The Falcons’ bid to reach Super Bowl LIII was derailed early by injury.
Over the course of the 2018 season, they had opening-day starters miss 80 game-starts.
Injuries to left guard Andy Levitre (14 games), right guard Brandon Fusco (11 games) and running back Devonta Freeman (14 games) slowed the offense.
The defense was a shell of what it was supposed to be because of injuries to strong safety Keanu Neal (15 games), linebacker Deion Jones (10 games), free safety Ricardo Allen (13 games), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (two games) and defensive end Takkarist McKinley (one game).
Reaching 7-9 under the circumstances was an accomplishment, but that didn’t stop the team from firing all three coordinators and juggling other spots on the coaching staff in the aftermath.
The Falcons stumbled out of the gate, but regrouped as they were 4-4 at the halfway point. But a lackluster performance in Cleveland led to a five-game losing streak.
The team closed out with three straight wins, but that wasn’t enough to save the jobs of coordinators Steve Sarkisian, Marquand Manuel and Keith Armstrong.
Here's our unit-by-unit review of the 2018 offense:
Who: Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub
Contract/free agent situation: Ryan signed a five-year, $150 million contract last season. Schaub’s two-year, $9 million contract is set to expire. He’s headed to free agency.
What they did in season: Statistically, Ryan had one of his better seasons, but the offense stalled during the five-game losing steak that led to the dismissal of offensive coordinator Sarkisian.
Ryan completed 422 of 608 passes (69.4 percent) for 4,924 yards, 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Ryan averaged 8.7 adjusted yards per pass attempt which was the second-highest mark of his career. In 2016, he led the league with 10.1 adjusted yards per pass attempt.
Ryan also finished with a passer rating of 108.1, the second-highest mark of his career. He finished with a 117.1 rating in 2016, when he was the league’s Most Valuable Player.
The Falcons finished in the top 10 in total yards (fourth), passing yards (fourth) and third down conversion percentage (fourth).
Schaub, who’ll turn 38 in June, was five of seven for 20 yards and finished with a passer rating of 74.1.
Quarterback Kurt Benkert, who spent last season on the practice squad, was signed to a reserve/futures contract on Dec. 31. Grade: B-minus
Who: Running backs - Tevin Coleman, Ito Smith, Brian Hill, Jeremy Langford, Devonta Freeman and fullback Ricky Ortiz
Contract/free agent situation: Coleman appears headed to free agency. The Falcons gave Freeman a six-year, $41.25 million deal in 2017. Coleman is worth a four-year $30 million deal similar to the one the 49ers gave Jerick McKinnon. That’s likely too much money to put into the backfield when the offensive line needs to be fixed. Freeman, Smith and Hill figure to be the top three backs in 2019.
What they did in season: The speedy Coleman led the way with 199 touches (167 runs, 32 receptions) for 1,076 yards (800 rushing, 276 receiving) and nine touchdowns (four rushing, five receiving). Freeman was slowed by knee and groin injuries. He was placed on injured reserved and did not return. He played in just two games.
Smith served as the primary backup to Coleman following the injury to Freeman.
Smith had a fine rookie campaign before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He had 90 carries for 315 yards and four rushing touchdowns. He caught 27 passes for 152 yards.
Smith ran well between the tackles and impressed the coaching staff.
Hill played well down the stretch and had a powerful run against the Panthers. Grade: C
Who: Jake Matthews, Alex Mack, Wes Schweitzer, Ben Garland, Ryan Schraeder, Brandon Fusco, Andy Levitre, Ty Sambrailo, Zane Beadles and Matt Gono
Contract/free agent situation: Levitre, Beadles, Garland and Sambrailo are set to become unrestricted free agents. Levitre turns 33 in May and has had the same injury in two consecutive seasons. Beadles, 32, did a credible job, but is not the long-term answer at guard. Sambrailo, who turns 27 in March, played well at right tackle down the stretch and is worth re-signing.
What they did in season: There were some early indicators that the offensive line was on the verge of collapse.
The line gave up 42 sacks and Ryan was hit a career-high 108 times. The line gave up more hits than the Peter Konz-Lamar Holmes led line of 2013, which gave up 44 sacks and 100 hits.
So, it was no surprise when owner Arthur Blank confirmed that the general manager Thomas Dimtroff and Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s No. 1 offseason priority was to fix the offensive line.
The line gave up double-digit quarterback hits in three games: Philadelphia (14), Pittsburgh (14) and in the second New Orleans game (13). The unit gave up six sacks to the Steelers and in the second Saints’ game. The unit didn’t give up a sack in just one game, against Carolina in Week Two.
In addition to the pass protection being shoddy, the Falcons couldn’t run the ball. The rushing attack average 98.3 yards per game, which was ranked 27th in the league.
The line was ranked 31st of 32 teams in “stuffed runs” by footballoutsiders.com. “Stuffed runs” are the percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage.
At the end of the season, Quinn said that he was only comfortable with two spots on the offensive line, left tackle and center.
Offensive line coach Chris Morgan survived the purge of the coordinators and will return. Bob Kronenberger was named the new assistant offensive line coach.
So, it’s clear that the Falcons believe their issues were with the talent and not the teacher.
The Falcons know that Ryan is most effective when he can step up into the interior of the pocket. The Falcons started six different guards last season, and the interior of the pocket was not firm. Grade: F
Who: Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Justin Hardy, Marvin Hall and Russell Gage
Contract/free agent situation: The team has said it would re-negotiate Jones’ deal. Hall and Hardy appear headed for free agency.
What they did in season: The trio of Jones, Sanu and Ridley is perhaps the most feared in the league.
They can absolutely shred defenses. But without the benefit of a strong rushing attack to set up some of the big plays that come off of play-action fakes, their ability to create havoc was limited.
Jones had another stellar season as he led the league in receiving yards with 1,677, the second-highest total of his career.
Jones had 113 catches on 170 targets for a 66.5 percent catch ratio, the third-highest of his career. He also scored eight touchdowns.
Ridley, who was the 26th player selected overall in the 2018 draft, turned in a strong season and was named to the Professional Football Writers of America’s all-rookie team.
Ridley had 92 targets, 64 catches, 821 receiving yards, 12.8 yards per catch and a team-record 10 touchdowns. His touchdown mark set a new franchise rookie record, eclipsing the nine touchdowns caught by former tight end Junior Miller in 1980.
Sanu caught 66 of 94 targets (70.2 percent) for 838 yards and four touchdowns.
Hardy (two touchdowns) and Hall (one touchdown) were role players, while Gage thrived on special teams. Grade: B
Who: Austin Hooper, Logan Paulsen and Eric Saubert
Contract/free agent situation: Hooper is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract. Paulsen is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
What they did in season: Something caught Austin Hooper’s attention last offseason and it may have been the team heavily scouting former South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst through the pre-draft process.
Hurst went one pick ahead of the Falcons to the Ravens, 25th overall.
Hooper turned in his best season as a pro and was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl. He caught 71 of 88 targets (80.7 catch percentage) for 660 yards and four touchdowns, all career-highs, in his third season.
Hooper went on to play in the Pro Bowl after Eagles tight end Zach Ertz pulled out of the game.
Hooper said he spent more than 200 hours working with quarterback Matt Ryan over the offseason.
Paulsen didn’t distinguish himself as a blocking tight end and was part of the running game getting stuffed.
Saubert played in all 16 games and came up with five catches. Grade: B-minus
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