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Found 31 results

  1. Falcons CB Isaiah Oliver is showing increasing confidence and competence The success of this defense will be impacted by how quickly this second year player can mature. By David J Walker@FalcoholicDW Sep 20, 2019, 6:00pm EDT Jason Get-USTODAYSports When the Falcons cut veteran corner Robert Alford this offseason, it was with the implied understanding that Isaiah Oliver would step up to take his role as a starter on the outside. After being selected in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Oliverdidn’t see much time on the field as a rookie. In his second year, though, all eyes are on him as he is now the starter opposite Desmond Trufant. A rough Week 1 outing had many fans questioning if Oliver was ready, but his confidence didn’t waver. The veteran leadership in the locker room guided him through it and he moved on to prepare for the Sunday night game against the Eagles. While he didn’t have a perfect game, it was clear that Oliver was playing aggressive and with the confidence and competency fans wanted to see. He repeatedly showed his ability to tackle — something Dan Quinn has praised during his pressers this week — and no tackle stood out more than his takedown of Zach Ertz that sealed the win for the Falcons. When media spoke to Oliver after the game, it was clear that he relished the idea of the defense getting the opportunity to close out the game at the end. For a unit that was lambasted throughout 2018, closing out a hard-fought game would be a confidence booster and something they’d look to build on. It also showed that the players are seeing the fruits of what Dan Quinn has been preaching all along. While the season is still very young, Oliver is already showing improvement. He’s also showing a knack for big plays, stopping several players short of the sticks on Sunday night, including the game winning tackle at the end of the fourth quarter. His confidence is clearly growing and if he can build on the early results we’ve seen, he could be a critical component of a defense that finally fulfills the vision Dan Quinn has had for it since coming to Atlanta.
  2. Sometimes, all it takes is one win over a perennial contender to help a team get back on track. That’s what the Falcons are hoping for following last Sunday’s thrilling victory over the Eagles. After a disappointing 2018 season and dreadful opening week loss to Minnesota, the pressure was on Dan Quinn’s team. They needed some type of response to show they’re capable of competing with the NFC’s top teams. Although it was more difficult than it should have been, the Falcons impressed and ultimately prevailed in a massive win. They now start a three-game stretch against the AFC South. A road trip to Indianapolis presents plenty of intrigue. Nobody knows what to make of the Colts, considering the face of their franchise retired two weeks before the season. They still feature a roster filled with talent, along with one of the top coaching staffs in the league. Will the Falcons make sure they don’t suffer a letdown on the road? Receiving much-needed production from the running game Most of the discussion about the Falcons’ major investments on their offensive line was about protecting Matt Ryan. Providing ample protection for the former MVP winner is clearly going to be the main objective behind building a top-tier offensive line. How the new additions were going to affect the running game wasn’t discussed at all. Adding mammoth guards in Jamon Brown and James Carpenter was meant to add competency to the biggest problematic area on the roster, while bringing nastiness and size to the lightest offensive line in the league. The decision to draft Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary was to add long-term athleticism and technical prowess to the offensive line. This influx of talent, along with nearly a year of recovery from multiple injuries, was supposed to help Devonta Freeman get back to his best. That hasn’t come close to happening following two difficult games. The dynamic running back isn’t getting the holes he needs to accelerate into the open field. While the blocking has been substandard against two terrific fronts, Freeman isn’t making defenders miss or breaking tackles like his old self. Not making that first defender in space has prevented him from producing a big play on multiple occasions. It’s those kind of plays that Freeman made in highlight-reel fashion from 2015 to 2017. They need Freeman to get going in this game. He is too special of a talent not to depend on. Facing a lighter, much less-talented front seven could be what he needs to start being productive. It may also mean more reps for Ito Smith to keep Freeman fresh. The second-year back has already produced multiple impressive runs this season. Although he doesn’t quite run with the same violent edge as Freeman does, Smith’s patience and vision makes him an excellent second option. Utilizing him more often going forward should make the offense even more dangerous. For now, the running game needs to get going led by their star running back and enigmatic offensive line. Remaining disciplined against the run One of the biggest positives coming out of Sunday night’s dramatic victory was how the entire defense contributed towards shutting down Philadelphia’s rushing attack. It wasn’t simply the front seven who didn’t allow a run longer