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Assessing the Falcons: Steve Sarkisian 'better than Shanahan' in Year 1

The Atlanta Falcons, at 10-5, entered the 2016 regular-season finale against New Orleans averaging 33.5 points, 412.9 yards per game, 293.5 passing yards and 119.1 rushing yards per game.

Entering Sunday's season finale against the Carolina Panthers, with a playoff berth at stake, the 9-6 Falcons are averaging 22.1 points, 364.4 yards, 245.3 passing yards -- and 119.1 rushing yards per game again.

This season's Falcons haven't been as consistent on offense while transitioning to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. But a variety of other factors have contributed to the decline in production.

Two NFL assistant coaches who faced Atlanta this season gave their assessments of the Falcons' offense. Both asked to remain anonymous while offering candid, unbiased thoughts:

Coach 1: "Everybody needs to remember this: They were getting ready to hang [Kyle] Shanahan three years ago. And then he made a comeback, and they went to the Super Bowl. All of a sudden, he's the second coming of Jesus Christ. He was a combination of what he was the year before when he was s---, and then last year. And this guy [Sarkisian] is better than Shanahan was in his first year. If anything else, they need to be praising [Sarkisian] and saying, 'He's better than Shanahan was his first season.' Instead of crucifying the guy, look at the difference. It makes no sense to me.

"I don't think there's anything too predictable about their offense. I love the running back to death, No. 24 [Devonta Freeman]. He's a great kid and competitive. But he's put the ball on the ground. They've shot themselves in the foot on a couple of scoring opportunities. They've gone for it on fourth down a lot [4 of 13]. He [Dan Quinn] likes to do that. Some of them you shake your head at, but at the end of the day that's kind of the mindset that he wants them to have.

"They are very well-balanced. They've got a great system. There are just some things that just aren't jiving for them right now. But they are their own worst enemies. It's not like someone else is going in there like, 'Oh, we got them nailed.' There's a lot of people that don't want to play the Atlanta Falcons. Believe me.

"They just got hot last year. Everything was going right. They weren't putting the ball on the ground at critical times. They were getting lucky on fourth downs when the coaches would put them in tough situations.

"To me, Matt [Ryan] is one of the top five, six quarterbacks in the league. I would say there's a little bit of off throws, but the investigation goes into, 'are the routes being run properly as well?' I love the way he's taking charge. To me, he's mature in that regard. I think the Super Bowl helped him take charge with his confidence. I don't see a chink in his armor. I really don't.

"Obviously, you can chase a lot of ghosts, but there's no one thing to pin it on. It's not the offensive coordinator. I think that's crazy. They run the same system they did before, and I think the guy does a pretty good job calling plays, in my opinion."

Coach 2: "They are f---ing dangerous. I'm serious. I think the skill players are exceptional. Obviously, the quarterback is a really good player. For whatever reason, they're just a little bit off. People are trying to take No. 11 [Julio Jones] away, and now No. 12 [Mohamed Sanu] has become more of a focal point in the pass game.

"When you look at them on tape, they're missing some plays here and there in terms of explosive plays. But at the end of the day, I still think they have all the ingredients. I think the playcalling has been good. I think they can be efficient in the red zone. I think they have a lot of good route concepts. And I think they're tough to defend, with so many different weapons. They run the ball well. Those running backs can catch. They do a good job with protections. You've got to make plays on the ball to beat them.

"Over the last few weeks, [Freeman's] put the ball on the ground. But with a guy like him who runs so hard and so violent -- he doesn't shy away from the contact -- there's going to be some times when he puts it on the ground. Guys go through those things throughout the course of their careers, where they'll put it on the ground multiple times but then won't ever do it again. If I'm not mistaken, No. 26 [Tevin Coleman] had the same issue when he was a rookie.

"They're playing for their lives right now. And I think it's one play here and one play there. Maybe it's a dropped ball. Maybe [Ryan] overthrows a guy here. Maybe someone breaks down in protection on another play. I think it's a combination. I personally think [Ryan] is just a tad bit off with his throws. I don't know if it's a result of him feeling pressure, if he's not getting his feet set, or whatever. Last year, he was hitting all those explosives.

"I don't know if Julio is banged up or what. I think people are trying to do different things to take him away at the line of scrimmage. To me, he's still a damn gazelle. And if he gets in the open field, he'll split the defenders and run right past you in coverage. I think his hands are exceptional. I know he's had a couple drops. I think the quarterback trusts him even when he's covered. That's the scary part because physically, he's a mismatch.

"I think the offensive coordinator is doing a really good job. If they get in [the postseason], shoot, they can beat anybody."