Saturday, September 9, 2017

An Off-Season Outlook for the 2017 Atlanta Falcons



For three quarters, we watched the Falcons dominate the Patriots in Super Bowl 51. From the two touchdown passes by Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman’s solid performance with 11 rushes, 75 yards and a touchdown, Grady Jarrett’s Super Bowl record 3 sacks and Robert Alford’s pick six. Atlanta built a 28-3 lead and the Falcons on the verge of winning their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Until the fourth quarter.

The momentum shifted when Donta Hightower causes a sack and fumble on third and 1 with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter. Tom Brady continued to torch an already gassed Falcons defense for a record (96) plays leading the Patriots to one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. The gut wrenching loss left the Falcons and many NFL fans thinking… Will the Falcons rebound from the loss and take the leap to win a Lombardi? Many would ask, where do the Falcons go from here? Anytime a team loses the Super Bowl, there’s always talk of a possible “Super Bowl Hangover and will the Falcons ever play at this level again? Personally, I beg to differ! and I’ll explain why by analyzing the entire offseason for the Falcons.



The Falcons didn’t make a “big splash” during Free Agency in comparison to their acquisitions of Mohammed Sanu and Alex Mack last year. Instead, the front office focused on retaining their players and bringing in depth for the 2017 Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons re-signed Levine Toilolo, Courtney Upshaw, and Leroy Reynolds who were key components to the Super Bowl run last season.

Matt Schaub returned in the backup quarterback for Matt Ryan. In Free Agency, their biggest signing was Dontari Poe, a former All-Pro nose tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs. Defensive lineman Jack Crawford and Kick Return specialist Andre Roberts were other notable signings made by the Falcons.



Atlanta hopes Poe can return to his Pro Bowl level of play form to bolster the Defensive Line! Pairing him with Grady Jarrett looks very promising for a revamped Atlanta defense. Jack Crawford, a notable run-stopper should bring another aspect to the defensive line in different packages. Dan Quinn loves his ability to play on the end and inside. It will be interesting to see how the Falcons’ defense gel with Poe and Crawford and the secondary will get star corner back Desmond Truant  back from a pectoral injury which ended his season. 

Atlanta’s strategy for the 2017 NFL Draft continued to focus on adding depth and speed, and the Draft Class is loaded with potential. Entering the draft, Atlanta wanted to add a pass rusher to go along with reigning sack champion, Vic Beasley. The Falcons traded two picks to move up from 31st to 26th overall to draft Defensive End Takk McKinley from UCLA. McKinley, a very relentless and powerful pass rusher fits the mold of a Dan Quinn defense.


McKinley excelled at UCLA as a pass rusher in the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes. His last year at UCLA, he finished with (18) tackles for loss, (10) sacks, and (5) pass break-ups. Experts were concerned that he wouldn’t debut his NFL career at the start of the Regular Season due to surgery for a shoulder injury, but he was cleared in Week 1 of Pre-Season and when he earned playing time, McKinley impressed the fans. Atlanta’s third round pick, linebacker Duke Riley from LSU, was probably the most underrated pick in the draft as well as my favorite of the class.

Duke Riley is a speedy linebacker and a very physical tackler. He has a good nose for the football and always seems to be in the mix of defensive turnovers. He didn’t start until his senior year. His physical play allowed him to rack up (93) tackles,(1.5 )sacks and an interception. He was also named MVP of the Tigers. Sean Harlow, an offensive guard from Oregon St., was brought in for offensive line depth as well especially after Guard Chris Chester retired and he’ll earn opportunities to compete for a starting positon at Right Guard with Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer.


Defensive back Damonte Kazee from San Diego St., was drafted as a cornerback but then moved to free safety. He’s a very talented athlete and considered a “ball-hawk. Kazee left college with a school record (17) career interceptions. Atlanta’s other additions were Running back Brian Hill from Wyoming and Tight End Eric Saubert from Drake, who we’ll possibly see on offense in the future.

Atlanta’s biggest change was the loss of Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan was big reason why the Falcons offense put up historic numbers in 2016. He departed for the vacant Head Coach position with the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons replaced Shanahan with Alabama’s Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Sark earned the coordinator job when Lane Kiffin departed for Florida Atlantic University as the head coach. Sark was originally added to Alabama’s staff as a consultant.


With the loss of Kiffin, he called the plays for the 2016 National Championship Game against Clemson. Sark has quite the resume as an offensive play caller. He was the head coach at the University of Washington from 2009-2013 where he also coached Desmond Trufant and the coached USC in 2014-2015. At USC, the Trojans boasted one of the nation’s best offense in 2014.

USC averaged (457.6) yards and (160) Rushing Yards per game led by current Cleveland Browns backup quarterback Cody Kessler. Kessler posted the best season of his collegiate career throwing (39) Passing Touchdowns and (5). The biggest question is will Sark improve an offense that scored more than (540) points, resulting in one of the best offensive seasons in NFL History. With an offense returning 9 of their 11 starters from the Super Bowl roster, many expect the Falcons to duplicate their success.

