The world is sleeping on the Atlanta Falcons. They have been quietly getting better this offseason. They could be a dark horse candidate to make a playoff push this year.
If you’re a believer in momentum then you’ll love this team. Through the first eight games last year, it fell to 1-7. But it went on a 6-2 tear in the final eight to finish 7-9. This was not an easy stretch either. The Falcons played all of their division games in those last eight games. The split with the Saints and the Buccaneers and swept the Panthers. And they beat the 49ers who eventually went on to the Super Bowl. Going 6-2 in that stretch is not easy and shows how good this team can be in 2020.
Last year the offense ranked 5th overall. The Falcons relied heavily on their third-ranked passing game, while only having the 30th ranked rushing attack. Last year, Devonta Freeman led the team in rushing yards, pulling together a 656 yard season. It’s not like Freeman wasn’t getting the ball. In 14 games, he attempted to run the ball 184 times. That’s 23rd-best amongst running backs.
Clearly the Falcons wanted to run the ball but weren’t getting the production. They decided to release Freeman who was certified cheeks; his last productive year was all the way back in 2016 when he rushed for over 1,000 yards. They brought in a better overall back in Todd Gurley.
Gurley had a down year in 2019, only rushing for 857 yards. Some of this can be attributed to the Rams’ horrible offensive line. Last year, PFF ranked them as the 31st worst line, while the Falcons came in at 24th. The Falcons line can improve as they‘ve dealt with injuries throughout the year. A top-20 line is reasonable. Given the fact that Gurley has an improved line and his usage will stay the same, his floor should be around 800 yards and a ceiling of over 1,000 yards.
The run game’s improvement lets Matt Ryan throw less. Atlanta attempted the most throws in 2019. A more balanced offensive attack would keep the defense on its toes.
Gurley will also be big in the pass game. He was not utilized nearly enough last year, only getting targeted 49 times and losing about 30 targets from the previous year. He should see 20 more targets. After all, Freeman was targeted 70 times last season and isn’t known as a pass catching back.
The Faclons lost Austin Hooper to the Browns this offseason. However they countered this by trading for Baltimore’s Hayden Hurst. Hurst, who was a former 1st round pick back in 2018, hasn’t been able to show what he can do just yet. He only played 12 games in his first year in the league, and recorded 163 yards after 23 targets. He was rarely used for a first round pick. Last year, he saw a slight uptick in usage, playing in 16 games and racking up 349 yards on 39 targets. He was the second tight end and the Ravens used Mark Andrews, who had 98 targets.
Hurst should see more targets coming his way as most of Austin Hooper’s 97 targets should go to him. You don’t trade a second round pick on a TE not to use him. While he probably won’t be targeted 97 times, Hurst could see anywhere from 60-70 targets. Opposing defenses will focus on Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley heavily, opening Hurst up.
The Falcons defense was not all that good last year; they had the 20th ranked defense. The team saw this weakness and attended to it in the offseason. It signed Dante Fowler to replace Vic Beasley. Beasley looked like a solid piece when he had 15.5 sacks back in 2016, but hasn’t been able to get over 8 sacks the past three years. They seemed to get better when they added Fowler, who in 2019 had 11.5 sacks and 58 total tackles. That’s a huge improvement over the production they got last year from Beasley (8 sacks and 42 total tackles).
Atlanta also attacked the defense through the draft. Four of the six players drafted were on the defensive side. The Falcons used their first pick on Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell, who becomes the best corner on the team. They then came back in the second round and selected Auburn defensive tackle Marlon Davidson to solidify the D-line. These moves should help the 20th-ranked defense improve. If they can improve slightly, they can easily make a playoff push. The Chiefs proved that you don’t need a top-10 defense to be successful ust last year. They won the Super Bowl with the 17th-best defense and the 6th-best offense.
Now I’m not saying the Falcons are going to win a Super Bowl this year, but I can see them making the postseason and winning a few games after the NFL expanded the playoffs to seven teams per conference. If you don’t believe that they can make the playoffs, let me entice you with this: Vegas currently has the Falcons win total set at 7.5. If I were you ,I totally would bet the over as they only need to improve one game from the previous year. They got better as a team and one game improvement would not be difficult. If I’m totally wrong I expect to be on Freezing Cold Takes.
BANNER: Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper attends the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Salute to Service game, Atlanta, Georgia, Nov. 24, 2019. PHOTO CREDIT:Lisa Ferdinando// U.S. Secretary of Defense