Atlanta Falcons 2014 Season Review: Defense Holds Back Stellar Passing Attack

Despite a great season from Julio Jones and the offense, the Falcons were able to finish only 6-10. What went wrong?

Only two seasons removed from a 13-3 record and NFC South championship, the Atlanta Falcons finished 6-10 in 2014 and missed the playoffs for the second straight year.

The crazy thing for the Falcons was that, going into Week 17 with a 1-9 record against teams outside of the NFC South, they could have won the division and sneaked into the playoffs. Had they beaten the Panthers in that game, they would have hosted the Arizona Cardinals, a team they had already beaten a month prior.

With Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn all but officially the new head coach, the Falcons have a lot to improve if they want to get back into the playoffs next season.

What Went Well

For as excruciating a season as it was for Atlanta fans, the offense performed admirably, particularly through the air. According to our Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, the Falcons finished 10th in offense and 8th in passing offense, even after the retirement of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 4,694 yards, good for 5th in the NFL. Over one-third of those yards went to Pro Bowler Julio Jones, who had a monster season with 1,593 yards and 6 touchdowns on 104 catches. His yardage and catch totals both were good for third in the league.

Everyone acknowledges the beast that is Julio, but he got to prove it on the national stage in a Week 14 game at Lambeau Field on Monday Night Football. In that game, he caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown, nearly leading the Falcons to a surprise comeback upset. On the season, Jones’ Reception NEP was 142.69, which ranked second behind the Steelers’ Antonio Brown (151.91). Ryan and Jones were easily the shining stars to an otherwise forgetful team in 2014.

Another reason the offense’s success was so impressive was the injuries that decimated the offensive line. The team lost five offensive linemen at some point due to injury. Although rookie Jake Matthews did not perform nearly as well as the team would have hoped, they may have found a future starter in Ryan Schraeder, who looked very impressive filling in at tackle.

What Didn’t Go Well

Frankly, the Falcons’ defense was simply atrocious this season. They finished dead last in the NFL in yards allowed and 27th in points allowed. Our NEP metrics placed the Falcons 29th in overall defense, finishing 28th against the pass, and 31st against the run.

The lack of defensive success can hopefully be fixed when Dan Quinn makes his way to Georgia. Aside from Desmond Trufant, the Falcons lack any sort of consistency in the secondary. The linebacking core, led by the criminally overlooked Paul Worrilow, was decent but nothing special. What was especially atrocious on the defense was the offensive line. With only 22 sacks, the Falcons finished tied for 30th in the NFL. It doesn’t matter how good your corners are in this league if a quarterback has all day to throw.

By our metrics, the Falcons defensive units the past two seasons have been the two worst for the team over the past 15 years. Just about every position on that side of the ball needs to be upgraded, and I’m sure Quinn knows exactly how he is going to address that.

Another position the team needs to address moving forward is running back. Although the Falcons meddled in the middle of the league, ranking 16th in Rushing NEP, the ground attack was not feared by opponents. Steven Jackson will be 32 next season, and it’s quite clear that he is well past his prime. Antone Smith showed flashes of talent, but neither he, Devonta Freeman, nor Jacquizz Rodgers seem to be the answer. Of the 73 backs who saw at least 50 carries, Jackson ranked 27th in Rushing NEP per carry (-0.02), Rodgers was 36th (-0.04), and Freeman was last in the subset (-0.29). Smith saw just 23 carries.

Someone needs to step up in the running game or opposing defenses will be able to hone in on trying to stop Julio Jones.

The man behind it all was head coach Mike Smith, who was axed after seven seasons in Atlanta and after some questionable decisions in 2014. One of the worst moments of his career occurred in a November game against the Browns. With the clock ticking, Matt Bryant was set up to kick a go-ahead field goal with less than a minute remaining in the game. Smith inexplicably called a timeout, which ended up giving Cleveland enough time to go back down the field and kick a game-winning field goal of their own. This was the icing on the cake to Smith’s long list of poor decisions throughout 2014. His dismissal as head coach was much needed and will improve the franchise moving forward.

What’s to Come in 2015?

Quinn and the rest of the coaching staff will not inherit a roster full of talent, but the potential is there. With Ryan at quarterback and Jones and Roddy White at receiver, there is no reason to believe the offense will stagger.

The Falcons are lucky that they are in what was easily the worst division in football last season. Quinn’s coaching alone should be able to improve the defense. Add in a few free agents and some defensive talent and maybe a running back in the draft, and the Falcons should at least be ready to compete in the depressing NFC South.