Here’s a stat that helps me explain why I’m writing this story, as though you weren’t already nodding along with the idea that the Falcons had a putrid red zone offense at times in 2017:
- In 2017, the Falcons scored on 49.18% of their red zone trips, good for 23rd in the NFL
- In 2016, the Falcons scored on 64.56% of their red zone trips, good for 8th in the NFL
Considering the Falcons went from 2nd in the NFL in yards per game in 2016 to 11th in 2017, the drop in scoring is a very noteworthy accomplishment. The Falcons’ offense never figured to be as good as it was in their history-making second season under Kyle Shanahan, but they were quite nearly top 10 in yardage, and their scoring percentage inside the 20 fell by about 15% and 15 spots against the rest of the league. I don’t know if you noticed, but that was a problem.
So today, as we kick off a mini-series of sorts tackling some of the team’s biggest potential issues in 2018, this one made sense as a starting point. One relatively simple way to solve this issue, outside of Steve Sarkisian’s play calling improving? Improve the supporting cast for Matt Ryan and company.
Spruce up your weaponry
The Falcons didn’t get a ton out of Austin Hooper in the red zone in 2017, Taylor Gabriel was a bit of a non-factor, Levine Toilolo didn’t have any kind of visible rapport with Matt Ryan, and they occasionally lined Derrick Coleman (?) up as a receiver, most memorably against the Eagles. This is a long-winded way of saying that Steve Sarkisian did not make particularly effective use of his weapons in the red zone, and some of those weapons were hardly weapons at all.
That should change in 2018 for a couple of reasons. First, the Falcons have added Calvin Ridley to the offense, and while he’s unlikely to be a big scoring threat right off the bat, his speed and route running make him a dangerous enough weapon that he’ll demand coverage. The Falcons were a little hesitant to get Taylor Gabriel involved the way they should have in 2017, but I doubt they’ll have any qualms about using Ridley.
Another potential upgrade comes in the form of Eric Saubert, who certainly could be a legitimate red zone weapon given his size and speed, assuming he develops from a lump of tight end-shaped Play-Doh into something more Gronkish. Logan Paulsen is a fine blocker and will be heavily utilized in that role—which I hope will help with the team’s additional struggles in short yardage situations—but the team should really be trying to get Saubert some looks alongside Austin Hooper, who is due for a bit of a career year of his own.
Ridley and Saubert—and to a much lesser extent, interesting young receiving back Ito Smith—figure to be real contributors for this offense in the red zone. When you already have the likes of Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and a criminally underutilized Justin Hardy on the team, and a rushing attack with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that should benefit from Brandon Fusco at right guard, you have reasons for optimism.
You may be wary, even so, and you have every right to be after the team squandered talent in a deeply frustrating 2017 season. But the team has done a nice job of adding a little talent here and there, and there are players on this team who should legitimately be primed to take a step forward. Now we just have to wait and see what the team gets out of Steve Sarkisian when things start to tighten up inside the 20.