The preponderance of the evidence suggests that what the Falcons did in New Orleans last weekend was a one-off. One great victory does not portend a turnaround for a team that was among the worst in the NFL for half the season. There’s a chance the Falcons (2-7) go to Carolina (5-4) on Sunday and flop.
That doesn’t mean the victory over the Saints wasn’t important. I don’t mean that in the narrow sense of winning the game, which always means something. Rather, I’m talking about some of the Falcons players who made winning plays. The list included some young players among the usual suspects, and that means something for a team with a tight salary cap for 2020.
The Falcons finally didn’t look lost in coverage against the Saints, and cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield (rookie) and Isaiah Oliver (second year) played a big part in that. Second-year linebacker Foyesade Oluokun led the Falcons with eight tackles despite playing only 29 defensive snaps. Takk McKinley’s pass-rush activity helped the Falcons record six sacks against Drew Brees — it might have been McKinley’s best game of a disappointing third season.
Second-year receiver Calvin Ridley’s 19-yard run on the first play set the stage for the Falcons to run on the perimeter, and he had two catches for first downs. Running back Brian Hill, in his 22nd career game, caught the touchdown pass that put the Falcons up two scores in the fourth quarter. Younghoe Koo, kicking in his fifth career game, went 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts.
Those players helped the Falcons win 26-9. It didn’t do much for the team’s minuscule playoff chances. It could mean something for the 2020 Falcons.
“You have heard us talk about ‘Plan D,’ developing players,” Quinn said this week.
The Falcons desperately need to see that plan pay off over the final seven games. The Falcons are a bad football team even with stars Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett and Austin Hooper. Even before re-signing Hooper, who is in the final year of his contract, the Falcons don’t have much projected cap space to sign impact free agents.
The best way for the Falcons to get better, fast, is for younger and cheaper players to become reliable performers. Finding draft prospects who can do that right away isn’t easy. NFL teams get an edge when they can turn young players into stars or good starters. The Falcons have a few candidates for that.
Ridley had a fine rookie season. His production has been similar this season. The Falcons need Ridley to be better. They traded No. 2 receiver Mohamed Sanu to New England, and Ridley offers the possibility of better production at less than half the salary-cap hit.
If McKinley can become a consistently productive edge rusher, he would be a relative bargain, with a $3.3 million cap figure in 2020. Oluokon was good when he replaced injured starter Deion Jones last season and might be in line for a bigger role in 2020. Hill and second-year back Ito Smith (now on injured reserve) are potential replacements for Devonta Freeman, whose 2020 cap-salary amount is $9.5 million.
Koo might end up being worth keeping around, too. The Falcons didn’t err in moving on from Matt Bryant after last season. Their mistake was replacing him with a kicker, Giorgio Tavecchio, who was good with them for only three games after he had washed out of the league. Koo struggled for the Chargers in 2017, but the Falcons have half of the season to figure out if he’s trustworthy.
Quinn has shown he can fashion a good Plan D. It was especially fruitful during Quinn’s first two seasons as Falcons coach. They drafted players who fit his fast-and-physical mold, and he found ways to showcase unheralded young players.
His predecessor had Freeman behind washed-up veteran Steven Jackson. Quinn put Freeman in Kyle Shanahan’s outside-zone scheme, and the running back was an instant star. Ricardo Allen, once a castoff cornerback, became a starting safety who held things together on the back end.
Running back Tevin Coleman went from barely targeted in the passing game in 2015 to dangerous receiver in 2016. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, a raw and athletic rookie in 2016, was more refined by the end of the season. Brian Poole, a rookie free agent, became the starting nickel back that season. And, most famously, Vic Beasley blossomed into an All-Pro pass rusher for his second year.
The Saints game was a reminder of the days when Quinn and his staff regularly got the most out of inexperienced players. That victory might be a one-off. The contributions from young players can’t be if the Falcons hope to make a quick turnaround.
A good Plan D to finish out 2019 would mean a lot for the Falcons in 2020.