2016 Atlanta Falcons: Why they are Super Bowl Contenders

Oct 9, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) celebrate the win over the Denver Broncos in the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Falcons defeated the Broncos 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 9, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) and quarterback Matt Ryan (2) celebrate the win over the Denver Broncos in the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Falcons defeated the Broncos 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Falcons are off to a fast start like last year. Here’s why 2016 will be different.

The Atlanta Falcons have been here before. In fact, it was just last year that the Falcons were 5-0 and sitting atop the NFC South. So why should fans believe 2016 will be any different?

Well for starters, the level of competition the Falcons have defeated in 2016 has been drastically more impressive than in 2015. Per Mike Conti, Atlanta possesses the highest strength of victory of the top nine contenders in the NFL.

In contrast, the Falcons of yesteryear “boasted” wins against the entire NFC Least (division winner Washington finished at 9-7) and the AFC South juggernaut Houston Texans, who also finished at 9-7.

But it’s okay if you’re still not convinced. That was just the appetizer on why the 2016 version of the Atlanta Falcons are contenders, unlike their 2015 pretender self. The following slides will break down exactly why you should believe in this model of the Dirty Birds.

Oct 9, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks to pass the football in the second half against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Falcons defeated the Broncos 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 9, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) looks to pass the football in the second half against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Falcons defeated the Broncos 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Versatile Offense

The Falcons are flying high into their matchup with Seattle, riding a four game win streak. In those four victories, Atlanta has demonstrated the ability to beat their opponent in a variety of ways.

Against Oakland in week 2, all cylinders were firing at max capacity. Matt Ryan spread the ball around to nine different receivers — his full arsenal of weapons — in route to an impressive 35-28 triumph.

Week 3 brought a similar result against bitter division rival New Orleans. Eight receivers touched the ball in the game, but only one reception was recorded by the almighty Julio Jones. The Falcons did most of their damage on the ground, rushing for a season high 217 yards on 31 attempts. Atlanta cruised to a 45-32 victory.

In game four, Julio Jones more than made up for his quiet night from the week before. “Jet” shredded the Carolina Panthers secondary for a franchise record 300 yards, becoming only the fourth receiver during the Super Bowl era to accomplish this feat. The Panthers had no answer for the Falcons aerial assault and the final score indicated it—Falcons 48, Panthers 33.

Last week presented the season’s stiffest challenge to date. The defenses faced in the three prior weeks all had dreadful secondaries. The same could not be said for the Falcons’ week 5 adversary, thanks to the Broncos’ “No-Fly Zone” secondary.

However, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan saw the chink in Denver’s defensive armor — their linebacking corps. Shanahan isolated linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis in coverage on arguably the Falcons fastest playmaker, running back Tevin Coleman.

The matchup proved to be no contest. Tevin exploited the Broncos for 132 receiving yards, including a 31-yard touchdown grab that put the game on ice.

These four games demonstrated that the 2016 Falcons have multiple ways to beat you. Gone are the days where Julio Jones has to have a Herculean effort for the Falcons to leave victorious.

For context, Jones was targeted 203 times out of a possible 621 passes last season. Factoring in that Julio racked up 1871 of the 4602 receiving yards and it becomes apparent how reliant the Falcons offense was on their star receiver in 2015.

Jones projected stat line this season is 77 catches on 131 targets for 1654 yards. While the yardage is comparable, the catches and targets are a far cry from his previous campaign.

And the Falcons are better off because of it. The Falcons were 2-5 last year when Matt Ryan threw the ball over 40 times. Atlanta has had no such games this year, thanks to a more balanced approach in year two of Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

The 2015 Falcons became a one dimensional offense during their second half meltdown due to the regression of their ground game. The 2016 running attack has showed no signs of slowing down, which brings us to the next reason why this team will not falter down the stretch.

Oct 9, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney (93) pass rushes on Denver Broncos offensive tackle Russell Okung (73) in the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Falcons defeated the Broncos 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 9, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney (93) pass rushes on Denver Broncos offensive tackle Russell Okung (73) in the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Falcons defeated the Broncos 23-16. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Improved Line Play

The football purist will agree that the game is won in the trenches. A big reason for the 2016 Falcons success has been the improved play of both the offensive and defensive lines.

We’ll start first with the offensive line. The Falcons addressed the line’s biggest weakness by going out and acquiring three time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. Through five weeks, Mack is in the running for best free agent signing of the entire 2016 offseason.

The former Cleveland Brown has been a major upgrade over last year’s starter Mike Person, who ranked as PFF’s 27th ranked center. Mack has uplifted the play of the interior linemen, once considered a sore spot, and assumed the protection calling duties. The result: a passing offense that ranks first in nearly every statistical category and a rushing attack that sits at seventh in yards per game.

The work the offensive line has done in the run game is even more impressive when you consider this stat. Per Zoltan Buday, the Falcons are second in the league in average yards before contact at 2.42, meaning the Atlanta linemen are winning their battle more often than not.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line has been on an upward swing over the last couple of weeks. Against Cam Newton and the Panthers, the Falcons front four harassed the reigning MVP all day, connecting on eight quarterback hits. The pass rush followed that up with a six sack performance last week against the Denver Broncos.

