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Season Preview: Super Bowl aspirations will ultimately be decided by Steve Sarkisian’s progression

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As the Falcons are being touted as one of the NFC’s top favorites, there are still lingering questions about Steve Sarkisian heading into a pivotal season.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Quinn has instilled several new beliefs during his time in Atlanta. To build off his “fast and physical” motto from 2015, he built a defense that personifies what was being regularly preached. In establishing a “brotherhood” during the 2016 season, the fiery head coach focused (and still focuses) on selecting high-character prospects ensures alongside GM Thomas Dimitroff that contract issues are promptly resolved. Although there weren’t any notable catchphrases from last season, Quinn’s influence became truly evident. The Falcons are one of the most efficient and well-organized teams in the league, and in recent years, one of the best.

Despite enduring multiple major setbacks during the season, they battled through adversity and made the playoffs. Managing to win ten games wasn’t enough for the young, yet already battle-tested squad. They ended up soundly defeating the NFL darling Rams in Los Angeles on the road. It was a statement win that reminded critics about the loads of talent across their roster. For the first time since Michael Vick’s electrifying performance on a frigid winter night in Green Bay back in 2003, the Falcons won a playoff game on the road.

One of the NFL’s more frustrating franchises has been stabilized under Quinn’s vision. Everyone is fully behind most of his management and personnel decisions. The one caveat in Quinn’s tenure at the moment consists of his choice to replace Kyle Shanahan.

Moving on to Sarkisian

It was always going to be a tall order for Steve Sarkisian to devise an offense reminiscent of Shanahan’s brilliance. With every key player returning and only one change on the offensive line, there was still plenty of reason to have high expectations following 2016’s historical season.

The positive outlook eventually wore off by October. From not scoring in the second half and blowing a 17-point lead against Miami to only scoring seven points in the Super Bowl rematch against (statistically at the time) the worst defense in the league, Sarkisian quickly became the most despised man in Atlanta. Underwhelming results against the best teams overshadowed a few positive three-game stretches. None were more significant than the Falcons’ inability to gain nine yards in four plays against Philadelphia to finish their season on a major down note.

There is simply too much talent to only average 21 points per game. Not averaging between 24 to 27 points a game should be viewed as unacceptable for a team of this caliber. Adding Calvin Ridley and Brandon Fusco should provide instant solutions to the few problem areas within the offense last season. It’s now on Sarkisian to get it right for the Falcons to outlast the NFC’s jam packed crowd of championship-caliber teams.

Lack of consistency and identity

What makes the Falcons’ offense enormous decline startling was how it didn’t transpire from the beginning. They started out the season with three wins, which included two 30-point games against Green Bay and Detroit. Devonta Freeman was heavily featured, touching the ball more than 20 times in both games. With Freeman at the forefront of their running game and combining various play action designs to give Ryan more high-percentage throws, Sarkisian looked comfortable calling the shots. That quickly changed when October came around.

Losing three out of four games to teams in the AFC East is never a good sign, especially when failing to reach the 20-point mark in all of those defeats. Injuries to Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Ryan Schraeder certainly affected them. Not having both starting wide receivers at full strength and right tackle for a period of time will disrupt your rhythm. What it shouldn’t affect is other playmakers from producing, as they began to be sorely misused. Freeman didn’t receive more than 12 carries for two months following the loss to Buffalo. Tevin Coleman was rarely being used in a creative manner as a receiver. The same applies to Taylor Gabriel, who was primarily reduced to bubble screens and jet sweeps. All of the magic created from 2016 quickly vanished.

It became apparent that Sarkisian didn’t have a clear vision. Attempting to take fragments from Shanahan’s philosophy and adding his own nuances wasn’t materializing into a reliable system. Even during their successful playoff push, the Falcons failed to score more than 24 points in any of their last five games. A garbage time touchdown pass to Coleman on Christmas Eve in New Orleans saved the offense from being held without a touchdown in two crucial games against the Saints and Vikings.

There is always going to be an adjustment period for a new coordinator. For the Falcons to not build on the momentum from November and find new ways to underwhelm in December (and eventually in January) was the most alarming part of Sarkisian’s first season in Atlanta. When you thought the embattled offensive coordinator turned the corner, he quickly reverted back to his baffling simplistic play calls. Instead of devising a game plan to exploit the opposing defense’s main weaknesses, he normally focused on getting playmakers involved with quick-passes and relying on predictable stretch runs. Most productive offenses thrive off being aggressive and unpredictable using a variety of play action and misdirection plays. When the Falcons’ offense managed to click during multiple three-game stretches, Sarkisian showed those qualities.

