As we look toward the 2016 season, there are a lot of questions facing the NFC South. Over the next few weeks, my esteemed colleagues -- Sander Phillipse of Bucs Nation, J.R. Ella from Canal Street Chronicles, and Brian Beversluis of Cat Scratch Reader -- join me to dissect these topics and establish some expectations for the division this season.
To kick things off, let's talk about the Atlanta Falcons, a team that is coming off of three consecutive seasons of not living up to expectations. I asked Sander, J.R. and Brian what the Falcons need to do to get back to a point of being competitive enough to win the division -- a division that produced the NFC representative in Super Bowl 50.
Sander Phillipse, Bucs Nation
The Falcons need to improve their defense, at every single position. It's really not much more complicated than that. We know Julio Jones and Matt Ryan are good enough to put up points and win games, as long as the defense keeps up their end of the deal. Sure, a more consistent running game and an extra receiving weapon in Mohamed Sanu will help, but the offense should be good enough as is.That is: if Kyle Shanahan's offense isn't fundamentally broken in a non-obvious way, which I sometimes think may be the case. The talented they added along the line should help there, though.
However, the defense needs major work. The Falcons know that, and they spent most of the offseason addressing it, but the question is whether it was enough. None of the other former Pete Carroll assistants have turned their defenses into quality units (looking at you, Gus Bradley), so why would Dan Quinn be any better? One reason could be better personnel, and the Falcons have certainly worked to improve their team on that front. Another reason: this team sure did win a lot early last season. If Atlanta can sustain that for a full season, they'll comfortably win the division.
Brian Beversluis, Cat Scratch Reader
I believe that success in a quarterback driven division like the NFC South comes from the defense. Each team is going to have some success scoring simply because they field a franchise quarterback and have surrounded them with weapons, it's a given that they will score points throughout the season, so defensively the teams with the better defenses will typically do better, even if their offense as a whole isn't necessarily on the same level as their opponent. You build your defense to defeat your main competitors, namely your division rivals. And I think the big one that will get Atlanta over the hump is the pass rush.
They did a good job adding pieces this offseason. Guys like Courtney Upshaw, De'Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones, and others show a marked focus on improving the front seven. As you've likely seen, the Panthers have won the NFC South with a strong defensive line that keeps their speedy linebackers free of blocks, which allows them to run all over the field and make plays in space.
Now, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are very unique talents that you can't always replicate. That said, even when AJ Klein, a promising but perennial backup, and Shaq Thompson, a rookie who didn't have a set position prior to the draft, had to step in they still made tons of plays. And that comes from a strong defensive line, which really thrived because of the strong interior presence of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. You can do a lot about strong outside rushers, but when you have push from the inside, it not only ruins protection schemes but I can also destroy the run. If the Falcons can find that interior presence, whether it be from defensive tackles or stout linebackers, it will mess up offensive game plans and allow some of their new talent to truly thrive. If they can improve that, whether it be from the play of guys they already had or new faces, it will cause problems for even the most efficient offenses.
J.R. Ella, Canal Street Chronicles
Despite the fact that they won only two of their last nine games, we tend to forget that the Atlanta Falcons finished with a respectable 8-8 record last season, this is following a 4-12 and a 6-10 year. And before you think that the Falcons early wins were only a product of an easy schedule, during their five-game winning streak to open the 2015 season, Atlanta beat eventual playoffs teams like the Houston Texans, the Washington Redskins and a good New York Giants squad.
However, the Falcons were doomed by uncharacteristically poor play from Matt Ryan. in 2015, the Falcons' quarterback recorded a QB rating of 89.0, which ranked 20th in the NFL. A big factor in this low rating is the fact that Ryan threw 16 interceptions (tied for third-most in the NFL last season) and each pick seemed to happen at the worst possible moment and with the worst possible outcome for the Falcons. While being counted on and paid like a top 5 quarterback, Ryan clearly had quite the underwhelming season in 2015. And before you are tempted to put a big part of the blame on the Falcons' offensive line, Ryan was sacked 32 times last season, which ranked 15th in the league, pretty much right at the league's average.
The main thing that has to improve next season for Atlanta to get back to being competitive in the NFC South is the play of the face of the franchise. Displaying better synergy with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan couldn't hurt either. Although the Falcons' defense got quite a bit better from 2014 to 2015 (32nd to 22nd in defensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders), in 2016 the dirty birds will only go as far as Matt Ryan takes them.
Jeanna Thomas, The Falcoholic
The key thing the Falcons are going to have to do in a division where they have to face off with tough defenses like the Panthers and Bucs twice each season is adequately protect Matt Ryan. Offensive line play has been middling to poor over the past few seasons, and it has dramatically impacted the team's ability to win games.
The other thing that's been a factor offensively is the team's tendency to fall apart in the red zone. There's really no excuse for how poorly the Falcons have performed in the red zone recently, and that's something they absolutely have to turn around this season.
But the bigger issue is, and has been for some time, the defense. The Falcons have to be able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and they have to stop giving up big plays. There's a lot of room for improvement with this Falcons team, and fans are certainly hoping to see that this season.