PFF Preview 2011 – Atlanta Falcons

| August 15, 2011

We kick-started our team previews by looking at the Arizona Cardinals. Our next stop is in Atlanta to have a look at how the 2011 Falcons are shaping up.
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Last year the Falcons managed to win the NFC South and end the regular season with the best record in the NFC. But it wasn’t enough, as the limitations of the defense were exposed, and the offense didn’t have the playmakers to offset those deficiencies. So the Falcons went out and found some players they hope can make the difference.
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But can they? Can they provide those explosive plays on offense, and can they improve a pass defense that just didn’t have answers to the most important questions. Here are some reasons to be positive, and some not to.
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Five Reasons to be Confident
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1) Matty Ice

It’s one of the great mysteries how Matt Ryan has the season he has and yet it goes largely unnoticed. Earlier this year, I wrote this piece on how good a year Ryan had. Simply put, the stats don’t do justice to just how impressive Ryan was in key situations. With a limited offense and a defense that needed to be kept off the field, Ryan pushed the Falcons to the playoffs and is capable of doing it again with an improved roster. Atlanta will always have a chance if they get the ball in Ryan’s hands when the game is on the line.
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2) Bringing the Heat

The common misconception was that the Falcons needed to upgrade their rush pass rush. They didn’t need to, but they still did and it means they’re returning a strong unit in 2011. The star of this outfit is John Abraham, the most productive pass rusher over the past three years. 2010 showed that those 2009 reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Throw in the underappreciated Kroy Biermann, and then add newly signed Ray Edwards, and you have three of the league’s most consistent pass rushers. Heck, they even get plenty of push up the middle from Jonathan Babineaux. This is a unit that can win its individual battles.
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3) Continuity Is Key

An offensive line is more about the sums of its parts, than after one standout player. It’s that kind of philosophy that has helped the Falcons develop one of the best offensive lines in the league. So while they aren’t returning Harvey Dahl, they will be very happy to bring back Tyson Clabo and Justin Blalock, two players who excel in the Falcons’ scheme. Blalock was our eighth-ranked guard last year, while Clabo was fourth in our right tackle rankings. With a shortened offseason, being able to hit the ground running with 80% of the same personnel on the line gives the Falcons a huge advantage.
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4) Playmaking Cornerback

We’ll get to the Falcons’ problems in pass coverage and where that stems from, but they do boast one of the better duo of cornerbacks in the league. Brent Grimes is coming off a career year, and while Dunta Robinson has yet to justify the money paid to him, he’s an above average cornerback in a position deep with talent. Grimes was our 11th-ranked corner on the year, and was second in the league with 16 pass break-ups (along with five interceptions). Robinson finished the year with a +3.1 grade in coverage, and while he’ll be wanting to play better, the outside corners have talent.
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5) The X Factor

It’s clear the Falcons have big plans for Julio Jones. They liked him enough to let Michael Jenkins go, and it’s not hard to see why. Jenkins is a serviceable player but he’s not an explosive downfield threat. Jones is the type of guy that Atlanta feels can add another dimension to their offense. Given they couldn’t eliminate all their coverage concerns, they could very well need that dimension to help them go toe-to-toe with the more talented offenses out there.
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Five Reasons to be Concerned
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1) Coverage

It may sound weird given the pass rush has received praise and the cornerbacks are talented, but the Falcons haven’t appeared to do anything to address the problems that led to Green Bay scoring points on them at will. The real issue is in the linebackers and safeties (well, William Moore at least). Dropping into coverage, Sean Weatherspoon looked lost at times, and Curtis Lofton is never going to be a Brian Urlacher type at the MLB spot. The slot cornerback spot is an issue, so they’ll need one of Dominique Franks or Chris Owens to step up. Lots of questions remain unanswered. Pressure will be applied to quarterbacks, but players like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees can make the kind of plays that negate this when receivers are open.
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2) The Resurgent Saints

The Saints offense looks as good as ever, and the defense added Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. To have a team already that good and add two impact (in very different ways) players, quite rightly makes the Saints the strongest looking team on paper. When you break it down, the 2010 Falcons overcame them largely on the back of one missed field goal. Will they be so lucky this year or are the Saints destined to reclaim the South?
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3) Gonzo Going?

While he still has the savvy to make plays, it was clear last year that Tony Gonzalez had lost a step. His run blocking dropped off a cliff (a shame for a player who was such a complete player at one point) and he went from our third highest ranked receiving tight end, to 15th. If the man known as Gonzo continues this kind of decline into 2011 then Matt Ryan’s job is going to be tougher..
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4) Karma

13-3 sounds pretty good. 8-8? Not so good. The Falcons won a lot of close games, much like the Bengals did in 2009. Cincinnati responded with a losing year …  could the Falcons be primed for a come down? Look at some of their wins and you wonder if things worked out pretty well for them last year. Missed field goals, fumbles on interception returns and being outplayed in certain games.
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5) No More Touchbacks

It may only be a small thing (the Falcons are generally a strong team) but they’re going to open themselves up to more kick returns after losing Michael Koenen. The punter was our third ranked kickoff specialist and has 50 touchbacks over the past two years. Even with the new kickoff rules, punter Matt Bosher was struggling to find the endzone on his attempts. That’s going to leave the Falcons vulnerable to kick returns like they were’nt before.
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That’s your Falcons. Talented in most parts but with an almighty question mark with their coverage unit. They’ll need someone to step up in the slot, will hope Curtis Lofton is better for offseason surgery, and that Sean Weatherspoon is better for taking his rookie lumps. They’ll compete with any team, but if they’re going to really test the Packers or Saints when they’re in top form, Atlanta will need to put it all together.
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  • radical

    Concerning #5 of the “Reasons to be Concerned” section. Matt Bosher was specifically told to NOT kick them deep enough for a touchback in order for the coaches to evaluate the special teams coverage unit.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Khaled Elsayed

    Then I stand corrected. The fact I was reaching for that anyways is probably a good sign