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Question of the Week: What's the biggest challenge facing each Falcons coordinator? 

Tori McElhaney, Terrin Waack and Amna Subhan discuss. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – If you're a loyal follower of this Question of the Week series, you'll notice this week's edition isn't running on its normally scheduled day, Wednesday. 

If that's you, how astute you are. We had to move up this week's Question of the Week installment because we're going to be pretty busy on Wednesday. Why? Well, Wednesday is the day we finally get to meet the new coordinators of Raheem Morris' staff. (OK, so two new coordinators, we already know Marquice Williams well). 

For the first time as the Falcons offensive and defensive coordinators, we'll hear from Zac Robinson and Jimmy Lake. So, to get everyone in the right mindset heading into those first media availabilities for the two new guys, Terrin Waack, Amna Subhan and myself (greetings, 'tis Tori) are dissecting the biggest challenges facing each Falcons coordinator as they venture into 2024. Let's get into it, starting with Robinson.


Tori McElhaney, offense: OOP-

You already knew I had to talk about the quarterback again, didn't you?

I feel like this goes without saying: The Falcons need a quarterback. No one – and I do mean no one – has made that a secret.

It wasn't a secret in the interview process of finding the Falcons next head coach. It was a part of the pitch for why this was a desirable job, even from the words of owner Arthur Blank saying on Jan. 8 that the next head coach would have the opportunity to "pick their partner" at quarterback. It was brought up again in the interviews for the job itself, with Blank saying last Friday that every candidate for the job agreed the quarterback position "is something that needs work" in Atlanta.

The man Morris and the rest of Falcons leadership have chosen to be a major part of 1) this decision and 2) the assimilation of said quarterback into the system is Zac Robinson.

However, it should be noted it's not Robinson alone on an island with the quarterback. What's different about the way Morris has arranged his staff is he is fully preparing for the overhaul at QB1. Robinson is the offensive coordinator, yes, but T.J. Yates has moved from wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach. Last year, the Falcons did not have someone designated on staff as a true quarterbacks coach. While Arthur Smith called plays for the offense in 2023, Dave Ragone was the offensive coordinator, but Ragone also took on the additional duties of quarterback development, too. However, the Falcons did not have a quarterbacks coach. This year, they do.

What's more, last year the Falcons did not have someone on staff designated as a pass-game specialist. This year, they do, with the hiring of Chandler Whitmer in the role.

So, even though we don't have a name for 2024's QB1 in Atlanta, we do know there is a more robust infrastructure in place with the coaching staff around this singular position. And beyond just getting a starting quarterback on the roster, the biggest challenge for Robinson is going to be, too, getting all of the offensive pieces around QB1 on the same page, and that includes coaches.

And if the Falcons draft a quarterback? The biggest challenge will be developing him quickly. No matter which way you slice it, though, bringing a starting quarterback into the fold is priority No. 1 for Robinson's unit.


Terrin Waack, defense: Farewell, Ryan Nielsen. Hello, Jimmy Lake.

Nielsen, who served as the Falcons defensive coordinator in 2023, was hired by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 22 for the same position. That move came three days prior to Raheem Morris being named head coach of the Falcons. Lake, meanwhile, was officially brought onto the Atlanta staff exactly a week later to fill the vacancy. 

My biggest question for the Falcons' new defensive coordinator is: Can he build on last season's progress? Because under Nielsen's guidance, Atlanta's defense improved in multiple statistical categories. 

Here's some quick proof of that: 

  • Points allowed: No. 23 in 2022 and No. 18 in 2023
  • Yards allowed: No. 27 in 2022 and No. 11 in 2023
  • Third-down conversion: No. 31 in 2022 and No. 3 in 2023
  • Red-zone conversion: No. 14 in 2022 and No. 4 in 2023

Thinking back to how 2023 played out, Atlanta's defense was hardly ever a cause for concern. That was the offense, which Tori got into above with her quarterback question. So, at the bare minimum, that should be Lake's goal: Don't become the problem. 

The pieces are in place for continued improvement anyway. Standout names from last season, such as safety Jessie Bates III, linebacker Kaden Elliss, cornerback A.J. Terrelln and defensive lineman David Onyemata, are set to return this year. So should linebacker Troy Andersen and defensive lineman Grady Jarrett, who were on injured reserve for the majority of last season.

The defense is currently a unit built for success. Lake just needs to lead it, and that has already been established as his responsibility, too. Despite his own defensive background, Morris announced in his introductory press conference that Lake will be the play caller, so the reins are in Lake's hands. Steer in the ongoing, right direction.


Amna Subhan, special teams: It's time for everyone's favorite part — special teams!

I know, I know. It's not always the glamorous part of the game, but it can absolutely be the deciding factor in games, and it certainly helped win the Falcons some games last season.

The Falcons special teams unit has been led by Marquice Williams for the last three seasons. Retaining Williams as coordinator will help with continuity as the team builds around new head coach, Raheem Morris.

My question is: Can Williams and company take a large step in 2024 under a new regime?

Kicker Younghoe Koo continued to be a bright spot last year, sealing the win in three games and ranking in the top-15 in field goal percentage and made attempts. Other than that, the unit didn't have the best statical season.

The Falcons were middle or bottom of the pack in almost every category aside from kicking.

Here's a look at some 2023 stats:

  • Kickoff return average: 16.9 yards (31st in the NFL)
  • Punt return average: 7.2 yards (30th in the NFL)
  • Opposition punt return average: 11.4 yards (25th in the NFL)
  • Average punting yards: 47 yards (17th in the NFL)

Williams would likely want to see those markers rise next season. It's not like Atlanta hasn't seen that out of his unit, either.

The Falcons led the NFL in average punt return yards (16.2) in 2022. Getting punt returner Avery Williams back, who spent the entire season on injured reserve, should help the squad reach that next level.

The familiarity and relationships that Williams has already built gives this unit a head start on building something new under Morris in his first season as head coach in Atlanta. Now, they just need to take advantage and take the next step.

Take a look as head coach Raheem Morris arrives in Atlanta.

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