Despite the fact that the Olympics have only just started, football season is right around the corner and the Atlanta Falcons begin their 2016 season with a preseason matchup against last years NFC East champions, the Washington Redskins. Here are a few things to keep an eye out for during the game on Thursday.
Young defensive pieces hoping to make an impact:
Going into his second year as head coach, Dan Quinn will be hoping to build on some of the momentum he started with the defense last season. Quinn took a team that finished 27th in team defense in 2014 and made them much more respectable in his rookie season, moving them up to a much more respectable 14th. The hope throughout Flowery Branch is that young players such as Vic Beasley Jr., Grady Jarrett and Ricardo Allen will make big steps forward this year and provide either one or two more legitimate stars to go alongside Pro Bowl Cornerback Desmond Trufant.
Jarrett was impressive during his rookie season last year and has been rewarded for his strong performances with the teams starting nose tackle position. Beasley was drafted 8th overall in last year’s draft. After spending last year as a defensive end where he struggled against the run, Thursday will mark his first game in a new hybrid SLB role that Quinn enjoyed so much success with when he was in Seattle. His speed and mobility are a great fit for the position and playing in space will hopefully allow him more opportunities to force turnovers.
How will the Offensive Line hold up?
In terms of offensive weapons, there’s no doubt that Atlanta has the sort of talent that a lot of fan bases dream of. Between Julio Jones, Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman, there is genuine star power and in his previous jobs, offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan has always had success. Tevin Coleman and De’Vondre Campbell have been the offensive standouts so far in camp and when you include new free agent signing Mohamed Sanu in the mix, there’s plenty of depth as well at those skill positions.
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The biggest concern for Atlanta Falcons fans and coaches alike throughout training camp has been an offensive line that left a lot to be desired in 2015. With no clear center on the roster, the Falcons spent big, bringing in Pro Bowler Alex Mack in from Cleveland on a $45 million contract and they are hoping that his presence will lead to improved play across the line, particularly guard Andy Levitre. The early performance in camp has been middling and the offense as a whole has struggled to find a rhythm for much of camp. Thursday is an important opportunity for that side of the ball to show improvement.
Chris Baker and Ryan Kerrigan both have the capability to terrorize offensive lines. Josh Norman now leads a pretty talented secondary unit in Washington so a strong performance, particularly from the Atlanta Falcons offensive line, would really vindicate some of the team’s off-season moves.
Good or bad Matt Ryan?
After a 2015 season where he at times seemed overwhelmed dealing with Kyle Shannahan’s new system, there’s no doubt that the Falcons need Ryan back to his best in 2016 if they are to stand a chance of dethroning the Panthers for the NFC South. In 2015 he threw for only 21 touchdown passes, the least since his rookie year in 2008 and 16 interceptions, the second most he has ever thrown. Atlanta needs him back to pro bowl form this season if they’re going to be successful.
A lot of Atlanta Falcons fans have blamed Shannahan for Ryan’s struggles last year and they will be watching closely, expecting improvement in 2016. The longer it takes for that to come, the more pressure both the quarterback and his offensive coordinator will be under.