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Fixing The Falcons Is Not A Three Step Process, But What The Hell, We'll Try

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There's nothing easy about what lies ahead for Atlanta.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

None of us can help weighing in on what needs to be done to fix the Atlanta Falcons, especially in the wake of this week's ugly injury news. I'm no exception.

When we talk about fixing this team, we don't mean turning them into one of the NFL's elite teams overnight. There are real limitations to the defensive talent here, and injuries have sapped the Falcons of some of their offensive power. A fix would be defined as something that makes the Falcons competitive enough to win football games, particularly on the road, and keeps them in the playoff hunt right up until the bitter end despite the very real challenges facing the team. Right now, playing like the Falcons played last Sunday against the Vikings, they're not going to be there, but there's still plenty of time to make adjustments.

It's worth emphasizing that injuries might be the tipping point for this team, and if the offensive line struggles mightily without Hawley and Holmes, nothing I say here is going to change that fact. All the Falcons can do is try to mitigate their issues and injuries now, but there are at least three glaringly obvious moves to be made.

With that in mind, here's three steps to fixing the 2014 Atlanta Falcons, followed by an extensive note that explains why bigger fixes will have to wait.

  1. Keep the passing game healthy through quick hitters. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but with those offensive line injuries, Matt Ryan isn't going to have the luxury of sitting back in the pocket and picking his spots like he has at times this season. The ground game has been stronger than the last two seasons but isn't going to carry the team, so a lot will fall on the shoulders of Ryan and the receivers.

    The Falcons had some success on screens, quick outs and even the rare backfield swing pass at times this season, and while I don't want them to abandon the deep ball under any circumstances, the best way to ensure the offense keeps humming and keep Ryan out of danger is by utilizing the team's fast, strong weapons from Antone Smith to Devin Hester. It works so well against the Falcons that it has to work for them, right?
  2. Trust the secondary. This defense likes to work out of the nickel the majority of the time, which I understand and respect. The problem is that the nickel is not ideally suited to stopping the run, so the Falcons have attempted to address that by throwing multiple defensive tackle types on the line, which has stunted an already unproductive pass rush. The nickel packages this team is running have not done an especially good job at stopping the run or the pass thus far, with Minnesota simply being the most glaring example.

    What's the solution? Be willing to run more 4-3 and 3-4 looks up front and roll with four defensive backs. William Moore's absence hurts the defense in a big way, but the Falcons have some quality cornerbacks and Kemal Ishmael has shown flashes of promise. For all the lip service they gave about holding the run in check first and foremost to force opposing teams into unfavorable passing situations, the Falcons are really not delivering on that promise at all. Trust the secondary.
  3. Play your pass rushers and use them well. There's not a great pass rusher on this roster, which is a limiting factor. Again, though, we're not trying to create a great defense in the middle of the season. We're looking for competency.

    With that in mind, the Falcons need to get Stansly Maponga and Jonathan Massaquoi more than 26 combined snaps. They need to see what a raw Ra'Shede Hageman can offer. They need to get their inside linebackers, particularly Prince Shembo, more involved in the pass rush in order to try to juice what they have. Putting a defensive end in a situation where he has to drop back and cover a wide receiver instead of chasing the quarterback is, usually, a terrible use of said defensive end. Ditto a linebacker who actually has pass rushing chops.

    I'm not saying play Jonathan Massaquoi for 100% of the defensive snaps. I'm saying give him the opportunity to rush the passer and give him more than 15% of your snaps to do so.
What are we trying to accomplish here? We're trying to ameliorate the pass protection issues we're likely to see going forward, we're trying to overcome those matchups like the Giants game where the Falcons' top receivers will be matched up against talented cornerbacks, and we're attempting to take a putrid defense and make it look competent on a weekly basis. The last one's a hard sell, but there are tweaks that can drag the unit up from "arguably the second worst in the NFL" to "not completely lousy."

All of this together could, if all works well, improve the defense enough to prevent so-so offenses dropping 30-plus points. It could keep the offense alive in the face of injured linemen and give guys like Julio Jones, Hester and Antone chances to break the big plays they're known for. It's a bandage for a team that needs organ transplants, but I'm reasonably confident doing these three things will keep the Falcons competitive.

To find a true fix for this team's problems, we have to look ahead to next year. The only way to truly better this defense to somewhere north of mediocre is to acquire more talent, develop existing talent further and potentially re-tool the coaching staff and front office to ensure those goals are met. I knew going into this year that the pass rush was going to be weak, but the depths of the defensive ineptitude have come as a bit of a shock. I still don't think this is representative of what the Falcons can do, but it's likely representative of where the Falcons are going to sit for much of this season. Short of adding talent and the kind of development that typically doesn't happen all at once within a season, this just isn't a quality unit, and with some of the injuries the Falcons are dealing with, it's going to take some pretty Herculean efforts to make a playoff push this year. And, of course, the injuries are worrisome at best, and there's nothing to be done about them until 2015 except hope young guys step up in the absences of Willy Mo, Joe Hawley and others.

While I'm still sitting on my 9-7 prediction for now—go down with your ship, it's more admirable that way—I've made some measure of peace with the idea that this Falcons team may flounder in 2014. If that's what it takes to get tangible improvement from the squad, so be it. For now, we'll hope this team surprises us all, makes a few key adjustments and makes this article look foolish in short order.

What say you?