crucial in the Falcons’ close win over Seattle, as they were officially on course in their pursuit to get back into the playoffs. Opposing defenses will improvise different strategies when trying to stop Jones. If that means dropping eight into coverage and using their best pass rusher to affect Jones, then they will go to that extent. New Orleans went to great lengths in making sure Jones didn’t get the ball on third down. Cameron Jordan is the Saints’ most athletic defensive lineman by a great distance. Lining him up on the outside shows their intentions in doing everything possible to make Ryan throws elsewhere. Jones ends up being targeted, but it’s clear New Orleans got what they wanted from Ryan’s desperate heave. What makes this play noteworthy was how Jones was defended. It shows how much respect he commands. With a better supporting cast and play design, the Falcons should be able to capitalize when defenses try to stop Jones in a similar manner. Giving a quarterback of Ryan’s caliber ample time in the pocket will usually result in a big play. Adding Calvin Ridley should give him another reliable weapon, along with Austin Hooper potentially taking a major step in his development. Both players would be expected to make defenses pay for not only situating themselves to stop Jones at all costs, but for only rushing three against the 2016 NFL MVP. The Falcons eventually found the breakthrough in the red zone against New Orleans. Sarkisian was having great success in utilizing bunch formations to create openings for the receivers. After committing three turnovers on the previous four drives, the offense was under serious pressure to produce on third down. They needed to score in the fourth quarter of a vital divisional battle. Putting Jones and Sanu on the same side with Justin Hardy was designed to give Ryan, who was clearly rattled, a high-percentage look. As Jones bursts across the field, Marcus Williams immediately looks to close him down. That is when everything comes together. Jones’ sheer presence makes the difference again. Along with using trips to the left, it creates the necessary space for Sanu to roam free into the end zone. The formation alignment confuses Sterling Moore long enough to get him out of position. With Williams vacating his area to make sure Jones doesn’t get the ball, Sanu finds himself open on the backside. This is a prime example of how Jones can change games in the red zone without being targeted. Similar to their win against Seattle, the Falcons beat New Orleans by a field goal showing how crucial Jones was on a scoring play in the red zone. Red zone glory As much as Jones can make a difference without catching the ball, it remains a huge priority to get him into clear scoring opportunities. If Houston can devise plays for Hopkins to score, there is no reason why Atlanta can’t do the same with a better quarterback and supporting cast. They need to find ways to create space against opposing defenses that are looking to jam Jones on every snap in the red zone. After failing to do so for the majority of the regular season, things eventually clicked at an opportune time. The Falcons were clinging to a six-point lead against the Rams during the fourth quarter of wildcard weekend. Similar to most games, they were struggling to score in the red zone. Converting only one of three opportunities was the main reason why it still remained a one-possession game. After catching Wade Phillips’ defense off guard with a well-timed screen to Sanu that produced a 52-yard gain, Sarkisian had another trick up his sleeve. It consisted of a play fake to Devonta Freeman with Jones motioning from the left. The Rams were clearly fatigued and started looking discombobulated. Using some kind of misdirection with their best player as the primary target sounded like the perfect recipe for the Falcons to secure their first road playoff win since 2002. Everything about this play is magical. It’s evident that Los Angeles is struggling to get organized, as Alec Ogletree is shouting instructions. Combining the play fake to Freeman with Gabriel crossing the field garners most of the defenders’ attention. John Johnson III was the first player to recognize Jones looping towards the pylon. His reaction is too late, as Ryan throws a rainbow shot leading Jones into the end zone. The best quarterbacks know how to throw their wide receivers open. With his back foot sliding on Los Angeles’ wretched field and Connor Barwin ready to pounce, Ryan throws a perfect ball into the waiting hands of Jones. This is a fantastic moment for one of the NFL’s best quarterback-wide receiver pairings following months of frustration in the red zone. It will be fascinating to see how much Jones’ numbers improve in the red zone. He is fully aware of how his production will still be largely dictated by how defenses set up their coverage. From using a two-man alignment to having the free safety move instantly towards his direction, defensive coordinators will structure their red zone defense to stop him. The pressure falls on Sarkisian to decipher schemes and figure out ways to create space for Jones in tight areas. It will also be on Ryan and the supporting cast to deliver when multiple defenders are swarming Jones. The phenomenal wide receiver will do his part in drawing attention to create openings for his teammates. It’s on the rest to to not only help him receive chances to shine, but to ultimately boost Atlanta’s subpar red zone conversion rate from last season.
  9. Here’s what we learned from the Atlanta Falcons three day minicamp A few items to remember as we look ahead to training camp. By Dave Choate Jun 15, 2018, 8:00am EDT Mandatory minicamp is over, and we’re back in the desert between spring practices and training camp. All we can do is look ahead, but before we do that, let’s take a look at a few things we learned from minicamp here in June. Calvin Ridley is progressing well With Julio Jones running furiously through sand dunes while Terrell Owens encourages him, Ridley was the most exciting receiver at minicamp. He had a couple of drops in practices, something that we’ll hope doesn’t persist into the season, but he impressed just about everyone and seems to be a quick study. I’m not quite sure how many opportunities the rookie’s going to get in 2018, but the fact that he’s arriving in the NFL as a refined router runner and is already noticing the work he has ahead to get better bodes well. Isaiah Oliver is playing outside We all saw this coming, right? Oliver’s not a lock to be on the field a ton when the Falcons are playing a true 4-3 front, as Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are the unquestioned starters. When the team is in its “base” nickel set, however, Oliver will be outside opposite either Tru or Alford, with one of those two kicking inside. That’s a potentially formidable trio, and Oliver has enough talent to be an asset immediately for Atlanta. Wes Schweitzer isn’t out just yet The assumption is that Brandon Fusco is going to start at right guard this year. The Falcons made him more or less the crown jewel of their free agency crop, as sad as that sentence is, and he’s a solid veteran with real run blocking chops. I still think that’s a safe assumption. It’s likely the Falcons will treat right guard as at least a nominal competition this summer, though. Schweitzer did start every game a year ago, and while he had his brutal moments along the way, he was a solid enough player who will make a fine reserve. The Falcons will give him a legitimate chance to overtake Fusco, and while I doubt he’ll get it done, Atlanta’s going to be in solid shape at guard this year if injury strikes with Schweitzer and Ben Garland available. Keep an eye on Eric Saubert Austin Hooper is the starter and Logan Paulsen will be the muscle when the ground game needs another blocker, but Saubert’s still a deeply intriguing player. The raw Drake product spent most of his rookie season either on the bench or on special teams, but with the pads off he showed that impressive pass catching ability and athleticism that made him an interesting project in the first place. Saubert will have to do it all summer and once the pads go on, but the talent is certainly there, and he may well push his way past Paulsen for snaps this year. It’d be nice if the Falcons had two legitimate pass catching threats at the position for a change.