than five yards. Isaiah Oliver and Keanu Neal both made a noticeable impact against the run. Whether it was Oliver closing down the corner or Neal exploding past Mack Hollins to blow up a run, the secondary did their fair share in forcing Doug Pederson to become more one-dimensional. The front seven obviously did the heavy lifting led by Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison. It’s not a surprise to see Jarrett continue to play at an elite level. How well Davison has shifted into the nose tackle role is the most pleasant surprise so far this season. The former Saint commands double teams effectively, while being agile enough to disengage in one on one situations. How Quinn is using Jarrett, Davison, and Allen Bailey in multiple schematic fronts has flustered Minnesota (to some extent) and Philadelphia. To create havoc against another tremendous offensive line will be a major challenge for them. Indianapolis’ front office put serious investment into revamping the offensive line. It ended up being one of the main catalysts behind their immediate success. Quenton Nelson is already one of the best guards in the league. With a formidable right side of Braden Smith and Mark Glowinski next to underrated center Ryan Kelly, the Colts have quickly built a top-five caliber offensive line. Considering the uncertainty surrounding the passing game following Andrew Luck’s stunning retirement, they will look to lean on the running game with Marlon Mack. Maintaining gap integrity and making open field tackles will be vital for the defense to get stops. Per Pro Football Focus’ Louis Benjamin, the Falcons are tied for third-best in tackle percentage this season. The return of Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen has clearly made a massive difference. They must continue making open field tackles behind a slowly improving front four. The continued progression of Takkarist McKinley Despite not recording a sack against Philadelphia, Takkarist McKinley had arguably the best game of his career. It can be disputed that his two-and-half sack performance against Cincinnati last season was slightly more impressive. In terms of making a consistent impact, McKinley did that more often last Sunday than he had ever done in a previous game. The charismatic pass rusher produced eight quarterback pressures according to PFF. From accelerating past Jason Peters off the edge or bulldozing past Issac Semualo, McKinley created a heavy dose of chaos across the line of scrimmage. The big question facing McKinley is can he become more consistent? There have been plenty of flashes over his first two seasons in the league. His get off can give opposing tackles all sorts of fits. Nobody can deny his raw power and relentless motor. It comes down to refining his technique, while not being overly reliant on his bull rush. McKinley is always going to cause problems based on his sheer attributes and desire. Improving his hand usage and bend around the edge is what will take him to the next level. If there is one potential weakness on the Colts’ offensive line, left tackle Anthony Castonzo is prone to lapses in pass protection. His tendency to hold is something that should be monitored. Based on his get off and ability to obtain leverage, McKinley can cause the veteran left tackle to get reckless. Combine his issues with Jacoby Brissett being prone to turning the ball over, and McKinley could be the one to make a game-changing play. There were instances last week of him nearly sacking Wentz twice on third down. His improvement could finally translate into sacks and forced fumbles with a more favorable matchup. Finding openings against Indianapolis’ zone coverage The Colts run one of the more simplistic defensive schemes in the league. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus prefers keeping plays in front of his unit, while mixing in Cover-2 and Cover-3 looks. In 2018, they only played man coverage on 13 percent of their opponents’ drop backs. Not allowing yards after the catch or receivers get behind them is what they specialize in. That’s going to be a challenge against Atlanta’s stellar receiving group. Julio Jones is more than capable of finding the soft spots in a defense’s zone. The same applies to Mohamed Sanu, who is the type of savvy receiver that can turn quick six-yard hitches into 12-yard gains. From Calvin Ridley’s ability to stretch the field to Austin Hooper making defenders miss in the open field, Indianapolis’ defensive principles will be tested. What can’t be overlooked is their ball-hawking secondary. Malik Hooker isn’t the only young playmaker on the back end. Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir are instinctive cornerbacks that make quarterbacks pay for being overly aggressive and making reckless reads. While stud linebacker Darrius Leonard doesn’t seem likely to play, Ryan must be wary of the Colts’ rangy defense. The franchise quarterback has been uncharacteristically careless to start the season. Four of his five interceptions are from inaccurate throws or baffling decisions. Two-game blips are bound to occasionally happen, especially when facing two stout defenses in Minnesota and Philadelphia. Ryan will need to be more willing to take what the defense gives him and trust his playmakers. There will also be added responsibility on Dirk Koetter to find where the Colts are most vulnerable to produce long-sustaining successful drives.
