Injuries are so 2018; Falcons ready to push healthy into 2019

Garrett Chapman
May 29, 2019 - 10:49 am
Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley

Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

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The 2018 season was extremely dissatisfying for the Atlanta Falcons.

Coming off back-to-back playoff berths, and only one full season removed from a Super Bowl appearance, expectations were high for the team. The fans were excited, players were motivated, and the confidence was overflowing.

But things don’t always happen the way you would hope.

The Falcons stumbled to a 7-9 record, and fell far short of their Super Bowl aspirations. However, that final record had a lot to do with factors outside of their control.

Over the course of the season, the team had 14 different starters miss at least one game, many of which came at the same time, and eight of those starters missed at least three games. That list included the four lynchpins on defense: Safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, linebacker Deion Jones, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Those are four Pro Bowl caliber players, and that is just from the defensive side of the ball. Unfortunately, the same can be said about the offense. Their list included starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, in addition to its Pro Bowl running back, Devonta Freeman.

Replacing that amount of production would be a challenge for any team, and the Falcons struggled mightily as a result.

Without its core players, the defense finished 25th in points allowed, 28th in total defense, 25th in rushing defense, and 27th in passing yards allowed. Missing integral pieces for massive chunks of the season is likely to blame, but it cost defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel his job.

With a massive chunk missing from the middle of the offense, it too struggled. The offense finished 27th in rushing yards and we were more likely to see Matt Ryan peeling himself off the turf than leading them on touchdown drives. Ryan was sacked 42 times, which is his highest total since the miserable 2013 season, and he was hit a whopping 108 times. Those numbers equate to Matt Ryan being hit on 17.5 percent of his attempted passes.

With all the doom and gloom from that season, there was, in fact, an unheralded silver lining to emerge from 2018. Young players like Foye Oluokun, Isaiah Oliver, Deadrin Senat, Ito Smith, and Damontae Kazee received valuable in-game reps that would likely never have been possible without the aforementioned injuries. Some of those players played like viable starters or, at the very least, effective depth pieces.

But that was last year, and 2019 is a fresh start.

Felt good getting back out on the grass today! (Proverbs 3:5-6)

A post shared by Keanu Neal (@keanu_neal) on

The Falcons are back in action in Flowery Branch this week and hopes are, again, very high for the team. Those players that were missed so dearly for much of the season are back, practicing with the team. Safety Keanu Neal is back to running and cutting, safety Ricardo Allen is back in the weight room, and running back Devonta Freeman is a full go for OTAs. With additions to the holes on the offensive and defensive line via the NFL draft and free agency, the team is creeping back to a full-health status.

When this team is healthy, it is pretty darned good. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was quick to remind us about that.

Much of the optimism springs from the success the team had in 2017 on that side of the football. They finished eighth in points allowed, ninth in rushing yards, 12th in passing yards, and ninth in total yards allowed. Those are solid numbers, especially for a team that historically prides itself with a high-scoring offense instead of a dominating defense.

That high-scoring offense was retooled and is ready to go, as well. The two injury plagued guard positions have been revamped and the weapons on the outside are as lethal as ever. With Freeman returning to the unit, there is an expectation that it will return to its status as a dominating unit that keeps opposing coaches up at night.

With the missing pieces from 2018 coming back into the fold in time for OTAs, the confidence is growing. Match that with the now experienced youth, and the confidence begins to overflow in Flowery Branch. The goals for this team are still the same as they were a year ago and, once again, the expectations are sky-high.

Hey, De’Vondre Campbell, we can’t wait for the season to start either.