The smell of turf and pigskin is slowly approaching as the Atlanta Falcons training camp starts on August 7th. This offseason for the Falcons has been anything but ordinary. They introduced an almost entirely new administration in the front office and on the sidelines. They facilitated a trade that sent All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones to the Tennessee Titans. Not to mention drafting a potential generational talent in Kyle Pitts. As training camp draws closer, there will be a lot of changes and new faces in the red and black this year. With that, the Atlanta Falcons will have more questions than answers going into the 2021 season. However, there are three things specifically that we will need to see if Atlanta expects to field a winner this year.
Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Preview: Three Things to Focus on
Matt Ryan Has to be Matt Ryan again
Matt Ryan had, statistically speaking, an average year from a production standpoint. It is true that he did rack up 4500+ yards on the season and a 90+ Passer Rating. However, if you watched the games and saw how he looked in the pocket, he never seemed…comfortable. He threw 11 interceptions, which is around average to below average for an NFL quarterback. Also, he only threw 26 touchdowns, which is right around average for a starter. Is this what we are to expect from Ryan from now on?
There are certain aspects of the offense that could have attributed themselves to Ryan’s play. The offensive line did not protect Ryan very well. He was sacked 41 times last season, good for fifth-most in the NFL. The run game was almost nonexistent as they were 27th in rushing yards and 31st in Yards per Attempt. But there is hope.
Arthur Smith’s offense will remedy some of these with the scheme that he is going to implement in 2021. Smith is under the Shanahan coaching tree. The zone-running scheme that the Falcons are implementing matches the athletic linemen that they have in the linemen room. Not to mention off-season acquisitions Mike Davis and Javian Hawkins in the backfield. (Yes, Javian Hawkins, do not be surprised if he is a huge contributor very soon in this offense). Also, let us not forget that this is also the same scheme that Ryan won his MVP with only five short years ago.
This is not including the fact that Ryan has one of the better receiving corps, including tight ends, in the NFL. He has tight ends Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst alongside featured wideout Calvin Ridley to throw the ball to. Both Smith and Ryan have an opportune chance to develop this offense into a productive unit in 2021.
The New Faces Have to Execute
As the fourth-overall pick, Pitts will have huge expectations in an offense that prominently features tight end play. Hopefully, Pitts will also help with the Falcons’ 26th ranked Red Zone Percentage mark as well. With the departure of Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee to the Dallas Cowboys, second-round pick Richie Grant will have a chance to show his versatility early and often. Due to the lack of interior linemen, rookie Jalen Mayfield will be thrown into the fire throughout training camp. Late-round pick Frank Darby showed in OTAs that he can be a viable option for Ryan and Co. Expect the same from him throughout the preseason as he looks to carve out his role.
The new free agents brought into the organization will make or break this team this year. Especially those in the defensive secondary. As stated before, the Falcons were cut thin at the safety position due to key departures. To remedy that, the Falcons brought in savvy veteran Erik Harris and the opportunistic Duron Harmon. Other than second-year featured corner A.J. Terrell, the cornerback position has been lackluster, to say the least. Last year’s secondary was ranked dead last in passing yards allowed and 29th in Net Yards per Attempt. Fontenot brought in veteran Fabian Moreau, a cog in the Washington Football Team machine last year to help clog the passing lanes.
The Defense Has to Show Up
One thing I like about Dean Pees is that he is forward-thinking. He does not force players to assimilate and be uncomfortable. He adapts his game plan to the players he has available and uses whoever he has to the best of their abilities. For instance, Pees noticed how the Falcons were best in the game against Kansas City Chiefs last year while blitzing. Therefore, he iterates how he will have a focus on blitzing from various points on the field to keep the offense guessing.
It is a simple concept, but it is something to notice. This flexibility allows the powers that be to bring in more talented players than players that “fit a mold”. Thus, giving the defense that much higher of a ceiling. While the ceiling may not be as high going into this season, this year’s training camp will be vital to the development of some of the younger talent.
One thing that Pees needs to work with this unit on is getting off the field. The Falcons were ranked 27th in net yards per drive and 21st in net points scored per drive. They were also in the bottom half of the league in third-down percentage. Pees’ defenses are known for their aggressive nature and turnover production so maybe he can instill these traits this year for the Atlanta Falcons in this year’s training camp.
Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Expectations
This year’s training camp will be exciting to watch not because of the expectations of the new regime. But more because of the endless possibilities that surround this young Atlanta Falcons team. Football fans have no idea what to expect from Atlanta from year to year. This year’s offseason did nothing but raise even more question marks about what is going to come out of Flowery Branch this fall. I cannot tell you the answer to that, but I do know one thing: It should make for some very exciting football.
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