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Atlanta's Offense Is Ready to Rock, But Will the Defense Be Able To Do Its Part?

With an improved line, an emerging wideout in Calvin Ridley and the savvy Matt Ryan at QB, Atlanta's offense could be excellent. But how the team answers questions on defense will determine how far the Falcons can go.

The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he examines the Atlanta Falcons, who finished 7–9 and tied for second in the NFC South last year.

Matt Ryan’s arm strength becomes a storyline. The decline began to show last season, as several of Ryan’s downfield passes lost zip toward the end. This doesn’t mean the 34-year-old can’t still excel. Ryan is a master executor who fully understands a play design’s intent and nuances.

Calvin Ridley tops 1,000 yards. Atlanta’s 2018 first-round pick benefits from playing opposite Julio Jones, the game’s best all-around wideout, but Ridley is a top-shelf weapon himself. He has great vertical speed and deft quickness, and he is sharp at throttling down, a trait shared by elite separators such as Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks. 

Rookie linemen boost the ground game. To rectify their offense’s greatest weakness, the Falcons spent their two first round picks this spring on Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom and Washington tackle Kaleb McGary (who will miss the early parts of the season after undergoing a heart procedure early in training camp). Add these rookies to a line which includes athletic left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack, who may be declining but is still quick and savvy, and Atlanta has the personnel to run its foundational outside-zone ground game. That approach suits a quick, decisive runner such as Devonta Freeman.

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Takk McKinley becomes the defense’s most important player. Last year injuries to linebacker Deion Jones (foot) and safeties Keanu Neal (knee) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) ravaged the middle of this D and exposed the Falcons’ long-inconsistent four-man rush. That rush remains critical this year given the many questions facing the secondary: How effective will the starting safeties be coming off their injuries? Can 2018 second-rounder Isaiah Oliver hold up at No. 2 corner? Who handles the all-important slot duties—converted up-and-down safety Damontae Kazee or speedy fourth-round rookie Kendall Sheffield? The Falcons really need the pass rush to deliver, and while they have explosive DT Grady Jarrett and speedy fifth-year end Vic Beasley, McKinley, with his combination of speed and power, must be the headliner.

The defensive scheme keeps expanding. After incorporating more man coverage into his Seahawks-style Cover 3 zone the past few years, Dan Quinn adds more blitzes from both man and zone looks. This provides a fifth rusher while creating matchup coverage scenarios downfield, and it is an effective counter to the Cover-3-beating play designs in which offenses are growing proficient. 

BOTTOM LINE: Atlanta could have a top-five offense—and might need one to compensate for their shortcomings and D.

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