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Atlanta Falcons: What went right, what went wrong

— The Sports Xchange —

The Atlanta Falcons went 10-6 and were the only team from the NFC to return to the playoffs.

However, for a team built around its offense, the season was a big disappointment as they became the latest losing Super Bowl team not to return to the big game since the early 1990s Buffalo Bills.

Head coach Dan Quinn, who was in his third season, rallied the team from a slow 3-3 start and got it rolling down the stretch enough to earn the sixth and final NFC playoff spot.

After an upset of the Los Angeles Rams, the Falcons went to the top-seeded Eagles, who were playing with their backup quarterback.

The problems were on the offensive side of the ball with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

The fourth-and-2 play on the Falcons’ final possession, an incomplete pass to Julio Jones on a sprint-out, was unimaginative and was emblematic of how things went for the offense in 2017.

It’s questionable that Sarkisian was the best possible candidate to replace Kyle Shanahan. If the Falcons would have done a thorough national search of all viable candidates, it’s unlikely they would have hired Sarkisian, who, like Quinn, comes from the Pete Carroll coaching tree.

There had to be a better experienced scheme-fit coordinator available.

Now, the Falcons are likely married to Sarkisian, but appear to at least be trying to get him some experienced NFL help.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Under first-year defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, the Falcons improved immensely on the defensive side of the ball in several key areas. The Falcons improved from 27th to eighth in points scored, 25th to ninth in overall yards allowed, from 17th to ninth in rushing yards allowed and 28th to 12th in passing yards.

So, the defense, which was a liability in the bottom half of the league in all of those key areas made the leap in to the top half of the league (16th or higher).

The key to the improvement was the continued development of linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell and strong safety Keanu Neal. The second-year players continue to make strides and Jones led the defense in tackles with 138. Neal continued to provide strong run support. Campbell was also strong in run support and did a nice job in coverage against tight ends, which was a main focal point of improvement for the defense.

While the stats were improved, the unit did not register as many takeaways. They dropped from 22 to 16.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The offense was not as potent and slipped into the middle of the pack of the league. The falloff was a testament to the play-calling of Shanahan, who left to take the head coaching position with the San Francisco 49ers. The Falcons only had to replace left guard Chris Chester and fullback Patrick DiMarco.

The offense was marred by 30 dropped passes, which was tied with San Francisco for the most in the league. Also, the Falcons were hit with a rash of injuries that affected the consistency of the offensive line. Right tackle Ryan Schraeder (concussion) and left guard Andy Levitre (torn triceps) missed starts with injury and Levitre was on injured reserve for the playoff loss. Center Alex Mack was also slowed with a right calf injury.

Running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman missed games with concussions. First-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who hadn’t coached in the NFL since 2005, didn’t have his full complement of players and that explains, in part, the lack of consistency. The Falcons ranked only 23rd in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage (50 percent) in the regular season. In their final four games (two regular season, two playoffs), they went 5-for-16 in the red zone.

They played nine games against playoff teams. They scored 17, 7, 17, 9, 20, 13, 22, 26 and 10 points. They lost six of the nine. They managed 11 touchdowns over those nine games, kicking 19 field goals.