Falcons’ offense set tone, now division rivals trying to copy script

The Falcons and their video-game offense last season led the NFL in touchdowns, points and percentage of games in which opposing defenses appeared to either hyperventilate, pass out or say, “To hell with it. I’m out of here.” They wound up in the Super Bowl.

It follows that when Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht wrote the word “SPEED” on a grease board in his office several months ago, it was about trying to catch up in the division. That meant not only trying to slow the Falcons’ offense, but closing the gap on offense with their NFC South Division rivals.

Tampa Bay was determined to give weapons to quarterback Jameis Winston. So they signed free-agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson and drafted tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Chris Godwin to go with Winston’s top two targets last season, receiver Mike Evans and tight end Cameron Brate.

“I asked (coach) Dirk (Koetter) if we should start calling him ‘Air Coryell,’” Licht said after the draft, a reference to the vertical offense of San Diego’s Don Coryell in the early 1980s.

The Falcons, for much of the franchise’s existence, have been in search of the right blueprint for success. Now that they’ve found it, it appears division rivals are mimicking them. The theory seems to be: “If we can’t stop the Falcons, let’s try to outscore them.”

Carolina spent its first three draft picks on offense: running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver Curtis Samuel and guard Taylor Moton. They also signed free agent left tackle Matt Kalil.

New Orleans, trying to squeeze the most out of 38-year-old Drew Brees while he’s still around, added running back Adrian Peterson in free agency, drafted another back (Alvin Kamara) and a tackle (Ryan Ramczyk) and signed receiver Ted Ginn.

So who will reign in the NFC South? Barring injuries, probably still the Falcons, and not just because of their offense. Here’s a recap of this offseason’s key moves in the division and what it all means.


They’re still the best team in the division, and it’s not just because they have the best offense. Dan Quinn’s young defense got significantly better down the stretch last season, and it did so without its best player: cornerback Desmond Trufant, who will return from a torn pectoral.

It doesn’t seem likely that Dwight Freeney, who was a solid mentor for Vic Beasley in 2016 and had what looked (for a while) like a key sack in the Super Bowl, will be back. (Freeney also may retire.) But the defensive front and the pass rush should be better with the additions of first-round pick Takk McKinley, defensive tackle Dontari Poe and end Jack Crawford.

On offense, expect tight end Austin Hooper to have an increased role. The biggest question is whether offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian can adequately replace Kyle Shanahan while handling his real-life issues. But it helps that Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and others have worked in this offense for two years, and Sarkisian isn’t expected to make significant changes.


The DeSean Jackson signing is huge. He’s 30 years old, but he led the NFL last season with an average of 17.9 yards per catch and had 19 of 20-plus yards. Having Jackson and two big targets in Mike Evans (6-foot-5) and O.J. Howard (6-6) also will make the Bucs difficult to defend in the red zone, especially with the mobile Winston (ask the Falcons about that).

If there’s one question about the Bucs’ offense, it’s at running back. Doug Martin is coming off his worst season, spent part of the offseason in a drug-rehab facility and will sit out a suspension for the season’s first three games (Adderall). But there’s only so much Tampa Bay can do there because Martin’s only one year into a five-year, $35.75 million contract ($15 million guaranteed).

The Bucs’ other issue: defense. With the Falcons and others in mind, they got stronger at safety (second-round pick Justin Evans, signing J.J. Wilcox), and Gerald McCoy is still one of the league’s best interior linemen. But I question how much Mike Smith can do with this group.


The Panthers are only two years removed from going 15-1 and playing in the Super Bowl. But I balk at putting them second for mostly one reason: Cam Newton. He was the MVP in 2015, but leadership and maturity have been questioned since.

He’s also coming off statistically the worst season of his career, with a completion percentage of only 52.9, a touchdown-interception breakdown of 19-14 and a 75.8 rating — which ranked 28th in the NFL, right between Case Keenum and Brock Osweiler. Some of that can be attributed to having to do it all himself, but it doesn’t explain everything.

McCaffrey and Samuel should help. But how much better will the Panthers be on defense after slipping from sixth overall in yards allowed and scoring in 2015 to 21st and and 26th, respectively? They got sentimental in bringing back Julius Peppers (who’s 37 years old) and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and drafted end Daeshon Hall from Texas A&M. But the void left by Josh Norman’s departure remains significant, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly has missed nine games in the past two seasons because of concussions.

Carolina won’t go 6-10 again, but there are enough questions to put the team third.


If there’s one consensus opinion about the division next season, it’s that the Saints will finish last. That may sound strange with the addition of Adrian Peterson, but think about it: He’s a 32-year-old running back who missed most of last season with a major knee injury.

The defense remains a train wreck. (When Dennis Allen was hired last season, he became the fifth defensive coordinator to work under coach Sean Payton.) The Saints finished 27th in total defense and 31st in points allowed, so it didn’t really matter how good the offense was. They finished second in the NFL in scoring to the Falcons, but second to last in points allowed, with a differential of plus-15.

New Orleans is attempting to address the problem. It had six picks in the first three rounds and used four of those on defense: cornerback Marshon Lattimore (first round), safety Marcus Williams (second), linebackers Alex Anzalone and Trey Hendrickson (third). That said, New Orleans’ player evaluation on defense has not been great, so it’s best to reserve judgment.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Atlanta Falcons

Falcons have a vacancy at fullback 
Falcons have a vacancy at fullback 

Today: Fullback Last offseason, the Falcons thought they had a deal for the return of fullback Patrick DiMarco. However, there was a delay in a signing after a family emergency due to a death. By the time DiMarco returned, he had a more lucrative offer from the Bills and the Pro Bowler was gone. The Falcons ended up going with Derrick Coleman, who&rsquo...
VOTE: How many games will Falcons win in 2018?
VOTE: How many games will Falcons win in 2018?

The Atlanta Falcons will open the 2018 season against the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in a rematch of last season’s NFC Divisional Playoff Game. » Game-by-game breakdown: 2018 Falcons schedule The Eagles are already favored to win the first game. Atlanta will play its three divisional rivals within the first six weeks...
Falcons have a gaping hole at defensive tackle 
Falcons have a gaping hole at defensive tackle 

The Falcons’ board is set for the draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday in Arlington, Texas. The question is not if the Falcon will select a defensive tackle, it’s when they will do so.  The Falcons have a gaping hole at defensive tackle with the departure of starter Dontari Poe. He signed with the Panthers in free agency...
Falcons schedule: Game-by-game breakdown
Falcons schedule: Game-by-game breakdown

The Falcons’ 2018 schedule was released on Thursday night and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Falcons beat writer D. Orlando Ledbetter broke down each opponent for the upcoming season. After the exhibition schedule, the Falcons will play at the Eagles in a rematch of last year’s NFC Divisional Playoff game to kick off the NFL season. Friday...
Trust Thomas Dimitroff to draft for Falcons? Here’s why you should
Trust Thomas Dimitroff to draft for Falcons? Here’s why you should

Has Thomas Dimitroff redeemed himself? Eleven drafts into his gig the Atlanta Falcons’ general manager, the son of a former coach and longtime scout, the former kid who cut grass and lined the field as a member of the Cleveland Browns’ groundscrew, has certainly come a long way. » Jeff Schultz: Time to forget Falcons&rsquo...
More Stories