It’s that time of year again.
Around 178 days, 22 hours and 30 minutes after Super Bowl LIII went final (but who’s counting, anyway?), NFL football finally returns this Thursday with the Falcons taking on the Denver Broncos in the annual Hall of Fame game at 8 p.m. in Canton, Ohio.
Last year was a rocky one for the Falcons, who lost several key players to injury early in the season and never fully recovered, stumbling to a 7-9 finish and missing the postseason just two years removed from playing in a Super Bowl. But the rains of spring have since washed away the despair of a lost season, and the heat of summer has brought renewed optimism to a team still stacked with the same amount of All-Pro talent that so recently brought Atlanta’s club to within a quarter of a championship.
Still, like any team, the Falcons will need a lot to go right if they hope to return to the playoffs and make a serious push for the franchise’s first ever league title. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the preseason moves along that Atlanta will need to go right if it wants to stay relevant all the way into next January and February.
Meshing along the offensive line
The Falcons offensive front was largely a disaster last season, with quarterback Matt Ryan taking 42 sacks over the course of the year. In response to this, Atlanta brought in free agent guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, signed tackle Ty Sambrailo to a three-year extension and drafted versatile offensive linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in the first round of April’s NFL draft for good measure.
But quality offensive line play is more about a unit’s cohesion than the skill of its individual players and this Falcons group remains unproven in live action on that front. Falcons coach Dan Quinn is likely to experiment with a variety of units during the preseason, searching for the best combination of players to get the job done.
Whether or not he finds a successful group will play a major role in the team’s success come fall.
Running game back on track
Atlanta managed a measly 1,573 yards on the ground last season — 27th among the NFL’s 32 teams and a far cry from the 13th-best 1,847 yards in 2017 and fifth-most 1,928 yards in 2016. The Falcons qualified for the playoffs in the latter two years (and didn’t last season), a result that by and large seems more causal than coincidental.
Much of the team’s rushing woes in 2018 can be attributed to injuries to starting running back Devonta Freeman that sidelined the former Pro Bowler for 14 of 16 games. Freeman enters this season healthy, and the Falcons will need him to be, especially after the departure of Tevin Coleman – the team’s leading rusher last year.
Injured players returning to form
Freeman is far from the only Falcon whose injury derailed last season’s playoff hopes. Defensive stars Keanu Neal and Deion Jones were hurt in Week 1 in 2018, and while Jones eventually did rejoin the team a couple months into the season, it was too little too late to turn around an Atlanta defense that ended up ranking in the bottom 10 in both points and yards allowed.
The Falcons also lost starting safety Ricardo Allen to an Achilles injury early last year, and three of the team’s defensive cornerstones out of action proved to be too much to overcome. Atlanta will need to be at full strength to make a successful championship push. Any nagging effects of last season’s injuries will be a hindrance to the group’s Super Bowl aspirations.