Twelve games into the season the Falcons are 3-9 and floundering, and there are plenty of problems to fix.
Atlanta can’t run the football. Only three times has this team rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. And at 81.1 yards on the ground per game, the Falcons rank 29th in the league in rushing yards. The Falcons can’t stop the run either or keep opponents from passing.
The Falcons rank 20th in passing defense, allowing 247.8 yards through the air per game, and 30th in run defense, giving up 135.4 yards on the ground each week. This feeble defense is the reason why Atlanta ranks 29th in the league in scoring defense and gives up 28.3 points per game.
Injuries have taken a toll. On offense the Falcons have played without running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Roddy White for multiple games, and the team lost wide receiver Julio Jones for the season. On defense Atlanta lost hybrid defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann for the season and has played most of the year without linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. That’s just glazing over the injury report. Names like Sam Baker, Stephen Nicholas and Akeem Dent, to name a few, have been frequently listed on Atlanta’s injury report.
In an effort to fix these issues and move forward into the 2014 season, team owner Arthur Blank won’t look to cut ties with general manager Thomas Dimitroff or head coach Mike Smith. On Nov. 17 Blank gave both a resounding vote of confidence and ensured services of both would be retained next season.
We love our head coach. We love our general manager… They’re going to take a very critical and honest look and make their analysis, and from there we can develop a game plan.
Translation: There figure to be sweeping changes with the Falcons over the winter, but Smith and Dimitroff will be charged with making those changes, as opposed to being the changes themselves.
Once the Falcons finish the 2013 season, Dimitroff immediately must enter repair mode. But how will he fix the Falcons?
Upgrade Both Lines
The Falcons have been getting killed in the trenches, as neither the offensive or defensive line has done its job this season.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), of NFL quarterbacks who have taken at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps, only one passer has been under pressure more than Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
Ryan has been under duress 40.7 percent of the time he’s dropped back to pass, and his offensive line leads the league in total pressure allowed, a Pro Football Focus (subscription required) metric that combines the number of quarterback hits, hurries and sacks an offensive line gives up.
The Atlanta line has allowed Ryan to be sacked 22 times, hit 34 times and hurried 139 times.
When it comes to putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Atlanta’s defensive line isn’t getting the job done either.
Of all the 4-3 defensive ends who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps, no one on the Falcons ranks in the top 20 in the Pro Football Focus pass-rush productivity rankings, a metric that measures a pass-rusher's sacks, quarterback hits and hurries and compares it to the number of snaps he’s rushed the passer.
Jonathan Massaquoi came in at No. 34, and Osi Umenyiora was ranked 42nd. And this list only takes into account 4-3 ends. The defensive ends who play in a 3-4 scheme on other teams were not included.
Since the Falcons rank 30th against the run, it’s easy to see the middle of the defensive line isn’t getting it done either.
As it stands right now, according to DraftFalcons.com, Atlanta would own the fourth pick in the 2014 draft if the season ended today. The Falcons need to use this high first-round pick to fortify one of the lines. But which one?
The two gems of the first five picks in the draft on either line should be defensive end Jadeveon Clowney from South Carolina and offensive tackle Jake Matthews from Texas A&M. Because of the likelihood of quarterbacks going early, one or both may fall to Atlanta. It’ll be up to Dimitroff to decide which player at which position could provide the most help from Day 1.
Don’t think the first round is the only round Atlanta can get immediate help in the trenches. The Carolina Panthers struck gold in the second round of the 2013 draft with defensive tackle Kawann Short. The New Orleans Saints’ pick of defensive tackle Akiem Hicks in the third round of the 2012 draft is looking extremely good right now.
Not only are the Falcons going to have to spend multiple draft picks on the offensive and defensive lines, but Dimitroff should seriously examine the free-agent pool for instant upgrades, especially on the offensive line. The chemistry doesn’t seem to be working up front for Atlanta, and it might be time to bring in some talent from the outside to toughen up the offensive line.
Trim the Fat
For Dimitroff to be able to spend some money on top-notch free agents next spring, he’s going to have to make some uncomfortable changes to the roster in the form of cuts.
According to Over the Cap, cornerback Asante Samuel will likely earn a $2 million escalator, driving his 2014 cap number up to $7.25 million. That might be too much to spend on an oft-injured corner, especially since the Falcons drafted cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first two rounds last year.
Jackson at running back and Nicholas at linebacker could also be cap casualties. Cutting Jackson could save the Falcons over $1.8 million, and doing the same to Nicholas would help free up $2 million more.
There will need to be more than three cuts to get this team in a healthy enough financial situation to go out and really compete in free agency. But that tough job is why Dimitroff is paid well. After less-than-stellar free-agent pickups last season in Jackson and Umenyiora, Dimitroff needs to hit a few home runs with his acquisitions in 2014.
Atlanta’s defense is a mess, and much of Dimitroff’s resources need to go to fixing that mess and overhauling the offensive line.
When Jones returns from injury, he and White will once again provide a top-notch one-two punch in the passing game. If Dimitroff does his job, Ryan will have more time to throw to these two Pro Bowl wide receivers.
What's the most pressing need for the Atlanta Falcons in the 2014 draft?
Getting pressure on the football and depth are serious concerns on defense. It’s abundantly clear how much an increased pass rush can instantly make a bad defense good. Look at the transformation made in New Orleans. Last season the Saints were a historically bad defense. The team hired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and his schemes made it possible for the Saints to get after opposing quarterbacks.
The Saints went from 7-9 to an NFC powerhouse, all in one offseason of fixing.
Depth will also have to be added.
Injuries decimated this Falcons team in 2013, and finger-pointing needs to start at the general manager for not having more talent deep on this roster. While talent development lies a great deal on the coaching staff, it’s Dimitroff’s job to find the right guys to fit into the holes on this team.
Dimitroff showed brilliance with the signings of undrafted rookie linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Now it’s time to find more of those guys because the lack of depth is a Dimitroff issue.
There are teams out there that were hurt by injuries, but they hardly skipped a beat. The Seattle Seahawks come to mind, as do the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots. All three of these teams dealt with injuries to starters this season and are still pushing out wins.
The Falcons can get back to that level in 2014 but only if Dimitroff makes a ton of good moves in the offseason.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.