Last Sunday, Matt Ryan opened his 14th season as the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback, making his 206th start against just three games missed. That obviously gives the Falcons immense stability and continuity at the game's most important position, but nearly everywhere else this is a team in transition.
Ryan told last week's FOX broadcast crew in Atlanta that he felt as if he "had been traded to the same team" because there were so many new faces in the Falcons' Flowery Branch. That obviously starts with Arthur Smith and a new coaching staff after Dan Quinn's five-plus-year run at the helm ended last October after his team's 0-5 start. The hiring of Smith was widely applauded after he spent two years turning the Tennessee Titans' offense into one of the top units in the league. Atlanta also has a new defensive coordinator in the briefly retired Dean Pees, which has led to the Falcons switching from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 identity.
While many analysts anticipated that the Falcons would swerve fully into a rebuild under its new coaching staff by selecting a quarterback with the fourth pick in the draft, the team instead committed to Ryan for at least 2020 and gave him a shiny new weapon in potential star tight end Kyle Pitts. Atlanta traded Julio Jones to Tennessee in June, a seemingly-inevitable move that helped ease a very tight cap situation, but still have one of the league's best young pass-catchers in Calvin Ridley. With Ryan throwing to Ridley, Pitts, Hayden Hurst and Russell Gage, the Falcons would seem to have the firepower to continue their impressive run of ranking in the top 10 in passing yards for 11 straight seasons.
What could be new, however, is a more productive rushing attack. The Titans fielded one of the league's most powerful run games under Smith, but of course Tennessee also has the league's premier power back in Derrick Henry. Smith will try to get similar results out of the new duo of Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson so that his offense can continue to feature plenty of play-action, rollouts and bootleg passes. Atlanta's run game started the 2021 season off in impressive fashion, producing 124 yards and 4.8 yards per carry against the Eagles despite the Falcons falling well behind on the scoreboard.
Pees and company have to try to fix a defense that had trouble stopping the pass in 2020 and which also allowed 173 rushing yards to the Eagles in the opener. The team's primary offseason additions on defense, unsurprisingly, were in the secondary, which has a completely new look around returning cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Oliver. Gone are safeties Damontae Kazee, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen and in are the likes of Duron Harmon, Erik Harris and cornerback Fabian Moreau. The strength of the Atlanta defense, which had trouble generating pressure on the passer in 2020 and got only one sack in Week One, remains in the middle where inside linebackers Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun are good fits to wreak havoc in Pees' 3-4 scheme.
Atlanta was in the Super Bowl as recently as 2016 and made the playoffs again in 2017 but have since failed to produce a winning season. Though the Falcons rallied somewhat in the middle of last season after Quinn's departure, winning four of six, they finished the year on a five-game losing streak, including two courtesy of the Buccaneers. There is optimism that Smith and company will turn things around quickly, and the commitment to Ryan signals an intent to try to quickly return to competition. Many of last year's issues returned in Falcons' 32-6 loss to Philadelphia last weekend, but Atlanta has the leadership and the talent to be a formidable opponent. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they play their first intra-division game on Sunday:
Matt Ryan has been a difference-maker for the Falcons for a very long time, essentially maintaining the team's passing attack as one of the league's best for his entire career. Ryan won the league MVP award in 2016, and while he hasn't been back to a Pro Bowl since he has still put up prolific numbers every year, including 4,581 yards and a 26-11 TD-INT ratio in 2020. Last year, Atlanta's defense was the only one in the NFL that did not have a single player with at least 5.0 sacks, but it still features one of the league's more dominant interior-line forces in Grady Jarrett. Meanwhile, second-year cornerback A.J. Terrell, a 2020 first-round pick, improved significantly during the course of his rookie season and the Falcons are hoping he will develop into their next playmaking leader in the secondary. Besides those three, here are four other difference-makers for the 2021 Falcons:
1. WR Calvin Ridley. After two seasons of serving as a very good complement to top Falcons receiver Julio Jones, Ridley blossomed into a full-fledged star of his own in 2020. His 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns led Atlanta in all three categories and he tied Green Bay's Davante Adams for the fifth-most receiving yards in the NFL. He's a downfield threat, as evidenced by an average of 15.27 yards per catch that ranked 12th in the league and fifth among 1,000-yard receivers, but he's capable of running all the short and intermediate routes, as well. Against the Buccaneers in Week 15 last season, Ridley helped the Falcons get out to a quick 17-0 lead by catching seven of the nine passes he was thrown in the intermediate range for a total of 126 yards. In preparation for starting a season as his team's clear number-one option in 2021, Ridley spent his offseason working to improve his footwork in order to get out of breaks quickly. The Falcons never got their passing attack into gear last Sunday against the Eagles but Ridley still tied for the team lead with eight targets and paced his squad with five receptions for 51 yards. There's little doubt that Ryan will be looking in Ridley's direction frequently this coming Sunday.
