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Falcons Betting Preview: If Red-Zone Offense Improves, Atlanta Can Emerge From Loaded NFC

Atlanta’s offense stumbled quite a bit with Steve Sarkisian running the show due to poor red-zone success. If the Falcons can boost their production inside the opponent's 20, watch out NFC.

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Falcons 2018 win total: 9.5 (+105 over, -125 under)

Falcons 2017 record: 10-6

Key offseason additions: G Brandon Fusco, CB Justin Bethel, TE Logan Paulsen

Key offseason losses: DT Dontari Poe, DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Taylor Gabriel, TE Levine Toilolo, DT Courtney Upshaw

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Five things to keep in mind before betting the Falcons’ win total

1. After reaching historic heights with Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator in 2016, Atlanta’s offense stumbled quite a bit with Steve Sarkisian running the show. The Falcons still finished third in the NFL in yards per play and yards per drive, but they went from scoring 33.8 points per game (led the league) to 22.1 PPG (15th). The reason? The offense’s nemesis last season was the red zone. Atlanta made it to the end zone on 64.6% of its trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in 2016, and that number fell all the way to 49.2% in Sark’s first year as OC.

The most confounding part of Atlanta’s performance in the red zone was the lack of throws in Julio Jones’s direction in the beginning of the season. Jones was targeted twice in the red zone in the team’s first five games. Then on a foggy Sunday night affair in Foxborough in October, everything changed. The wideout already had two RZ targets with 14:36 left in the game and the Falcons down 20-0 to the Patriots. But then Sark unveiled an otherworldly awful play call on fourth-and-goal at the 1—a jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel that lost five yards.

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That play seemingly acted as a turning point for Atlanta’s red-zone offense for the remainder of the regular season. On the ensuing drive vs. the Patriots, Jones got two RZ targets, including a one-yard touchdown catch. After the New England loss, Jones was targeted 13 times in the red zone over the Falcons’ final 10 games, and the Falcons went 7-3 over that span after a 3-3 start—though that issue reared its ugly head at the most inopportune time, as the Falcons failed to reach paydirt on first-and-goal from the Eagles’ 9-yard line when trailing 15-10 with 1:19 left in the NFC Divisional Round.  

2. It’ll be tough to do for most people who watched Atlanta’s offense last season compared to 2016’s behemoth, but I’m going to give Sark the benefit of the doubt since it was his first season with the team. Yes, his play calls can sometimes be perplexing to say the least, but going from game-planning a college football offense to one in the pros is an adjustment. He also had limited time to get familiar with a new set of personnel. Even in Shanahan’s first year with the Falcons, they ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency.

There’s no excuse this year, though, for Sark not to build a top-flight unit with a full arsenal of weapons and a punishing offensive line at his disposal. The Falcons even added arguably the top collegiate wideout in Alabama product Calvin Ridley with their first-round pick. One staple in Shanahan’s offense that would behoove Sark to dial up more often: throwing to tailbacks Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, especially on early downs.

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3. The biggest question mark outside of Sark will be the defensive line. Losing Dontari Poe’s interior presence and Adrian Clayborn’s ability to rush the passer (although six of his career-high 9.5 sacks came in one game vs. the Cowboys) is a blow. But the Falcons are equipped with young talent to address the potential issue at hand. Vic Beasley will be back as a full-time edge rusher—the same place he lined up in 2016 when he finished with a league-leading 15.5 sacks—after rotating between multiple positions last season. On the opposite side, Takk McKinley showed immense promise as a rookie after accumulating six quarterback takedowns of his own. Grady Jarrett is an emerging star on the inside. Free-agent acquisition Terrell McClain will add experience to the line, while Atlanta will also break third-round rookie DT Deadrin Senat into the fold.

If this young group can live up to its potential and cause havoc in the trenches, this defense will be one of the NFL’s best.

4. Wait… the Falcons defense can actually be elite? Yes, simply because the linebacking corps and secondary are already littered with impact guys. Deion Jones has already established himself as the anchor of this unit and as one of the top linebackers in the game (Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 4 LB last season). Fellow third-year bruiser De’Vondre Campbell has shown he is capable of covering some of the league’s most explosive tight ends. Desmond Trufant and Keanu Neal headline one of the NFL’s deepest secondaries, which also added Colorado cover man Isaiah Oliver in the second round of this past draft. Head coach Dan Quinn helped architect a frightening defense when he was the Seahawks defensive coordinator, and now he’s building another monster in Atlanta.

5. Unfortunately for the Falcons, there are several other strong teams in the NFC, including two in their own division. Yet they have fewer weaknesses across the roster than the Saints and Panthers do, and get the added benefit of facing a third-place schedule in the NFC. Atlanta will be favored in six of its eight games against the AFC North and NFC East—with road battles against the Steelers and Eagles as the exception (though a Week 1 revenge game in Philadelphia with Carson Wentz coming off a severe ACL injury is a ripe opportunity for an upset). The Saints having to deal with the Vikings and Rams on their 2018 slate after winning the NFC South last season could end up making a big difference in who takes home the division crown this campaign.

PICK: OVER 9.5 Wins