By Matt Calkins | The Seattle Times
The Atlanta Falcons, it turns out, were very much a second-half team in 2019.
The Seahawks saw that up close in Atlanta last October, when the Falcons nearly rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit. The Seahawks held on a for a tense 27-20 victory to close out the first half of the season.
The loss dropped Atlanta to 1-7, but the Falcons closed out the year by winning six of their final eight games, helping coach Dan Quinn retain his job for a sixth season.
Which version of the Falcons will show up for Sunday’s season opener when the Seahawks head back to Atlanta?
Three things to know about the Falcons entering 2020:
Gurley boosts run?
In one of the most surprising moves of the NFL offseason, the Los Angeles Rams cut running back Todd Gurley in March — just two years into a four-year, $60 million deal that had made Gurley the league’s highest-paid running back in 2018.
Gurley, slowed by a chronic left-knee injury last year in L.A., quickly landed in Atlanta, and the Falcons are hoping the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year can revive their run game.
The Falcons’ rushing attack ranked 30th in the NFL last season, averaging 85.1 yards per game. They didn’t have a single running back rush for 100 yards in any game.
Gurley, 26, had his last 100-yard game in December 2018.
Expect him to be plenty motivated against a Seattle defense that struggled against the run in 2019.
“Todd’s energy is infectious,” fullback Keith Smith told reporters recently, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He’s a real positive person. Positive player. You see what he brings to the table out there at practice. When you saw him last week in the scrimmage and even this week, he didn’t get much burn in this last scrimmage, but you see why he’s Todd Gurley. The Todd Gurley.”
In Gurley’s five seasons in the NFC West, the Seahawks saw plenty of him. In nine games against Seattle, Gurley has more rushing yards (694) and rushing touchdowns (11) than any other team he’s played.
The Falcons have carefully managed Gurley’s workload in training camp.
“What’s the best plan for him? We are pleased with where we are at,” Quinn told reporters. “We think we’ve got a good plan in place of how we’d do the right thing by him to make sure that he’s at his best on game days.”
Julio Jones catches
Jones, the Falcons’ star receiver, had a big day against the Seahawks last year, posting 10 catches for 152 yards, on passes thrown by veteran backup Matt Schaub, in place of an injured Matt Ryan.
The 35-year-old Ryan had 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 15 games last season, and the Falcons threw on 65 percent of their offensive plays in 2019. Count on another big year from Jones and Calvin Ridley.
The Falcons hope their run game will provide more balance to their offense.
“Our run game and play-action pass is a big part of what we want [to do],” Quinn told reporters. “We definitely worked a lot over the last five weeks into that space. We like the group and where we are headed.”
A revamped defense
The Falcons’ defense was largely ineffective in 2019, particularly in the first half of the season.
Atlanta ranks as one of the worst pass-rushing defenses in the league, finishing with just 28 sacks — tied with Seattle and Detroit for the second-fewest in the NFL — though 21 of those did come in the final eight games of the season.
To bolster the pass rush, the Falcons signed another former L.A. Ram, outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr.. They also added to their defense with their first two picks in this year’s draft, selecting cornerback A.J. Terrell and defensive lineman Marlon Davidson.
Terrell is expected to start at one corner in his NFL debut Sunday.