Make no mistake, ladies and gents.
Atlanta losing Keanu Neal and Deion Jones within a week’s time to the no man’s land of injured reserve stings like a horde of killer bees. But it should not sink Atlanta’s season.
Looking at these injuries up close, it’s nasty. Neal will miss all of 2018 with an ACL tear, something he can bounce back from personally but something the team can’t do a whole lot about. He was an enforcer in coverage and in run support, a figure with no parallel on the roster.
Neal’s absence changes the way the team will defend the ground game and in how they’ll cover tight ends. Thankfully, De’Vondre Campbell can take care of those pesky TEs, while Ricardo Allen will likely slide over to play Neal’s spot. Damontae Kazee will play free safety, a vision that some of you have been dreaming of for some time. Allen’s a good run defender and sure tackler and can contribute in coverage. ‘Twas not meant to be for Keke this year, and you can’t completely recover for what he brought to the table.
But you could survive it and still win games.
Jones’ injury is a much different story.
The loss of Deion Jones
He’s the field general and the communicator of that front seven and an elite player. Besides Allen, he’s the reason the defense sticks together. He was getting better against the run and was already a nightmare in coverage. He could change games with his knack for big plays. Like Neal, this is not a player you replace.
Plus, the plan to replace him is not nearly as comforting. Duke Riley will more than likely slide over to play the middle while Foye Oluokun will jump in at the weakside. Campbell reportedly will also man that spot, but we can’t imagine he’d go there permanently iwth his duties on the strongside also needing his presence. Neither player really has proven much to grant a boatload of confidence, though Riley looks to be improving and Oluokun has impressed in camp and preseason. There be uncharted waters for this unit ahead until Jones can perhaps get back in mid-November once his time on IR is up.
That hope of an Atlanta behemoth on defense will have to wait while everyone heals up. There is still a lot of talent here, but it look like more of a solid defense without Deion and Keanu out there. Much better than those wet noodle defenses from 2015 and 2016, but not quite as intimidating as what the team fielded last season, either.
Atlanta should pull through this...emphasis on should
Look at the rest of the roster.
On paper, the Falcons still have one of the league’s best offense, and the defense still has guys like Grady Jarrett, Desmond Trufant, Allen, Robert Alford, Kazee, Takkarist McKinley, Vic Beasley and Deadrin Senat. There’s still talent in them hills.
Now, it’s up to the coaching to fill in the gaps.
The best teams can survive injuries, even to some of their best players. Heck, the Eagles won a Super Bowl without its starting QB, middle linebacker and left tackle. The Patriots made the Super Bowl last year without MLB Dont’a Hightower post-October. The Broncos went to the Super Bowl in 2013 without Von Miller healthy.
Good teams have found ways to overcome the losses of star players since the dawn of football. If, Freddie Falcon forbid, Matt Ryan or Julio Jones went down, I’d tell you to get your affairs in order for 2018. Deion and Keanu, well, those guys are sure important, but only Keanu is out permanently. You not only can survive these losses, you should be able to.
The Falcons were never as good as we all hoped they were if they can’t figure out a way to at least survive these injuries. They should still be a really good football team with a great offense and good defense that can beat anyone in the NFL. If they’re not, that’s not because two guys are missing, though it’s a real factor.
It’s because the coaching isn’t covering the cracks, as it does with all the best football teams. Steve Sarkisian should be able to field a top-10 offense with that roster. Dan Quinn and Marquand Manuel should still be able to field a top-15/20 defense with this talent. Sure, the expectations for the latter dwindle without two of its top players, but it shouldn’t fall back into shambles, particularly with Jones back hopefully sooner than later.
The Falcons can’t always have it easy when it comes to injuries. They have to grind it out when the going gets tough and guys to down. Maybe these losses will make them tougher. Maybe these losses will expose more of a fair-weather Falconry than any of us hoped to see. Maybe they are up to this. Maybe they never were.
If anything, losing Debo and Keke will reveal the truth about this Falcons team.
Getting through this proves they really are (and were) one of the best football teams in the league. Floundering at the loss of two non-quarterback players proves that they were always a Philly end zone away from being where they want to be.