I’ve expressed doubts about the 2019 Falcons being any better than the 2018 Falcons, who were 7-9. Coach Dan Quinn is banking on improvement via a coaching-staff purge, a revamped offensive line with two rookies and improvement for a defense that added no major pieces to a line that was bad against run and pass. That’s a lot.
Still, there are reasons for the Falcons to be optimistic as their players begin reporting for training camp soon at Flowery Branch. It starts with quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones and trickles down from there.
And this is the NFL, where the margin between the playoffs or not can be a matter of luck and circumstance. July is the time for optimism. Here are five reasons I could be be wrong about the Falcons:
1. The defense is healthier
This is at the top of any list of potential improvements for the Falcons. They were among the worst defensive teams in the league last season, but they played most of it without three starters. Linebacker Deion Jones and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen missed a combined 38 games.
Jones excels at covering the short routes that hurt the Falcons all season. He and Neal both are good run-and-hit tacklers, another Falcons weakness in 2018. Allen’s role includes coordinating the coverage on the back end, which suffered without him.
Those three players won’t do much to help the Falcons’ pass rush, which ranked 30th in total pressure rate in 2018, according to Football Outsiders. But the pass rush may not need to be so good if the coverage and the tackling are better. Neal, Allen and Jones could raise the level of the whole defense.
2. The offensive line is rebuilt
It’s not easy to remake an offensive line. It took the Falcons two years (and signing Alex Mack) to do it with ex-coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Back then the Falcons were trying to switch to a scheme heavy on outside zone blocking. They are still using that, so at least that’s not a concern.
Their challenge now is getting rookie draft picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary ready to play. Both have the athletic ability to play in a zone scheme. Lindstrom said Boston College ran a lot of outside zone, while McGary said he’ll have to adjust to sprinting off the ball.
Pro Football Focus ranks the 2019 Falcons’ offensive line 22nd, which reflects the performance and talent of individuals. That’s important, but at least as important for offensive line play is operating as a cohesive group. Figure that out, and the Falcons’ offense has a chance to improve significantly.
3. Quinn has game management help
In January, Quinn fired defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and took over the job himself. I think that’s good for the defense because Quinn is a terrific defensive coach. But, as I noted at the time, I think it’s bad for the head coach because game management is Quinn’s biggest weakness.
Since then Quinn hired a senior assistant, Bob Sutton, to help in that area. (Quinn’s first choice for the job, Kyle Flood, opted to leave for Alabama’s staff.) Sutton downplayed his role in an interview with the AJC’s D. Orlando Ledbetter but said he would be help make in-game situations “more manageable” for Quinn.
Sutton is among five ex-head coaches who have met with Quinn during the offseason to work through various game scenarios to build a framework for in game-decisions. Obviously Quinn still must make those decisions, which isn’t easy to do because even a head coach that isn’t a coordinator has a lot to think about. But getting input from Sutton should only help Quinn.
4. The schedule appears manageable
The Saints are the class of the NFC South again. The Bucs and Panthers figure to be bad. The Falcons have a good chance to pick up at least three victories in the division. One more against South foes would get the Falcons to four and a victory at the Cardinals, who are bad, would make it five.
The Rams look to be the only one other elite team on the Falcons’ schedule and they come here in Week 7. The visiting Jets won’t be good. The 49ers should be just OK, so winning there in Week 15 isn’t out of the question.
The rest of the schedule appears to include a lot of middle-class teams like the Falcons. Five victories for the Falcons looks like a good bet. Six or seven wins seems plausible. Maybe the Falcons can squeeze out a couple more with some good luck.
5. The “Brotherhood” could be back
This one is closely related to Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Neal, Jones and Allen embody the Quinn’s “Brotherhood” philosophy. During the rookie minicamp Quinn said offensive line play really comes down to “attitude.” The 2018 season came unraveled when the Falcons got pushed around in Cleveland, which wouldn’t happen to a team with the proper disposition.
It’s hard to measure chemistry, which admittedly puts it outside my wheelhouse. But I know it when I see it. I’ve poked fun at Quinn’s “Brotherhood” but there’s no doubt the 2016 Falcons had a special team character. It’s also clear that they lost that edge in 2018, even accounting for the injuries.
Quinn has proved that he knows how to mold his players into an interconnected group. We’ve seen what it looks like when his guys like playing for him and one another. Maybe Quinn can recapture that spirit and again make the Falcons better than the sum of their parts.
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