2. ILB Deion Jones. Jones is the Falcons' speedy, rangy do-it-all linebacker and he showed that in the season opener by leading the team with 11 tackles while also recording one of Atlanta's five tackles for losses and one of its passes defensed. Jones definitely filled up his stat line last year, with 106 tackles, 4.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, two interceptions, six passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He is one of the NFL's best coverage linebackers, and while he somehow has only made one Pro Bowl so far he has recorded 11 interceptions and 39 passes defensed across five seasons and one game. Advanced ESPN and NFL Next Gen Stats metrics identified Jones as being one of the league's best run-stopping off-ball linebackers while also grading him above average in coverage and elite at rushing the passer. Just as Devin White and Lavonte David have thrived in Todd Bowles' 3-4 defense, which asks them to handle a wide variety of responsibilities, so is Jones likely to put up some of his best career numbers in Pees' system.
3. G Chris Lindstrom. The Falcons have some adjusting to do along the interior offensive line with second-year man Matt Hennessy taking over for veteran stalwart Alex Mack and rookie Jalen Mayfield struggling in his debut at left guard. However, they have the right guard spot well-manned with Lindstrom, the 14th-overall pick in 2019. Lindstrom missed time due to a foot injury and only played in five games as a rookie but he emerged as one of the league's better guards in 2020. ESPN, in fact, tagged the former Boston College standout as one of the league's 25 best players under the age of 25. Lindstrom is strong and agile enough to excel on pulling plays and he's also a technician and very solid fundamentally. According to Pro Football Focus, Lindstrom was the ninth best guard in the NFL in 2020.
4. K Younghoe Koo. As we'll get to below, the Falcons struggled in the red zone the last two years and again last Sunday, too often settling for field goal attempts. Fortunately for them, they at least have a kicker who is nearly automatic in turning those opportunities into three points. Last season, Koo led the NFL with 37 made field goals and missed just twice, finishing the year with 144 points scored. Since taking over Atlanta's kicking job on a full-time basis midway through the 2019 season, Koo has nailed 62 of his 67 field goal tries, including both of his attempts last week. That's a success rate of 92.5%, which ranks sixth among qualifiers over the past three seasons. Most impressively, he gives the Falcons a very reliable long-range option. Koo has been called on to try nine field goals of 50 or more yards so far in his career and has yet to miss.
As noted above, the Falcons ranked in the top 10 in pass defense for the 11th straight time in 2020, in this case finishing fifth with 272.5 yards per game. With the veteran Ryan taking care of the ball, Atlanta's passing attack also had the league's ninth-best interception rate, at 1.75%. The Atlanta offense converted 43.9% of its third downs overall, the 10th-highest percentage in the league, and Koo made the kicking game nearly automatic. Atlanta's defense didn't have nearly as many impressive numbers but did finish sixth against the run, allowing 104.8 yards per game. Here are some other potential Atlanta strengths in 2021 based on last year's results and what happened in this year's season opener:
· The Falcons can move the chains, particularly through the air. In 2020, Ryan and company produced 243 passing first downs, second only to the 255 gained by Patrick Mahomes and his crew in Kansas City. Of Atlanta's 329 non-penalty first downs last year, 73.9% came on passing plays. That could change under Arthur Smith, however; in the 2021 opener, Atlanta gained seven rushing first downs and eight passing first downs.
· Atlanta's defense did not allow a lot of extended drives last year. Falcons opponents created only 22 drives of 10 or more plays in 2020, the fewest allowed by any defense, and only 16 drives that lasted at least five minutes. That tied for the second-lowest mark in the NFL. Philadelphia had the ball for more than five minutes or more than nine plays just once in the opener.
· The Falcons may have struggled last year but they did not hurt themselves egregiously with turnovers, something that one might expect from a four-win team. The Falcons committed 18 giveaways, which itself was tied for ninth-lowest in the league, but more importantly those giveaways only turned into 43 total points. Only playoff teams Green Bay, Baltimore and Seattle allowed fewer points off turnovers in 2020. That represented just 10.4% of the total points allowed by Atlanta last year, also the fourth-best mark in the league.
· Atlanta's defense did a good job on first downs last year. The Falcons allowed their opponents to gain four or more yards on first-down passes just 49.4% of the time, which was the sixth-best percentage in the NFL. For that reason, Atlanta's opponents also had the sixth-longest to go on second downs, needing an average of 7.94 yards to get to the sticks.
