NFL Football

Defense rises, but offense is a new concern for Falcons

(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

By CHARLES ODUM

AP Sports Writer

ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Falcons enter the offseason forced to address this startling new reality: Defense is the team's new strength.

That means there are new concerns on offense.

Only one year after Atlanta led the league in scoring in its 2016 Super Bowl season, the offense was no better than middling in the league.

It was appropriate that a season of regression on offense - and improvement on defense - ended with a scoreless second half in a 15-10 divisional round playoff loss at Philadelphia on Saturday.

First-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian was the easy target to blame for Atlanta's sharp decline in scoring , but there were other problems.

Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman each missed time with concussions. Left guard Andy Levitre was placed on injured reserve before a wild-card win over the Rams with a triceps injury.

Quarterback Matt Ryan couldn't repeat his 2016 MVP production. Julio Jones was held to only three touchdown catches - his low total since having two in 2013, when he played only five games. He couldn't catch a last-chance, fourth down pass in the end zone from the Eagles 2.

The Falcons tumbled from first to 15th in scoring.

"I think that's certainly something that we have to look at and evaluate this offseason," Ryan said. "There were too many times that we were a little bit inconsistent."

While the core of the defense is young, the window is closing for the leaders of the offense. Ryan will be 33 next season - the last year on his six-year, $103.75 million contract. Jones will be 29.

Recent history provides a reason to give Sarkasian another season with the offense.

There was much talk that Ryan and Kyle Shanahan were not on the same page in Shanahan's first year leading the offense in 2015, and Shanahan then won praise when the Falcons led the league with 33.8 points per game in 2016. The turnaround helped Shanahan land a job as San Francisco's head coach.

Jones noted the Falcons had "new pieces" this season, including Sarkasian.

"Everybody has to be on the same page and it takes time," Jones said. "It takes more than one year. ... We are a much better offense than we showed for sure. That is just on us, on all of us."

Here are some things to know about the Falcons following their 11-7 season:

FREE AGENCY: Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff are expected to talk on Wednesday about their offseason plans. Decisions must be made on attempts to re-sign such key free agents as defensive tackle Dontari Poe, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and kicker Matt Bryant. Ben Garland, who took over for Levitre at left guard, and wide receiver Taylor Gabriel also are set to enter free agency, as is return specialist Andre Roberts and defensive tackle Courtney Upshaw.

YOUNG D: Linebackers Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell and safety Keanu Neal were the leaders of a defense which finished in the top 10 in scoring and total yards for the first time since Atlanta's 1998 Super Bowl season. Those three players, as well as 2016 NFL sacks leader Vic Beasley Jr. and rookie Takkarist McKinley, who had sacks in both playoff games, were drafted following Quinn's arrival in 2015.

WIN-WIN FOR QUINN: Sure, Atlanta again fell short of its first Super Bowl championship, but there was one postseason first for the franchise. Quinn is the first Atlanta coach to win at least one playoff game in back-to-back seasons. He is 32-21 in three seasons, including the playoffs.

FREEMAN MAY FACE SURGERY: Freeman told ESPN.com he finished the season with a sprained knee. He had 10 carries for only 7 yards against the Eagles despite sprained posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee. He was on the injury report with a knee injury before each playoff game but the details of the injury were not known. He said he didn't know if surgery would be needed.

STILL KICKING: The 42-year-old Bryant was good on each of his five field goals in the postseason after making 34 of 39 in the regular season. He is 12 for 12 in the postseason since joining the Falcons in 2009.

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Updated January 15, 2018

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