The Atlanta Falcons won’t have their new state of the art stadium completed until 2017, but they do have a new head coach who can turn things around. In the NFC South, anything goes following a 2014 season where all four teams finished under .500 and the Panthers made the playoffs with a measly 7-8-1 record.
Atlanta’s 16th coach in franchise history, Dan Quinn represents someone with youth and defensive promise. The 44-year-old has already made his mark on the team only three months after signing.
Quinn inherits a team that Mike Smith ran for seven seasons. They made the playoffs in four of those years including an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2012.
However, the Falcons have won only 10 games over the past two seasons and the lack of a reliable defense played a big factor. The offense was still solid with quarterback Matt Ryan at the helm, ranking 12th in points per game (23.8).
In 2014, Atlanta ranked dead last in yards allowed per game, yards per play and third-down percentage. They ranked sixth-worst in points per game allowed (26.1), allowing 417 for the year.
A lack of a pass rush was a huge burden for the Falcons hence the selection Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Atlanta ranked second-to-last in sacks (22) as they combined for just 29 turnovers (16 interceptions and 13 forced fumbles).
Eight-year linebacker Kroy Biermann started 15 games in only his second year as a full-time starter and led the Falcons with 4.5 sacks. Veteran Osi Umenyiora was second with 2.5 sacks, but he was not re-signed.
Quinn has been an NFL coach since 2001 and served as the defensive coordinator in Seattle the last two seasons. His work was impressive as Seattle was the top defensive unit in 2013 and ranked near the top again in 2014.
Linebackers Brooks Reed and Justin Durant agreed to deals early in the free agent process. Reed is a pass-rushing specialist at linebacker, who has 14.5 sacks over four seasons, while Durant is a cover man with over nine seasons of starting experience.
The Falcons do have a solid core group on the inside of their line with veterans Jonathan Babineaux, Tyson Jackson, Adrian Clayborn and last year’s second-round pick Ra’Shede Hageman.
Hageman is expected to have a bigger role after posting just one sack in 16 appearances as a rookie. Former Seahawk O’Brien Schofield followed Quinn to Atlanta. The six-year veteran has 13.5 sacks across five seasons, including 3.5 in the last two in Seattle as a rotational piece.
Starting cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford were both solid at times a year ago, combining for six interceptions, but the Falcons did use a second-round pick on LSU’s Jalen Collins to boost the depth at corner.
Kemal Ishmael is perhaps the biggest riser on the Falcons’ defense, coming off a 2014 season where he posted 97 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in just 16 starts. William Moore is expected to man the other safety spot once again.
On the offensive end of the spectrum, new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will have plenty to work with.
Ryan still has star wide receiver Julio Jones and crafty veteran Roddy White at his disposal. Devin Hester, rookie Justin Hardy and Leonard Hankerson, a Shanahan retread, will all serve roles on the offense.
The tight end position and running back isn’t what it once was with Tony Gonzalez and Steven Jackson long gone. Levine Toilolo will be asked to take a big step in his third season after catching only two touchdowns passes in 2014.
At running back, second-year FSU product Devonta Freeman will lead the three-headed monster alongside big-hitter Antone Smith and third-round pick Tevin Coleman.
The Falcons still have a lot of talent on the outside on the offensive side of the ball and if they can establish the run behind a mediocre offensive line it will bode well for Ryan and Co. The defense will be on the rise with Quinn and expect plenty of old-fashioned football with the ground and pound.
With such low expectations surrounding the Falcons, the pressure isn’t on their backs which should bode well for their prospects this season.
Quinn is the right man for the job just like Smith was in 2008, when he led the Falcons to an 11-5 season and won Coach of the Year.
Atlanta is a very sneaky team playing the role of underdog in 2015.