We continue recapping the 2019 NFL season with our fellow SB Nation blogs. Today, we take a look at a team that, like the Jets, finished the season 6-2 after a 1-7 start — the Atlanta Falcons. Cory Woodroof of The Falcoholic was able to answer a few questions on Atlanta’s 2019 campaign.
1. Matt Ryan had somewhat of a down year, posting a Y/A mark below league average for the first time since 2013. How would you summarize Ryan’s performance in 2019? How did he perform versus his usual standards, and did his supporting cast make his life job more difficult than in the past?
Matt Ryan’s a hard quarterback just to judge on numbers alone. He’s never really had a “bad” season, and he’s been a model of consistency ever since he was drafted. Though I may be a homer, I’d argue he’s been one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, was a couple of bad play calls away from a ring and deserves a spot in Canton one day.
His 2019 wasn’t a banner year, as he struggled to get fully acclimated into Dirk Koetter’s scheme, missed a game with injury for the first time in nearly a decade and had pitiful protection up front. He got clobbered on more than one week, and though the team finished with a really good 6-2 record, they started out with an abysmal 1-7, almost 0-8 if you lose the Philly game.
I think his 2019 can be summed up as a down year for the circumstances around him. He didn’t have much of a run game to balance the passing attack, the offensive line wasn’t at all consistent and had too much rotation at the guard spots, Koetter’s scheme wasn’t at all innovative or even, in some weeks, vaguely creative and he didn’t quite have as deep an arsenal as he’s used to (particularly when tight end Austin Hooper was out).
But he’s still Matty Ice. As he approaches 35, he’s entering the last bit of his prime, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. Will those start now? We all hope not, but we don’t expect it.
2. Ryan took a career-high sack rate of 7.2% and was pressured on the 5th-highest percentage of dropbacks in the league (39.2%). Where did the issues lie up front for Atlanta, and how will the team look to improve the offensive line in the coming months?
The status of offensive line in Atlanta isn’t all that easy to explain. They have two very good players in left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack, an incredibly promising second-year player in right guard Chris Lindstrom, a fellow member of the 2019 class with Lindstrom in right tackle Kaleb McGary, who had his ups and downs in his first year starting and a gigantic question mark at left guard.
The players need a scheme to perform, and Koetter’s fusion blocking scheme (more power than zone) just didn’t work last year. It stunted the rushing attack and kept Ryan on his heels far too often. The coaching is going to have to improve. Chris Morgan has been a reliable positional coach for the team, but he’s going to have to work with Koetter to maximize this unit if the team is going to be successful in 2020.
Four of your five starters are locked (if the team wisely keeps Mack, not a guarantee at the moment with his cap savings at $8 million and the team having needs elsewhere). Left guard right now is a competition between highly-paid 2019 free agents Jamon Brown and James Carpenter and undrafted free agent Matt Gono. It does not speak well to the Falcons’ 2019 free agency that Gono seems to be the best player for the gig right now. A ton of cap space is tied up in Brown and Carpenter, and both were disappointing last season. It’d be awful if they were luxury depth on a team with definite holes on its roster.
3. Devonta Freeman had the least efficient season of his career in 2019. We in NY know what’s it like to see a star RB’s numbers tanked by bad OL play - did Freeman legitimately struggle, or were there simply not enough holes for him?
Freeman definitely didn’t have a ton of help from the blocking or Koetter’s scheme, but he also had some more injury struggles last season, if nothing as severe as his 2018 season.
He’s still a good running back for all account’s purposes. Last season, he would flash that elusive spark and dangerous vision that’s made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL (as of now). But the Falcons have an offensive coordinator who is not known for his run games, and the Falcons could use his cap space elsewhere and draft a younger, perhaps more durable running back in April.
None of us know where Freeman’s situation is right now, with the ongoing CBA negotiations holding up practically every team from making roster cuts. He could get a restructure, he could get cut, he could just stay where he is. Who’s to say?
But his 2019 struggles were a lot of things he couldn’t control. He’s also nearing 28, so it’s not unreasonable to wonder how much of his prime is left. In the right system, he’d probably have a nice resurgence if he can stay healthy (his concussion history is another point of concern). It’s just a matter of fit. That fit could be Atlanta, it could not. It’s a waiting game for his future in a few ways.
4. Atlanta’s defense got off to an atrocious start but found its footing over the 6-2 post-bye week stretch. What were the biggest differences that led to the defensive turnaround?
The team letting Raheem Morris have more of an involved role in the defense was huge. He and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich co-coordinating the defense was a saving grace, with head coach Dan Quinn struggling mightily to balance being the top guy on the sideline and a play caller.
Quinn is a very good head coach in a lot of ways, but he doesn’t perform well when he’s trying to do too much. He needs to be focused on the game and let his assistants handle a lot of the more delicate scheming play-to-play.
Everything got better under Morris: the pass rush, the run game, the coverage in the secondary, the linebacker play. Vic Beasley, soon to be elsewhere, saw his dormant pass rushing stats elevated, which is something some of us didn’t know would be possible in 2019.
Morris being named the defensive coordinator could prove to be one of the best moves for the team this offseason if they’re able to rebound. But the 6-2 record last fall was in part Morris’ to be thanked for.
5. It seemed Dan Quinn was playing out the final days of his tenure in Atlanta, but after the team played legitimately elite football in the second half, he won his job back. Do you agree with the decision to retain Quinn, and now that he has fended off the hot seat once, how high are expectations for him going into 2020?
Quinn has always been someone I’m fond of. Despite his flaws, he’s an excellent culture builder and defensive talent evaluator. His players seem to love him, and the team rebounding from a 1-7 start to a 6-2 finish is remarkable. He saved his job and bought himself and general manager Thomas Dimitroff another year to right the ship.
I agree with the decision, though you do worry the team will lean on that 6-2 record as a sign nothing really needs to change. This roster needs to be spruced up in a big way on the defensive line, will have to replace the departing Hooper and likely De’Vondre Campbell and still add out the roster’s depth. Cutting Freeman, or even Mack, would only make it a trickier balance.
My expectations for 2020 are this: I just want them back in the playoffs. Quinn is a marvelous postseason coach, with only the Super Bowl and the Eagles divisional round games as ones that he’s lost. Both of those games were incredibly close, too (yes, yes, I know how the Super Bowl went). I think if you can get him to January, he’s the coach you want to get you somewhere.
But the team has to get off to a hot start. Their slow starts have doomed them the last few seasons, so we’re all hoping Quinn has his guys ready. Losing games in September and October makes winning them in November and December less important.
I’m optimistic but cautious. The Falcons have to win March and April to win the fall, no bones about it. But they have the potential to get back to the postseason.
6. If you could add one offensive and one defensive player from any point in Jets history to the current iteration of the Falcons, who would you choose?
I’ll take in-his-prime Darrelle Revis, because why not?
Offensively? Broadway Joe’s the way to go.