By Dave Moore (@davieremixed)
Next up in our series is the Atlanta Falcons. I could have scheduled this for the 28th March but you know, too far to wait.
Entering The Season
It’s a strange and difficult time to be a fan of the Dirty Birds, after that turnaround in The Big Game, they managed to get back to the playoffs the following year only to be defeated in the Divisional Round by the Eagles. They seemed primed to make a run at The Big Game once again in the 2018 season only to be utterly wrecked by injuries.
The goal for this season? Get healthy, stay healthy, knock the Saints off the top of the NFC South and make the most of a favourable schedule against the unreliable AFC South and the Bizarro World that is the NFC West.
During The Season
The season did not exactly get off to a positive start with a 28-12 spanking on the road in Minnesota, the Falcons not scoring any points until there were nine minutes of the game remaining. No big deal, a get right 24-20 victory over the Eagles despite blowing a two-score lead with a three game stretch against the AFC South coming up? Could establish a spot in the wildcard spots at this rate, right?
At stages against the Colts and Titans the Falcons were down 20-3 and 24-7 respectively. To compound this issue, they were blown out 53-32 by the Texans in Week 5. The return to NRG Stadium only inflamed the bad memories.
By the time the Week 9 bye rolled around, another three-game divisional stretch – this time against the NFC West – came and went the same way as the AFC South trio. Ugly, ugly defeats. A missed field goal as time expired on the road at the Cardinals, a 27-point defeat against the Rams and a loss to Seattle meant that Atlanta’s season was over before Halloween. Nevermind a spooky season, this was downright horrifying from Dan Quinn’s team.
There were more than a few whispers that Arthur Blank was going to take action against Quinn before the season was out, what a staggering fall from grace just a couple of years removed from Super Bowl LI and here was the Head Coach, 1-7 and without any apparent idea of how to stop the bleeding (31.25 PPG given up through the first eight weeks!).
Meanwhile, the offensive line was just a whole heap of garbage, first round pick (31st overall) Kaleb McGary had a terrible year and it showed in not only Atlanta’s season overall with 50 sacks allowed, the fifth most in the entire league, but also in the run game which struggled so badly that not one Atlanta running back posted a triple digit game all year. How can a bad defense stay off the field when the offense can’t do anything other than pass? An impossible situation.
Spare a thought at this point for Julio Jones and Matty Ice. Two elite players who did their best whilst everything else was going to hell around them. Even Calvin Ridley chipped in as a solid WR2 and Austin Hooper was a good redzone threat. That isn’t enough, however. The season was basically over by November. What to aim for in the second half? A perfect 2nd half seals a 9-7 record that might be enough for the playoffs but with such a loaded NFC that’s a tall order.
The last thing Atlanta needed coming off the bye week then was a trip to the Superdome to face the 7-1 Saints who were on the verge of running away with the division. This could be the game that finally forced Blank’s hand to show Quinn the door.
Atlanta 26-9 New Orleans. What. The. Heck?
A transformed Falcons D smothered a Saints team that had scored 30+ points in five out of their first eight games. The Falcons line broke through and sacked Drew Brees six times and held the Saints to a paltry three field goals. Even Brian Hill (who?!) got in on the action with 71 scrimmage yards and a score. Was this the turning point of the season? A chance to put something together for pride, for their HC who was on the brink not long after being on the brink of winning it all?
Well they went one better against the Panthers, blowing them out 29-3, keeping them scoreless for 47 minutes. They couldn’t go on a run could they? An all-time second half of the season to sneak into the 6 seed?
Consecutive home losses to the Bucs and the Saints saw to that, although let’s take a moment to talk about the wild end to the Thanksgiving matchup against New Orleans where the Falcons recovered THREE onside kicks in a row (the first being brought back for a penalty) in a somewhat amusing end to a comfortable revenge win for New Orleans.
3-9 going into December. Season over, time to play spoiler? On the road? Against the dominant 49ers? You betcha.
A touchdown with two seconds remaining (Julio from Matty Ice, who else?) gave the Falcons a 23-22 lead which would swell to 29-22 on a fumble return on the kick-off. How about that for a feather in your cap, Dan Quinn?!
Atlanta finished the season 7-9, going 6-2 in the second half of the season to achieve a modicum of respectability but the season was doomed after the AFC South fiasco in September.
So where next for Atlanta? They’ve got eight draft picks to play with and need to hope that they land on better selections than 2019’s picks. An edge-rusher is something they’re in desperate need of as they finished with just 28 sacks on the year, tied for second least. If Austin Hooper isn’t to return in free agency then Tight End becomes a priority, also.
Meanwhile that 50 sack year indicates that they need to either coax more out of the O-Line they have or make it just as big of a priority.
There isn’t much room in free agency to pick up pieces either, $7.5 million to play with and not many players who can be sacrificed to make room. Devonta Freeman has arguably been ineffectual for two straight years now but his 2020 cap hit of $9.5m is offset by the fact that there’s $6m in dead money going to him this coming year.
A lot of money is tied up in Chris Lindstrom, Jake Matthews and Grady Jarrett this year in what will be important years going forward for them as Atlanta cannot afford to take the cap hit on these guys. It could be a tricky year ahead for the Falcons, despite having a great QB and WR1-2 punch.
Atlanta’s road schedule for 2020? Green Bay, Minnesota, Dallas, Kansas City, LA Chargers, Saints, Bucs and Panthers. Ouch. If they’re going to get out of the NFC South, it’s going to be on the back of being near-perfect at home and steal two/three wins on the road because that is an absolute stinker of a road schedule.