WELCOME BACK: Two-back sets? Atlanta's offense has been at its best when TEVIN COLEMAN and DEVONTA FREEMAN are both on the field. Offensive coordinator STEVE SARKISIAN, entering his second season with the Falcons, should have the backs out there together 15 to 20 snaps per game. Both are both tremendous zone runners—Freeman with his vision and inside shiftiness, Coleman with his deceptive speed. But they're really potent together because each has the ability to flex out as a receiver, and there's no effective defensive counter for that.
Despite ranking third in pass efficiency, eighth in run efficiency and first in third-down efficiency last year, the offense dropped from first in the NFL in scoring to 15th, with 11.7 fewer points per game. To fix this, Sarkisian must find the harmony between running and passing designs that his predecessor, current 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, had developed. This is doable. With a strong outside zone running game, a savvy QB in MATT RYAN and football's scariest wide receiver, JULIO JONES, throwing out of running formations should come naturally to the Falcons. Adding receiver CALVIN RIDLEY, their first-round pick from Alabama, will help.
Quietly, coach DAN QUINN has built a terrific defense. But in his fourth year, anything short of greatness will be disappointing. The front line boasts potent pass rushers in GRADY JARRETT, VIC BEASLEY and TAKK MCKINLEY. Linebackers DEION JONES and DE'VONDRE CAMPBELL play fast. So do safeties KEANU NEAL and RICARDO ALLEN, who can also cover. Cornerbacks DESMOND TRUFANT and ROBERT ALFORD are sound and versatile. This D has flashed at every level but not consistently and together. It's time.
Quinn's defense demands speed. His zone coverages concede space underneath, so defenders must be able to rally to the ball. Those same coverages can leave linebackers and safeties matched with a wide receiver downfield, when their only prayer is to recognize the route early and run with him. Speed is also key to man-coverage assignments, which the Falcons took advantage of in 2017, when their defense ranked ninth in the league.
2017 RECORD 10W 6L
SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 12W 4L
6th @EAGLES [Thursday]
22nd GIANTS [Monday]
22nd @SAINTS [Thursday]
NO WIDE RECEIVER possesses a better combination of size (6'3", 220 pounds) and speed than JULIO JONES. When he's on the field, safeties must help out in coverage, which allows Atlanta to dictate favorable matchups for its other pass catchers.