Bill Shanks

Falcons still have a lot of work to do

AP

The Atlanta Falcons are off this week, and they need it. They are beat up a bit, as many teams are through the first 10 games of the season.

The bye week will also give the 6-4 Falcons a chance to evaluate what they have before coming back and finishing the final six games of the season. They’re in first place. That’s great. But they have a lot of work to do to make January special.

Atlanta’s offense has obviously been special. The Falcons lead the NFL, averaging 32 points per game. Quarterback Matt Ryan is in the MVP conversation, and that has never happened before in his career.

The addition of center Alex Mack stabilized the offensive line. Center had been a revolving door since the forced retirement of Todd McClure a few years ago. And in those three years, the Falcons had missed the playoffs.

Ryan has also been helped by a slew of options at his fingertips. Fans were upset when Roddy White was let go, but he really hasn’t been missed. Mohamed Sanu has 430 receiving yards as the main second option for Julio Jones, who leads the NFL with his 1,105 yards.

Taylor Gabriel came out of nowhere, and he has added 330 receiving yards. Atlanta has 586 receiving yards from the tight ends, but starter Jacob Tamme might be gone for the season with a shoulder issue. Rookie Austin Hooper must step up in Tamme’s absence.

Tevin Coleman has been a big part of Atlanta’s success in the first 10 games. After missing most of last season with injuries, Coleman came back and became a sidekick to running back Devonta Freeman and another option to catch the ball. But Coleman has missed the past three games. The Falcons need him back, and he should be with another week of rest.

Philadelphia shut down Atlanta’s offense this past week, which gave the Falcons little chance to win. So it’s really simple, the Falcons must score a lot of points to have a shot at winning.

That’s due to a defense that still leaks a bit. There is promise on defense, with a lot of young players who have potential. But the Falcons are still giving up too many points: 28.3 points per game, which is the fifth-worst total in the NFL.

The one thing that has improved is the pass rush. The Falcons have 22 sacks this season, three more than they had the entire season a year ago. Second-year player Vic Beasley has 9 1/2 sacks, which is tied for third in the league with Denver’s Von Miller. Beasley had just four sacks a year ago.

Grady Jarrett, another second-year player and another former Clemson star, is showing signs on the defensive line. But Atlanta has four rookies who have been impressive. Keanu Neal, Brian Polle, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are creating a solid core for the future.

There is a lot of promise there. In another year, Atlanta’s defense might be one of the best in the NFL. But that group has to survive this season first.

When the Falcons come back from their week off, they’ll have two tough home games against Arizona and Kansas City. Then they’ll play two old NFC West foes in the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers before finishing up against the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints.

The Falcons lead the NFC South now, but the lead is tenuous. This team may just not be there yet. Atlanta might squeak into the playoffs, but this may just be the next step for a franchise that has had a rough three years.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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