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Arizona Cardinals Opponent Preview: Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons are looking to rebound from a down 2014 and 2015, can they?

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Falcons are in a weird position. They have their franchise quarterback and talent around their offense, but they don’t seem to be in a prime position to make an impact in 2016.

The Falcoholic took a look at what the expectations are for the Atlanta Falcons in 2016.

Atlanta’s offense struggled last season, particularly with turnovers. What are your expectations for that group this year, and particularly for Matt Ryan?

Definitely better results for this year, though I don’t think it’s going to be the elite offensive unit Falcons fans are hoping for. Regardless of Kyle Shanahan’s past history with quarterbacks, I fully expect Ryan to improve in his second year in the system, turning the ball over fewer times and finding more success in the passing game thanks to an improved supporting cast.With Julio Jones, Tevin Coleman, and Devonta Freeman, you have to think this offense will be on the edge of the top ten this year, but we’ll need to see if Mohamed Sanu can be a legitimate weapon before I go further than that.

Defensively, the Falcons still have a lot of room for improvement over last year’s performance. How do you think rookies Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell can help the defense improve?

Just from a speed and physicality standpoint, they can’t help but improve the defense, even if they all make their fair share of rookie mistakes. The Falcons’ defense has been too slow, too prone to missed tackles, and too unathletic for a long time now. What Jones, Campbell and Neal bring to the table is the kind of physicality and speed Dan Quinn talks about constantly, and that should at least make this defense more watchable.

The addition of wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in free agency got a lot of attention, primarily because of his salary. Do you think Sanu can effectively fill the role vacated by Roddy White?

I think Sanu will be much more involved in the passing game, so he can’t help but outproduce the 2015 version of Roddy White. There’s a lot of curiosity around why the Falcons were so enthusiastic about signing a guy who never really made an outsized impact in Cincinnati, and while he’s had his moments in camp, we haven’t really seen anything just yet that answers that question.

I think it’s fair to expect Sanu to be a passable #2, a useful gadget player, and a capable blocker when the Falcons decide to run, and that’ll be enough to give the offense a little bit of a boost. I’m just not sure I expect more than that.

How do you think the addition of veteran center Alex Mack, who has experience in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, makes a difference for the Falcons offense, especially when interior line play was so poor last season?

It’s a massive upgrade for Atlanta. Mike Person did a solid job blocking a year ago, all things considered, but Mack is simply a better blocker, and the occasional botched snap simply shouldn’t happen with him at the pivot. With Atlanta trotting out Mack alongside terrific young tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder, they can afford to rehash their 2015 guard play without dooming the offense. It was a terrific signing, albeit an expensive one.

The pass rush has been a weakness for the Falcons for years. Are the Falcons actually going to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, and how?

Yes and no. Adding Dwight Freeney to the mix gives the Falcons a genuinely dangerous part-time pass rusher, one who can put up eight sacks and plenty of pressure in a limited role. They also have physical Derrick Shelby mixing in at defensive tackle and defensive end, Vic Beasley in his second (and hopefully fully healthy) season, and that added speed at linebacker should allow the Falcons to get their full front seven more involved in bringing heat on opposing quarterbacks.For all that, Beasley and Freeney are the only real potential impact pass rushers on the entire team, and this is still going to be a pretty mediocre pass rush overall as a result. Baby steps.

What is your overall impression of Dan Quinn so far as a head coach?

By and large, I think he’s been a good coach for Atlanta, though he made a lot of rookie mistakes in his first year. He’s got a better eye for talent than the previous regime (again, from what we’ve seen in limited exposure), he’s upbeat and very well-liked by his players, and there’s a plan here that relies more on adding speed, physicality, and raw talent to the roster than relying on finesse and outcoaching opponents.

The Falcons haven’t had a winning season since 2012. What are the three main things you think the team needs to do to finish with a winning record in 2016?

Stay healthy, first of all. There’s simply not enough quality depth at positions like tackle, wide receiver, and throughout most of the defense for the Falcons to absorb any genuine losses without serious repercussions.

They’ll also need to rush the passer more effectively. This has been a very limited defense in years past, because they rarely put pressure on quarterbacks, which forces them to keep gains small and get turnovers to get the ball back to the offense, and they haven’t excelled at either of those things.

Finally, it’s about limiting turnovers. The Falcons were done in at least three times a year ago by dumb interceptions, fumbles, and botched snaps, and if the offense improves just a little bit and cleans those up, this will be a much better team.

Who's the fan favorite player, the cult hero [think how John Kuhn used to be in Green Bay] and why?

I think Jonathan Babineaux is about as beloved as it gets in Atlanta, though he doesn’t enjoy the same lusty cheers (his name is also a little longer than Kuhn’s, so that doesn’t help). He’s the longest-tenured Falcon, he’s truly a tremendous player, and he’s done a ton for the community. USS Babineaux is also a great nickname, so he’s got that going for him.

How does the first month of the season go for the Falcons? The last month of the season? What's the final record going to be?

The first month is going to be absolutely brutal, given the difficulty of the schedule. I’d like to think they’ll go .500, but can see them stumbling badly out of the gate to a 1-3 mark. The last month should go better, say 2-2, but I expect them to make the most hay in the middle of the season. Better team, same record as in 2015, at 8-8.