The road to redemption is finally here for the Atlanta Falcons. After answering repetitive questions about the Super Bowl and losing Kyle Shanahan, they will take the field on Sunday. Instead of facing a high-profile opponent, Dan Quinn’s team receives a favorable matchup in the Chicago Bears, albeit on the road. This is an excellent opportunity for them to start the season on a high note. Not many teams need a strong start more than the Falcons.
Although Chicago doesn’t present too many problems on paper, they have some talent in the trenches. Reconstructing their offensive line and continuing to add pieces on the defensive line has made them more competitive than your standard rebuilding team. The Falcons will counter with an offensive line that knows it can play better and a retooled defensive line filled with new additions and players returning from season ending injuries. It should prove to be the most captivating matchup in a potential one-sided game. The post-Shanahan era starts today, along with a budding offensive weapon finding his niche.
Containing Jordan Howard
How well the Falcons stop the run is going to be intriguing this season. As the offense destroyed countless opponents, the front seven wasn’t challenged as often as most defenses. Other teams were forced to abandon the run based on facing double-digit deficits. They needed to score quickly to either keep pace or attempt to stay competitive. The front seven won’t have the luxury of going against one-dimensional offenses as much as they did last season.
It turned out to be a huge relief for Quinn’s defense, as they were one of the lightest units in the league. Not having a true nose tackle affected them to a certain extent. Philadelphia bullied them in an eye-opening loss, which proved to be a turning point for the entire team. Adding a disruptive, space eater like Dontari Poe could prove to be the perfect solution. To obtain an exciting talent and pair him with Grady Jarrett will be massive for them against teams looking to implement a ball-control style game plan.
Chicago’s limited offense will rely on Howard. They have an excellent interior line led by Josh Sitton, Kyle Long, and Cody Whitehair. Long may be sidelined with an ankle injury, but that won’t change their motives. Leaning on the centerpiece of their offense is required to remain competitive against the best teams. Howard is one of the most powerful runners in the league. Atlanta’s front seven can’t allow him to get to the second level. There has been plenty of buzz about their defensive line. Overwhelming a solid offensive line and limiting one of the better running backs in the league would be very encouraging for the defense’s progression.
Offensive line takes charge
For all of their success at creating running lanes, the Falcons’ offensive line was wildly inconsistent last season. They did face several ferocious front fours such as Seattle, Denver, Arizona, and Kansas City. Allowing 37 sacks is still a high amount for a talented offensive line. Chris Chester was responsible for seven of them, according to Pro Football Focus. Although the recently retired guard was useful in the running game, he was frequently overpowered in pass protection. It shouldn’t take much for Wes Schweitzer to be an upgrade as a pass blocker.
The offensive line does have other faults. Jake Matthews failed to take the next step in his development. His tendency to get overpowered became problematic, particularly on straight bull rushes. Matthews is heading into a crucial stage of his career. Barring something dramatic, he will get financially rewarded next year. His job security shouldn’t be questioned, as dependable left tackles are so valuable. The uncertainty involves his overall ability. Can Matthews evolve from being a steady player to join the upper echelon of left tackles? He will need to cut down on holding penalties, along with faring better against power rushers.
Chicago’s front four is one of the more underappreciated units in the league. Leonard Floyd appears to be on the verge of stardom. Pernell McPhee is a force when healthy. He may not play on Sunday, due to recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Willie Young is a capable edge rusher, while Eddie Goldman can cause some havoc as well. The offensive line will be tested against a versatile unit. They can’t allow defenses to batter Matt Ryan with twists and blitzes, as they did against the Seahawks and Chargers during a two-game skid.
New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will have far bigger tests in the coming months. It would still be careless not to feature him, considering the magnitude of his role. Replacing Shanahan is going to be difficult. Contrary to popular belief across diehard Falcons fandom, Shanahan is one of the best play callers in the league. He helped transform a floundering offense into a historically unstoppable attack. To outperform an offensive mastermind and duplicate those numbers is practically impossible.
Sarkisian will need to find other ways to keep the offense flowing. Besides using some elements of Shanahan’s philosophy, it will be interesting to see how creative the former University of Washington head coach is on a professional level. He couldn’t ask for a more dynamic group of playmakers. A nucleus of Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Taylor Gabriel, and Mohamed Sanu offers endless possibilities. There should be plenty of big play opportunities against Chicago’s below average secondary.
If Sarkisian can make one immediate positive impression, it starts with red zone efficiency. One of the main issues during Shanahan’s tenure was the erratic red zone conversion rate. They managed to overcome some questionable play calling by finishing eighth in that category. Heavily featuring Coleman, and not designing ways to get Jones more involved caused them to go one for seven in the red zone to start the season. Let’s not forget about Ryan’s red zone turnover woes in 2015. Sarkisian has openly talked about finding ways to get the ball in Jones’ hands, despite dealing with constant double coverage. Whether that means utilizing more screens or lining him up next to another bigger receiver in Sanu, Jones can’t be targeted only nine times in the red zone for an entire season. The best wide receiver in the league needs to play a bigger part in some capacity. Besides Sarkisian crafting some coverage-busting plays, other players must step up and command respect. This is where another promising player emerges.
Time to shine for Austin Hooper
The second-year tight end is expected to take a more prominent role this season. After initially impressing as a run blocker, Hooper looked more comfortable as a pass catcher during Atlanta’s six game winning streak. It benefited him that Ryan showed the utmost confidence in his ability to win in traffic. That was evident in the second quarter of the Super Bowl. They nearly connected for a touchdown, where Ryan threw up a jump ball targeting him. He didn’t locate the ball well enough for Hooper to snag the pass over Patrick Chung.
Neither of them were fazed by the incompletion. On the very next play, Ryan couldn’t have thrown a better pass down the seam to Hooper for a beautiful touchdown. It was a special moment based on Ryan’s willingness to go right back to the rookie tight end and not look elsewhere. They continued to build their rapport by working together in Los Angeles for three days during the off-season.
Hooper adds another element to a stacked offense. Not only does he handle run blocking responsibilities. It can be argued that he is already an asset in the running game. That allows him to stay on the field in all situations. How he progresses as a route runner will be pivotal. Hooper struggled to create separation at times last season. His footwork was a bit underwhelming for a player of his caliber. By watching extensive tape of Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz, it appears that he recognized those deficiencies. Hooper’s desire to be great is evident. It’s time for him to put it all together and become a dependable option.