FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – As with any NFL offseason, changes are expected and the Falcons are likely to undergo some. With one game remaining in the 2018 regular season, what those actual changes will be remains unclear.
Speculation as to which members of the coaching staff will return in 2019 has been a talking point among fans and media members over the past several weeks, and Falcons coach Dan Quinn plans on conducting thorough evaluations for everyone once the season is over.
Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel was asked about the speculation and evaluation process Wednesday.
"I know one thing, I've coached this defense to the best they've had in 20 years," Manuel said. "With that being said, everyone is evaluated, which is a part of why we do this job. And things of that nature will take care of themselves, as they always will."
Manuel is talking about the 2017 season as the best the Falcons' defense has been over the past 20 years, and he isn't wrong. Atlanta finished last season with the No. 9 defense in yards per game allowed and the No. 8 defense in points per game allowed, the first time the Falcons finished as a top-10 unit in both categories since 1998.
This season, however, has been a different matter. The Falcons are currently the No. 27 defense in yards per game allowed, giving up 381.3 yards, and the No. 25 unit in points per game allowed with an average of 26.1 points.
The major caveat for this season, especially on defense, is injuries. The unit has experienced several of them in 2018, including a pair of season-ending injuries to key players.
The Falcons lost Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal for the year in their season opener and had to place Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones on injured reserve after the game as well. In Week 2, starting free safety Ricardo Allen suffered a season-ending injury. The Falcons lost three impactful players and leaders on defense in the first quarter of the season.
"It's a part of the game, and we all understand that, but when you lose two powerful leaders (Neal and Jones) such as those guys … It was tremendously hard the entire season to be without them."
Manuel has said many times this season that the Falcons had to go back into "training camp mode" after the string of early injuries on defense. Without those pillar players on defense, the Falcons (6-9) had to work on building chemistry with new players in the lineup and quickly develop new game-day communication roles.
But in the NFL every team suffers injuries throughout the 17-week season. What Quinn will be searching for is how his team responded to those injuries and improved or regressed as the year went along.
Manuel has proven he can lead this defense to a successful season when all of the pieces are in place and having Jones back with the defense since Week 13 has shown just how valuable a player of his caliber can be.
When thinking about his potential future with this team, it's the return of two more integral players next year that has Manuel feeling optimistic.
"We went out to do a job and we battled with the guys that we had," Manuel said. "And I told you when we got one guy back, it tremendously changed. And he wasn't the only one that we lost. The guys that we had were very adverse but went out and battled. That's the cool and confident and encouraging part moving forward. Knowing that one man made a difference, what you've done prior and it speaks for itself."