It’s week 3 of the NFL preseason, and both the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins are winless through the first preseason games. Dave Choate of The Falcoholic has graciously agreed to answer our questions about the Falcons before the game.
1. The Falcons have had one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL the last few years, but fired their OC Steve Sarkisian at the end of last season, hiring Dirk Koetter to replace him. What do Falcons fans think about this change and in what ways are you expecting the new offense to be different than the old?
I think the average Falcon fan is, at best, mildly excited. Steve Sarkisian earned a lot of heat during his time in Atlanta, some of it very justified, for the way a seemingly elite group of talent struggled to make a dent in the scoreboard against quality defenses. It doomed them against the Eagles (twice!) and it wound up killing them against Minnesota and Dallas last year, even if the defense lost them many more games.
Practically speaking, the upgrade from Steve Sarkisian to Dirk Koetter is an iffy one. Koetter comes with a commitment to balancing the offense, but his track record with running backs post-Jacksonville suggests that may come with some hiccups. The fundamentals of the offense aren’t likely to change a lot--Austin Hooper may get some more looks for a new OC who loves tight ends, deep speed for guys like Julio Jones and Russell Gage may be even more relevant--but Koetter is not going to re-invent the wheel here at all. If you take Koetter at his word this offense is going to try to be as unpredictable as possible--which would be a welcome change after it seemed like every second down of consequence was a telegraphed run under Sarkisian--but the biggest change of consequence would seem to be a deep passing attack, and Matt Ryan was already #2 in the NFL in 40+ yard passing attempts in 2018. I don’t think anyone’s going to be shocked at how different the offense is.
It’s hard to avoid coming to the conclusion that the firing of Sarkisian was a little bit political. I don’t think he was a brilliant coordinator, but the offense did pretty well with him at the helm, and Matt Ryan has entered the stage of his career where he has an outsized voice in how this thing is run in the first place. If Ryan is thrilled to have Koetter, his coordinator from 2012-2014, back on board then it probably makes all the difference inside the building, even if nothing radically changes.
2. The Falcons devoted a lot of resources towards building their offensive line this offseason, both in FA and the draft. How have the results of this change been evident so far in practice and preseason games and how big of a deal do you think it will be for the offense as a whole?
It hasn’t been evident at all in preseason, to be blunt. During practice rookie first rounder Chris Lindstrom has largely held his own and looked strong and quick for a rookie, but in game action he’s had a few rookie hiccups. The rest of the line has been shakier, especially against the pressure-happy Jets last week, when Matt Ryan was battered behind his presumable Week 1 starting line. That’s not a good look.
It’s not going to be that bad in the regular season, thankfully. Alex Mack at center and Jake Matthews at left tackle are two rock solid players, and Lindstrom looks like he’ll be a stud sooner than later at right guard. With James Carpenter and Jamon Brown competing at left guard the Falcons should at least be decent there, and rookie Kaleb McGary was looking strong before a heart procedure cost him the rest of preseason and likely the early part of the season. At worst, this line should be a bit better than a year ago.
That would be a big deal for the offense, which couldn’t block effectively for Ito Smith and Tevin Coleman for a good chunk of the season a year ago, and certainly let Matt Ryan take his fair share of hits that he didn’t need to take. For all the money (and two first round draft picks!) the Falcons sank into the line, though, it definitely needs to show genuine improvement or there are going to be restless fans and analysts sooner than later. They need McGary healthy to really showcase whether their investments were sound, but this offense is very good already and even a modest improvement should mean a big year.
3. In addition to firing their OC, the Falcons fired their special teams coordinator and hired former Redskins ST coordinator Ben Kotwica (whom many fans miss dearly). Have you noticed a difference in special teams play and has Kotwica distinguished himself in any way so far?
Aside from some great quotes when he was mic’ed up, Kotwica hasn’t stood out just yet. A lot of that is because this special teams unit is in flux and the Falcons try to be vanilla even on teams in preseason, but I liked the hire and expect we’ll see more when the season starts.
The Falcons have had stability on this side of the ball for a long time, so it figures to be a bit of a shakeup. Keith Armstrong had been the special teams coordinator for over a decade, Matt Bryant had been kicking in Atlanta since 2009, and Matt Bosher has been the punter since 2011. Breaking in a new kicker in Giorgio Tavecchio and trying to replace an endless chain of disappointing veteran returners with a young guy posing an interesting challenge for Kotwica, but one he seems up for. I’m cautiously optimistic that this team will wind up carrying interesting young players like linebacker Jermaine Grace who have a knack for contributing on special teams and didn’t get a fair shake in years past.
4. How do Falcons fans feel about their offseason so far? What FA acquisitions and draft picks are fans expecting to really have an impact this year?
They’re surprisingly optimistic, given how awful 2018 was. I think we came into the offseason needing to see the Falcons improve both lines, tweak their coaching staff, and at least add better depth after injuries exposed their weaknesses even more a year ago. At least on paper, they’ve checked all the boxes.
On the offensive line, as I mentioned above, they sunk two first round draft picks into the group and added two free agent years, spending a bit to keep swing tackle Ty Sambrailo around. That doesn’t guarantee more than modest improvement in 2019, but the hope is that sooner than later we’ll see real growth from the line given the investment.
On the defensive line, the team re-added valuable veteran Adrian Clayborn to shore up their end rotation, drafted intriguing and highly athletic DL John Cominsky to coach up, and brought in two beefy run stoopers in Allen Bailey and Tyeler Davison. With Grady Jarrett looking like a star at defensive tackle and Takk McKinley on the verge of a breakout at defensive end, the Falcons could take a major step forward up front this year. Finally.
The gains from Steve Sarkisian to Dirk Koetter might be negligible, but Dan Quinn re-assuming control of the defense has to be viewed as a positive, given what he was able to do with the Seahawks and to a lesser extent with the Falcons in 2016. Kotwica figures to be a nice addition, as well.
As far as the depth goes, the Falcons were able to beef up both lines, add a terrific veteran tight end in Luke Stocker, and get a lot of help for the secondary with rookie cornerbacks Jordan Miller and Kendal Sheffield mixing in behind their presumptive three starters and athletic safeties like Chris Cooper and J.J. Wilcox vying for roles, though they unfortunately lost Wilcox to injury.
Lindstrom on the OL, Bailey and Davison on the DL, and Quinn as the defensive coordinator figure to be the most impactful additions, but the team made a concerted effort to patch over many holes on a budget this offseason, and I think they’ve mostly succeeded. Given the core talent already in place, it’s hard not to get excited, even if we really ought to know better.
5. What’s an offseason or preseason storyline not discussed above that non-Falcons fans might not know about, but could have a serious impact on your season record and chances at the playoffs?
The returns of Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. The Falcons’ collapse wasn’t fueled by one specific thing, but the loss of their two starting safeties probably made the biggest difference overall. Allen is an invaluable safety net and leader at free safety, helping the Falcons contain the kinds of big plays that destroyed them against the Bengals and Saints in particular in 2018. Neal is their physical tone setter and one of the best safeties in the league in run support, and taking them both away led to an already shaky defense getting gouged on a weekly basis. It took them a long, long time to right the ship even with second-year pro Damontae Kazee taking one of the gigs and tying for the league lead in interceptions, and getting them both back should help stabilize the secondary.
It’s been a long, long time since the Falcons had a truly elite defense. If they’re going to get there this year--and if they do and Matt Ryan’s healthy, this is a playoff team--Allen and Neal will be a big part of the reason why.
Thanks again to Dave Choate for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Falcons. I hope we get a good game, and both sets of players can stay healthy! This article was done in somewhat of a hurry, but for future articles, I’ll try to solicit questions from the HH community beforehand.