NFL

Atlanta Falcons: Quarterback decision looms but defense the real issue

By Sports Desk March 05, 2021

There's a new era in Atlanta and, following the hiring of Arthur Smith as head coach, there is plenty of cause for Falcons fans to be hopeful of better days ahead. 

Things can hardly get much worse than in 2020, when the Falcons slumped to a 4-12 record, with head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff fired after an 0-5 start. 

Smith's arrival will foster optimism the offense can scale new heights in 2021, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator having played a pivotal role in revitalising Ryan Tannehill's career.  

But he and new GM Terry Fontenot have some significant decisions to make in a challenging offseason if their partnership is to hit the ground running in 2021. 

Using Stats Perform data, we reflect on the year that was for the Falcons and look at what they will need to do to improve on a rather forgettable campaign. 

Offense 

You will find few quarterbacks who experienced more frustrating seasons than Matt Ryan, who continued to serve as one of the most productive signal-callers in the NFL in 2020. 

He was fourth in the NFL in passing yards with 4,581 and was tied seventh in big plays, delivering 32 completions of 25 yards or more. 

The big-play element that was clearly present in the Falcons' offense contributed to them finishing the year ninth in scoring efficiency. 

Despite Ryan's performances in leading a prolific group, the Falcons never threatened to contend. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the running game should take a large portion of the blame for that failure.

The Falcons were not a balanced offense, with Atlanta averaging just 3.75 yards per run play. The Pittsburgh Steelers (3.62) were the sole team to fare worse on the ground.

Atlanta's 34 rushes of 10 yards or more were tied for 30th in the NFL, the production from running backs Todd Gurley and Brian Hill not living up to that of Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones in the passing game.

Ridley was tied-fifth in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,374 while no pass-catcher had more than his 23 receptions of 20 yards or more.

While the running game needs to improve, the primary reason for the stellar efforts of Ryan and Ridley being wasted was the dismal play of a porous defense.

Defense

Worryingly for a Falcons franchise that invested a great deal in the defense in last year's draft, opponents moved the ball and scored on Atlanta at will in 2020. 

Atlanta ranked 23rd in offensive points allowed, giving up 414, with opposing passing games racking up 7.18 yards per play against the Falcons. 

Just three teams - the Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings - were more susceptible to the pass by that measure. 

The Falcons will hope for better out of last year's first-round pick A.J. Terrell, who was consistently exploited by quarterbacks and receivers in a trying rookie season. 

Terrell was targeted 95 times, the fourth-most of any player in the league, and gave up the third-most receptions (64) and joint-most yards (848).

In addition to the secondary struggling, the defensive front did not produce the desired pressure on opposing signal-callers, Atlanta finishing tied-23rd with 29 sacks.

The run defense was a little more of a bright spot, the Falcons 14th in yards per rush allowed with 4.41.

But the fact they still gave up 49 touchdown drives, the joint-eighth most in the league, despite their relative strength against the run, is indicative of the ground game's decreasing influence on offensive production and the issues in the secondary.

Simply put, for the Falcons to have a chance of even challenging the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, the pass defense must make significant strides. The problem, however, is that the Falcons do not have a great deal of resources with which to make sure it does that.

Offseason

There is increasing talk of the Falcons using the fourth overall pick in this year's draft to select Ryan's successor, with Ohio State's Justin Fields, a native of Georgia, a popular choice for them in mock drafts.

Having the option to rid themselves of Ryan's contract, which will see him carry cap hits of over $40million in 2021 and 2022, and instead start a rookie on a significantly cheaper deal, is something that should appeal to the Falcons.

But, regardless of the merits of Smith as a play-caller and the talent the Falcons have on offense, Fields or any other eventual replacement for Ryan will not be set up for success until the Falcons fix the defense.

The issue in that regard is the Falcons are set to be over $12m above an assumed salary cap of $185m.

That may prohibit them from keeping many of the 11 unrestricted free agents they have on defense, or aggressively pursuing potential signings on that side of the ball.

Compensatory picks are still to be revealed, but the Falcons are at present set to have just six selections in the 2021 NFL Draft.

If they do go with a quarterback in the first round, 2021 will likely be Ryan's last as a Falcon. And, should Atlanta prove unable to use their remaining capital to sufficiently improve the defense, the smart money will be on it being another of frustration for the quarterback who came agonisingly close to delivering the franchise its first Super Bowl crown.

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