101214 ATLANTA: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan sits on the bench in the final minutes of a 27-13 loss to the Bears in their football game on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in Atlanta. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Falcons don’t make the grade at mid-season mark

Despite a host of coaching, scouting and personnel changes and the emphasis on playing a tougher and more rugged brand of football, the team finds itself in the exact same spot as last season.

The Falcons, who return to practice Monday from their bye week, are 2-6 and retain hopes of getting back into the race in the watered-down NFC South.

Last season, they were 2-6 and on their way to 4-12 after eight games.

Here’s a look at how the team performed over the season’s first half:

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks

Who’s hot: Matt Ryan is the fifth-rated quarterback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. Over 524 snaps, 333 drop backs and 305 attempts, he’s completed 198 passes for 2,306 yards and is averaging 7.6 yards per completion. Twenty of his passes were dropped, which is tied with Detroit’s Matthew Stafford for second-most in the league. Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck has had 21 dropped passes by his receivers. Ryan has eight interceptions after throwing 17 last season.

Who’s not: T.J. Yates played in a mop-up duty in a scrimmage against Tampa Bay and tossed a pick-six.

Player to watch: If things go sideways, look for Sean Renfree to get some action. The Falcons must determine if he’s an NFL player.

Mid-season grade: C-minus

Running backs

Who’s hot: Antone Smith, who said he’s fine after suffering a neck injury against Detroit, has been the star of the four-member committee. Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers have been steady and rookie Devonta Freeman has shown some promise.

Who’s not: Jackson is averaging only 3.6 yards per carry. He averaged 3.5 a year ago.

Players to watch: Smith and Freeman could takeover most of the chores down the stretch.

Mid-season grade: D

Offensive line

Who’s hot: Left-handed center James Stone, an undrafted rookie from Tennessee, had the crucial penalty against Detroit in his first NFL start, but otherwise held up well against the Lions’ vaunted defensive tackles.

Who’s not: Rookie Jake Matthews has struggled while trying to play on an injured ankle. He’s the 72nd-rated (last) tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus and has given up four sacks, three hits and 19 quarterback hurries.

Player to watch: Right tackle Ryan Schraeder took over for Gabe Carimi against Detroit and was solid.

Mid-season grade: F

Wide receivers/Tight ends

Who’s hot: Julio Jones has caught 53 of his 81 targets (65.4 percent), but has six drops, including a crucial dropped screen pass against Detroit. He’s the 18th-rated wide receiver in the league according to Pro Football Focus’ film review.

Who’s not: Roddy White is the 75th-rated wide receiver. He’s caught 33 of his 58 targets (56.9 percent), has five drops and is averaging 12.7 yards per catch.

Player to watch: Harry Douglas came back from a mysterious foot injury, which could have been turf toe, and helped the team on third down against Detroit.

Mid-season grade: D

DEFENSE

Defensive line

Who’s hot: No one is hot in this group. “We still continue to have problems with the pass rush, there is no question about that,” defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “Statistically, that shows that. We have gotten better over the last three weeks as far as getting around the quarterback, getting pressure and forcing some bad throws. That’s been evident on the film. But we have not gotten them on the ground. Sacks add up to longer third downs. We haven’t done that very well.”

Who’s not: Designated pass rusher Osi Umenyiora has one sack.

Player to watch: Defensive end/tackle Ra’Shede Hagemen may have turned the corner against Detroit when he played well against the run.

Mid-season grade: F

Linebackers

Who’s hot: Jonathan Massaquoi has come on over the past three games. “He is making some plays or at least being around the ball,” Nolan said. “At least he’s showing flashes. That’s a good thing.”

Who’s not: Kroy Biermann is the 52nd-rated defensive end by Pro Football Focus. He plays a hybrid outside linebaker/defensive end position for the Falcons and has six missed tackles, no sacks, two quarterback hits and 11 hurries.

Player to watch: It will be interesting to see if Massaquoi can continue to play at a high level.

Mid-season grade: D

Defensive backs

Who’s hot: Safety Dwight Lowery has helped to stabilize things after William Moore went down with a shoulder injury. “He comes down into the box and plays some linebacker at times,” Nolan said. “He also plays on the back end, so he’s wearing a lot of hats.”

Who’s not: Safety Kemal Ishmael. He’s helped the run defense, but has given up some deep passes.

Player to watch: Robert Alford has three interceptions, but needs to eliminate pass interference penalties.

Mid-season grade: D-plus.

Special teams

Who’s hot: Kicker Matt Bryant is striking the ball well. Antone Smith, Eric Weems and Dezmen Southward were singled out by special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong for their solid play.

Who’s not: Punter Matt Bosher has shanked at least one punt in three games. The kickoff return unit must improve, Armstrong said.

Player to watch: Devin Hester returned a punt for a touchdown against the Bucs.

Mid-season grade: D-plus.

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