This season, the Atlanta Falcons have taken their game to new heights and done a complete turnaround from 2015 under second-year head coach Dan Quinn. Last season, the Falcons finished with a record of 8-8 despite a 5-0 start.
Atlanta did not falter late this season, getting stronger with the most prolific offense and tough defense in the NFL. Quinn, along with his offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Richard Smith, helped Atlanta reach an 11-5 record and a No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Matt Ryan, who will likely be named MVP, completed 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards, 38 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. Jones had 83 receptions for 1,409 yards and six touchdowns.
While Ryan and Jones were putting up astronomical numbers on a weekly basis, they were also getting help out of backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Last season, Atlanta’s running game averaged 100.4 yards per game, which was good for 19th in the NFL. Freeman handled the majority of carries last season for Atlanta, while Coleman was still trying to gain his footing in the league.
This season, the Falcons are averaging 120.5 yards on the ground, which puts them fifth in the NFL. The only other playoff team ranked higher than Atlanta is the Dallas Cowboys, who are second in the league.
This season, Freeman ran for 1,079 yards on 227 carries and had 11 touchdowns. He also helped out in the receiving game too with 54 receptions for 462 yards and two touchdowns. Coleman surpassed his rookie rushing yard total from last season (392) with 520 yards on 118 carries and eight touchdowns. Just like Freeman, Coleman was a factor in the receiving game with 31 receptions for 421 yards and three touchdowns.
The Falcons’ offensive line also performed better in 2016, ranking 10th in run blocking with 4.09 adjusted line yards, according to Football Outsiders. The Falcons’ offensive line is also ranked seventh in second level yards (1.30) and ranked third in open field yards (1.20). When your offensive line is having that much success, the running backs will reap the benefits.
While the Falcons’ 1-2 punch at running back has helped their offense tremendously, they aren’t the only skill level difference makers. Last season, the Falcons’ wide receivers outside of Jones did not get the job done. In fact, Freeman was second in receptions behind Jones with 73. Tight end Jacob Tamme was third with 59 and Roddy White was fourth with 43 receptions.
The Falcons made it a priority in the offseason to upgrade the wide receiver position to give both Ryan and Jones help. They did that by signing both Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel in free agency.
Sanu has done a great job complementing Jones, like he did in his first four years with the Cincinnati Bengals playing across from A.J. Green. Playing on the other side of Jones, Sanu has 59 receptions (career-high) for 653 yards and four touchdowns.
Then in the slot, Gabriel made life hard for opposing defensive coordinators, en route to a career year. This season, Gabriel had 50 receptions for 579 yards and six touchdowns. In his two years with the Browns, Gabriel only had one touchdown.
The Falcons have used him perfectly and in the process, Gabriel has given them more explosiveness to an already explosive offense.
Switching to the other side of the ball, the Falcons’ defense took their game to another level in 2016. After a disappointing 2015 season, where they only had 19 sacks and 23 takeaways as a team, the defense needed to rebound this season.
Last year around this time, I wrote about how Quinn and the Falcons’ defense made a subtle improvement. If last season was a subtle improvement, then this season was a meteoric rise.
In comparison to last season, the Falcons’ defense this season has 34 sacks, which is good for 18th in the league. This was a drastic improvement from 19 sacks last season and credit can go to their second-year linebacker Vic Beasley.
Beasley was drafted with the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft and was known as a disruptive pass rusher at Clemson. As a rookie, he only had four sacks, but this season he has an outstanding 15.5 sacks. Despite only playing 60.5 percent of defensive snaps, his 15.5 sacks lead the NFL.
Opposing offensive coordinators have to gameplan for Beasley every week because he can and will cause havoc. Outside of Beasley, the Falcons have two rookies contributing immensely and both players can make a claim to being Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Deion Jones and Keanu Neal have led a resurgence in Atlanta’s linebacker and secondary units. Jones, who was drafted in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft has 106 tackles, 11 pass deflections, three interceptions (two that were returned for touchdowns), and a forced fumble. He also leads the linebackers with 79.6 percent of defensive snaps played.
Then, you have Neal, who was drafted in the first round of the 2016 draft. He has brought a new blood and intensity to the defense. Neal, the hard-hitting free safety out of Florida has 105 tackles, eight pass deflections, and five forced fumbles. He brings that toughness to the Falcons’ secondary, which Quinn used to have in Seattle with Kam Chancellor.
There is more to the Falcons’ success this season than just Ryan and Jones playing well with Quinn making the right calls. It’s also the play of a young running game, which will be a force to be reckoned with and a defense that has young studs at all three levels.