The O aims for fewer in-flight tweaks
Julio Jones, suddenly, is an elder statesman. The soft-spoken receiver spent the first five years of his career taking cues from Roddy White; for three of those, he also played alongside future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. The fact that Jones is now the veteran target reflects Atlanta's drastic turnover since its last trip to the playoffs, in 2012.
Jones's voice is louder now. He knows better than anyone how his quarterback, Matt Ryan, wants certain routes to be run. That wisdom is meant to be shared. "We lost a lot of games last season just because of communication," the 27-year-old Jones says. "There can't be any gray areas. It is on the players to get it figured out and get it handled."
The Falcons spent the summer trying to deconstruct a perplexing 2015 season, Dan Quinn's first as a head coach. They won six of their first seven, lost their next six and finished 8--8. While Quinn felt he had done well to stoke the same kind of high-energy culture he'd had in Seattle, where he was defensive coordinator, he didn't have the pieces in place to execute his vision on the field. In the off-season he and GM Thomas Dimitroff bolstered the front seven, signing end Derrick Shelby from the Dolphins, and drafted with speed and physicality in mind, starting with first-round pick Keanu Neal (Florida), a 6-foot, 211-pound safety who will play a Kam Chancellor--like role.
The offense had its own shortcomings to address. Ryan has been a prolific passer since being drafted No. 3 in 2008, but he hit some speed bumps in the first year under coordinator Kyle Shanahan and turned the ball over 21 times, including four red zone interceptions. Atlanta averaged just 21.2 points per game—tied for 21st. Jones led the league with 1,871 receiving yards on the way to his third Pro Bowl selection, but his 13.8 yards per catch were the lowest of his career. "The talent we have, there's no question we should have scored 28 points a game," he says. "We were getting 10 points, 14 points; we were barely scoring in some games. That's unacceptable."
The Falcons fortified their personnel, signing Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu after cutting White, and adding center Alex Mack, who made three Pro Bowls with the Browns. Just as important, Shanahan sat down with each player after the season, starting with Ryan and Jones. They never reached the point last season, the QB admits, when executing the new offense was "unconscious."
Ryan reviewed the 2015 film by himself first, then went over his notes with Shanahan and QBs coach Matt LaFleur. He also took four trips from Atlanta to Southern California to work with Tom House, a former major league pitcher turned throwing coach. They worked on strengthening Ryan's shoulder and tuning his throwing motion to be more efficient, so that when he's on the run or under duress he could still generate enough power or touch to make the most difficult throws. That will help within Shanahan's offense, where Ryan has a few points of emphasis: Be accurate on throws outside the pocket, and be an area-blind passer, as apt to make throws to the left side as to the right.
"Maybe that helps us play one or two or three plays better in a game," Ryan says. "And if we do that in every game in a season, we're giving ourselves better chances to win. As you get older that becomes more apparent, how fine a line in this league it is to win."
Four seasons removed from playing for a trip to the Super Bowl, Ryan and Jones understand that as well as anyone. "However long the window is, it is still short," Ryan says. "But I think we've got the right head coach, the right people in the right positions." That type of consistency would be a welcome change.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
Second-year coach Dan Quinn wants to re-create the type of defense he had in Seattle, where one of his core pieces was cornerback Richard Sherman. In Quinn's system, the inside defenders play zone coverage while the outside corners often play press man. A premier press-man corner can essentially take away one side of the field; that, in turn, shrinks the space the inside defenders have to cover, allowing them to take more chances and swarm to the ball. Quinn is still trying to piece together his unit, but he already has his Sherman in 25-year-old Desmond Trufant. The 2013 first-round pick from Washington is not brash like Sherman, so he doesn't stand out. He also isn't targeted as often, which is why he has only six career picks (just one in '15). But a corner's primary job is not to make plays; it's to stop them. The 6-foot, 190-pound Trufant, with his short-area agility and feel for how receivers execute, is a true stopper.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 7--9
2015 Record: 8--8
SEPT. 11 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 atOAK
SEPT. 26 atNO [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 vs.CAR [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atDEN
OCT. 16 atSEA
OCT. 23 vs.SD [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 vs.GB [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 3 atTB
NOV. 13 atPHI
NOV. 27 vs.ARI
DEC. 4 vs.KC
DEC. 11 atLA [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 vs.SF [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 atCAR [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 vs.NO [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER