The Falcons offense took a huge dip in production from 2016 to 2017. After being the best offense in football by a wide margin, Matt Ryan and company regressed back towards the medium last season, finishing 14th in the league in scoring. With most of the same pieces intact from the 2016 offense, much of the blame for this drop off was placed on first year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who replaced arguably the Falcons greatest offensive weapon, the mind of Kyle Shanahan.
Following the footsteps of an offensive genius like Shanahan was never going to be easy for a coach like Sarkisian. Sarkisian spent the last decade around the college game, and only had a brief stint in the NFL as the Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach in 2004. That is why it was quite a surprise when Sarkisian was chosen to take over the reigns of one of the most dominant offenses in the history of the NFL.
From the beginning of week one till the last fourth down of the season in Philadelphia, the Falcons offense never ran with the same sort of fluidity that it had under Shanahan. Sarkisian clearly was still figuring some things out, which is to be expected of a first year offensive coordinator. Do not forget how Shanahan’s first season as the Falcons offensive coordinator went. Atlanta struggled, particularly offensively, on their way to an 8-8 season and a missed playoff berth. Shanahan also had seasons where he struggled with the Redskins and Cleveland prior to coming to Atlanta.
Now Shanahan’s failures in his first year with the birds can be pointed directly at a personnel problem. There was no Alex Mack, Mohamed Sanu, Andy Levitre or Taylor Gabriel. All parts that helped lift the Atlanta offense to new heights in 2016. To the same tune, you might be able to say the same thing about Steve Sarkisian’s first year in Atlanta.
The Falcons had a gaping whole at right guard last year after the retirement of Chris Chester. Former sixth-round pick, Wes Schweitzer, attempted to fill the void, but never proved he was worthy of being a starter in the NFL. He finished the season with a 43.7 overall grade according to Pro Football Focus, grading out poorly against the run and the pass. There is no debating he was a huge reason for the Falcons struggles on 3rd/4th and short opportunities, and why opposing team’s interior defensive lines were so effective getting after Matt Ryan.
It may not seem like one hole can be the difference between the best offense in the league and a middle of the road offense, but that is why football is regarded as the ultimate team game. Every little piece matters, and the team that winds up winning the Super Bowl, usually ends up being the most complete all-around team. By no means should all the Falcons failures be placed on the shoulders of Schweitzer, but between his poor play and a brand new offensive coordinator in a new role for the first time, a regression towards the mean was bound to happen.
That kind of play will not be tolerable in Sarkisian’s second season. With a year under his belt, this season should be make or break for the former head coach of Southern California. The Falcons brought in Brandon Fusco over from San Francisco in the offseason. Fusco has been a rock at the guard spot over the course of his career, starting in 80 games. He graded out last year at 76.0 overall according to Pro Football Focus, good for 21st among among all guards. Fusco also spent last season with Kyle Shanahan running a similar zone blocking scheme that the Falcons still implement in their offense. That sort of familiarity should make it an easy transition and give Atlanta much needed help on the interior offensive line.
Improvements to the offense this offseason did not stop there either. Atlanta stole arguably the top receiver in the draft with the 26th pick in Calvin Ridley. Ridley should serve as the perfect compliment to both Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. His versatility in his route running allow him to play in the slot or on the outside. Sarkisian should also be familiar with Ridley, as he coached him while Ridley was still at Alabama.
The addition of Ridley gives the Falcons hands-down the best receiving core in the NFL. Add in an already solid, yet improving, offensive line as well as one of the deadliest running back combinations in the league and their are no excuses for Steve Sarkisian in his second season. If Sark cannot progress this offense back into the juggernaut that it once was, it is obvious he was never the right man for the job in the first place.