Injuries, especially on defense, cripple the Falcons' hopes early on

The Falcons placed running back Devonta Freeman, left, on injured reserve in mid-October. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons ended the season with a 34-32 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to finish at 7-9. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:

Season grade: Below-average -- The Falcons were picked as Super Bowl contenders entering the season yet finished with their first losing season in four years under coach Dan Quinn. No one wanted to use it as an excuse, but injuries crippled the team, particularly on defense. Starting safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) both suffered season-ending injuries, and Pro Bowl middle linebacker Deion Jones missed 10 games after foot surgery. And on offense, the loss of two-time Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman (groin) significantly affected the run game, with the Falcons sorely missing Freeman's toughness and elusive ability. Most figured the Falcons still had enough offensive firepower with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, tight end Austin Hooper, and rookie Calvin Ridley. The offense, however, couldn't shoulder the load despite Ryan and Jones playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Season in review: The Falcons couldn't figure out how to close games early in the season, losing three September contests by six points or less. And just when it looked like the Falcons had things figured out, evening their record at 4-4 after a 38-14 win in Washington, everything imploded the very next week with a 28-16 loss at Cleveland. That was the beginning of a five-game losing streak that knocked the Falcons out of playoff contention. The defense understandably struggled to stop people, with key players lost for the season. The high-powered offense, however, became somewhat stale and predictable, averaging just 17.6 points per game during that critical five-game skid.

He said it: "It's a fighting team. We don't run away from nothing. We don't shy away from nothing. We had some mishaps this year; control what you can control. At the end of the day, we stuck together. You can't let outside noise affect us inside. We never had a cancer inside the building that's like pointing fingers. We could have got to there, but we didn't do that." -- Julio Jones

Offseason questions

Who will be the Falcons' coordinators in 2019? There's already been an NFL Network report about Quinn preparing to move on from offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel. Word is there is plenty of substance behind the report. Plus, longtime special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong could be out, too. The Falcons need to find an established veteran playcaller to pair with Ryan if they indeed replace Sarkisian. That person also needs to be committed to running the football. Former Seattle Seahawks coordinator Darrell Bevell, who was with Quinn in Seattle, has been mentioned as a possibility. So has former Texans and Broncos coach Gary Kubiak. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Quinn take over the defensive playcalling if there's a void at defensive coordinator. He established himself as the coordinator of the league's top defense while with the Seahawks.

Which veterans will the Falcons move on from? The names mentioned the most have been defensive end Vic Beasley Jr. and cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Beasley, the eighth overall pick in the 2015 draft, hasn't had much production since his league-leading 15.5 sacks in 2016, although he's shown flashes. Beasley wants to secure a long-term deal, but there's no solid indication the Falcons want to make such a commitment. Meanwhile, Trufant and Alford already received extensions, Alford through 2020 and Trufant through 2022. The development of second-round pick Isaiah Oliver is likely to affect one of them, most likely Alford. Also, it would be hard to imagine the Falcons keeping running back Tevin Coleman after already paying Freeman. Coleman is in the last year of his deal and is likely to draw some free-agent interest because of his big-play ability.

What's on the line? We're not talking about jobs here, although it could be interpreted in that manner. The Falcons have to figure out how to shore up the offensive and defensive lines for next season so some of the same issues that led to the 2018 downfall don't weigh them down again next season. The team evaluators have to do a better job drafting interior offensive linemen who are ready to step into starting roles. The right tackle situation appears to be up in the air with starter Ryan Schraeder benched for Ty Sambrailo, and Sambrailo might not be the long-term answer. On defense, the Beasley situation makes things interesting because quality pass-rushers are hard to find. He has all the talent to be a great one but just hasn't developed. Parting with him would mean the Falcons would have to look at edge rusher as well as interior defensive lineman in the draft, with the need for a run-stuffer also pressing. At least the draft will be deep at defensive tackle, but not at edge rusher.