Coming into the regular season, the Falcons were the only team not to have a single player hit injured-reserve before week one. Atlanta fans should have known it was too good to be true, as a ridiculous onslaught of injuries would strike them once the regular season began.
After week one, Atlanta’s only two Pro-Bowlers on the defensive side from 2017 were not to be seen for the next twelve weeks. Deion Jones had to have surgery on his foot, which cost him eleven games, and Keanu Neal was lost for the season due to a torn ACL. As if that was not enough, the Falcons would lose Andy Levitre to a season-ending triceps injury the very next week, and Ricardo Allen in week three to a torn Achilles.
Two weeks later, Devonta Freeman would join them, and Brandon Fusco two weeks after that. By the midpoint of the season, the Falcons had lost both their starting safeties, their starting middle linebacker, both their starting offensive guards and their starting running back. There was never the opportunity for them to become Super Bowl contenders as they hoped before the season began, but injuries were only part of the reason this team failed to live up to their potential. However, it is a reminder that no matter how fantastic a team is on paper, it can be ruined by the dreaded injury bug.
4. Duke Riley
With the injury to Deion Jones, another LSU-product, Duke Riley, had the opportunity to step up and prove to the organization why he was a third-round draft pick. Unfortunately, he did just the opposite, looking like a player that never belonged in the league in the first place. It didn’t take him long to lose his starting spot to a rookie, Foyesade Oluokon, and he never got it back. The Falcons have had an uncanny knack for finding talent after the first couple of rounds, but Riley is an example of a player that has not panned out. Given that he will still be on his rookie deal, Atlanta may opt to hold onto Riley for a third season, but he is going to have to be miles better if he wants to earn a second contract with any team.
3. Isaiah Oliver’s lack of playing time
The Falcons – surprisingly – snagged a wide receiver (Calvin Ridley) with their first-round selected and a cornerback (Isaiah Oliver) with their second-round pick, ignoring their most glaring need which was the defensive line. While Ridley was viewed as the best player available, it did not make much sense to draft a corner when the Falcons already had three quality starting cornerbacks in place.
On top of that, despite Atlanta battling multiple injuries in the secondary and all their cornerbacks faltering, Oliver barely saw the field. When he did, he was pretty decent, and there is reason to believe he could blossom into a reliable option moving forward, but the Falcons needed to address their defensive line in last year’s draft. It came back to haunt them and may have cost them a shot at the playoffs. Since Calvin Ridley had such a remarkable rookie season, Oliver gets cast as the “bad pick”. However, the reality is, the blame lies on the front office and the people who make those decisions.
Based on the mass exodus that took place among the Falcons coaching staff, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out coaching was a deterrent to the Falcons’ 2018 success. In the end, the Falcons fired Steve Sarkisian and special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, while simultaneously opting not to bring back Marquand Manuel.
Sarkisian never worked out. The offense took a giant step back in 2017, but that could be expected for a first-year coordinator taking over one of the best offenses of all-time run by Kyle Shanahan. Year two would be where Sarkisian was ultimately judged, and he failed. After some success in the first eight weeks of the season, he didn’t have the answers when the Falcons faced noteworthy defenses in must-win situations.
Marquand Manuel received a bit of a raw deal. Atlanta’s defense was horrifying in 2018, but it’s hard to expect anything else when over half of your starters miss multiple games, and four of them hit injured-reserve. The Falcons defense experienced tremendous growth under Manuel in 2017 and had eyes on being a top unit in 2018 before injuries. Manuel is and should be respected among coaching circles, but it is understandable for Quinn to want to take the defense into his own hands.
Because after all, if the Falcons cannot find a way to be successful in 2019, it will be Quinn getting the ax. His clock management decisions continued to hurt the Falcons in 2018 as they have in the past – but what was new in 2018 – was his inability to prepare the team on a weekly basis. Most specifically, in a must-win game against Cleveland, when De’Vondre Campbell told the media they did not take the Browns seriously following a loss. That’s not something we have seen since Dan Quinn took over, and may be a sign that his message is becoming a little saturated among the players.
1. Robert Alford, Vic Beasley Jr., and Ryan Schraeder
I put these three together because all of them were supposed to be key cogs on a football team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Instead, they turned out to be detrimental to the team’s success.
After all the grief Alford has received as a pro, he put together his best season in 2016 and followed it up with an even better campaign in 2017. There is no arguing that his development under Dan Quinn was a critical reason as to why the Atlanta defense was progressing as a whole. Sadly, he reverted to his old ways in 2018, getting beat badly far too often and committing way too many penalties. Some of his struggles had to do with the fact that he was playing with two backup safeties behind him and no pass rush, but his play was still extremely discouraging.
Vic Beasley was an All-Pro in 2016 and led the league in sacks. Every Falcons fans would be lying to you if they said they weren’t excited about the future of their 2015 first-round selection out of Clemson. However, he was not nearly as effective in 2017, recording a measly five sacks in a new role that asked him to rush the passer less. Quinn decided to switch Beasley back to a pure pass rusher in 2018, but the results were not the same. He finished the season with five sacks again but only had one in the first nine weeks of the season and was non-existent against the run. The Falcons have the option of cutting him for nothing this offseason or keeping him for close to $13 million. That should be a pretty easy decision.
From undrafted free agent to everyday starter, Ryan Schraeder made himself one of the most valuable UDFA’s in recent memory for the Falcons, earning him a five-year, $31 million contract before the 2016 season. The results paid off in the first two years of the deal, but Schraeder fell off a cliff in 2018 and was eventually benched. He was undoubtedly the biggest disappointment on the offensive line, and the primary reason that group underperformed by such a large margin.