Five keys to Falcons’ season

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones catches a pass during a NFL football training camp practice on Tuesday, August 7, 2018, in Flowery Branch.  Curtis Compton/



Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones catches a pass during a NFL football training camp practice on Tuesday, August 7, 2018, in Flowery Branch. Curtis Compton/

The preseason is over. The regular season begins Thursday – at the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles no less. Storylines have developed all offseason. Decisions have been made. Now it’s time to see if they were the right decisions.

» More: For Falcons, time is now

Here are five keys for the 2018 season for the Falcons:

1. Red zone: If the Falcons are to truly return to an elite offense, it will be measured by their success inside the 20-yard line. In 2016, on the way to Super Bowl loss, the Falcons were ninth in the NFL in red zone efficiency as they scored touchdowns on 62 percent of their drives inside the 20. In 2017, on the way to a divisional playoff loss, the Falcons slipped to 23rd in red zone efficiency as they scored touchdowns on 50 percent of such trips.

A major correction this season will need to be production from wide receiver Julio Jones, especially in the red zone. The All-Pro caught three just touchdown passes last season – and only two from quarterback Matt Ryan. As much as the Falcons didn’t want to talk about it, there was no doubt a distraction this offseason with the Jones’ holdout saga. He skipped voluntary Organized Team Activities and a mandatory three-day minicamp. Only an 11th hour contract adjustment, with a promise of a future rework of his deal, averted a training camp holdout. Jones was held out of exhibition games as an injury precaution and coaches and players insist it won’t be an issue in the regular season. Rest assured, if the Falcons and/or Jones struggle this season, red zone efficiency will be part of the scrutiny.

2. Dropped passes: Catch the darn ball. The Falcons led the league in dropped passes with 30 last season. They had just 16 the previous season, the third fewest in the league.

Yeah, that’s a problem.

The total count from last season: Jones (seven), Mohamed Sanu (six), running back Devonta Freeman (four), running back Tevin Coleman (three), tight end Austin Hooper (three), Taylor Gabriel (two), Justin Hardy (two), Marvin Hall (two) and tight end Levine Toilolo (one).

“We've got work to do in that area,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “It wasn't just one player, and it wasn’t just one position.”

The Falcons added wide receiver Calvin Ridley with their first-round draft pick and have bolstered the tight end position.

The Falcons’ offense will be hampered if they can’t hold on to the ball.

3. Offensive line:  We have a winner. It took awhile but the Falcons named Brandon Fusco the starter at right guard. Fusco was acquired in the offseason and signed a three-year, $12.5 million free-agent deal. He competed with Wes Schweitzer, who started all 18 games last season, for the job during training camp. Schweitzer will be a backup swing guard and center.

The Falcons offense slipped last season, far off its record-setting pace of 2016 when it reached the Super Bowl. That team had the same offensive line for each game and the player with the fewest snaps was in on 95 percent of the plays that season. It included right guard Chris Chester, who retired after the season. The Falcons may have found a suitable replacement in an effort to get the offense back on track.

» Follow: AJC's continuing coverage of Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta

4. Short-yardage situations: Do we really have to go through all of this again? We will spare the difficult details. Suffice to say, the Falcons have made it a priority to be better in short-yardage situations this season. When you need a yard or two, go get it on the ground. The ability to play power football has been a stated priority, even with all the team's offensive weapons.

The fullback will again be part of the offense, we are told. The Falcons struggled in short-yardage situations during the preseason. In fact, they went with five wide receivers in a third-and-1 situation in the third exhibition game against the Jaguars. Let’s see what happens when the games count.

5. Returners: The Falcons have options in the search for kickoff and punter returner. Quinn won't tip his hand, probably not until the regular-season opener.

The rookie Ridley has been successful in the preseason on kickoff duty but Marvin Hall is a possibility. Justin Hardy appears to be the most dependable of the punt returner candidates.

“I don’t think we’ll do a committee all year,” Quinn said. “I’d like to have more certainty than they. I have a pretty good idea about where I’m heading now, but I’d like to not give it away in terms of the season and who’s going to be preparing against (us). I’m pretty well squared away on the decision for that.”

Stay tuned.