The 2021 NFL season is nearly upon us. At long last, and despite questions swirling around COVID-19 restrictions and vaccination hesitancy, the 2021 season is poised to kickoff Sept. 9 between the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys.
As teams enter their final week of practice before the regular season, the question on Atlanta Falcons’ fans minds remains: how will the Falcons bounce back from their historically abysmal 2020 season?
At 4-12, the Falcons finished last in the NFC South and tied with the Houston Texans for the third worst record in the NFL. While a 4-12 record alone would be cause for disappointment, what made the 2020 season especially difficult to watch is that the Falcons lost five of their games while leading at halftime and five losses were decided in the last two minutes of play.
Despite the poor record, quarterback Matt Ryan finished fourth in total passing yards while the Falcons finished 14th in points against per game and 16th in points scored per game. Even though the Falcons ended the 2020 season losing five straight games, Atlanta is poised to perform better than last year if they simply play hard for all 60 minutes.
The good news
The many end-of-game collapses last season left the Falcons with a record that did not accurately reflect its level of talent. The Falcons were by no means a playoff-ready team in 2020, but they should have been around a .500 team at the end of the season. Ryan proved at 35 years old that he was still more than capable of stretching the field, and even developed a strong connection with breakout wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who had 90 receptions for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. Kicker Younghoe Koo also had a sensational year, missing only two of his 40 attempts, going a perfect eight of eight on attempts from 50 yards and beyond and finishing with the most field goals made in the NFL.
The Falcons also signed former Carolina Panthers running back Mike Davis to a two-year deal. Davis brings experience and power to the Atlanta offense, especially around the goal line where Atlanta struggled mightily last season. On the defensive side of the ball, the team added former Las Vegas Raiders veteran safety Erik Harris.
Changes in personnel were not limited to only the roster — the Atlanta Falcons also remodeled their coaching staff, hiring former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to the role of head coach. Smith coached the Titans to the second-most rushing yards per game (168.1) last season, tied for the second-most total yards per game (396.4) and the fourth-most points per game (25.3). The Falcons hope Smith can revitalize the team along with the rest of the revamped coaching staff which includes offensive coordinator Dave Ragone, defensive coordinator Dean Pees and special teams coordinator Marquice Williams.
The only upside to a disappointing season is that the Falcons were rewarded with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. With this pick the Falcons selected phenom tight end Kyle Pitts out of the University of Florida. Pitts received the John Mackey Award for the top tight end in college football last season, and is expected to provide an instant spark to the Falcons offense. Along with Pitts, the Falcons will be looking to rely on their other rookies like safety Richie Grant, offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield and cornerback Darren Hall to fill in some of the weaker spots on the roster.
The bad news
Unfortunately, the overall roster has not improved much since last season and has lost some serious talent along the way. Not only did the Falcons lose veteran superstar wide receiver Julio Jones, they also lost starting center Alex Mack to free-agency. Starting left guard Josh Andrews suffered a broken hand in practice, landing him on the injured reserve list on Aug. 31.
Cornerback Kendall Sheffield was placed on the injured reserve, too, with an undisclosed injury on Sept. 2, and backup quarterback A.J. McCarron suffered a season-ending ACL tear in week two of the preseason. Atlanta’s offensive line already struggled to protect Ryan last season, allowing the 11th most sacks in the league with 41. With the loss of Mack and Andrews, there is serious reason for concern for the 36-year-old veteran.
This brings up another area of concern –– will Ryan continue to be the “Matty Ice” of years past at age 36? Ryan will be the fifth oldest starting quarterback in the league behind only Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ben Roethlisberger and the ageless wonder Tom Brady.
Atlanta also gave up the fourth-most yards per game last season (398.4) and the most passing yards per game (293.6). While the Falcons ranked sixth in rushing yards allowed per game with only 104.8, the Falcons are in desperate need for improvement on the defensive side of the ball and will rely on Pees to help tighten up coverage. In recent years the Falcons have relied heavily upon their high-powered offense to compensate for their rather lackluster defense, but with sizable departures and injuries as well as an aging quarterback, the defense will need to hold strong more than ever to keep their team in games this season.
The Falcons will finish with a better record than last season. In my eyes, they’ll be right around 8-9, give or take a game.
Ryan will be replaced as the starting quarterback this season. Former first round pick Josh Rosen might get another shot at NFL glory with the Falcons. Even bolder, quarterback Feleipe Franks will get a chance to show off his speed at the quarterback position if the Falcons are in need of a shakeup.