  3. For all the expectations surrounding Dan Quinn’s defense, there weren’t many personnel changes. Talent was added across the defensive line. The linebacker group remained the same, while Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal returned from season-ending injuries to reform one of the better safety tandems in the league. The one major personnel change came at the cornerback position. Robert Alford was unsurprisingly released following a dreadful 2018. As the front office opted not to re-sign Brian Poole, all indications were directed towards their promising young corner. Isaiah Oliver was going to be the starter alongside Desmond Trufant. The former first-team All-Pac-12 corner entered the season with plenty of buzz. His athletic traits and measurables mesh well with Dan Quinn’s preferences. With his long arms and ability to cover acres of space, Oliver is the type of corner that Quinn wants in his defense. What the coaching staff would like to see improvement on is his overall technique. Oliver can struggle to change direction in man coverage. His tendency of not playing with much aggressiveness can become problematic, particularly in run support. Both concerns were visible in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota. Breaking down Oliver’s game Oliver had the task of covering Adam Thielen, who has established himself as one of the craftiest wide receivers in the league. The responsibility of matching up with him for nearly a full game isn’t ideal for most cornerbacks, let alone one who doesn’t have much NFL experience. Oliver was fortunate Kirk Cousins only attempted ten passes. Based on a few plays, it was clear Oliver couldn’t hang with him. This realization isn’t surprising given what Thielen has accomplished. What left many frustrated was the young cornerback’s lack of tenacity. On Cousins’ lone touchdown pass, Oliver allowed Thielen to get leverage on him far too easily. One of Oliver’s biggest attributes is his size. Allowing an undersized receiver beat you with his physicality raises immediate questions. It wasn’t the first time he allowed Thielen to get the better of him. Dalvin Cook’s first touchdown run could have been prevented if Oliver had better instincts. Instead of reacting, Oliver opted to try to close down the outside. That led to him running into Thielen, which meant he couldn’t make the necessary open-field tackle. Challenges ahead Oliver will need to elevate his game quickly. In a game where he wasn’t tested often due to game flow, Oliver still managed to make too many mistakes. The Falcons’ ultra-talented offense won’t commit three turnovers. They will score plenty of points, which means the opposing team will attempt 30 to 40 passes a game. Oliver must show he is up for the challenge starting against Philadelphia. There aren’t many play callers more unpredictable than Doug Pederson. Putting defenders in precarious positions is what his offensive system embodies. Oliver must be prepared for a wide variety of RPOs, unorthodox play designs, and matchups. This will be a big test to see where Oliver stands as a prospect. A potential matchup against Alshon Jeffrey would be most fitting for him. Jeffrey is the type of receiver that Oliver can get physical with at the line of scrimmage. It’s a better matchup stylistically than covering the likes of DeSean Jackson or Nelson Agholor. Minnesota ran mostly 12 (two wide receivers, two tight ends) or 21 (two running backs, two wide receivers) personnel packages last Sunday. That left Oliver mostly on Thielen, while Desmond Trufant covered Stefon Diggs. Quinn may decide to have Oliver shadow Jeffrey, as Trufant rotates between the other two explosive wide receivers. Regardless of the matchups and schematic setups, Oliver is going to be in the spotlight this week. He needs to make an impact for Quinn’s defense to get back on track.
