In Week 14, the Los Angeles Rams will take on the Atlanta Falcons. It’s bound to be a futile exercise, but the Falcons will try to stop the best 4-8 team in the country! We’re the best!
So to answer some positively (get it) illuminating info on the sure-to-be losing team (Go Rams!), I spoke to Dave Choate from the Falcoholic, the SB Nation community for Atlanta Falcons fans.
Last year, yall's offense finished 21st in points and 7th in yards. This year, it's up to 1st and 3rd, respectively. What's behind the overwhelming improvement?
It's a combination of factors, truthfully. As much as I'd love to tell you that Matt Ryan did nothing but eat celery and venison all offseason to gain the lean strength he needed to excel, the truth is that he's just more comfortable in this scheme, and he's always had the talent to be this good.
One huge, significant improvement has come in the form of reinforcements for the offense. Alex Mack is a massive upgrade at center and a key cog in one of the league's better offensive lines, Tevin Coleman has been vastly improved as a runner and pass catcher this year, and Taylor Gabriel has gone from a Cleveland waiver wire pickup (still can't get over that) to one of the most explosive players in the NFL. Ryan simply has better options and better protection this year, and that makes a huge difference.
Then there's Kyle Shanahan, who has the horses to run the offense he wants to run now, and has generally done an excellent job of putting his players in a position to succeed. The improvement has come from a lot of areas, but together it has turned the Falcons from solid to a juggernaut in just a single year. It's wonderful.
On the other side, it's a bit of the opposite, now 29th in points and 27th in yards. How much of this is on the quality of the defense and how much is the quantity they have to defend with the offense being so prolific?
The defense gets plenty of work, and there's a lot of young talent here, so I don't want to sound too dour about what's happening. At the same time, I spent several weeks trumpeting the defense's improvement, and they're not really moving forward any longer.
There are just some significant holes here, and some rookies with huge roles who are still learning the ropes. Defensive tackle is a weak position outside of Grady Jarrett, who has been a borderline stud in the middle of the defense, and the Falcons have Vic Beasley, Dwight Freeney, and Adrian Clayborn (who is hurt) as three legitimate pass rushers, with everybody else not offering a whole hell of a lot. Throw in young linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell learning on the job, and an injury to Desmond Trufant thinning out the secondary, and you have a recipe for some very weak efforts.
Still, Beasley, Jones, Campbell, and rookie safety Keanu Neal all look like potential studs, so this defense is moving in the right direction. They need to fill in their weaknesses and count on growth.
Matt Ryan is 31-years old and having, pretty much unquestionably, his best season of his career. Under contract through the 2018 season, when do the Falcons need to begin grooming a successor?
I think there's a good chance Ryan winds up being a Falcon for life, but I am also a big believe that you should always try to have a young quarterback around to coach up in case you need him. The Falcons aren't going to go shopping for a high round backup/potential replacement any time soon with Ryan enjoying a year like he's having in 2016, but I do think expecting them to spend a fourth-seventh round pick on a quarterback they like in the next year or two is both reasonable and likely. Not even the greats last forever, after all.
How is the rookie class shaping up? If you had to assess your draft needs looking toward the 2017 NFL Draft, what sticks out thus far?
I love this draft class. Keanu Neal, as mentioned, looks like a potential Pro Bowler for years to come, while Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell have given this defense a much needed shot of athleticism and physicality, even if they'd had their struggles. Rookie tight end Austin Hooper has looked very good as a pass catcher early, and even sixth round guard Wes Schweitzer has enough promise to fight for a starting job this coming season. I'm very excited to see what they do in the coming years.
For 2017, it's a pretty easy call. The Falcons have to add another pass rusher, desperately need a strong defensive tackle, and could use young talent at linebacker, safety, and guard, at the very least. Chuck in that potential backup quarterback and you've got yourself most of a class. I'd put defensive tackle and pass rusher (or a defensive tackle who can rush the passer) at the very top of the list.
Dan Quinn is in just his second year as head coach. Kyle Shanahan is a coveted option as a potential head coach for several teams looking at making a potential change next offseason. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are beasting. Were the two losses in October by a combined five points different let alone last Sunday (let us ignore it, yes?), you guys could be looking at setting up shop for the postseason instead of needing a couple more results to lock it up. What is the current level of expectations from the fan base? Is the relative optimism that likely exists now tempered by preseason expectations whatever those were, or have 12 games of Falcons football erased the preconceived notions you guys had in the preseason when you were making win-loss predictions?
This is Falcons football, so I'd say people are less optimistic than you'd anticipate. The collapse is always lurking around the next corner, you know.
With Julio Jones banged up, Desmond Trufant and Adrian Clayborn gone, and the Falcons dropped two of their last three games, there's some nerves going here. The schedule is easier over the last four games than it has been the rest of the year, and the team has a leg up on the Buccaneers right now in a tiebreaker scenario, so if they can play even semi-competent defense and keep the offense humming, they're in. I'm a believe that they'll manage to finish 10-6, which should be good enough.
I guess you just never know, but I had 8-8 in the preseason, so this already feels like a pretty good year.
Thanks to Dave for the time to fill in the fans of the greatest sports franchise on Planet Earth, the Los Angeles Rams!