Not Flying High Lately
Four years can be an eternity in the NFL. When the Chargers last played the Falcons in 2012, the Dirty Birds were playing in the stratosphere of a 13-3 season and eventual loss to the 49ers in the NFC Conference Championship game. (Think about that sentence for a minute...) Atlanta visited San Diego early in the season and came away with a 27-3 laugher of a win.
The birds then stopped flying and resembled more of a meteor falling to a 4-12 record in 2013, "improving" to 6-10 in 2014 (getting Mike Smith fired), and getting back to .500 last season under first year coach Dan Quinn. Identifying the primary cause of the team's downfall as the defense and lack of a running game, ownership brought in Quinn to see if the Seattle formula could work in Georgia. It seems to be on the right track.
Installing the 4-3 and 3-4 under look, the defense improved from dismal to average. The offense did not fare so well; although the unit put up a lot of yards, it was 21st in total scoring in 2015. The Falcons and their fans do have some reason for optimism this season though. In 5 of the team's losses the point differential was 14 points. Under a first year head coach, there is plenty of optimism that the team will be able to pull out a few more close games and return to the playoffs.
Addressing Their Issues
In the offseason, GM Thomas Dimitroff did an excellent job in free agency and the draft to improve some of the weaker links on the team. Center Alex Mack was bought in (and paid well) to shore up an underperforming interior o-line. Courtney Upshaw was also brought in to provide some swagger and veteran leadership to the front 7. The team also added Mohammed Sanu for a look at WR and Derrick Shelby to add to the D-line.
The team looked to get younger, parting ways with WR Roddy White, DT Paul Soliai, Safety William Moore, and DB/Returner Devin Hester. The team then turned to the draft, looking for speed, particularly in linebacker selections. First round pick Keanu Neal is penciled in to replace Moore at SS. 2nd rounder Deion Jones and 4th rounder De'Vondre Campbell will get their chances to start at the Will and Mike (respectively) LB spots, joining Upshaw in a possibly completely remade LB corp.
None of the other draft picks are expected to make a significant contribution in 2016, but the team does have some hopes that 3rd round selection Austin Hooper will develop into a pass catching TE and supplant Jacob Tamme. The draft was rounded out with a 6th round guard and 7th round WR; both are development projects and will need to work hard to even be on the roster in September.
I have to confess that I do like Matt Ryan's ability and personality as an NFL QB. While he is often left out of the "elite" discussion, he has averaged over 4,000 passing yards per season in his 8-year career, has been all-pro in 4 of those years, and his lowest completion percentage in the last 4 years has been 66.1%. Give him any kind of supporting cast and time to throw, he will be successful. He does need to cut down on the INT's though. He has a tendency to get aggressive with his throws and the higher than desired INT numbers are a result (this should sound familiar to those of us that have watched PR over the years).
Under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, he is in a QB friendly West Coast based system that he has full command of at this point. He has one of the best weapons in the league; WR Julio Jones, a large, fast, and fearless freak of a physical specimen, fresh off a 136 catch, 1,875 receiving yard season. Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman provide a decent 1-2 punch running the ball. There are questions at TE and WR2 though, so Jones is perpetually double covered and a safety can cheat into the box to defend the rushing game.
Defensively, Atlanta has a solid front four, a lot of questions at LB, and a superb secondary. If Atlanta hopes to take the next step defensively, their questions at LB have to be answered by their draft choices being NFL ready and Upshaw continuing his run as an excellent Sam LB. If the rookies do not pan out, the options of Paul Worrilow and Phillip Wheeler are not palatable. QB's have to be careful throwing to the outside, as Desmond Trufant is good enough to lock down his side of the field and Robert Alford is a solid CB on the other side. Given the questions at LB and Safety, expect teams to spend a lot of time working the middle of the field with their slot receivers and TE's.
This team has probably improved by another game or two for 2016 and a potential return to the playoffs. It is likelier that they present a more serious challenge to Carolina in 2017, though.
Outlook Against The Chargers
In another scheduling quirk, this eastern time zone game starts late, so the Chargers will not have to battle their interior clocks along with the other team. On paper, and depending upon the relative health of the teams, this could be an interesting game and a winnable one for the Chargers.
Defensively, the Bolts will have to stop the Atlanta running game and contain Julio Jones. Jones may be a match-up nightmare for Verrett; he has the size and strength to win against the NFL's largest and most physical corners (just ask Patrick Peterson) and this could be Verrett's hardest assignment of the season.
The running game has a West Coast look about it. Trap blocking, inside zones, delays, and mis-directions will test a rushing defense that failed most of its 2015 tests. Both Coleman and Freeman are decent recivers, so they will deserve attention as outlets and primary targets. There is not too much threat from the TE's, but slot receiver Justin Hardy may develop into a threat working behind Jones.
Offensively, the Bolts must avoid 3rd and long or Quinn will unleash pass rushing specialist Dwight Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux to pressure PR. There should be opportunities for the Bolts TE's, RB's, and slot receivers to work the LB and Safeties. The winner of the Desmond Trufant and Keenan Allen battle will also be a major factor in this game.
Prediction: This game is winnable, but I don't think it will work out that way. The Falcons offense presents some match-ups in the running game and with Jones that may be difficult for the defense to deal with. Offensively, if the Chargers have issues running the ball, the pressure that the Falcons can bring may make for a long day for PR. And this game will be played on the road in a dome. I expect this to be a close game with one or two big plays deciding the game and the Bolts coming up short.