  4. I suspect this one will generate some discussion.
  5. With training camp only a few days away, it’s worth taking a closer look at the state of the Falcons’ roster. The position with the most significant turnover in terms of lost production is RB. 2018 starter Tevin Coleman, who took over for Devonta Freeman after his season-ending injury, departed in free agency to join Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Coleman was a key piece of the Falcons’ offense, particularly with his contributions in the receiving game. His game-breaking speed led to a lot of explosive plays and chunk yardage, and he was a major contributor on that historic 2016 offense. He struggled with consistency as a starting RB in 2018, as his vision, balance, and elusiveness weren’t enough to find success behind a porous offensive line. His tendency to create big plays offset a lot of those issues, but that “boom-or-bust” running style led to a lot of unfavorable situations on second and third down. With a healthy Devonta Freemanreturning and an offseason emphasis on improving the offensive line, we should expect a far more consistent rushing attack for the Falcons this season. Will that be an improvement over an explosive but inconsistent ground game? Is that consistency more important to the offense than the big plays? Let’s dig a little deeper into the stats to find out. In 2018, the Falcons finished 27th in the NFL in total rushing yards with 1,573, or 98.3 yards/game. However, they were actually 12th in yards per carry average with 4.5—a very healthy number. You might wonder why Atlanta’s production was so low despite a top-15 finish in YPC: their number of rushing attempts. The Falcons were 30th in the NFL in rushing attempts with only 345. To give that some context, the Cleveland Browns were 16th (aka league average) in rushing attempts with 410—60 more than Atlanta. Looking at these raw numbers paints a puzzling picture. Their YPC suggests a successful rushing attack, but their overall production suggests a poor one. Part of the problem stems from the team’s defensive struggles. If you’re trailing in a game and you have a potent passing attack at your disposal, you’re much more likely to throw the ball to catch up. The Falcons, for the record, had one of the NFL’s premier passing offenses in 2018: they were 4th in total passing yardage and T-7th in yards per attempt. They were also one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the NFL with 617 passing attempts, good for 5th overall. Diving deeper into the offense, we see a very interesting picture. If you haven’t been there already, I definitely recommend you check out Sharp Football Stats for extremely detailed breakdowns of every facet of a team’s offense and defense. We’ll be specifically looking at Sharp’s Directional Rushing Production, which you can find here. Make sure you select ATL to see the Falcons’ offense, specifically. Tevin Coleman, as we all know, received the bulk of the carries with 167. In second place was Ito Smith with 90, and none of the other backs logged more than 20. To Coleman’s credit, he was very efficient on his carries: his 4.8 YPC average is very good. Smith struggled from an overall production standpoint, with a rather pedestrian 3.5 YPC. The biggest red flag in these stats has to be the production of the Coleman/Smith duo on first down. Coleman logged a slightly above-average 4.2 YPC, but that paled in comparison to his very good 5.2 YPC on second down an excellent 9.0 YPC average on third down. Smith actually managed his best YPC on first down, but that was still only 3.9 YPC. Those numbers are particularly alarming for an offense that ran most frequently on first down: 162 of their rushing attempts (54%) came on first down, compared to 121 (40%) on second down and only 14 (5%) on third down. It’s abundantly clear that the Falcons’ didn’t trust their short yardage running game based on those third down numbers. Atlanta was also abysmal running behind center and right guard, with 3.2 and 3.1 YPC, respectively. That might explain why the Falcons were so eager to improve their interior OL, and it’s likely that Alex Mack’s performance was impacted heavily by the poor play around him. With a struggling defense and poor production on first down, the Falcons’ offense often found themselves behind the sticks in 2018 despite the explosive plays offered by Coleman. Heading into 2019, Atlanta is expecting an improved defense and offensive line. But instead of looking to replace Coleman with another explosive RB (although you could argue that Marcus Green might fill a similar role), the Falcons targeted a short-yardage back in Qadree Ollison. This suggests a move towards consistency and balance on offense, which was a key to their success in 2016. By comparison, the 2016 offense was far more balanced between the run and pass. The Falcons were, incredibly, 26th in passing attempts that season—and still finished as the NFL’s 3rd most productive pass offense due to Ryan’s absurd 9.2 YPA. Atlanta’s ground attack finished 12th in rushing attempts with 421—almost 80 more than their 2018 season. Part of that certainly leads back to game script, as the Falcons frequently led late in games. But the other side of the coin is the first down production: Devonta Freeman (and Coleman) were far more consistent in 2016, with 5.4 and 5.0 YPC, respectively. The goal should be to return to the 2016 offensive strategy, not the 2018 (and 2017) strategy. Having Freeman as the lead back—who offers far more consistency—and an improved offensive line should move the needle in the right direction. Part of the reason the 2016 offense was so deadly was the ability of Freeman to put the offense in 2nd/3rd and short, opening up the playbook for more deep shots and play action throws. The addition of rookie Qadree Ollison to the RB corps also opens the door for a more physical presence in short-yardage situations. Despite the NFL trending more and more towards passing, we are still seeing balanced offensive attacks thrive. Kansas City and New England, in particular, stood out for their ability to win with both the run and pass game in 2018. The Falcons will be hoping to return to that style in 2019, and a more consistent ground game will go a long way in fulfilling that goal. They’ll miss the big-play threat that Coleman added out of the backfield, but with a plethora of receiving weapons that can stretch the field (Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper) that loss won’t hurt as much as it could have. What are your thoughts on the Falcons’ rushing attack heading into 2019? Do you think a consistent ground game is more important than an explosive but unreliable one? How big of a difference will Freeman’s return and the OL upgrades make to Atlanta’s 2019 offense?
