Matt Ryan is playing at an MVP level, but injuries on both sides of the ball have been the storyline of the Falcons' disappointing first half
The Atlanta Falcons are quickly coming up on the halfway point of their 2018 season. The team currently sits with a 3-4 record overall, but the good news is they're 2-1 in the NFC South. With an upcoming game against the Washington Redskins on Sunday, we decided to review how the Falcons' have fared so far.
There's been a lot of ups and downs, but there's some hope for the future with the emergence of several young players.
Coming into the season, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian was firmly on the hot seat after a rough debut in 2017. Despite the abundance of talent that had returned, the offense, including quarterback Matt Ryan, struggled to find any consistency. The result of that deficiency was a drop from the second-ranked offense in 2016 to No. 8 in '17.
This year has been a different story, however. The offense has improved its yards per game by 36.2, going from 364.8 yards in 2017 to 401 thus far. Sarkisian is finally starting to settle in as a play-caller, and the passing game now has another dynamic weapon for Ryan to go to.
Former Alabama standout Calvin Ridley has teamed up with Julio Jones, another former member of the Crimson Tide, to give the Falcons one of the top receiving duos in the league. In seven games, the two have combined for 80 receptions for 1,204 yards and six touchdowns. Granted, all six of those touchdowns have come from the rookie, but Jones is still having one of his best statistical seasons of his career otherwise.
The improvement in the passing game isn’t limited to just the Alabama boys, either. Mohamed Sanu (24 receptions, 324 yards, three touchdowns) has remained a steady contributor, and tight end Austin Hooper is on pace to shatter his season highs in receptions, yardage and touchdowns. That’s gone a long way in helping Ryan
As good as Atlanta’s passing attack has been, it’s been the other side of that offensive equation that’s caused the most problems. Devonta Freeman played in just two games (14 rushes, 68 yards) before foot and groin injuries landed him on injured reserve. He may not be able to return this season.
Losing the 26-year-old running back was a major blow to the offense. Freeman had racked up 4,357 total yards (3,000 rushing, 1,357 receiving) and 35 touchdowns in his three previous seasons.
To make matters worse, Tevin Coleman hasn’t exactly been stellar in Freeman’s absence. After putting up 4.3 yards per carry during his first three seasons, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound rusher has struggled to replicate that success now that he’s the lead guy. His 310 rushing yards on 82 carries only averages out to 3.8 yards per attempt.
Coleman’s stats aren’t the only thing that points to regression, however. He’s graded out as the No. 75 running back this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Furthermore, his 47.2 run grade is among the worst in the NFL. Drafting Southern Miss running back Ito Smith is proving to be a worthy investment.
The last piece of the puzzle is the offensive line, which has dealt with multiple season-ending injuries. First, it was the loss of starting left guard Andy Levitre (triceps) last month. More recently, right guard Brandon Fusco was put on IR due to a broken right ankle.
Those losses have created some issues with the continuity of the group. The Falcons did sign former 49ers guard Zane Beadles, but we still haven’t had a chance to see him in action. Either way, Alex Mack and Jake Matthews are the only offensive linemen making a positive impact at their position.
Overall, Atlanta features one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL when the passing game is clicking. The fact that the Falcons are third in passing yards per game and No. 30 in rushing yards presents an accurate representation of where this offense is at, which is in the middle of the pack.
It’s tough to give an accurate grade on this unit. The injuries that have occurred on the defensive side of the football are substantial.
Cornerstone players such as linebacker Deion Jones (foot) and safeties Keanu Neal (knee) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) have missed a majority of the season. On top of that, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, an emerging star on the defense, was forced to miss time this season due to an ankle injury.
The result of these injuries has been a defense that ranks in the bottom three in the NFL in both yards (419.4) and points (30.3) allowed per game. There was hope that the defense would take the next step under defensive-minded head coach Dan Quinn, but that’s simply hasn’t happened.
Sure, a lot of that can be attributed to the players lost to injury, but we can’t completely take the blame off Quinn and company. Former top-10 draft pick Vic Beasley hasn’t developed in the way that coaches, management and fans had hoped. According to PFF, Beasley’s 42.3 overall grade is ranked dead last (No. 104) among edge rushers who have played enough snaps earn a ranking.
Fellow first-round pick Takkarist McKinley has been somewhat better (5.5 sacks in six games), but he’s struggled at times as a run defender. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also been the abysmal play from safety Jordan Richards, who was brought over from New England earlier in the season.
There are a few things that could be considered good news, however.
The first bit of good news is that Jones, who is considered one of the best off-ball linebackers in the league, could still return from that foot injury in the coming weeks. The other is that two young players (rookie defensive tackle Deadrin Senat and second-year safety Damontae Kazee) have shown that they could be long-term options at their respective position.
Kazee has been particularly impressive. The San Diego State product is small (5-11, 174) in stature, but he plays a lot more physical than that size would indicate. In six starts, he’s racked up 38 tackles, three interceptions and one forced fumble while proving to be an impact player against the run and pass. His 69.5 run grade tops all other defensive backs on the roster.
Overall, it’s tough to ignore how poor the defense has played. Sure, there are clear reasons as to why it’s happened, but it doesn’t change the results. It was taken into consideration, however.
Atlanta fans should be excited for next season. First off, the Falcons will be able to get a lot of their key members back on both sides of the football. In addition, several rookies such as Ridley, Senat, Smith and Foyesade Oluokun have all made an impact in their first season with the team.
Second-round pick Isaiah Oliver has only played 89 snaps this season, but he should see his first career start against the Cardinals if Robert Alford is held out.
Either way, things are looking up. It’s just not going to be this season.
Final grade: C+
— Written by Clint Lamb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ClintRLamb.