NFL

Atlanta Falcons 2016 preview: Can Dan Quinn’s defense turn up the heat?

Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we head to the NFC South to provide a Atlanta Falcons 2016 preview.

Here, we’ll be discussing a team that needs to take great strides on the defensive side of the ball to avoid another disappointing finish.

Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.

Atlanta Falcons 2016 Preview

Head coach: Dan Quinn (second season)

Key arrivals: C Alex Mack, WR Mohamed Sanu, DE Derrick Shelby, QB Matt Schaub, LB Sean Weatherspoon

Key departures: DT Paul Soliari, LB Nathan Stupar, C Gino Gradkowski, LB Justin Durant

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Will Mohamed Sanu become a star?

The Falcons sure paid him like one. Sanu, after a rather mediocre 2015 campaign in Cincinnati, signed a five-year deal worth $32.5 million this March.

But is he really good enough to be the reliable No. 2 opposite Julio Jones? His best season with the Bengals came in 2014 when he caught 56 passes for 790 yards and five touchdowns — hardly epic production.

Atlanta needs Sanu to do better than that. If he cannot, then opposing defensive secondaries will be able to focus on Jones, perhaps more than ever before.

Without a true game-changing tight end and questionable depth at receiver, it’s going to be up to Jones and Sanu to do most of the heavy lifting in the passing game.

2. Running back by committee?

After Devonta Freeman’s breakout campaign in which he led the NFL in rushing scores (11), it seems strange to consider the Falcons are planning on going with a running back by committee.

But that’s exactly what head coach Dan Quinn told reporters is the plan for the upcoming season.

Fantasy football owners must be groaning at this news, and rightly so. It’s a fantasy football death knell.

In real life, however, it is probably the best possible thing the Falcons could do to keep the offense moving the chains.

As good as Freeman was last year, there is no doubt he faltered down the stretch carrying the load. Tevin Coleman is an explosive runner, and the two of them should spit carries to ensure they both stay healthy and fresh.

3. Can the defense bring enough heat?

Atlanta Falcons 2016 preview, Vic Beasley

It was strange seeing Quinn, who is acknowledged as a defensive guru, featuring a defense last year that was so inept at rushing the passer. The Falcons finished dead last in the NFL with just 19 sacks.

Heck, J.J. Watt, who played through some ridiculous injuries, had 17.5 all by himself last year.

Rookie Vic Beasley — touted by many as one of the top pass rushers in the 2015 NFL Draft class — only managed four sacks, which unbelievably led the team.

Atlanta didn’t do anything to address this deficiency through the draft. The Falcons did sign Derrick Shelby (3.5 sacks last year) to man the right side of the line at defensive end.

Then, just a few weeks ago, the team brought veteran Dwight Freeney on board. He had eight sacks in limited action last year for the Arizona Cardinals.

But will Shelby and Freeney be able to bring enough consistent pressure? We’re skeptical.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle

Grady Jarrett

Grady Jarrett is a talented and hard-working player who got passed up because of his size despite producing very well in college. He shows NFL caliber athleticism for the position. In Atlanta this season, Jarrett will be the starting nose tackle and play almost every snap from the 1-technique in nickel sets.

The Clemson graduate drew comparisons to Geno Atkins during his career in college, and he has a real shot at duplicated his production in Dan Quinn’s scheme. He’ll have to get the snaps, though. He played under 20 percent of the snaps in 2015 as a rookie.

He should get some more time on the field this year, and with that time he’ll show his penetrating abilities as a pass rusher. The internal pressure, combined with Dwight Freeney and Vic Beasley coming off the edge on third downs should make the Falcons pass rush much improved.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Adding Mack was a huge win for Atlanta. He’s excellent in the run and passing game and should stabilize the offensive line in a huge way. Provided both Coleman and Freeman stay healthy, the running game should be outstanding.

If Sanu evolves into a reliable No. 2 receiver, the passing game could be dangerous, too.

And if the defense can generate pressure and keep teams from running rampant, the Falcons have a good chance to get back to the playoffs.

REASON TO DOUBT

As we stated above, it’s hard to imagine a couple of aging players — one of whom has never been great — will suddenly transform Atlanta’s defense into a pass-rusher’s paradise.

The secondary has a chance to be special, but even great defensive backfields get torched regularly when pressure is not exerted on opposing quarterbacks.

Also, we’re not sold on Sanu as a complementary piece to Jones in the passing game, and it’s going to be interesting to see who else steps up if he is proven to be a fraud.

Still, we’re banking on the Falcons to improve this year, albeit slightly, over last year’s 8-8 record.

Prediction: 9-7, tied for second place in the NFC South

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, Foxsports.com and MSN.com, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.