By Jordan Kendall, Asst. Sports Editor
Last season was a disappointing one for the Atlanta Falcons. Two years removed from a Super Bowl berth, the Falcons took a step back in 2018 finishing 7-9 after two consecutive seasons with ten or more wins. This year should be different, and here is why Atlanta could be a team to watch for in 2019.
Deadly Aerial Attack
The Falcons offense has arguably one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Last season, they combined for nearly 2,500 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns. Jones recorded 1,000 yards for the fifth consecutive season.
Jones didn’t score a touchdown until week nine, However, Jones has never been much of a scoring threat only reaching ten touchdowns once. Jones may not be the scoring threat other receivers such as Deandre Hopkins or Odell Beckham Jr. are, but he’s as consistent as they come and will easily be a Hall of Famer.
Ridley is entering his second year as a pro and had a solid rookie season with 821 yards and 10 touchdowns. Ridley is the ideal number two receiver and looks to continue to contribute in 2019.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth,” said quarterback Matt Ryan in an interview with Falcons reporter Kelsey Conway. “I think he’s worked really hard on getting stronger with his hands. He’s always had good hands but in this league, there are so many contested catches and he’s worked really hard on being stronger through the catch. You can see it.”
Atlanta still has Ryan, who continues to play at a high level. He has thrown for over 4,000 yards every year since 2011. Six of the last seven years he’s thrown for over 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns in two of the last three seasons.
Perhaps most importantly, Ryan takes care of the ball, only throwing seven interceptions in two of the last three years. Last season, Ryan ranked third in the NFL in both passing yards and touchdowns. He is in his prime and playing as well as he ever has.
It’s hard to find a team more affected by injuries last season than the Falcons, especially on defense. Four members of their defense ended up on injured reserve, including their starting middle linebacker Deion Jones.
As if it couldn’t get worse, this offseason safety J.J. Wilcox injured his knee and is out for 2019.
While dealing with all of these injuries devastating Atlanta’s defense, the Falcons finished No. 28 in total defense. Atlanta lost four of the first five games in 2018 and dropped five straight games in the middle of last season.
While they have struggled in recent years, the Falcons have some pieces to improve as a unit in 2019. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett had a better season than the stats suggest. Jarrett had 52 tackles and six sacks, however, Pro Football Focus graded him in the top 20 among all players heading into 2019.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jarrett “took his career to the next level this season, bringing his overall grade from 83.6 to 91.0, tying him for the fifth-highest grade at his position. His pass-rush grade of 86.7 was good for the fifth-highest league-wide, and his 9.6 pass-rush productivity was seventh-best. On the season, he produced 36 hurries, 11 hits, and six sacks.”
Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell recorded more than 90 tackles each of the past two seasons, and the secondary also has some pieces to work with. Safety Keanu Neal missed 15 games last season, however, he recorded over 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant had 66 tackles and didn’t record an interception, yet PFF graded him in the top ten for deep ball coverage. Trufant only allowed two completions of 20 or more yards, something few cornerbacks can accomplish in a season.
The key for the defense is to stay healthy, if they can they should be good enough to return to the playoffs.
Atlanta has pieces on both sides of the ball to contend, but needs to stay healthy in order to return to the playoffs. It’s unlikely they will win the NFC South since the New Orleans Saints are more talented overall. They will have to battle for a wild card berth, and their competition is going to be difficult this season.
Teams such as the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, and Dallas Cowboys will all challenge the Falcons for a playoff spot. If they can bring back their 2016 magic, it won’t be surprising to see them return to the playoffs and potentially make some noise.