The 4-12 Atlanta Falcons were abysmal at protecting quarterback Matt Ryan along with bringing down the opposing QBs, a problem that head coach Mike Smith, general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and owner Arthur Blank recognized and addressed as soon as the season ended by firing defensive line coach Ray Hamilton as well as offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn.
Hamilton’s exit means Coach Smith will have just his second DL coach during his tenure with the Falcons, but the move seems necessary considering how poor the defensive line played in 2013. Despite adding former Pro Bowler Osi Umenyiora to the roster, Atlanta was unable to get to opposing quarterbacks on a consistent basis, leading to a combined 21 sacks by defensive linemen in 2013.
The loss of John Abraham (signed with the Cardinals) and Kroy Biermann (torn Achilles in early September) certainly did not help Hamilton’s unit this season, but these struggles were not a new development for the Falcons; outside of Abraham, the pass rush has been forgettable for quite some time, with guys like Ray Edwards (3.5 sacks in two seasons) signing considerable deals without earning that money on the field. Despite having ties with Smith dating back to their time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, it was clear that a change had to be made for the betterment of the defensive line.
Although Hamilton’s firing was not considered to be a definite move the team would make, the same cannot be said of the ousters of Hill and Dunn. Atlanta’s offensive line consistently allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to get tossed around like a rag doll, and when the season was mercifully all said and done, Ryan was sacked 44 times (10th in the NFL) and hit 100 times (5th), according to NFL.com.
Along with allowing constant pressure on Ryan, the offensive line also failed to open up holes for the running backs, resulting in the Falcons’ ranking last in the league with just 78 yards per game, nine yards less than in 2012. New addition Steven Jackson was expected to continue the pace he established with the St. Louis Rams, where he averaged 1,126 yards per season, but he instead struggled with injuries and a lack of lanes to hit, leading to career lows in games (12), yards (543), yards per attempt (3.5), and yards per game (45.3).
The O-Line was a mess from the beginning of the season, and by mid-way through the year the coaching staff began plugging guys into different positions, desperately trying to fix the problem within the organization. Instead of finding a rhythm on the Island of Misfit Tackles, the situation just provided much of the same for the Falcons, with the final insult being a 9-sack performance from the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Hill and Dunn have been lame ducks for more than half of the season, so the decision to let these two men go was more of a confirmation of the expected than anything else.
A losing season in football is unacceptable (even in Cleveland and Buffalo) no matter what, but add on the fact that many expected a deep playoff run for this team, and it is clear that the organization must be hard at work to fix these problems. Solutions are not always easy to come by, but the focus of the Atlanta Falcons at this point has to be free agency. While I highly doubt that the Falcons will add another veteran defensive end to complement Osi, there are several offensive line candidates to consider, including Chiefs offensive tackle Branden Albert, Browns center Alex Mack, and embattled Dolphins offensive guard Richie Incognito.
While we may not see a big signing on the defensive line anytime soon, the Falcons are tasked with deciding what must be done with their own free agents, which includes veteran lineman Jonathan Babineaux, former first round pick Peria Jerry, and defensive tackle Corey Peters.
Babineaux has been the model of consistency for the Falcons during his nine-year run with the team, but his numbers in 2013 did not exactly warrant a big raise, as the former Iowa Hawkeye recorded 28 tackles with 1 sack and 2 fumble recoveries in sixteen starts. Meanwhile, Jerry has played like the prototypical first round bust for the majority of his time with the Falcons but did improve this past season, recording career-highs in starts (14), sacks (3.5), tackles (25), and assists (8). Peters looked set to return to the Falcons thanks to a pretty good season (5 sacks and 29 tackles), but a torn Achilles in the second-to-last game may make re-signing him a liability.
Although we’ll save predicting how Atlanta handles their free agents for after the Super Bowl, it would not surprise me if just one of these defensive linemen returned to play his home games in the Georgia Dome next season.
With free agency now addressed comes the most anticipated part of the offseason: the NFL Draft. The Falcons seem to be in prime position this season thanks to having the sixth pick in the May draft, but their spot leaves a wide range of questions that cannot be addressed for another four months, the most important being what the team will do with the pick. Most point towards drafting an offensive lineman with the first pick (perhaps Jake Matthews or Cyrus Kouandjio), allowing Matty Ice to breathe easier come game time. However, the offensive line prospects appear to be very deep in 2014, which means the team could look elsewhere and address the O-Line later on.
Atlanta may instead target a defensive end with its first pick, leaving fans drooling over South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. A devastating end that has terrorized the Southeastern Conference over the past three years, Clowney is expected to be a top five pick, but if teams like the Texans and the Jaguars go quarterback crazy to start the festivities, Clowney could slip right into the palm of the Falcons’ hands. The Falcons may also look at UCLA’s Anthony Barr, a pass-rushing phenom that could possibly play a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position in Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s system.
An option that may also pop up on draft day is trading out of the sixth spot, but in what direction remains to be seen. Could the Falcons fall in love with a prospect like Clowney or Matthews and fear that he will be off the board at #6, resulting in Dimitroff pulling the trigger on another draft day deal like the one that brought Julio Jones to Atlanta? Or could the team instead like the depth of this year’s draft and instead trade their spot to another squad, instead piling up picks for a roster that has several spots that need upgrading? We have a considerable amount of time to consider the possibilities, but this year’s first round pick for the Falcons sure seems like the team’s most important since they selected a Boston College quarterback in 2008.