The NFL season is finally here, which means the Seahawks are headed to Atlanta this weekend where they'll face the Falcons, the fifth meeting between the two teams, playoffs included, in the past five seasons. To learn more about Seattle's Week 1 opponent, we reached out to AtlantaFalcons.com reporter Will McFadden with five questions about the Falcons.
Q: What are the expectations this for the Falcons this year after such a weird 2019 season that saw them finish 6-2 after starting the year 1-7?
McFadden: Well, Falcons owner Arthur Blank said it himself after last season concluded: He wants to see the team back in the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. The talent is there on paper, but that's been the case with previous seasons. Signing players like Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler in free agency and trading for Hayden Hurst helped Atlanta mitigate some of the losses they had this offseason, and they could help the team improve in some key areas. The biggest thing this team needs to do, though, is keep themselves in the hunt during the first half of the season. They were all but out of it last year by the bye week, and started the 2018 season with a 1-4 record. Atlanta's schedule is pretty tough this year, but a fast start to the season would be a welcome sight.
Q: Along those lines, how much do the Falcons feel like they have momentum coming off of last season's finish?
McFadden: That's been a big topic of conversation down here, although it's tough to say just how much momentum can carry over from season to season, and the Falcons say they are focused on 2020. Dan Quinn actually credits the second half of last year's game against the Seahawks with the time he felt the turnaround actually begin to take place. Of course, the coaching staff was shuffled during the bye week and things looked night-and-day better since then. All of those coaches remain in place with Raheem Morris officially taking over as defensive coordinator. Morris' influence on the defense played a huge role in the Falcons' improvement last year, and he will be a big factor in whether they can continue to play like that second-half team. What the finish to the season did make clear, though, is that the locker room does believe in Quinn as head coach.
Q: Atlanta made some big additions on both sides of the ball. What will Todd Gurley and Dante Fowler Jr. add to the team? And who are some other newcomers to keep an eye on?
McFadden: Everyone is aware of just how important a season 2020 will be for Atlanta, so it makes sense for the Falcons to be the team that gambles on Todd Gurley. If he looks closer to the 2017-18 version of himself, he could once again make this one of the league's top offenses. Although he didn't get a ton of action throughout camp, a decision the Falcons made to keep him fresh, he looked sharp while he was out there. Dante Fowler's attitude will almost be as important as his play on the field. He's a different type of character than Vic Beasley was, and we saw last year he's capable of double-digit sacks, something the Falcons need from him as they seek to improve the pass rush. The biggest newcomer who looked really good on the field during camp was first-round pick A.J. Terrell. The former Clemson corner started from Day 1 and has held his own against Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. If he's at least involved in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year, I wouldn't be shocked. Hayden Hurst is another player to look out for as he takes on a starting role for the first time in an offense that is usually tight end friendly. He's looked good in the red zone, although it's tough to tell how far along his connection with Matt Ryan is.
Q: Matt Ryan was sacked 48 times last season, tied with Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray for the most in the NFL, what if anything have the Falcons done to address their pass protection?
McFadden: The Falcons did have a competition between James Carpenter and third-round pick Matt Hennessy at left guard throughout camp, and Dan Quinn did say that they will continue to rotate them during the early part of the season. My personal hunch is that Hennessy will ultimately win that job. Other than that, the Falcons are betting on improvement from their two first-round picks from last year: Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. Lindstrom missed the majority of last season after injuring his foot in the season opener, but he did return for the final four games and has been one of the standout players so far this year. McGary started all 16 games as a rookie and took his lumps. He showed improvement down the stretch for Atlanta, and he'll need to keep doing so in his second season. Staying competitive early in games should also help protect Matt Ryan. The Falcons were playing catch-up often last season, which meant Ryan had to throw the ball early and often.
Q: What are a couple of matchups that you see as being key to deciding this one?
McFadden: I know both the Falcons and Seahawks have been re-tooling their offensive and defensive lines a bit this offseason, so I think that's a good place to start. Whichever team is able to generate pressure consistently will likely put themselves in position to win this game, although the two offenses respond to pressure a bit differently. Russell Wilson shines under pressure and Seattle has ways to handle situations when they break down, while the Falcons rely more on timing and precision to run their offense. I think the other clear matchup is how Atlanta's cornerback duo of A.J. Terrell and Isaiah Oliver handle DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The Falcons play in what I believe is the best wide receiver division in football, but they have a tall task in handling the Seahawks' receivers to start the season. And, finally, this isn't a matchup, but I'm very intrigued to see how Jamal Adams fits in with this defense and the creative ways the Seahawks use him. He's going to be an impact player in this game, in my opinion.