As the Los Angeles Rams get ready for the wild card round of the playoffs against the Atlanta Falcons, I got in touch with good friend Dave Choate over at the Falcoholic, the SB Nation community for Atlanta Falcons fans, to see just who the 2017 Atlanta Falcons are and if they’ve moved on from 3-28.
So yes, the Rams are in the playoffs and this is totally normal and act like you’ve been there, act like you’ve been there...Ok, my first question. What is a football game thing but good about your team that is not bad but I hope may be? Sorry, let me try again. I’m just not used to doing this. Is your team like a full team with all of the positions or are there some that your coach, who is definitely human as I have learned from much research, decided were not necessary after last year? My apologies. Let’s start over.
Once you got over last season (if that’s possible), I’m sure you guys looked at the roster and the road through 2017 and beyond and identified a couples things that had to take place to rebound and get back to the Super Bowl and win it. What were those things and have they taken place this year?
I think the #1 thing we realized was that the offense was not going to be as good as it was in 2016 again. I don’t think we saw a nearly 200 point decrease in points scored coming, but we knew regression of some kind was in the offing. So I think pretty much every Falcons fan looked at the defense, which got ripped to shreds late in the Super Bowl and was only an average unit through much of 2016, and felt they’d have to rebound and attain greater heights for this team to contend. At the end of the day, that was the thing that was going to be a major difference maker for the Falcons.
That mostly happened. Atlanta was again a mediocre run defense throughout much of the year, managed very few turnovers, and let teams roll up long drives against them on a weekly basis. Down the stretch when it mattered a great deal, though, the defense was stellar, holding the Panthers, Vikings, and Saints (twice) in check and keeping games close. With the offense scuffling and not scoring at a good clip, that was the difference maker, and I’m hoping the defense can be even better in the postseason.
To answer your original questions, team good, full of players, positions also good, coach bald.
Last year, you guys were an offensive juggernaut. This year, while still good, there was an obvious drop off. Was it as simple as the impact of your offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan taking the head coaching gig with the San Francisco 49ers? I know in this piece you talked about how the offense is set up to thrive moving forward, but what about the here and now?
I really think it was two factors at play: The Falcons had all their good fortune in 2016 come boomeranging around on them, and Kyle Shanahan left. Atlanta simply didn’t deal with the comical butt interceptions, poorly juggled passes that turned into interceptions, loads of boneheaded penalties, and goal line fumbles a year ago, and those mistakes have conservatively cost the Falcons a couple of games and at least a handful of scores this year. Take those out of the picture and you’ve got an offense that’s still impressive, instead of fiercely regressing.
That said, does Shanahan’s departure matter? A lot. He was excellent at creating mismatches and open looks for playmakers, and Steve Sarkisian has shown very little aptitude for that. Taylor Gabriel has gone from a legitimate weapon to the target of a couple of unproductive screen passes per game, Tevin Coleman has ceased to be a major weapon in the passing game, and even Julio Jones has faded into irrelevance in the red zone. These are not accidents, but the result of a coordinator change.
What might make you guys an even more interesting outfit this year is the defense. How much better is it and why?
I think it’s a bit better. Their secondary, their improvement in both scoring and yardage from a year ago, and their obvious talent make them seem like they should be even better than they are. Until the last four or five games, when the unit really caught fire, you could still run all over them, and still put together a couple of drives a game that would chew up a huge number of minutes and yardage. They’ve been improving steadily there of late, but this still isn’t an elite defense just yet.
Still, you sense they can put together a truly dominant effort at any moment. The Falcons overwhelmed the Panthers with quality pressure, several nice plays on Cam Newton darts, and the kind of unrelenting pursuit to the football that makes it difficult for teams without elite backs to run effectively. If they can duplicate that kind of energy and productivity in the playoffs, they’ll be very dangerous.
If you were playing offense against the Falcons, where would you attack yall’s defense? How would you defend the offense? What are the weak points?
If you’re going after the Falcons defense, there aren’t a lot of weak spots to exploit, but you should absolutely get players in motion to try to create mismatches. Todd Gurley may be able to bully the likes of Deion Jones, Vic Beasley, and Duke Riley a bit if he can wind up working against them, Sammy Watkins will certainly be able to take on Brian Poole if you can create that matchup, and so forth. Otherwise, it just takes very good play to get by the Falcons. For Gurley, it’s a simple matter of not running at Grady Jarrett, one of the best run-stopping defensive tackles in the NFL, and bulling through contact. This is still not a great run defense.
Going after this Falcons offense starts with stifling the run, because if you can get Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman bottled up, you force this offense into an uncomfortable sort of single dimensionality. The Falcons have the personnel to pass all day long but have rarely looked good doing so for an entire game, and they’ve shown themselves to be comically bad at scoring consistently in the red zone when they need to throw. If you can keep a reasonable handle on Julio Jones, you’re halfway to winning this game.
In terms of the big picture, would anything less than another appearance in the Super Bowl feel like a letdown? Is there a sense that last year was the year where it all fell into place and this year is a build-up year, or is it still full speed ahead?
I think if the season had gone a bit more smoothly, the bulk of fans would feel that way, and in some ways falling short of a Super Bowl would be a disappointment. It would confirm, to some extent, that these Falcons aren’t a historically great team.
Because of all the trials and tribulations to this point, though, I think the fanbase doesn’t necessarily expect another Super Bowl run, and thus a win or two in the playoffs might actually qualify as a pleasant surprise. Certainly a deep playoff run would be more than I would have expected back in November, and thus would be an encouraging sign for the future.
And the future is still full speed ahead. This team should be able to keep the core of its talent together for at least another season, and with that talent in place and Steve Sarkisian settling into a second season (his second ever as an NFL coordinator), I think it’ll be reasonable to expect improvement. Especially against a third place schedule that looks a hell of a lot easier than they one the Falcons faced in 2017.
Thanks to my man DC for the time.