The New York Jets travel to Georgia to take on the Atlanta Falcons today in the Jets second pre-season game of 2019. Previewing this matchup, Dave Choate, Editor in Chief of the Falcoholic, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me regarding the 2019 Falcons. If you’re interested in my answers to Dave’s questions regarding the Jets, you can head on over to the Falcoholic to check them out.
1. The Falcons took a step back last year after two straight playoff runs. What were the primary causes for the Falcons’ losing record in 2018, and do you expect a bounce back year in 2019?
Injuries were the obvious culprit but far from the only piece of the story. The Falcons were undone by the loss of Deion Jones for half the season, starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco for most of the season, stud running back Devonta Freeman for the year, and top-flight safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, among others. That in turn exposed depth that wasn’t ready for primetime--it turns out the Falcons’ comically bad preseason showing wasn’t totally something to be written off--and made their margin for error incredibly slim.
Durable longtime starters Ryan Schraeder at right tackle and Robert Alford at cornerback turned in deeply disappointing years that appear to have been impacted by injuries they played through, the team fell agonizingly short in a couple of shootouts because the defense was so poor all around, and players they were counting on like Vic Beasley didn’t live up to their billing. In the end, there were just too many things that didn’t go according to plan.
For that reason, though, I do expect a bounceback. The team took pains to address their weaknesses, moved on from players who haven’t performed (aside from Beasley, that is), and look healthy heading into the year. They should contend.
2. Falcons receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu will both be at the dreaded age 30 during the 2019 season. Is there any reason to be concerned about age related decline in the Falcons’ high flying aerial attack?
If there’s something to worry about, a Falcons fan will worry about it. That’s our mantra.
That said, I’m not overly worried about big dropoffs from these two players. Julio is an elite athlete who takes care of himself at an elite level, and has been sitting out preseason and taking maintenance days as needed to keep running. Sanu is incredibly tough and is going to cede some ground to Calvin Ridley in the latter’s second year anyways, so a modest decline wouldn’t put this passing game in too much of a bind. There are long-term concerns with Julio because of his history of foot ailments and the typical wide receiver aging curve, but this year should be productive for both.
3. Tevin Coleman, along with Davonta Freeman part of the Falcons’ superb tag team duo at running back in recent years, moved on in free agency this offseason. What is the plan at running back in 2019? Will Ito Smith fill the Coleman role? Will Freeman take on a larger workload?
With Coleman out of the picture, Freeman is primed for a very big year indeed. He’s always had the talent to be a true three down back, given his excellence as a runner, steadiness as a receiver, and usefulness as a blocker, and he’ll likely be called upon to enjoy a bigger role than he’s had since say 2016 or so as long as he can stay healthy.
Beyond him, things are very much in flux at the moment. Ito Smith is the assumed #2 option and showed us some real physicality in his first season, but he doesn’t have the home run speed Coleman brought to the offense and hasn’t proven himself as a high-end runner to this point. Brian Hill is putting on a show this preseason and may push for a larger role, given that he seems to have slimmed down without sacrificing any pass catching ability or his hard-charging style. And there’s rookie Qadree Ollison, who has put a couple of nice runs on tape and looks like an interesting short-yardage option and special teamer at worst. The Falcons will likely use a committee to replace Coleman, but while that group may be more productive on a snap-by-snap basis, they don’t have Coleman’s ability to break a game open. It’ll be a situation to watch.
4. The Falcons’ defense was something of a problem last year, giving up 28 or more points in eight games. What have the Falcons done to address the issues on defense, and are you optimistic the defense will be improved in 2019?
First, they got back some players they really needed, like Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, and Keanu Neal. That alone is likely to lead to some level of improvement, given that those are three of the team’s best defenders and Jones and Allen in particular are leaders and key defensive communicators. If that’s all they did the defense probably wouldn’t stink out loud, but thankfully that’s not all they did.
Adding Allen Bailey, Adrian Clayborn, and Tyler Davison to the defensive line added beef and run-stopping ability the Falcons were missing throughout the 2018 season. Drafting Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller gave the team some intriguing cornerback depth, with second year pro and plus athlete Isaiah Oliver replacing Alford after his injury-marred season. And, in what I hope represents an upgrade, Dan Quinn himself is seizing the reins of the defense back and serving as the coordinator. The team had some success with him at the helm in late 2016.
I’m still not expecting this defense to be anywhere near great, though I’d love to be surprised. I do think they’ll be good enough paired with a potentially elite offense to keep the Falcons in games most every week, however, and if guys like Takkarist McKinley and De’Vondre Campbell take strides forward, they may be more than that.
5. What Falcons players, if any, are Falcons fans familiar with that others should be but probably aren’t? Who will surprise Jets fans with how good they are this Thursday?
Russell Gage is a name to monitor. He’s no higher than fourth on the depth chart in 2019 at wide receiver, but he’s impressed in the early going and has the speed and hands to be an unexpected factor in 2019. I would wager most know the name Austin Hooper at tight end, but they may not know how good he’s been for Atlanta, and you may catch a quick glimpse of him in his pivotal fourth season tonight.
On the other side of the ball, Isaiah Oliver is the name that comes to mind. He had a fairly quiet rookie season but has an ideal blend of size, athleticism, and coverage skills, and I’m expecting him to take a major leap forward this season.