Offensive Improvements Atlanta Falcons Must Make This Offseason

Aaron Freeman@falcfansContributor IDecember 9, 2013

Aug 15, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) hands the ball off to running back Steven Jackson (39) in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

When the Atlanta Falcons traded up for Julio Jones in 2011, it signaled that they were looking to become a much more explosive offense.

But the Falcons have largely failed in accomplishing that goal.

It would be easy to blame the loss of Jones due to injury earlier this year, but even with a healthy Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez in 2012, the Falcons were among the least explosive teams in the NFL in terms of big passing plays.

The Falcons ranked just 19th in the league (according to in terms of passes of 20 or more yards last season. That is an improvement from their ranking of 31st in 2010, the year prior to acquiring Jones, but it still represents a below-average unit.

This year, the Falcons are tied for 16th in the rankings alongside the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins and marginally ahead of teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets.

Those teams hardly have explosive or dynamic offenses.

All it means is the Falcons still have many strides to make in order to rise above mediocrity and actually become one of the most explosive offenses in the league.

Trying to become more explosive is the goal that the Falcons will be trying to achieve next year, and there are several improvements that need to be made in order for that to happen.


Improving the Running Game

Obviously improving the running game will help the Falcons offense become more balanced and better overall.

But it also could have a dramatic effect on the passing attack.

According to stats compiled by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Matt Ryan's passer rating jumped 26.6 points in 2012 when he utilized the play-action pass. His yards per attempt went from 7.3 to 9.5 and his touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 23-12 to 9-2.

This demonstrates that like most NFL quarterbacks, Ryan can be extremely good when he has a healthy play-action offense. An improved running game will not only give the Falcons more balance, it could also open up more big plays via play action.

The Falcons seemingly have their key running backs set with Steven Jackson as the lead back, Jacquizz Rodgers as the third-down back, and Jason Snelling and Antone Smith also in the mix. The Falcons could opt to bring in another young set of legs to bolster depth, particularly with Jackson and Snelling getting older.

Aug 15, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) communicates with the offensive line in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

But the best way to bolster the rushing attack will be by upgrading the offensive line.


Improving the Offensive Line

There is little doubt that the most glaring weakness of the Falcons offense is their line, which has struggled throughout the 2013 season.

Trying to make upgrades on this unit will certainly be a priority for the Falcons in the offseason. But which upgrades will be made is yet to be determined. The Falcons will continue to evaluate their players over the final three games of this season.

One of the keys for Atlanta will be bolstering competition next offseason and into training camp. Lamar Holmes has looked comfortable at the left tackle since taking over for an injured Sam Baker. He should remain on the left side to push Baker for the starting job next year.

Justin Blalock has been relatively steady at his left guard position. He is probably the only current lineman guaranteed a starting position in 2014.

Center Joe Hawley is a free agent, but he should be re-signed and become the incumbent in a competition at that position, possibly with Peter Konz.

Right guard and right tackle could be wide-open competitions, and those are the most likely positions the Falcons will try to upgrade. None of their options at those two positions have stood out with Konz, Garrett Reynolds, Jeremy Trueblood and Ryan Schraeder all likely to get long looks for the rest of the season.

If the team succeeds with upgrading the right side of the line via the draft, free agency or with in-house options, it will go a long way to improving both the ground game and pass protection.

And obviously if the pass protection is improved, it will give Ryan more time in the pocket to make the deeper drops required to throw the ball downfield.

But the Falcons will need to find better targets to make those downfield plays.


Improving the Wide Receivers

Getting a healthy Jones back will be a huge boost for the Falcons' wide receiver corps.

But the key for the Falcons is improving their depth. The lack of depth at wide receiver has really hurt the Falcons in 2013. The offense was ineffective during a six-week stretch when Jones and White were injured and hardly contributing.

While Harry Douglas has been productive in the absence of the two receivers ahead of him, he's never been an effective downfield threat, doing most of his damage on underneath routes and crossing patterns as a slot receiver.

Adding a receiver who can line up on the outside and help take the top off the defense is essential. It would give the Falcons a target for downfield passes and on play-action passes.

It would also allow the team to move White to the slot, where he could be more effective given his increased age and decreased speed. White just isn't the vertical threat he once was in his youth and can't be relied upon to play second fiddle to Jones, at least in terms of making the big plays. He's much more of a chain-mover at this point in his career, a skill that is better suited to playing inside than outside.

Oct 7, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo (80) catches a touchdown pass over New York Jets safety Dawan Landry (26) in the second half at the Georgia Dome. The Jets won 30-28. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons could get even more help if they not only add a vertical playmaker outside the numbers, but another one inside the numbers.


Improving the Tight Ends

All signs suggest that Tony Gonzalez is playing his final season in the NFL. Replacing the future Hall of Fame pass-catcher will be a priority for the Falcons next offseason.

While there are very few complaints one can make about a great tight end like Gonzalez, one that does arise is the fact that he doesn't generate very many big plays. In 77 games played with the Falcons over five seasons, Gonzalez has only 24 catches of 20 or more yards.

Compare that to New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who has 28 in his last 27 games. Graham is arguably the most dynamic tight end in the NFL, but the point remains that there is a huge gap between seemingly the best in Graham and Gonzalez.

Adding a player to the roster who can shrink that gap would benefit the Falcons greatly.

Gonzalez shines in the red zone and on third downs, and it would be foolish to expect whoever replaces him to come close to him there. But a playmaking tight end could somewhat compensate if he doubles or triples the number of big plays generated by the tight end position next season.

While the team did draft Levine Toilolo in the fourth round this year, his lack of playing time suggests that he may not be a serious candidate to start at tight end in 2014. Toilolo, in his limited playing time, hasn't really shown that he possesses big-play ability. He's been largely effective as an underneath receiver and red-zone option.

Adding another weapon at tight end gives the team a good insurance policy in the event that Toilolo doesn't show that big-play ability. It also opens up the potential for the Falcons offense to utilize more two-tight end offensive sets, which could help the running game as well as the pass attack.

Overall, the Falcons offense is a work in progress, and it would be somewhat naive to expect that they will go from an average team to an elite one in terms of their explosive potential in 2014.

As I've tried to illustrate, it's not going to be one guy like a Julio Jones-type of player who will take the Falcons to the upper tier of the league in that category. Instead, it's going to take multiple players, which could take multiple years before the end goal of being one of the premier explosive offenses is reached.

But Atlanta can start this offseason in the draft and free agency. And every successful move will be a significant stride forward for the future of this offense and team.


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