The Falcons have the roster and potential to become the first Super Bowl loser to make consecutive trips since the 1993 Buffalo Bills. Atlanta upgraded their roster on  both sides of the football, in particular, defensively. 2016 NFL MVP, Matt Ryan, will look to follow a stellar campaign this season and he’s capable of duplicating the success on the field.


Ryan returns with the best running back tandem in the NFL with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the offensive line is intact, Mohammed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Austin Hooper, and the best receiver in the NFL, Julio Jones is healthy and ready to have another dominant season. Sanu has proven to be the perfect complement for Jones and Taylor Gabriel was one of the breakout players in the NFL last season.

Dan Quinn has revamped the Falcons defense in just three seasons. Falcons fans could be in for a treat this season with a fast and physical defense! Many expect the Falcons to take a major leap as one of the rising defensive units in football. Atlanta can only go up from here, if they can stay healthy and duplicate their success, we could Rise Up in Minnesota with another opportunity to deliver the Vince Lombardi Trophy!

Tony Chapman: @Dat_Boy_Sang








Friday, September 8, 2017

2017 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Preview (Weeks 14-17)


            Week 14 vs. New Orleans Saints (Dec. 7 / 8:25 ET / NBC/NFLN)






The Falcons end their three-game home stretch at home against their new look division rival New Orleans Saints. The Saints have added a few key pieces during the off-season. After trading Brandin Cooks, New Orleans signed former Panther’s star Ted Ginn Jr. Safety Jairus Byrd is no longer with the team after signing a lucrative six-year, $56-million-dollar deal in 2014.

With over $28-million guaranteed the Saints felt it was time to move on and released Byrd with the lack of production he exhibited. They also signed future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson who looks to be ready to lead a crowded backfield. It seems that Sean Payton and New Orleans are looking to make a small change and try to be a little more balanced to keep their below average defense off the field. 



This is a scary game for the Falcons despite playing at home, because they will be playing on four days rest. Thursday night games have been widely criticized by NFL players citing safety and the lack of recovery time. Luckily for the Falcons, they will be playing at home against an opponent that they are very familiar with. 
            
Week 15 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Dec. 18th / 8:30 ET / ESPN)




When the Falcons travel to Tampa to take on an up-and-coming Buccaneers squad they'll know what's at stake. There isn’t much separating the 2016 NFC South Champion Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Bucs; this was evident in last season’s series that ended with a split.

Tampa Bay will come in with a high-powered offense, accompanied by a very opportunistic secondary that was 2nd in the NFL last season in interceptions (17). The Bucs were a middle-of-the-road offensive team last season based primarily because of injuries at the running back position. If healthy, they have the potential to be one of the NFL’s best offenses.




One glaring concern for Atlanta is that Bucs QB’s threw for over 600 yards and 8 TD’s to just 1 INT last season. The Bucs were whipped on National TV the last time these teams played and will be looking to make a statement early and often.


            Week 16 @ New Orleans Saints (Dec. 24th / 1:00 ET / FOX)





            Atlanta and New Orleans will meet again just a little over two weeks apart from their first matchup of the season, but this time in New Orleans. The Falcons will have to limit big plays and get red zone stops. Drew Brees can throw for 400 yards if he wants, but if Atlanta forces the Saints' offense to settle for field goals they will come out on top.

The Falcons did a very good job of taking care of the ball in last season's matchup. They didn’t turn the ball over once, which is a staunch comparison to 2015 when Atlanta committed 5 turnovers in their week 17 game with New Orleans.




The Saints defense will have to improve this season to even have a chance against the Falcons, regardless of the venue. New Orleans gave up 28.4 points per game in 2016, good enough to put them as the 2nd worst scoring defense in the league. There’s only so much you can expect out of the Saints this season if they’re defense doesn’t step up. Nonetheless this is a heated rivalry and will be a grind.


Week 17 vs Carolina Panthers (Dec. 31st / 1:00 ET / FOX)




            Atlanta will end the season facing division foes in 5 of its last 6 matchups. Depending on who you ask, that can either be a good or bad thing. In my opinion, it’ll be a pivotal time in the season that will truly define this team. Divisional rivals either bring out the best in you or they highlight your weaknesses. This matchup will have the NFC’s representative from the past two Super Bowls as well as the NFL’s last two MVP’s. Expect this to be a very physical and nasty game in which you will have the Panthers fighting for a wild card position in the NFL playoffs.

If Carolina can get better offensive line play, I fully expect Cam Newton to bounce back and have a great year. I’ll go out on a limb to say Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will not be breaking their records that they posted against Carolina in 2016. What I took away from the final matchup between the two in 2016 was the adjustments that Carolina made to it’s secondary.





Although they would go on to lose 33-16 at home, it wasn’t a bad performance by Carolina’s defense. It had more to do with the spotty offensive line play and bad decision making that led to costly turnovers from Cam. With so much expected to be at stake in this regular season finale, this game will go down to the wire.

Michael Thomas: @ChosenOne_MT10