And the thing is, the Falcons haven’t changed their personnel all that much from last year. Outside of depth signings Derrick Shelby and Dwight Freeney, this is the same cast of characters that registered a putrid 19 total sacks in 2015.

The difference in play has mainly been two fold. The Falcons got back to stopping the run the last two weeks, much like they did in the first half of last season. Atlanta held the Panthers and Broncos to 49 and 84 rushing yards, respectively, in their last two games.

Secondly, the defensive line has started to work more in unison in terms of planning out their pass rush. No player has that been more apparent from than 2015 first round pick, Vic Beasley.

Beasley terrorized Broncos right tackle Ty Sambrailo for four sacks, two of which resulted in forced fumbles of the quarterback. The former 8th overall pick got back to what made him a highly coveted prospect out of college, his speed.

Sambrailo was no match for Beasley’s first step quickness. And when he wasn’t beating his man around the corner, Vic was forcing the Broncos right tackle to false start. The illustration below from Blogging Dirty’s own Scott Carasik demonstrates just how fast Beasley was in last Sunday’s game.

And before you say rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch held onto the ball too long, Lynch actually did the opposite. Per Cecil Lammey, the Broncos quarterback got rid of the ball at the 7th fastest clip in week 5.

Last week’s outburst by the Falcons pass rush was a case of Atlanta simply beating their man. If they can continue to do that like they have the last two weeks, the 2016 Falcons become a complete football team.

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; The crowd reacts after Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford (23) returns an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of their game against the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 48-33. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; The crowd reacts after Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford (23) returns an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of their game against the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons won 48-33. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Turnover Differential

But even the most talent laden rosters can unravel due to boneheaded penalties or turnovers. If you ask anyone what the 2015 Falcons main problem was, they’d tell you it was turnovers.

The numbers suggest it too. Atlanta ranked in the bottom third of the league last year in turnover margin at -7. Their 30 giveaways was the third highest figure surrendered during the 2015 season.

To put it into perspective, 11 of the 12 playoff representatives from a year ago had a positive turnover differential. Ironically enough, the team that didn’t was the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

The Falcons, however, still do not have the type of defense that can bail them out of such a hole. The 2016 Falcons have done a better job taking care of the ball, currently sitting at sixth in the NFL in that department with a +3 differential.

While the team only has six takeaways through five games, the 2016 Falcons have made the most of those opportunities. With the exception of Robert Alford’s second interception in week 4 which ultimately ended the game, Atlanta has converted the remaining takeaways into ensuing touchdowns. That is the mark of a successful football team, and one that should definitely be considered a Super Bowl contender.

Oct 2, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn watches the action against the Carolina Panthers during the second half at the Georgia Dome. The Falcons defeated the Panthers 48-33. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Conclusion

It is important to keep in mind that 2015 was the first year of a completely new coaching staff. Fans may have gotten spoiled from the old regime who took the team to the playoffs in their inaugural season, but it doesn’t always work that way. The early season cake walk schedule of a year ago clouded the vision of fans and analysts alike.

The offense, especially Matt Ryan, needed a second year in the system to become more comfortable. Kyle Shanahan also needed a year to familiarize himself with the Falcons personnel and know how to best feature his weapons.

Adding complementary pieces like Mohamed Sanu, Aldrick Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Austin Hooper have transformed this offense into a pick your poison dilemma for opposing defenses. While Julio Jones certainly proved he can still dominate a game if you let him, this 2016 bunch operates best when all hands are on deck.

The offensive line of 2015 was running with a career backup guard at its most important position. The Falcons front office corrected that in year two by bringing aboard All-Pro center Alex Mack. With Mack at the helm, Matt Ryan now has a clean pocket to step up in and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have huge holes to run through before even sniffing an incoming tackler.

Yes, the defense is still a work in progress. But the most glaring weakness that has troubled this unit since the Jim Mora days — the pass rush — has finally come to life.

The most encouraging aspect of this revelation may be that Vic Beasley has finally figured the professional game out. Beasley entered last Sunday’s game against the Broncos with 5 career sacks in 20 career games. He walked out with 8.5 after the day was over.

A pessimist would argue that Vic lined up against an injury plagued, inferior linemen in Ty Sambrailo. But this wasn’t the first time the Falcons second year pass rusher faced off against an opponent he is clearly better than. But the fact of the matter is he didn’t dominate those types of linemen until last week. This should give Falcon fans immense joy going forward that their prized pass rusher has finally figured it out.

Lastly, the 2016 Falcons are no longer shooting themselves in the foot with inopportune turnovers. Snap incompetent center Mike Person has been replaced by Alex Mack and Matt Ryan has eliminated the red zone turnovers that ailed him a year ago.

The 2016 Falcons have morphed into a team with a multitude of weapons on offense supported by a strong offensive line. Their defense continues to evolve into the fast and physical bunch that Dan Quinn has sought since he took the Atlanta job. And the team as a whole has valued the ball more than they did a year ago.

The 2016 Atlanta Falcons are built to sustain this success and enter their name into the list of Super Bowl contenders. Don’t expect them to falter like their 2015 selves.

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