Glimpses of hope

For all of Sarkisian’s coaching transgressions, he did have some wonderful moments in 2017. As previously mentioned, Sarkisian’s reliance on Freeman was crucial in winning the first three games of the season. Putting the ball in the hands of one of the NFL’s most crafty multidimensional weapons is usually a wise decision. It was the commitment towards using Freeman on the ground and in the air that made the offense so effective. Although things unraveled in October and Freeman suffered his second concussion in four months shortly afterwards, Sarkisian managed to cope without the star running back.

A massive three-game winning streak in November showcased what the former USC head coach is capable of. After scoring 27 points in a statement win over Dallas, the Falcons scored 34 points in beating Seattle and Tampa Bay. Each performance showcased something different within Sarkisian’s approach. He started targeting an opposing defense’s biggest flaw and leaning on star players. Using play action numerous times against a Sean Lee less Dallas’ defense was a brilliant move on his part. Although it wasn’t quite on the level of what Adrian Clayborn did to Chaz Green, the constant usage of play action helped them abuse an inexperienced group of linebackers and safeties.

In what was arguably the Falcons’ most impressive regular season performance, Sarkisian designed more inventive quick-passing plays to help Ryan cope with Seattle’s relentless pressure. It was an astute decision to counter Seattle, who was struggling to adjust without Richard Sherman. When a big play was needed, Sarkisian dug up one of Shanahan’s signature plays. The classic tight end throwback worked to perfection for Ryan in finding a wide-open Levine Toilolo for a 25-yard-touchdown. Those kind of well timed, misdirection plays were sorely lacking during the Falcons’ sluggish offensive showings. Sarkisian used it to exploit an overwhelmed secondary, which transferred over to the following week against Tampa Bay. The only real difference was getting Jones the ball as much as possible to capitalize on Mike Smith’s soft zone coverage alignments. That ruthless game plan also included the most efficient quarterback in NFL history throwing a touchdown to his partner in crime from the wildcat.

Sarkisian’s finest bit of work came at an opportune time. After losing unsung hero Andy Levitre for the season, it left the Falcons light on the interior line. The timing couldn’t have been worse heading into a playoff game against the most feared defensive tackle in the league. To survive Aaron Donald’s rampage, Sarkisian implemented a more fast-paced game plan with quick passes and stretch runs. What made the strategy eventually successful was the utilization of more no-huddle to wear down Los Angeles’ ultra-aggressive front seven. The quicker pace proved to be extremely beneficial. They finished the Rams off with a well-executed screen to Mohamed Sanu for 52 yards and a clever fake end around to get Jones enough space to score in the red zone.

Sarkisian outclassed Wade Phillips in a playoff game. Who could have ever imagined typing that?

Pressure on Sark

It seems rather fitting the Falcons start the season where it all ended eight months ago. The discussion circulated around Sarkisian’s questionable decisions following their loss to Philadelphia. How can someone call a designed shovel pass for Terron Ward in that situation? What is the thought process behind splitting Derrick Coleman out wide with the season on the line? Those were the main questions being asked following a mind-boggling four play sequence.

Sarkisian has another opportunity to make his case as the Falcons’ long-term play caller. Quinn remains confident that he can make the necessary adjustments to restore what should be one of the most feared offensive attacks in the league. Achieving that will mean improving in the red zone, where the Falcons finished 23rd in conversion rate last season. Designing plays to give Austin Hooper better opportunities would certainly help them. There is no reason why the exciting young talent shouldn’t be scoring at least five to seven touchdowns a season.

Reuniting with Ridley provides some comfort in an offense lacking a true explosive threat opposite Jones. How Sarkisian utilizes him in different formations will be fascinating to watch on a weekly basis. The same can be said for Tevin Coleman, which the Falcons will look to get the most out of in what likely will be his final season with the team. Sarkisian must look to get him more on the outside or in the slot. Big plays are bound to happen when Coleman lines up there.

There are some concerns on the Falcons’ roster. Replacing Clayborn and Dontari Poe could be more difficult than Quinn anticipated. The offensive line’s interior starters aren’t necessarily a sure thing. Levitre is coming off a season-ending injury at 32 years old; while Fusco is known for having issues in pass protection. Both lines have a tendency of getting outplayed in big games. Despite those issues, the majority of concern will be placed on Sarkisian. He has a long way to go in following the footsteps of Ryan’s previous coordinators in Mike Mularkey, Dirk Koetter, and Shanahan.

A much-improved second season will save him from being the first offensive coordinator fired during Ryan’s career, and could make him potentially the first Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator in Falcons’ history.