FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons watched their franchise quarterback get battered around in 2018, which meant the offseason priority was a simple one:
Fix the offensive line.
They think they have.
The Falcons spent both draft capital – premium draft capital, in fact – and free-agent money in an attempt to upgrade a line that saw Matt Ryan get sacked 42 times last season. The Falcons will have three new starters on the line, no matter who starts, with center Alex Mack and left tackle Jake Matthews as the only holdovers.
"I am excited about the emphasis we made on revamping that offensive line," Ryan said during a break after the team's second training-camp practice Tuesday. "Getting some young guys and bringing veterans in. We have a good group of seven, eight guys who can be productive for us."
Ryan put up good numbers last season – almost as good as his MVP numbers of 2016 – but the constant pressure was an issue all season long. The Falcons started six different guards in 2018.
"I think when you are going through it, you don't worry about it too much," Ryan said of the battering. "You find ways to get the ball out. You do the best you can in terms of getting protections right, finding ways to utilize the guys you have. That's part of it. Playing this position you have to hang in there. You are going to take some shots."
That's not anything the staff or front office, and especially owner Arthur Blank, wants to see too much of this season. That's why the Falcons signed free-agent guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter and drafted guard Chris Lindstrom in the first round and tackle Kaleb McGary in the second. They also re-signed veteran right tackle Ty Sambrailo.
Brown and Carpenter have been rotating with the first team at left guard, while Lindstrom is with the No. 1 unit at right guard. Sambrailo is with the first team at right tackle, but McGary is pushing him, which could set up an All-Rookie right side at some point this season.
One thing is certain: Coach Dan Quinn wants to run the ball better. He told me that during a post-practice chat, indicating he wants to be much more physical running the football, which is why the moves were made. If they run it well, that will make it easier to protect Ryan and help cut down the shots. Atlanta was 27th in the league in rushing last season, but averaged a solid 4.5 per rush. That means they didn't run it enough, but that was partly because of a bad defense and partly because of the poor line play and an injury to running back Devonta Freeman that limited him to two games.
"Winning football is about running the football when they know you are going to run the football," Ryan said "There's a confidence, a swagger, a toughness that is associated with that. When we are at our best, that's what we are doing, we are running the football effectively. We have great play-action passing off it. We have confidence to go throw it and win games that way too."
The Falcons are excited to have Freeman back healthy again, and they like the group behind him. It will be Freeman getting most of the touches, but the committee behind him, including Ito Smith and others, will get their chances as well. But it's Freeman's time right now.
"He's what Dan (Quinn) calls a multiplier for our team," Ryan said. "When he goes in, everybody is better because of his ability to make plays with the ball in his hand. When people are covering our guys down the field, and we can check it down to him, those little 4- or 5-yard passes turn into 25-yard gains. They're explosive for us. In the run game, he has a special ability to break people off when he gets through the line of scrimmage, that 6-yard run turns into 40-yard gains for us."
New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who comes back to Atlanta after being fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will put more of an emphasis on the run. Koetter also coached Ryan when he was the team's offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2014.
"I feel like I've learned a lot in the four years we've been apart and I think he's learned a lot and has some different visions of things we can do," Ryan said "We're in a really good spot. We communicate really well. That's one of the good things about having a new coordinator you've had before. You already know the working relationship. He's one of the best to work with and I am excited to be able to reconnect with him."
Here are some more observations from Falcons camp.
Quinn energized by new gig
Not only do the Falcons have a new offensive coordinator, but they have a new defensive coordinator as well: Quinn.
He takes over for the fired Marquand Manuel and brings with him a reputation for being a good coordinator. In fact, Quinn earned the Falcons top job by being Seattle's defensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014.
Quinn told me he's energized from the move to take over the defense. It's not something new for him in Atlanta, either. He quietly took over calling the defenses midway through the 2016 Super Bowl season.
"Q took the onus on himself to say he's going to step up," Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. "You can't do nothing but respect him and go hard for him. I know he'll have a lot of good stuff for us."
"He's always about players, not plays," linebacker Deion Jones said. "He's always going to put us in the best position to make plays, allowing us to run around fast, flying and playing our solid ball."
One of the interesting things Quinn is doing with his defense in camp is to have a different player miked up each day to see how they communicate on the field. He wants more cohesion with the rest of the defense from every player and feels this could be a way to achieve that.
Jones contract coming soon
Look for receiver Julio Jones to finalize his new contract in the next week or so. Jones will be the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, with the likelihood he gets a deal that averages over $20 million per season. Jones reported to camp because Blank assured him he would get a new deal, but he could be waiting to see what Saints receiver Michael Thomas gets on his new deal, which is expected soon.
Whatever Thomas gets, Jones will get more. Jones isn't working in full yet as the team is being cautious with a foot injury he's had issues with over the years. But he appears to be running around without much trouble. He spent post-practice Tuesday catching balls from Ryan, along with second-year receiver Calvin Ridley.
Keep an eye on Ridley. He impressed as a rookie in 2018 with 10 touchdown catches, but he's much more polished now and Jones, who, like Ridley, is an Alabama alum, has taken him under his wing.
"He's so much further along in terms of understanding of what we're asking him to do within his offense," Ryan said of Ridley. "There's a comfort level that comes to that as a player. I know my role. I know what routes I need to be sharp on. Where I need work. The best thing about him is his eagerness to be a great player. That's not always the case in this league. You have some talented guys that come in and don't work at it. He's a guy who works every day. He wants to be great. He's got not only the best player in the game at his position on the other side, but also one of the best teachers in the game and one of the most unselfish people to bring him along. The connection those two guys have, Julio and Calvin, is special to see."
"It's a great help," Ridley said. "He details my routes and makes me not overthink things. It makes it easier to figure out."
Secondary should be much better
The Falcons will have a new starting corner in Isaiah Oliver and also plan to use backup safety Damontae Kazee as their nickel corner. Oliver is a long, athletic player who fits perfectly with what Quinn wants from his corners. Kazee is a playmaker who has a nose for the football. Along with Desmond Trufant, plus the return of safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen from last season's injuries, the Falcons should be much better in the secondary.
Outside pass rush must improve
The key to the Atlanta defense will be the outside rush. Last year, Jarrett and Takkarist McKinley tied for the team lead with six sacks. They need more from McKinley and Vic Beasley. The Falcons will stand up McKinley more this season in some 3-4 looks, and he's down to 258 pounds from 268 last season to help make him quicker.