At first Dan Quinn made it look too easy. The former Seattle defensive coordinator stepped straight from a Super Bowl defense to a 5–0 start as a rookie head coach. Every move made to fix the floundering Falcons worked — until nothing could go right.
The 2015 Falcons caught up with their problems in the back end of the season, becoming the seventh team since the merger to miss the playoffs after starting 5–0. As strong as Atlanta looked out of the gate, no one was immune down the stretch. Even three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan melted with a series of late-game turnovers.
Year 2 for Quinn is in some ways a reverse of the problem he was hired to fix for the franchise: Continue to improve a steadily rebuilding defense, and fix a crisis on offense. Whatever broke the formerly unflappable Ryan has to be addressed if Atlanta wants to find the playoffs.
Quinn is now more involved in the draft process, and there are bright spots — namely, Devonta Freeman and Julio Jones — but the Falcons have to build around their stars, something they’ve never succeeded at doing in the Thomas Dimitroff era. There’s no better example of “feast or famine” than 5–0 giving way to 3–8.
As a former defensive coordinator, Quinn was hired to overhaul a terrible Falcons defense. His choice for offensive coordinator may have temporarily broken the offense, though.
Kyle Shanahan overhauled Atlanta’s offensive line, installed the same zone-blocking system his father made famous in Denver, and the Falcons discovered their best rushing attack in years, led by Freeman (1,056 yards rushing, 11 TDs).
Everything clicked in September, but Ryan’s decision-making and late-game play dipped well below expectations. Ryan had four interceptions during the 5–0 start and 12 during the 3–8 finish. Atlanta lost five games by four points or fewer, and three of them — New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Indianapolis — ended in Ryan interceptions.
Critics point to Ryan’s lack of comfort in the new system, but killer turnovers came when he forced passes into coverage. This is the hottest debate among Falcons fans: Was Ryan’s 2015 a result of unfamiliarity with plays, a shaky offensive line or just a lot of bad decisions?
Jones is one of the league’s top playmakers and unquestionably Ryan’s top target, but then what? Depth is sketchy: Atlanta let Harry Douglas leave in 2015, and the Leonard Hankerson experiment was a bust. Future Falcons Ring of Honor inductee Roddy White clashed with Shanahan over targets, and the coordinator won a nasty locker room feud. White was cut, and in a thin market for receivers, free agent Mohamed Sanu was signed to a noticeably large $32.5 million deal for a clear-cut No. 2 receiver. Second-year wideout Justin Hardy will have to contribute after struggling in his rookie season. When healthy, Devin Hester has been a solid option in the slot but isn’t a reliable every-down receiver. Tight end Jacob Tamme has reinvigorated his career in Atlanta, thanks in part to Jones drawing the attention of defenses.
Free agent center Alex Mack might be the important signing of the offseason. He’ll bring instant stability to a position and unit that stumbled in transitioning to the zone concept. Atlanta’s front office has failed this position group the most, but Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder could emerge as one of the best tackle tandems in the league. Ryan has been sacked at least 30 times each of the last three years.
Freeman can be a true primary back if healthy, but he’ll need to be able to share carries with Tevin Coleman, who struggled with ball control in his rookie season. Coleman is a burner with breakaway ability but fumbled away big gains in three of Atlanta’s close losses. Whether it’s Coleman or someone else, the coaches need to trust a second option to preserve Freeman’s health: The Falcons averaged 129 rushing yards per game in their 6–1 start and 83 in the 2–5 collapse after their Nov. 15 bye. The wear of a full season is harder than ever on running backs.
Quinn’s overhaul of the Falcons defense didn’t yield much in Year 1: Atlanta managed only 19 sacks in 2015, dead last in the league. First-round pick Vic Beasley played with nagging injuries surrounded by temporary solutions who wore down or busted outright. That’s earned Beasley “bust” status among some media, but Falcons coaches are publicly excited about moving him around in different fronts to maximize his pass-rush ability.
Years of bad free-agent signings and scheme changes that preceded the current coaching staff have produced a “superstar-or-scrub” look to this defense, but if there’s a single point of focus, it’s most certainly the pass rush. Atlanta signed end Derrick Shelby in free agency, but he is valued more his for his ability to set the edge and work the run game. Legacy Falcon Grady Jarrett, son of famous Falcon Jessie Tuggle, will enter 2016 camp as the starting nose tackle after a surprising rookie year. Adrian Clayborn was re-signed to mirror Beasley at defensive end on passing downs, and Ra’Shede Hageman has shown flashes of brilliance at tackle — when he’s not fighting his coaches.
It’s easier to see improvement on the line, if only because the linebacking corps is still a mess. Justin Durant was a bust signing, and if Brooks Reed can’t overcome a groin injury and hold down the outside backer slot, he’ll likely be gone after this season. Courtney Upshaw was brought in to provide support against the run, and Atlanta drafted two speedy linebackers — LSU’s Deion Jones and Minnesota’s De’Vondre Campbell — to build depth and the athleticism a Quinn defense needs up the middle.
Desmond Trufant is secretly one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, a secret likely to stay that way because of the lack of complementary pieces around him. The corner allowed a completion percentage below 60 percent for the third consecutive year, according to Pro Football Focus. Jalen Collins will sit for four games for a PED violation, meaning depth behind Robert Alford is scary thin. Atlanta used a first-round pick on Florida safety Keanu Neal to replace released veteran William Moore.
After a Pro Bowl season in 2014, the 33-year-old Hester enters 2016 on a one-year, $3 million deal, and Atlanta’s pick of UCLA receiver Devin Fuller could be the end of Hester’s Falcons career if he can’t show he’s fully recovered from a turf toe injury.
Matt Bryant is a legend, but the 41-year-old is coming off his worst season in years. Atlanta signed Texas kicker Nick Rose to compete in camp. Punter Matt Bosher is among the league’s best, averaging over a 40-yard net in each of the last four seasons.
Atlanta might have the largest distance between its floor and ceiling in the NFL. Quinn’s overhaul of the defense should create at least a marginal improvement in the pass rush. And if Ryan returns to form under Shanahan, the Falcons’ offense could carry them to a Wild Card berth. But if the defense can’t generate pressure, and Ryan can’t jell with his new offensive coordinator, Atlanta could win fewer than four games.