The 2020 season is a critical season for the Atlanta Falcons. After back-to-back 7-9 seasons without a trip to the playoffs, owner Arthur Blank has said he expects that to change this year. The Falcons begin their quest to get back to playing postseason football on Sunday when they take on the Seattle Seahawks at Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 1 p.m. ET.
Former NFL offensive lineman and current FOX color analyst Mark Schlereth spoke with AtlantaFaclons.com about his thoughts on the upcoming matchup, what went wrong in the 2019 season and his biggest questions about the Falcons.
Question: What jumped off the tape about the Falcons?
Mark Schlereth: They are a very talented team. They are an extremely athletic team outside the numbers. They are one of the most athletic teams in all of football. So that athleticism jumps off the page. If you go back to last season, you can see [what] really hurt them. Their miscommunications on the defensive side of the football, especially in coverage, they busted a lot of things that cost them explosive plays. That's what I see on the defensive side of the ball. Grady Jarrett is probably one of the best players in the NFL that nobody talks about and they are extremely athletic at the linebacker position.
Q: What did you think of the Falcons' offensive line play in 2019 and how do they improve in the run game?
Schlereth: I think their offensive line has got to be more physical and technically sound. One of the issues in today's NFL is you don't have a lot of time to practice. When I watch their offense, I often think there's too much volume in the run game. What I mean by that, in any given game, you might run 10-12 concepts. For me, it's just too many. I would personally like to see them pair that down to six concepts in any given game plan and say, 'we're going to be really good at these six concepts and we're going to get some of the volume out of our offense. Because what ends up happening when you run with a lot of volume, you may have two or three breakout plays because of that volume. But ultimately, you're not in my mind, whatever your bread and butter is, you're not creating an identity. Your bread and butter is, let's throw 13 noodles against the wall and see if any of them stick. I was raised in the NFL with a different philosophy. We're going to hang our hat on three plays, we're going to beat you down doing it.
Q: Thoughts on former first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary?
Schlereth: I thought McGary is a big physical guy that plays that well. He can get himself into trouble with the smaller, athletic defensive ends that today's game has. I think it's incumbent upon coaches to keep him out of those situations. I think it's incumbent upon play-callers and Dirk Koetter to make sure their calling it so he can take advantage of that mauling size that he has. I think Lindstrom is a really nice young player. What I see from him is a guy that lacked last year as a rookie really solid technique. For any rookie that's to be expected. He's physical, he'll come off the ball. From a technical standpoint, he needs to continue to grow.
Q: What are you expecting to see from Seattle?
Schlereth: It will be interesting to see if Seattle continues to play more of their base defense. They played more three-linebacker fronts than any team in football. It will be interesting to see if they maintain that or go with more of a nickel package. I think one of the things that you watch with the Seahawks on a consistent basis, a lot of teams you'll get into heavier formations, two tight ends, two running backs and what you're really trying to do is create an opportunity to go one-on-one outside with cornerbacks. If you look at Atlanta, you have a huge advantage with Julio Jones out there. If you get them in that situation where they have to play Cover 1 or Cover 3 with a single-high safety, you have a decided advantage with a one-on-one matchup. On offense, it's the off-schedule plays Russell Wilson makes. They work tirelessly on that scramble drill and every guy has such a great feel for where they can find openings. And then it's just school yard and they are exceptional at that.
Q: Biggest question you have about the Falcons offense?
Schlereth: The big question mark I have is at the tight end position. Will Hayden Hurst be able to develop a connection with Matt Ryan like Hooper had a year ago? There was a lot of production there and how are you going to figure that production aspect out?
The Falcons' 2020 roster is constantly evolving and we've amassed all the players in one gallery that will be updated throughout the year.