“Counterparts to be counted on” is a 32-part series where we the “Front Office” of www.couchpotatogm.com analyze one offensive player and one defensive player on each team that MUST have a particularly strong individual season in 2016 for their respective teams to have a successful 2016 campaign. The Falcons soared to a 5-0 start to begin the 2015 season but they hit a wall in the 2nd half of the season and crashed to an 8-8 finish. What has to happen for fortunes to turn in Atlanta?
Atlanta Falcons “Counterparts to be Counted On” 2016
Matt Ryan – To put it plainly “Matty Ice” has to be better. The NFC South is chalk full of quality quarterbacks, from superstars to rising stars. But where does Ryan fall in that discussion? Heading into his 9th NFL season the 31-year-old has seen the trajectory of his career level off. That isn’t to say that Matt Ryan is the only member of the Falcons organization culpable for their not so recent struggles. It’s been three years since the Falcons made the playoffs. During that 3-year stretch Ryan has only managed a 2:1 TD/INT ratio once (2014). That being said, I’ve long been a fan of the “Iceman” and despite 4-12 and 6-10 records in 2013 and 2014 respectively I developed even more respect for the embattled QB. Despite offensive line woes, defenses that couldn’t hold leads, injuries to star players (Julio Jones played only five games in 2013 ), and aging weapons (Steven Jackson, Tony Gonzalez, and Roddy White) I saw a moxie, grit and determination previously unseen; coupled with his high football IQ and physical tools. What stood out the most was his pocket awareness, increased functional mobility and toughness as he was routinely battered behind a below average offensive line. And then there was 2015. New faces in the front office, a new head coach and offensive coordinator, and an improved supporting cast in tow the Falcons, led by Ryan, got out to a 5-0 start. No one but the most blindly fanatical Falcons fans saw it coming; only to finish 8-8.
What happened? Injuries and ineffectiveness took its toll on the running game, the defense and it’s non-existent pass rush ultimately was exposed and the Falcons couldn’t finish. Whether it was failing to get a timely stop, or committing a costly penalty there was always a gaffe or breakdown the inevitably torpedoed Atlanta’s season. Perhaps the most alarming issue was the customary Matt Ryan turnover. Batted balls, missed throws, and fumbles routinely resulted in lost possessions off the arm or out of the hands of the Falcons’ QB. Ryan threw 16 interceptions last season to just 21 touchdowns; he also fumbled eight times. Over the last three seasons Ryan has thrown a healthy 75 touchdowns but a whopping 47 interceptions. That’s only seven more TDs and six MORE interceptions than Jay Cutler during that same time frame. Make no mistake Matt Ryan is a superior trigger man to Cutler but in year two in Kyle Shanahan’s offense Ryan had better take his game up a few notches, raise the play of those around him, and carry his team across the finish line more often if Atlanta is to keep pace with Carolina in 2016.
Vic Beasley Jr. – I could have named any number of down linemen: Derrick Shelby, Ra’Shede Hageman, Grady Jarrett, Tyson Jackson, hell even “old man” (sack specialist extraordinaire) Dwight Freeney. But I’m going to shift my focus to the second level of the defense where former defense end and 2015 1st round selection Vic Beasley will man the “WILL” backer position. Beasley’s rookie year was a mixed bag of results. The under-sized edge rusher was pushed around on a regular basis in the run game and struggled to finish as a pass rusher. However, he flashed an explosive first step off the line of scrimmage and the athleticism that made him a Top 10 draft selection. The talented rookie led the Falcons in sacks last season. Unfortunately, his 4.0 sacks were enough to lead the team which finished with only 19.0 total, worst in the NFL.
The signings of Shelby and Freeney will definitely improve the Falcons’ pass rush. However, Shelby has yet to prove that he can be an every down player over the course of a 16 game season and at this stage of Freeney’s career he is best utilized on a passing down only basis. Beasley’s move to linebacker is prompted by head coach Dan Quinn’s system. You may recall OLB/DE Bruce Irvin formerly of the Seattle Seahawks made the same transition and played a similar role for Quinn in Seattle. Both Irvin and Beasley were a bit undersized for a traditional 4-3 defensive end but possess similar pass rushing ability and explosiveness off the edge. Irvin was a quality player for the Seahawks and his play netted him a lucrative long term deal with the Oakland Raiders this past offseason. If Beasley performs similarly to how Irvin played he will be a very good player in an improved Falcons defense. However, if the Falcons are going to make some real noise this season Beasley’s game is going to have to be a cross between Irvin’s and Anthony Barr’s of the Minnesota Vikings. Barr surprised us all at CPGM with his knack for making plays in coverage and graded out second only to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly in coverage among linebackers in 2015. All three were primarily pass rushers in college but have transitioned to OLB in a 4-3 base scheme. That means those athletic gifts typically used to get to the QB will be put to the test in space and coverage as well. Beasley has the speed and athleticism but does he possess the instincts and feel to become a true difference-maker at the second level? The Falcons’ coaching staff and fan base certainly hope so. I believe he can and will.