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2018 Giants opponents: Can the Atlanta Falcons get back on track?

Giants in Atlanta this season for a Monday Night Football game

Wild Card Round - Atlanta Falcons v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Training camp is used for players to get ready for the upcoming season. We’re not going to leave you out of that — you’re getting prepared, too. As training camp opens, we’re previewing the opponents on the 2018 New York Giants schedule. We’ll look at how 2017 played out and what 2018 might look like to get everyone ready for the season to come.

The NFC East plays the NFC South this season and as part of the Giants’ wild first half of the schedule, they play three of those teams in a four week stretch. The third game comes against a team that appears to be at a crossroads while still remaining successful — the Atlanta Falcons.

When will they play?

Week 7 at Atlanta, Monday Night Football

2017 in review

Record: 10-6, third NFC South

Expected W-L (Pythagorean Expectation): 9.1-6.9

DVOA rankings: 15th overall, ninth offense, 22nd defense, 19th special teams

2017 was a strange year for the Falcons. While it was still relatively successful — 10 wins and an appearance in the Divisional Round — it wasn’t close to the 2016 season that saw Matt Ryan win MVP and the team a completed pass away from a Super Bowl victory. The offense wasn’t going to hit the highs of 2016 even if Kyle Shanahan stayed on as offensive coordinator instead of taking the head coaching job for the San Francisco 49ers, but the move to Steve Sarkisian left much to be desired even as the offense was still among the league’s best statistically. The defense was really the weak point of the team last season, but with a ton of talent on that side of the ball, a turnaround could be made quickly.

Offseason overview

Draft picks

1 (26) Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

2 (58) Isaiah Oliver, CB, Colorado

3 (90) Deadrin Senat, DT, South Florida

4 (126) Ito Smith, RB, Southern Mississippi

6 (194) Russell Gage, WR, LSU

6 (200) Foyesade Oluokun, LB, Yale

Key losses

Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn, Taylor Gabriel, Levine Toilolo

Key additions

Terrell McClain, Justin Bethel, Brandon Fusco

Dontari Poe was brought in on a one-year contract last offseason and made an instant impact. Poe had 21.5 pass pressures, 10 quarterback hits, and 2.5 sacks while holding up well against the run. Poe’s departure to Carolina leaves an open spot on the interior next to Grady Garrett, probably the best defensive tackle in the league not enough people know about. Jarrett, a 2015 fifth-round pick, had 23 pressures (second on the team), 13 quarterback hits, and five sacks. That sack number could increase in 2018. He converted just 30 percent of his hits for sacks, a number that typically regresses to the mean from year-to-year and the league average now is around 40 percent of hits converted to sacks. Jarrett was also an excellent run defender. Per Football Outsiders, Jarrett allowed just 1.1 yards per rush on runs in his direction, the sixth-lowest number in the league. 2018 third-round pick Deadrin Senat, who had 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in his senior season at USF, could have an instant impact on the defensive line.

Atlanta also lost its top pass rusher, Adrian Clayborn, who signed with the New England Patriots as a free agent. Clayborn had a team leading 27.5 pressures and 9.5 sacks (six of those came in one week against the Dallas Cowboys), but there was little interest in bringing back the 30-year-old pass rusher. Most of that comes from the development of last year’s first-round pick, Takk McKinley. McKinley had 22 pressures (third on the team) and six sacks (second), despite not starting a game and playing just 38 percent of the defensive snaps.

Taylor Gabirel’s effectiveness was diminished with the switch at offensive coordinator. While Gabriel’s average depth of target (11.1 in 2016 to 11.2 in 2017) and role (50 targets and 35 receptions in 2016 to 51 targets and 33 receptions in 2017) stayed almost exactly the same, his production (579 yards and six touchdowns in 2016 to 378 yards and one touchdown) plummeted. The Falcons will look to a more well-rounded option for the third receiver with first-round pick Calvin Ridley — though Ridley was well-versed in running deep at Alabama.

Numbers to know

4.5: The Falcons were 23rd in points per red zone visit (4.50), per Football Outsiders. Atlanta has good to great in the other 80 yards of the field, which suggests an improvement in red zone play should be coming.

20: Robert Alford has developed into a more than serviceable second corner. While opposing offenses try to avoid Desmond Trufant, they’re left to throw at Alford. In 2017, he responded with 20 passes defensed (fourth-most in the league) and 6.4 yards allowed per play, per Football Outsiders (28th among 81 qualified cornerbacks).

-4 percent: Another change from Shanahan to Sarkisian was a drop in play-action. The Falcons were first in play-action rate in 2016 (27 percent), but that dropped to 13th (23 percent) in 2017. While Atlanta still remained one of the best teams at play-action last year (8.7 yards per play, fifth), it was nowhere near the 10.2 yards per play in 2016.

2.1 percent: No team in the league used a heavy blitz (6+ rushers) more than the Falcons last season. They sent six or more rushers on just 2.1 percent of plays, per Football Outsiders. Related: Atlanta blitzed a defensive back at the lowest rate in the league (two percent).

Opponent Q&A

Matt Chambers of The Falcoholic answered a few questions about the Falcons’ outlook this season.

Q: There’s a popular perception the offense dropped off drastically in 2017, but it was still second in yards per drive and seventh in points per drive. What’s the overall feeling of what happened last season and what are expectations under the second year of Steve Sarkisian?

A: I was a pretty big critic of Kyle Shanahan, as evidenced here. I hear the jury is still out on Shanahan, right? I’ve learned to give coaches a little more time, even when they sucked in year one, and that includes Sarkisian. It would be crazy to put both coaches in the same category, but both had pretty disappointing first years in Atlanta. A surprising lot ended up working against Sarkisian last season: he had a short offseason to transition to the NFL; the Falcons lead the league in drops; the replacements for FB Patrick DiMarco and G Chris Chester were awful and will not be starting; and pass catchers outside of Julio Jones struggled with consistency. With that said, Sarkisian struggled to use his players to their strengths, and had a lot of bad play calls.

I’ll sum that up by saying some fluky plays and poor red zone efficiency hurt the overall impression of the offense, which did a lot of great things. Atlanta improved their biggest roster problems, and Sarkisian should improve with a more qualified quarterback coach, better familiarity with the personnel, and a little more comfort with the NFL. I’m not expecting to see the 2016 offense again, but I think it’s safe to expect improvement over 2017.

Q: The defense was kind of the opposite last season — 20th in yards and 18th in points allowed per drive. What’s the outlook for this unit in 2018?

A: The defense is definitely on the way up. The roster is flush with young, defensive talent like Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett, Keanu Neal, and Takk McKinley. Dan Quinn has redone nearly the entire defense, mostly with cheap free agents and draft picks. I think with a little more improvement from the young guys, we could see a top 10 defense.

Q: What is the most underrated aspect of this team heading into 2018?

A: The addition of Calvin Ridley to the offense. Sure, he’s a first round pick so calling his addition underrated feels weird. Last season showed Atlanta lacked explosive pass catchers outside of Julio Jones. Teams were able to double up on Julio, get physical with Taylor Gabriel, and we were left with a lot of players that don’t get separation. I’m not sure if he is given a full slew of snaps this season, but his addition will be great to fix some of last year’s problems. He should play plenty on special teams, easily Atlanta’s worst unit last season.

Q: If you had to pick a regular season record, what would it be?

A: This is the part of the offseason where every fan sees their team with 10 or more wins. 11-5 feels pretty safe for this team, even with tough sledding through the NFC South.