...But something is missing. Something that’s a staple of SB Nation game previews. The question is: “What’s missing?” and the answer is “5 Qs and 5 As.”
Ahead of Sunday morning’s matchup, David Choate of The Falcoholic took some time to answer some questions I had about the Falcons, including Dan Quinn’s future, the Atlanta receiving corps, Todd Gurley, and more.
Q: The Falcons certainly had a lot of high-profile departures in free agency with Austin Hooper, Desmond Trufant, Adrian Clayborn, and Vic Beasley among the names now on other teams. Who do you think was the biggest loss from this offseason?
In my mind, the biggest lost was probably Trufant. The Falcons will certainly miss De’Vondre Campbell and Austin Hooper, but I’m pretty confident that Foye Oluokun and Hayden Hurst will be at worst small downgrades from the pair. As much as I like rookie A.J. Terrell, I’m not sure he’s going to be anywhere near the player Trufant was and is in his first season.
That’s a problem because the Falcons do not exactly have a track record of great play in the secondary in recent years, something the signing of Darqueze Dennard and the return of Keanu Neal is supposed to help fix. Without Trufant, Terrell is going to have to get up to speed and play well pretty quickly, or this defense will have too many holes in it.
Q: Much has been made about the Seahawks’ pass rush woes last year and deservedly so, but the Falcons went eons without a sack before they played (of course) Seattle. What’s the level of optimism that this year’s team will fare much better in that department?
I think cautious optimism is the order of the day for the Falcons. Dante Fowler Jr.’s 2019 suggests he’ll be an upgrade on Vic Beasley, who bunched up several sacks in the second half of the season but was an inconsistent option at best for Atlanta. Takk McKinley looks healthy and motivated coming into a contract year, rookie Marlon Davidson adds real promise to the interior, and Steven Means, Charles Harris, and second-year option John Cominsky add some upside to the rotation.
It’s not going to be a great pass rush, though, and I think we all know that. The Falcons lack an elite option outside of Grady Jarrett at defensive tackle, and even Fowler only has one year of high-level production under his belt at this point. The hope is that this team can apply pressure more consistently, because even that would be a major step forward after several frustrating seasons under Dan Quinn.
Q: Atlanta took a flyer on Todd Gurley and it seems to be a low-risk, high-reward signing to help revive a pretty uninspired rushing attack. What’s Atlanta’s running back situation outside of Gurley, and do you think Todd will be able to be a high-level contributor in the Falcons offense this year?
I think so much of this team’s success on the ground hinges on factors that have nothing to do with Todd Gurley, truthfully. I worry about the state of his knee a bit but he’s clearly still a terrific, well-balanced back who can carry 60-75% of the load for a rushing attack. Key reserves Ito Smith (a very good pass catcher and agile runner), Brian Hill (a powerful, improving option) and Qadree Ollison (a strong short yardage option) round out a pretty good group, and if everything clicks into place they could have an above average attack this year.
The problem is that blocking and Dirk Koetter were much bigger issues than Devonta Freeman in 2019, in my opinion. James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, and Wes Schweitzer combined to do nothing spectacular blocking at guard a year ago, while rookie tackle Kaleb McGary certainly had his ups and downs. The blocking was downright poor in obvious run down situations and in short yardage, which hurt the team a lot.
Koetter, meanwhile, simply has no superlative rushing attacks to his credit since the days of Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville, and too often he telegraphs runs up the middle on early downs that do little except burn time and downs. He’ll need to be more creative and more willing to move away from those tendencies if Gurley and company are really going to be successful this year, and let’s just say I have my doubts that happens.
Q: Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is really just a freakish 1-2 combination to have, but what about the other names on Atlanta’s receiving corps? Who’s most likely to step up as that third option for Matt Ryan?
Here’s something I feel great about! The passing attack in Atlanta should be great, and while that owes a lot to Ryan, Julio and Ridley, they’ve quietly assembled some really good options.
My pick for the #3 receiver on this team is probably Hayden Hurst, who has the kind of athleticism, quality hands, and target opportunity that could make him an appealing option for Ryan. It’s become evident over the years that he loves to target tight ends, and Hurst has the upside to be Austin Hooper or better in this offense.
The other strong contender is third receiver Russell Gage, who was a target vacuum when Mohamed Sanu left a year ago. Koetter somewhat curiously used him primarily on short routes, where his hands play well, but Gage is also extremely fast and could be a problem downfield if the team chooses to use him that way.
Q: Dan Quinn pretty much saved his job last year with the unexpected surge to 7-9, but it seems safe to say that the Falcons have really underachieved since uh... that game that was played in Houston. What will it take for him to remain employed by Atlanta entering 2021?
I think it is playoffs or bust, but I worry Arthur Blank will look at the COVID-19-related weirdness we’ve deal with this year and think anything short of an utter collapse will be reason to keep him around. Assuming that’s not a factor, this team has to go at least 9-7 and latch on to the last playoff spot to keep Quinn in Atlanta, because this team has badly underachieved the past two seasons, and DQ’s vaunted takeover of the defense last year was a complete disaster.
I’m rooting for him, obviously, but I’m not sure how likely I think that outcome really is.
You can read my answers to Choate’s questions on Sunday morning over at The Falcoholic, just before the game starts!