Atlanta had a hard time running the ball in 2020, ranking next-to-last with a per-carry average of 3.75 yards, though as noted above that area may be significantly improved in 2021. The Falcons defense finished dead last in passing yards allowed, at 293.6 per game, and gave up another 261 to the Eagles and Jalen Hurts in Week One. In addition:
· Atlanta's persistent problem on offense the last two seasons has been when it gets inside the opponents' 20. The Falcons clearly can move the ball, but their 53.5% touchdown rate in the red zone in 2020 was seventh-worst in the NFL. That was at least up a little bit from the team's 2019 red zone rate of 51.7%, but the Falcons did not get off to a good start in this regard in 2021, failing on both of their red zone drives to reach the end zone against Philadelphia.
· After nine seasons with Matt Bosher handling their punting duties, the Falcons drafted Sterling Hofrichter in the seventh round in 2020 and gave him the job. The results were not what the team had hoped for as Hofrichter individually and the Falcons as a team each ranked last in the NFL with a gross punting average of 42.5 yards. Atlanta thus pivoted again, staging a camp competition between Dom Maggio and Cameron Nizialek that the latter, a former Georgia punter, eventually won. Nizialek had a gross average of 46.5 yards on six punts last weekend.
· In their season-opening, 32-6 win over Atlanta on Sunday, Philadelphia used the last 1:44 of the first half to drive 62 yards for a touchdown on a Dallas Goedert nine-yard catch with two seconds left. This was not a new sight for Falcons fans. In 2020, Atlanta surrendered 103 points in the last two minutesof the first and second halves of their 16 games. That was more than every other team except Minnesota, which gave up 107 end-of-half points.
· Atlanta's rushing attack was anemic last year in part because it rarely generated big plays. The Falcons record just six runs of 20 or more yards in 2020, tying for the 27th-most in the NFL. The Falcons didn't have any such runs in their 2021 season opener, either, but they did get a combined five carries between 11 and 14 yards by Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson, so perhaps the bigger ground gains are coming.
NEW FACES IN 2021
Thanks to a couple of trades made this year and last year, the Saints only made four picks in the 2020 draft, including just one after the first round. They still found a new starter for their offensive line for the second year in a row on draft weekend. Their biggest addition on defense was actually a player returning to his original NFL home, while the offense got a new piece that could make it a little tougher to defend Michael Thomas.
1. RBs Mike Davis/Cordarrelle Patterson. Atlanta had the league's 27th-ranked rushing offense in 2020, marking the third straight year that the Falcons were among the bottom six in that category. However, new Head Coach Arthur Smith, who directed one of the league's most successful rushing attacks in Tennessee, is expected to get more out of the Atlanta ground game. The team imported the duo of Davis and Patterson, which didn't make huge offseason waves since Davis has been something of a journeyman and Patterson is a converted wide receiver with fewer than 200 career carries. However, early returns were very promising as the two combined for 103 yards on 22 handoffs before the Falcons had abandon the run last Sunday in an attempt to climb out of a big hole on the scoreboard.
2. S Duron Harmon/S Erik Harris. Atlanta has three new veteran starters in its secondary, including the safety duo of Harmon and Harris. Harmon comes over from Detroit where he started all 16 games and had two interceptions in 2020 after spending his first eight seasons as a part-time starter in New England. Harris played four seasons for the Raiders, the majority of it as a starter, and had five interceptions in that span.
3. TE Kyle Pitts. The Falcons made the former Gator star the fourth-overall pick, and first non-quarterback taken, in the 2021 draft, the highest pick that has ever been used on a tight end. Pitts is a dynamic athlete who could end up replacing the production lost by the June trade of wide receiver Julio Jones. The rookie's first NFL game was relatively quiet, as he caught four passes for 31 yards, but the Atlanta passing attack as a whole never got into gear in Week One.
1. G Josh Andrews. The May addition of Andrews looked like a depth signing at the time as he had started just four games in his first five NFL seasons, all with the Jets last year. However, Andrews excelled in training camp and appeared to have the left guard spot locked down before he suffered a hand fracture in practice last week. Andrew was placed on injured reserve and, as noted above, rookie Jalen Mayfield stepped in at left guard with mixed results.
2. C Alex Mack.Mack started 78 of a possible 80 games at center for the Falcons from 2016-19 and made it to three Pro Bowls in that span. (He also made three Pro Bowls over seven seasons in Cleveland.) However, the Falcons did not try to re-sign Mack in free agency this past spring and he is now starting for the 49ers while Atlanta has turned to its third-round pick a year ago in Matt Hennessy.
3. QB A.J. McCarron. The Falcons signed McCarron in free agency after the 2021 draft, presumably to serve as Matt Ryan's primary backup. However, McCarron tore an ACL in the second preseason game and went on injured reserve prior to the roster cutdown to 53 players, which means he will not be eligible to return this year. The Falcons subsequently signed former 10th-overall pick Josh Rosen, who was active in Week One as Ryan's backup ahead of undrafted rookie Feleipe Franks.