As we all prepare for the very realistic scenario that the Falcons won’t make the playoffs this year, we’ve got to try and look at what’s wrong with this team as it stands.
Let’s try to spend a little time breaking down exactly what’s wrong with the Falcons, and if these problems are solvable by time and health or if they need to be addressed elsewhere.
Problem #1: There is no consistent pass rush from the edge
What’s Wrong: The Falcons aren’t able to generate consistent pressure with the guys they’ve got right now, with Vic Beasley turning in a largely underwhelming season in his fourth year, Takkarist McKinley going through a bit of a sophomore slump in the season’s second half after a hot start and guys like Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby largely quiet in that regard. Bruce Irvin has only played for three games and can’t be expected to do much right now.
Is it fixable now?: No. The Falcons will run with the guys they have right now until the season is over. They’ll have to hope the guys that are there can uptick their play, but this group is due an overhaul in the offseason.
Is it fixable later?: Potentially. McKinley is the only guy guaranteed to return at the edge position, and will have a bright future ahead of him, though he may be best suited as the complement to a true elite pass rusher, should the Falcons get one. The team can get that guy in the draft with what’s likely to be a top-10-15 pick. They can also add better rotational depth in the draft and in free agency. Beasley’s fifth-year option carries a $12 million cap hit, though it’d not be wise to keep that on the books considering what you’re paying for. Better odds say Beasley plays elsewhere in 2019. Reed is due about $5 million, so a decision will need to come there as well. Re-signing Irivn should be easy if that’s what they’d like to do. If they play their cards right, they could come back next season with a much better group of defensive ends, anchored by McKinley and a draft pick. But, of course, they’ll need to hit with the draft picks and FA signings they invest, which has been a mixed proposition.
Problem #2: Inconsistent play from the linebackers
What’s Wrong: The injury to All-Pro linebacker Deion Jones has rushed in young, unprepared players like Duke Riley and Foye Oluokun into the fold and has put the onus on De’Vondre Campbell to lead the unit the best he can. They, as they are, do not communicate as well, and are a liability against the run and against the pass when called upon.
Is it fixable now?: Hypothetically, yes. Jones is off IR and is eligible to play at any moment, but that’ll be up to the team to decide. Long-term, the bench for him right now might be best. Really, a lot of this will fix itself one Debo is back to his old self. Sliding Oluokun, who hasn’t been half bad in the middle, to the weakside once Jones returns might give this team a pretty formidable trio.
Is it fixable later?: For certain. Jones returning will cure a lot of this, and Oluokun has grown a lot in his playing time. The Falcons will be great at the position for 2019. Riley makes for excellent depth and has improved ever so slightly in his starting reps.
Problem #3: The secondary play has been less than stellar
What’s Wrong: With Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal both on IR, the team has taken a noticeable step back in secondary play. Desmond Trufant hasn’t quite been himself despite a recent surge in play, and Robert Alford and Brian Poole have struggled. The team’s strong safety play is quite shaky, though Damontae Kazee has impressed with his tackling and ball-hawking skills, as he leads the league in picks. The communication and cohesiveness of this unit with Allen and Neal has been missing.
Is it fixable now?: Not really. Allen and Neal won’t be back until next summer, and the communicative issues are dependent on them to fully improve. Trufant’s going to be fine in the long run and has proved that in recent weeks, though Alford and Poole’s status with the team is indeed in question. Rookie Isaiah Oliver has impressed with limited snaps and deserves more snaps, as does Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who has been inactive recently and has flashed with given a chance. Health will need to set in here for the safety play to improve, corners will ultimately lift with that position’s rising tide.
Is it fixable later?: Most certainly. Once Allen and Neal are back and ready, Kazee will become superb depth and could even slot in at the nickel corner spot or allow the team to run some nasty three-safety sets. Alford could be a candidate for trade or release, with Oliver ready to take over at his spot. But we’ll see there, with the overall defense’s messy communication and organization a strong excuse for everyone’s poor play. Poole’s a restricted free agent, but a sizeable tender feels unlikely. A third or fourth round pick at the position would make sense to bolster depth, as would a good journeyman FA addition.
Problem 4: The run game is suspect
What’s Wrong: With Devonta Freeman on IR, Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith have done their best to keep the run game afloat. Both have flashed, but neither quite has that special knack Freeman does for creating opportunities for himself in tight windows and general elusiveness. It hurts to lose elite talent at the position. The team’s rushing status has plummeted, even if red zone production for the spot actually isn’t half bad. A lot of that has had to do with the blocking up front, of course.
Is it fixable now?: Not really. The team will run with what they’ve got, though more snaps for Smith could give them a better idea of his non-red zone potential.
Is it fixable later?: Potentially. Freeman’s health has been a point of conversation over the last two seasons, but his contract guarantees he will lead the position in 2019. Perhaps a year off has allowed his body to heal and will give him a second wind. Coleman is a free agent, and it’s, really, hard to tell right now where that will go. Smith’s emergence should give the team confidence he’s ready for the second fiddle, but Coleman’s a homegrown guy. The team may want him to stick around. A healthy Freeman, a Smith with more snaps and maybe a late-round draft pick would be more than enough for the future should Coleman leave. A better fullback might also be in the plans, though the team could probably accomplish a lot more by just upgrading the line.
Problem 5: The offensive line isn’t where it should be
What’s Wrong: Outside of a stellar Jake Matthews and steady Alex Mack, the guard spots have been ravaged by injury and Ryan Schraeder has fallen off from his typically sound positioning at right tackle. Matt Ryan is under too much pressure and the interior blocking isn’t giving the run game the holes it needs to be successful.
Is it fixable now?: The team reportedly will mix and match on the offensive line from here on out to see what works, but that’s not likely to help much. Matthews and Mack give them anchors at the most important spots of the line, and Brandon Fusco should return to right guard once he’s healthy. Wes Schweitzer hasn’t been half bad at left guard, and Ben Garland has flashed at right guard. But neither feel like long-term fits, and Garland is a free agent heading into 2019. Schraeder might be a candidate for trade or release after the season is over.
Is it fixable later?: Perhaps. The offense’s general productivity in 2019 might make the team prioritize defensive trench investments with money and draft picks, but if they do indeed get a new right tackle, that’ll need to at least be a decently-paid FA or a second round draft pick. Andy Levitre probably won’t be back for 2019, though you shouldn’t count out the idea of the team trying to bring him back on the cheap. They could keep Schweitzer at left guard with Fusco at right guard, though we couldn’t tell you how they feel about the young guard’s play in 2018.
Coaching Udpate: Some will decry the team’s coaching decisions, but it’s only fair to do so in crunch time. Steve Sarkisian has had an overall strong 2018, and Marquand Manuel does not have much to work with here, if we’re being honest. Contrary to opinion, coaching cannot always cover up gaping holes. Dan Quinn will need to address some of the late-game situational issues that have hurt the team when it counts most, but there are a myriad of jobless coaches out there right now who could do just that. Having a situational specialist will do wonders for the team as the Quinn era looks to amend its grand flaw.
Conclusion: The Falcons will see a lot of their linebacker and secondary issues fall to the wayside once they get back their stars. The run game should also steady itself once Freeman is back and the line is upgraded, which we hope will be soon.
Those are big chunks of why the Falcons are out of the playoff hunt and should inspire confidence for the future. The trenches are less certain, though they’ll have the opportunity to rectify things. Fresh talent in the edge group and perhaps a change here and there on the OL in the spring could go a long way to returning Atlanta to contending in 2019.