When the Falcons began training camp, only 30 players who reported had played eight or more games with the team in 2014. While Atlanta does bring back all but five starters, combine the broader roster turnover with an all-new coaching staff (Mike Smith, who'd been with the team for seven seasons, was fired in December), and you'll see: Nothing here is quite the same.
One of the few stable elements, quarterback Matt Ryan—he's entering his eighth season as the Falcons' starter—says that at times he feels like a rookie. For years he took the mundane details of his football existence for granted: practice times, meals, meeting locations. Now it's all changed, and he finds himself studying his schedule each morning.
Change, though, was necessary. In 2013 and '14, Smith and his staff suffered consecutive losing seasons, which hadn't happened in Atlanta since '06--07, right before the Falcons drafted Ryan. Even if Atlanta was technically in the woeful NFC South title race until Week 17 last season, its defense had slipped from passable to atrocious, and bringing in Dan Quinn, the coordinator for Seattle's vaunted defense, was a no-brainer. Add in the great first impression Quinn made in interviews and the ringing endorsements he received from coaches and general managers around the league, and the Falcons had their man.
Quinn comes to Atlanta with a high-energy approach and a clear desire to create something more than the Seahawks East. Although his methods—short, intense practices with blaring music and plenty of coach-player interaction—are reminiscent of what Pete Carroll has built with Seattle, Quinn says he'll tailor his approach to this team's personnel.
About that personnel. Offensively, Atlanta was in the top 10 in the NFL in total yards (6,051) and completed passes (418) a year ago, which has been par for the course during Ryan's tenure. But the Falcons' running game was awful because of the continued and protracted demise of Steven Jackson, who was released after the season. In the draft Atlanta added Tevin Coleman (Indiana), the fifth running back selected, and under new coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who escaped Cleveland and Johnny Manziel to join Quinn's staff), Atlanta's offense in 2015 will employ more of a zone-blocking scheme. That should allow the Falcons to improve their offensive versatility and balance and offset a deficient offensive line.
"Kyle's always been kind of a chameleon," Ryan says of his coordinator. "When he was in Houston, they led the league in passing. When he was in Washington, they used the zone [blocking] scheme [and led the NFL in rushing]. The thing I love about him is he kind of adapts to the personnel he has."
Defensively, Quinn plans to bring speed and aggression to a foundering unit that was never the Falcons' strong suit under the previous regime, even though Smith had come from a defensive background. In 2014, Atlanta finished dead last in the NFL in yards allowed per game (398.2), passing yards allowed per game (279.9), yards allowed per play (6.14), third-down percentage (46.8) and first downs allowed per game (22.4). These Falcons must find a way to manufacture a pass rush after logging just 22 sacks (tied for second worst in the NFL), which opens the door for first-round pick Vic Beasley, who had 12 sacks as a senior at Clemson, to make an immediate impression.
Quinn and new coordinator Richard Smith are undertaking one of the league's biggest defensive rebuilds, and it's optimistic to think that it can be accomplished in a season. Yes, getting a healthy (and 15 pounds lighter) William Moore back at strong safety will help after his shoulder injury last year, but don't be surprised if Atlanta still finds itself in more than a few 31--28 shootouts.
With an offense boasting Ryan and Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones, and Shanahan's gift for developing a running game, not to mention the wide-open division, the Falcons' defense doesn't have to be great to play in January. A 9--7 record may well win the South. Even with Quinn, though, that might not be within reach in his first year.
SI'S PREDICTION: 6--10
ANDY BENOIT ON THE FALCONS' NEW MOBILITY
Following the 2013 season the Falcons' coaching staff made a list of 10 priorities for their team heading into '14. Item No. 10: Make more plays off quarterback mobility. Matt Ryan (above), a tremendous but mostly stationary drop-back passer, took this to heart. By Week 3, coaches were saying that Ryan had already made more plays with his feet in '14 than he had in his previous six seasons. Ryan showcased his new strength throughout the year, making throws on the run or leaving the pocket and resetting to improve his passing angle. Now, with Atlanta's new coaches, Ryan will play in a system that heavily features quarterback movement. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme sets up a natural play-action passing game predicated on rollouts, bootlegs and sliding pockets. Shanahan won't put Ryan on the move as often as he did Brian Hoyer last year in Cleveland or Robert Griffin III in Washington. Unlike those QBs, Ryan is still most dangerous in the pocket, and traditional drop-backs are the way you take downfield shots with wide receiver Julio Jones. But Atlanta's iffy O-line will at times hinder deeper drops, and that's when Ryan can go on the move.
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DE Vic Beasley
AL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED