Atlanta Falcons Blog

Atlanta Falcons blog by D. Orlando Ledbetter, the pro football and Atlanta Falcons reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Cover 9@9: Falcons post high mid-season grades

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Matt Ryan threw an 11-yard touchdown to Mohamed Sanu with 31 seconds remaining to lift the Falcons to a 33-32 win over the Packers. The AJC's D. Orlando Ledbetter reports from the Georgia Dome.

Good morning! The Cover 9@9 is a weekly blog of everything you need to know about the Atlanta Falcons, we published 9 items at 9 a.m. each Wednesday morning. With the short week, we had to skip the report card on the Green Bay game in order to take a long look at the mid-season grades we present today.

1. MID-SEASON REPORT CARD – The Falcons are a surprising 5-3 heading into the second-half of the NFL season.

The spectacular play of quarterback Matt Ryan and the fleet of receivers has allowed the young defense to continue to develop under second-year coach Dan Quinn.

If the Falcons are going to make some strides in the second half of the season and return to the playoffs, the young defense – which features four rookies and three second-year players at times -- must step forward and turn in some complete games.

The offense is ranked in the top half of the league in every key category, while defense is ranked 29th (points allowed, 28.9), 25th (total yards allowed, 379.3), and 24th (passing yards, 285.4).

The unit has a huge upside that must be realized in the second half of the season for the Falcons to return to the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl.

Quinn has high hopes for the unit.

“They wouldn’t be in there if we didn’t have big-time faith in what they are doing,” Quinn said. “I can promise you that. We have faith and trust in them to get the job done, that much we know.

“We want to make sure that we are not repeating any mistakes that may have happened previously. If there is an error or technique issue, that one is not coming up again.

“We love our tackling. That part, for sure, we can feel the speed that we have. We are not there yet ball-hawk wise. That part for that group, they can, the entire defense, for sure, can bring it up. We are going to continue to keep sharping it up, sharping it up with reps. We are going to continue to get better.”

The Falcons are plus-two in turnover differential which is tied for 10th in the league.

The Falcons are guarding against the young defense hitting the wall in the second half of the season.

“For rookies it is longer, what we try to educate them and the older guys help look after them too, that’s part of their responsibility as teammates, is helping to educate them,” Quinn said. “This is what I did as a rook. This is how I do my process now to get ready. The athletic performance staff, Marty (Lauzon) and his crew, we work hard with those guys as well.

“It’s a mindset. If you feel like you’re tired, you might be. If you feel like you’ve got the juice and you’re ready, you probably do. So, we talk that way, too.”

Here are the mid-season grades by position:

2. QUARTERBACKS: A-plus -- Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has diversified the passing attack this season by completing passes to eight or nine receivers in most of the games. Ryan has completed passes to at least eight receivers in seven of games. He completed passes to seven receivers in the Denver game. The diversified passing attack has allowed him to flourish and help keep defenses off balanced. Ryan also set the NFL record for 46 consecutive games of passing for 200 yards or more and pushed the record out to 47 games against the Packers. Several long-time observers believe that Ryan is playing the best football of his career as he leads the league in passing with 2,636 yards. The Falcons are ranked first in scoring (32.8 points a game) and in total offense (425.3 yards per game). The only blemish on Ryan’s first-half were the two late-game interceptions against Seattle and San Diego that led to defeats.

3. RUNNING BACKS: A -- Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have rushed the ball effectively as the team has averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Freeman has 116 rushes for 543 yards and three touchdowns. Coleman, who’s been slowed by a hamstring injury, had a strong seven games. He’s rushed

59 times for 234 yards and five touchdowns. Terron Ward came out of the bullpen and has averaged 7.7 yards per carry in limited action. Freeman and Coleman are interchangeable in the team’s outside-zone run system. Coleman and Freeman have been nightmares for linebackers to cover out of the backfield. Freeman has caught 26 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Coleman, who worked on his pass catching over the offseason, has caught 19 passes for 330 yards and one touchdown. He’s displayed receiver-like skills while gobbling up yards after the catch.

4. WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: A -- All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones has been the main target with 43 receptions for 859 yards and four touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu has been a good pick up. He’s caught 32 passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns. Ryan has also used his tight ends and running backs.  Combined, Atlanta's tight ends – Jacob Tamme, Levine Toilolo and rookie Austin Hopper -- have made 39 catches for 500 yards and five touchdowns this year. None of them have dropped a pass in 2016, per The receivers and tight ends have also played a key role in the run-game with their blocking.

5. OFFENSIVE LINE: A – The addition of Alex Mack has helped to solidify the interior of the offensive line. Left guard Andy Levitre must be commended for eliminating the rash of penalties that marred his play in 2015. The Falcons tried to replace right guard Chris Chester over the offseason, but the bidding got too high for J.R. Sweezy. Chester beat back a challenge from rookie Wes Schweitzer to retain the job. While he’s been battling away, he’s struggled at time in pass protection. The young

tackles, left tackle Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder, are having strong campaigns. After giving up three pressures against the Chargers, Matthews had a perfect pass protection day against the Packers. On 43 pass blocks, he did not give up a single sack, hit or hurry. He also tossed a shutout against Denver in the fifth game of the season. Schraeder battled Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and held him to one sack and four hurries. He showed his worthiness against top-flight competition against the Broncos.

6. DEFENSIVE LINE: B -- The Falcons are giving up 93.9 yards rushing per game which ranks 11th in the league. Veterans Tyson Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux have showed second-year tackle Grady Jarrett how to survive in the trenches. The loss of Derrick Shelby to an Achilles injury hurt the depth, but the development of converted-linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been impressive. The defense has given up four runs of 20 yards or more which is tied for 16th in league. Only three teams, Oakland, New Orleans and Green Bay, have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Falcons this season. The Falcons won all three of those games.  The big news here has been the revival of the pass rush. Vic Beasley (7.5 sacks), Adrian Clayborn (3.5) and Dwight Freeney (3) have combined to lead a legitimate pass rush. The Falcons have 18 sacks, which is 11th in the league. Last season, they had just 19 sacks, which was last in the league.

7. LINEBACKERS: C-plus -- The Falcons were hit hard in this position group by injuries to four players in De’Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones, Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon, who was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. Campbell missed four games with a high-ankle sprain. Jones missed one game with an ankle injury. Worrilow missed four games after having groin surgery. Jones has shown some big-play capability. He returned an interception 90 yards for a touchdown against the Saints. He also had an interception against San Diego. The injury clearly slowed Campbell, a fourth-round pick from Minnesota, who was the rave of the exhibition season. Philip Wheeler had been a dependable backup against the run. Jones leads the group with 45 tackles.

8. DEFENSIVE BACKS: C-plus -- The coverage must improve in the second half of the season as they are giving up 285.4 yards per game, which ranks tied for 27th in the league. The pass defense has been hurt at times by cornerback Robert Alford, who has eight penalties and has committed a penalty in five of the eight games. He has five defensive pass interference calls. Nickel back Brian Poole, an undrafted rookie, has been solid. Desmond Trufant has been strong as he’s taken on the opposition’s top receiver when the Falcons decide to play man-to-man coverage. Rookie strong safety Keanu Neal has helped with the coverage of tight ends and been a physical presence against the run.

9a. SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus – Kicker Matt Bryant broke former Falcons kicker Morten Andersen’s franchise record for points scored. Bryant broke the record on an extra point in the first quarter following Taylor Gabriel’s 47-yard touchdown reception. He now has 812 points, and he’s connected on 17-of-18 field goals this season, ranking him fourth in the NFL in field goal percentage. Punter Matt Bosher is averaging 46.5 gross and 41.3 net, which is ninth in the league. He has placed 13 punts down inside the 20, which it tied for ninth in the league. The Falcons are averaging 21.5 yards per kickoff return, which is 17th in the league. The Falcons are averaging 13.8 yards per punt return with is fourth in the league. They have made 10 fair catches.

9b. COACHING: A – The Falcons have fixed their problems on offense. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has tailored the attack to better suit Ryan. He’s also running more no-huddle in order to keep defenses off balance. He’s been able to get Jones the ball, but hasn’t figured out how to break him free in the red zone. Shanahan has dazzled the opposition with an array of formations. He masterfully used 13 personnel -- one back, three tight ends -- against the Raiders to help slow down their outside rush. The Falcons have made it a habit of going to an empty backfield set with 21 personnel -- two backs and one tight end -- and then hitting the running backs deep down the field against some poor linebacker. The defense is a work in progress. The Falcons knew it would be that way when they elected to start four rookies and three second-year players (we count Ricardo Allen as a second-year free safety) in their base and nickel package. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox has done a masterful job creating a pass rush. They have resorted to blitzes and stunts to get the much-needed pressure. The hope is that the young unit will continue to improve over the second half of the season.

9c. OVERALL GRADE: A -- The Falcons would have earned an A-plus if they had not blown late leads against Seattle and San Diego and were sitting at 7-1 at the halfway point.

9d. DEPTH CHART:  Falcons tight end Jacob Tamme, who suffered a shoulder injury against Green Bay, will not play against Tampa Bay at 8:25 p.m. Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium.

Tamme is the team’s fourth-leading receiver with 22 catches for 210 yards and three touchdowns.

Rookie Austin Hooper, a third-round pick from Stanford, will take the first-team repetitions this week. Hooper has caught 11 passes for 195 yards and one touchdown.

Also, Levin Toilolo will be used in the double tight end formations. Joshua Perkins, who has been inactive for all eight games, will likely be activated.

(The team calls it an ‘unofficial’ depth chart. But if they are releasing it, for our purposes that makes it pretty official.)


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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.