Bill Shanks

Falcons have fixed two key problems

Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn directs his team during an NFL football practice Thursday.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn directs his team during an NFL football practice Thursday. AP

It has been four seasons since the Atlanta was the second-best team in the NFC. It seems like an eternity ago.

Since losing to San Francisco in the 2013 NFC championship game, the Falcons have won 18 and lost 30. They have not had a winning season since that magical year. And should we be surprised? Isn’t that like the Falcons to get to the top and then fall hard?

They did it in 1999, the season after they made the Super Bowl. The Falcons followed up a 14-2 season in 1998 with a 5-11 record the next year. Big shocker. It’s the Falcons. That’s what we expect from a franchise that has let many down through the years.

But what made the Falcons fall off this time? Well, it’s simple really. Let’s point to two critical things — instability at center and no pass rush on defense.

And here’s what’s scary. They might have just fixed both problems this offseason.

Alex Mack was the big free agent signee back in March. He’s a veteran center who was a star in Cleveland. Mack will anchor a line of scrimmage asked to protect Atlanta’s biggest investment — quarterback Matt Ryan.

After the forced retirement of Todd McClure, the main center for 13 years, the Falcons have had a revolving door at center. James Stone, Joe Hawley, Peter Konz and Mike Person all had their shot at starting in the middle, but all failed. Mack will bring the team stability at a very important position for the first time since the 2012 season.

Then there’s the pass rush or more specifically the lack of a pass rush. In the three seasons since the Falcons made it one step away from the Super Bowl, the team has finished next-to-last twice in a row and then last year last in the NFL in sacks.

This is not rocket science. If a defense can’t put the

quarterback on the ground, it’s not going to be very effective.

The Falcons first brought in Derrick Shelby from Miami in free agency. He had 3 1/2 sacks last season. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw was brought in from Baltimore. The former Alabama star had two sacks in 2015. Atlanta’s first-round draft pick, safety Keanu Neal, had two sacks last year at Florida. The second-round pick, Deion Jones from LSU, had five sacks last season, while fourth rounder De’Vondre Campbell had four sacks at Minnesota.

They should all help, but it’s the latest addition that could make the biggest difference. This past week the Falcons signed veteran Dwight Freeney. He has 119 1/2 sacks in his 14-year career, a statistic that likely will get Freeney a yellow jacket into the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

Freeney is 36 years old, but he was still effective last season for the Arizona Cardinals. Freeney had eight sacks as a situational player. Sure, he’s not the player he once was in Indianapolis, but there’s no reason to believe Freeney can’t help Atlanta to some extent.

With these additions, head coach Dan Quinn has a number of players to rotate in and out of the game. That’s something he loves as a coach. Atlanta’s depth looks really good right now, at least on paper. If the Falcons can’t improve that sack stat this season, it may never happen.

The Falcons should be better, mainly because they’ve fixed the exact two problems that have kept them from being a winning team since being so good four seasons ago.

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

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