We had the opportunity to ask Football Outsiders guru Robert Weintraub about the Atlanta Falcons, and we took full advantage. Here’s five questions, five answers on the season ahead.
Dave Choate: With new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, and returning all the major players, what changes do you expect from Matt Ryan and company?
Robert Weintraub: A lot more AA chips in meeting rooms? Beyond the well-known troubles with the stiff stuff, Sarkisian will not want to rock the boat of an offense that was so spectacular last year, but every coordinator brings his own style. There will be less of a pure zone blocking attack, and more no-huddle and aggressive downfield throws under Sark. His USC offenses were catered to simple packages and fast pace, in order to take advantage of his usual talent mismatches. Those won’t be so pronounced in the NFL, and calling plays at this level is definitely a learning experience. Kyle Shanahan’s brilliant season was a combination of scheme, execution, and timing of calls that will be hard to approach. But until defenses show they can stop the Falcons offense with consistency, Atlanta will stick with what works.
Dave Choate: Atlanta’s young defense came on after the bye, but what are the realistic expectations from guys like Deion Jones and Keanu Neal in Year 2?
Robert Weintraub: Both certainly have room to grow, and they will need to keep taking steps in order to keep the Falcons out of shootouts. The good news is both have starkly defined roles in Dan Quinn’s scheme, so it’s not like they have much more to learn; consistency is the goal now. Neal’s reputation for hard hits and borderline dirty play is already established, so as long as he stays away from personal fouls (and concussions) he should be fine. Jones has more responsibilities and more aspects of his game to improve -- having better linebackers alongside will help.
Dave Choate: Will Austin Hooper have the breakout season that people are expecting?
Robert Weintraub: Our projection expects Hooper to double his yards and TD total, while a dip in efficiency by dint of many more targets is inevitable. "Breakout" is a loaded word -- in a sense he already broke out. But if you are asking if he will turn into a Gronk-esque difference maker, then no.
Hoop was highly effective due to the scheme and the bevy of weapons around him last season. Does that mean he will become a Tony Gonzalez-like safety blanket for Matt Ryan? Unlikely that he's anywhere near that good, but he certainly has the tools to be an effective piece, especially in the red zone. Personally, it's hard for me to hear the name "Hooper" and not think of Richard Dreyfuss in "Jaws." If the first thing I think of becomes the Falcons tight end, then mission accomplished.
Dave Choate: How much of a difference will it make for Atlanta to plug in a new starter at right guard after the retirement of Chris Chester?
Robert Weintraub: It will be an adjustment, of course, but so long as the other four starters stay as healthy as last season, the drop-off shouldn't be that pronounced. Depth is definitely a concern, however.
Dave Choate: Was Vic Beasley’s league-leading sack total a fluke, or will he be able to keep it up?
Robert Weintraub: Beasley had an unreal ratio of sacks vs. the number of times he was actually around the quarterback. His 15.5 sacks led the NFL, but his total pressure numbers (sacks plus hits and hurries) were not close to the elite pass-rushers in the league, or even the semi-elite. For example, Beasley's 58.5 total didn't approach Kahlil Mack's 81, or even Brandon Graham's 77. The most likely happenstance in 2017 is for his sack total to go down, resulting in a "fall off season," but his overall pressure numbers to increase, especially if Takk McKinley can provide anything beyond noisy drama on the other side of the pass rush. Atlanta would certainly take that.