  6. Thought this was interesting. Not that we will sign any of these guys, but there are still dudes out there that can help this team.. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports As of the end of March, the Atlanta Falcons have a mere 4.5 million in cap space according to Over the Cap. That’s not much to work with, however, Ryan Schraeder’s post-June 1st cap savings are expected to pay for the rookie class. The Falcons can get some breathing room if they finally work out new deals with Grady Jarrett and Julio Jones, two players currently taking up nearly $29 million in cap space. Extensions will offset small base salaries early in those deals with prorated signing bonuses, meaning cap space! After any move, the Falcons can pick over the cheap remains of free agency. Similar to a grocery store putting out soon-to-expire food at half price, the Falcons can snag a Ndamukong Suh that is almost as good as a top-shelf Sheldon Richardson. Here’s my favorite remaining players the Falcons may be able to snag at a discount. Ndamukong Suh It is surprising to see Suh still available, but thanks to his age and perhaps underwhelming stats have him unemployed. At age 32, Suh is still a force that would start at nose tackle and open up more for Grady Jarrett. If you wonder how Aaron Donald had 20.5 sacks in 2018 (other than it being Aaron Donald and he cannot be stopped), it was Suh putting in work in the middle. He should be much cheaper than his $14 million deal last year. Ezekiel Ansah Ansah hasn’t played a full season since 2015 and reportedly has interested teams looking at his bum shoulder. Per Ian Rapoport, we should know more in mid-April. Ansah could be a sneaky good signing on a cheap prove-it deal. Timmy Jernigan Only 26, the run-stuffer didn’t do much with the Eagles thanks to injuries. He’s the Kroger roast chicken at 8pm when things start going at half price. It could be good but you will get what you pay for. He’d be a big upgrade for Atlanta’s DL if he’s healthy but you can’t count on him playing all 16 games. Muhammad Wilkerson If Jernigan were an older pass rusher, he’d be Muhammad Wilkerson. He’s no longer the 10+ digit sack artist he was before 2016, but appears to have had bad luck with an ankle injury with the Packers last season. He will certainly have to settle for less than the $5 million one-year deal he signed last year, and could fit in as a rotational pass rusher. Eric Berry There is no way this happens but one can dream. Zach Brown The Redskins surprisingly got rid of one of their best linebackers for cap reasons. Can the veteran help fans not have to see Duke Riley this year? Derrick Morgan The aging veteran was a top target for Dan Quinn in 2015. He was instead left with signing Brooks Reed who managed 7 sacks in four years. Morgan is a solid player coming off a down, injury-riddled season. Adrian Clayborn How has this not happened yet? I love Clayborn and he is guaranteed to come cheap one year after signing with the Patriots. CJ Anderson Running back is the only offensive spot that makes any sense for the Falcons. I assume they consider the offensive line set (minus at least one rookie), and frankly they are stacked at wide receiver and tight end. Behind the injured Devonta Freeman is Ito Smith and no one you want carrying the ball. Anderson is a steady, if unspectacular, back to give the team needed depth.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.