Written By: Joe Carlino
We’re at the end of the 2018 campaign, ladies and gentlemen. That means 12 teams’ seasons are still alive as they chase a Super Bowl title, while the other 20 teams will try and diagnose the reasons they’re out of the playoffs. In my opinion, no team failed to meet expectations than the Atlanta Falcons did. This team was considered a strong Super Bowl contender at the season’s beginning and basically fell off the wagon, but rallied to finish on a three-game win streak to finish 7-9, good for a second-place finish in the NFC South. Many fans just want to continue trolling Atlanta (28-3, still original), but others are willing to dissect and discuss what went wrong with them. This article is an outlook on the “Dirty Birds” and how I felt the team performed throughout 2018.
Boy, would I like to chew into Atlanta’s offensive efficiency the last few weeks of the season. This offense is loaded with talent, from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones, but they couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. But as badly as they struggled there, the offensive line is where the blame really lies. The middle and left side wasn’t bad, as Alex Mack, Ben Garland, and Jake Matthews have ensured “Matty Ice” is protected on his blind side, a necessity for right-handed quarterbacks. The right side, however, was abysmal, and the loss of Brandon Fusco in the Giants game showed. Ryan Schrader started the year at tackle fine, proving why EA Sports made him a red elite card in “Madden 19”. But since then, he proved to be just a gold player, somewhere in the 70-75 overall range.
Without a decent offensive line, it can be very difficult to field even a competent offense. Remember that the next time you want to bash Matt Ryan. The dude is the most consistent person we’ve ever fielded under center, but even he can’t produce with that line. I’ll even go this far to prove my point: remember how bad the Saints were in 2014-2016? Three straight 7-9 seasons, yet they had the best NFC quarterback on their roster. They had offensive line problems too, and Drew Brees could only perform as best he could. Right now, our offense is looking eerily similar to those teams.
I can’t ignore the injuries that piled up on the offensive side. Losing Andy Levitre to a torn triceps in Week Two was hard to swallow; that guy has played his heart out. Then Devonta Freeman was lost to a groin injury which puts him on IR, thus diminishing the team’s offensive weapons. Sure, Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith had their bright spots, but they can’t do it all. And even later in the season, Smith was lost to IR, leaving Tevin and fourth-string back Brian Hill to get through the final games of a lost campaign.
I could easily talk about the defensive injuries being the direct cause for the defensive struggles this year. The collective heart of Atlanta’s Brotherhood sank when Keanu Neal and Deion Jones got hurt against Philadelphia; it only sank more when Ricardo Allen went down against the Saints. In the first three weeks the Falcons lost roughly the entire middle of the field, leaving it the perfect area for opposing teams to pick on.
But the defense’s struggles have as much to do with underproduction than with injuries. Deion Jones’ replacement in Duke Riley? Yeah, he’s got to go. Desmond Trufant plays too far off the ball, which allows his target to get easy separation levels. Robert Alford either gets burned or penalized on just about every play. Isaiah Oliver is a rookie, so I can’t really go after him. Damontae Kazee was the best defensive back on the season, the lone bright spot. If I had told you that a backup safety would be amongst the league’s interception leaders, you would think I’m crazy. Kazee will be staying around for a while, and I’m excited to see how he develops more. one our team currently has in the back end.
The defensive line needs to be talked about. Sure, I could beat around the bush and join in on the Vic Beasley trash talk, but I’m not one of those guys. I can see he’s trying his best to get back to 2016 Vic (he’s even mentioned that), andteams know how dangerous he can be. That play against Baltimore to start December? I saw a little of 2016 there because it showed he can still perform at that level. Add in Takk McKinley on the other side, Bruce Irvin, Grady Jarrett, and Deadrin Senat, and that’s a great line on paper. So why aren’t they producing? Maybe it’s because opposing offensive lines are just better on that given day? Or maybe there’s lack of communication and scheming to free open rushers. Whatever it is, the D-line struggled mightily, leaving the rest of the defense with no support.
This is the easiest area to talk about because it was the most consistent. Atlanta’s special team's group always shows up, and you can start with the money man, Matt Bryant. Since coming to Atlanta in 2008, he has been the model of consistency for kickers in the NFC, just like Adam Vinatieri in the AFC. That said, I can’t go further without admitting I know he’s only got a few years left, and it’s almost time for the squad to be finding his replacement. Well, I think they did in Giorgio Tavecchio. Sure, the guy has bounced around places in the league for years, but in his debut for Atlanta, he hit three field goals, two from 50+. And he went perfect against Washington. Sure, I love Matt Bryant and what he represents, but I’m glad to know that when #3 hangs up his kicking leg to spend time with his family, Atlanta has the best replacement.
This is an area I could easily bash more than any other. But, like the defense category of this assessment, I’m beating the drum one too many times. I’ll start here from the top. I like Dan Quinn and what he stands for; that Brotherhood talk is true. So when I read an article that said he would only last three years, I thought it was ridiculous, because these players still like his mentality: they believe in the goal of a unified front being the ultimate form of production on the field. Plus, I liked his own personal assessment of the team. When asked about the defensive line, he replied “Terrible.” Short, sweet, and to the point. He owns up to his team’s deficiencies, which is why Arthur Blank gave him a vote of confidence. Mr. Blank knows when he’s got something special in his grasp, and Quinn is one of those things. If he didn’t, why would he sign him through 2022? Think about that before you talk about him being on the hot seat. Also remember, Falcons fans: since Matt Ryan became arguably the best QB the franchise ever had, they’ve only had TWO head coaches. Do you really want to get away from that and become some of these other squads, constantly changing the primo position in coaching because of one bad year? I didn’t think so.
In terms of coordinators, I like Marquand Manuel as our DC. He just had a lot of problems that arose early in the season which, looking back, proved to be too difficult to overcome. Give him a quality defense, and I believe he can mold them into the way DQ wants them to play. Steve Sarkisian’s firing was way past due, and hopefully Atlanta will be able to find a more creative play caller to replace him.
This season was tough, Falcons Nation. I’m right there with you on that sentiment, and it was tough to see both really close losses and some big blowouts in a couple others. I do believe that Atlanta has a great squad and is just in an unfortunate time where everything they could possibly go wrong this year has. The final three games of the season proved one thing to me: the team is full of fighters, and they’re not going to lay down for an opponent despite being eliminated. In the words of Julio Jones: “We ain’t playing for pride. We’re playing to whoop someone’s ass.”